An advertisement for a trip to Hawaii in 2022

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 15, 2012.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; John 1:43-51

If you have a credit card or three, from time to time you receive what are called “privacy statements.” The issuing bank sends them to you, usually because Congress has mandated some new rule that requires them to do so. “Important Information” is what is always printed on the outside of the envelope. I’d like a show of hands of those who actually read these statements before you dispose of them. That’s what I thought. Not so important after all, are they? Privacy statements are more of a nuisance than anything else. Just another piece of junk mail to throw in the trash.

Except when you really need them. After all, companies that provide security protection for one’s credit have boomed in the last few years because no one wants to have their identity stolen. The same goes for shredders. There are people, I am told, who go through your trash to see if they can find data that will help them hack into your personal information so they can steal from you. Someone, somewhere in the world right now, is running a bunch of numbers through a computer in hopes of stealing personal information from someone else.

If I asked for a show of hands of those who have had that experience, perhaps had your credit number land in the hands of the wrong people, I have a feeling there might be a few here today. So, like many of you, I spend more time than I care to shredding those “free” checks the banks send me, anything and everything that has my name and address on it… even magazine labels.

It hasn’t been that long ago – maybe ten years or so – that I patronized a local dry-cleaning establishment in the Heights. It was back in the day when we wrote checks for such services. Today, we use a debit card. The lady behind the counter wanted me to include my social security number on the memo line of the check. “Really?” I asked. “Really,” she answered. I told her it was against the law to require it, that the state of Arkansas no longer demanded that residents include it on their driver’s licenses because giving out such information to vendors is considered a dangerous thing to do.

As I recall, she was pretty nice about it, said something about the company requiring it. Trying to be equally pleasant, I told her I would go to my local bank, remove the cash from an ATM, come back, get my clothing, and then make it a point not to patronize their establishment ever again. She took the check… without the social security number attached.

Can’t be too careful, you know.

And do you have one of those GPS units attached to the windshield of your car? If you do, the first thing you’re instructed to do with it is to input your home address. I am told you shouldn’t do that. Instead, put in a nearby address that is not yours. If someone steals your GPS, they won’t be able to trace it back to where you live.

You just never know who’s out there wanting to take something from you, so you gotta be careful, and you gotta guard your privacy.

But don’t get me started on HIPAA. Surely you’ve heard of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. That’s the law that makes it difficult for people like me to find people like you when you go to the hospital. When you’re sick, I don’t want to know your intimate and personal medical information. But there are times when an understanding of what is going on with you would be a big help to me in my attempt to be of help to you. Try to get that kind of information from medical folk. It isn’t going to happen. Because of HIPAA your information is guarded as tightly as they watch over the gold at Fort Knox.

And it’s all because of our need and desire for privacy. We don’t want anybody going around messing with our stuff… and that includes our medical stuff.

On the other hand there is Facebook and Twitter and all those other forms of social networking where people tend to share anything and everything that is going on in their lives. Did you read in the paper this week where a couple got into it, and were subsequently arrested, because of what one of them had posted on Facebook? It all goes to show that there is this innate desire for people to know us and understand us, to be aware of what is indeed going on with us to the point that social media has become almost as big an industry as credit cards.

In other words, I may not want you to know what my social security number is, or that I recently had my gall bladder removed, but I do want you to be aware of what I had for breakfast. It’s all very strange, all very strange, but this is the world we live in.

Which is very interesting considering that the psalm we read earlier would have us believe that when it comes to God nothing is hidden. While we work hard at protecting our innermost secrets, here comes God invading our privacy, knowing more about us than we even know ourselves.

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

And here’s the kicker…

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O LORD, you know it completely.

“You hem me in,” says the psalmist. “You hem me in behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

There’s a popular television show on CBS called “Person of Interest.” The premise is that a computer program – they call it “the machine” – has been developed which determines that certain people are going to either be the victims of crime or will commit a crime themselves. The developers tried to provide it to the government, but Uncle Sam wasn’t interested. So now they’re using it to protect people in New York City.

It’s an interesting premise, isn’t it? But it could never happen. Could it?

Evidently, if the psalmist is indeed correct and God knows our every thought, word, and deed before they come to our awareness, God chooses not to use that information to protect us… either from others or from ourselves. If that is so, then what good is such knowledge? What does God do with it? What good does it do to have such knowledge if you don’t act on it?

The game of basketball comes to mind. It seems that Mike Anderson is bringing back to the University of Arkansas the brand of ball he learned under his mentor Nolan Richardson. If you’re playing the Hogs you better be careful with that ball. You get a little careless and there are going to be quick hands ready to slap it away. In my day, we called it a full-court press. Now, it’s referred to as “Forty minutes of… heck.”

If only they could rebound.

Is that the way God treats us? With a full court press, with forty minutes of…? Hemming us in so we can’t make a move or a thought without God’s knowledge? If so, how do you feel about that?

There’s an old saw that says it is the job of the preacher to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Well, the same goes for God. When we’re uncomfortable and need some help, we don’t mind God intervening and assisting us in our times of toil and trouble. But when things are going pretty well, and we are as snug as a bug in a rug, it is not our desire that God come along with his intimate knowledge of us, messing with our comfort zone.

Sometimes, we’d just as soon God left us alone. We don’t want God to hem us in. We’re not quick enough to handle a full-court press. And as we’ve already pointed out, it doesn’t appear that God uses this divine knowledge to protect us anyway, so what good is it?

The answer – well, an answer – may be found in one of the major emphases for this season of the church year. It has to do with the incarnation of God, God’s becoming human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. “God did not send Jesus in order to know what it was like to be human… God already knew (if we are to believe the psalmist)  what it was like to be human… God has always known what it was like to be human.”1

In the interesting account we read earlier from John’s gospel, Philip, who has already decided to cast his lot with the young rabbi from Nazareth, approaches his friend Nathanael and encourages him to do the same. Nathanael is not so easily convinced. He knows his Bible and is aware that, by the dictates of scripture, the Messiah cannot possibly be a Nazarean.

We know that Nathanael eventually comes around when he meets Jesus face-to-face. And do you recall what convinced him that Jesus was on the level? Jesus knew him, knew him intimately, even though they had never met. Just by observing Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, Jesus knew all he need to know about him.

Have you ever known someone who had the ability to quickly size you up? You feel almost as if he or she has x-ray vision into your heart and soul? I have, and can tell you it is an uncomfortable feeling. So I imagine there is a mixture of emotions flooding through Nathanael when he realizes that Jesus has done more than size him up. Jesus has penetrated his soul, taken it out for inspection, and replaced it with something far greater.

And that’s the key. God does not hem us in so as to protect us from all harm, nor to generate from us the kind of information that will keep us from doing wrong. It is more like God using knowledge of us to implant a bit of God into our hearts. It is what we call grace, and who of us couldn’t use a little bit more of that from time to time?

Near the conclusion of his psalm, the psalmist repeats his opening line… with a twist. At the beginning of the psalm, the writer admits that God has intimate knowledge of him. “O LORD, you have searched me and known me.” When he concludes his psalm, the writer encourages it… yea, begs for it. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.”

Why? Because he knows it is the only way to experience God’s grace. “See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

I think you will find that the more God knows you, the more God claims you for his own. And when God does that, grace is always – always – the final word.

Give us the faith, if not the courage, O Lord, to repeat the words of the psalmist: search us and know our hearts; test us and know our thoughts, and then lead us in the way everlasting. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Notes

1Dave Bland, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008),  p. 251.

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