January 15, 2012

It Was You Who Formed My Inward Parts

Passage: Psalm 139:13-14

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

Some of you may recall what Pi is; not the kind you eat (pie) but the mathematical constant that is the ratio of any circle's circumference to its diameter. What is interesting about Pi is that its value cannot be expressed exactly as a fraction; consequently, its decimal representation never ends and never repeats.

Bear with me—some people actually enjoy mathematics.  I recently read the story of a computer scientist and a systems engineer who say they’ve computed the value of pi to 10 trillion digits, doubling the previous Guinness record.  Alexander Yee wrote the pi-calculating software and engineer Shigeru Kondo ran it on his custom-built computer, augmented with 10 more hard drives than used in a previous attempt.  The intense calculations required caused Mr. Kondo’s computer to heat the air in its room to [40C].  Mr. Kondo’s wife told The Japan Times that it was hot enough “we could dry the laundry immediately”.

In another science story from last year, physicists have discovered subatomic particles that travel faster than the speed of light.  To appreciate the magnitude of this discovery one only needs to note that Einstein’s theory of relativity was predicated on the axiom that nothing travels faster than the speed of light.  Physicist Heinrich Pas of the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany said “the result could be the first evidence for a reality built out of extra dimensions. Future historians of science may regard it not as the moment we abandoned Einstein and broke physics, but rather the point at which our view of space vastly expanded, from three dimensions to four, or more.”

We marvel at such calculation and scientific discovery; what is sometimes lost on us is the marvel of the One who created human intellect such that these calculations and discoveries can be made in the first place.  The Psalmist’s words are as true today as they were when penned close to 3000 years ago. “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!   I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end (of my ability to count)—I am still with you.”

1.  Science—by mathematician or physicist—is possible at all only because there is a correlation between patterns intrinsic to the scientist's mind and intelligible patterns embodied in the physical world. If this correlation didn't exist then there would be no match-up between the scientist's mind and the realm of nature that the scientist investigates. To say the same thing differently: science is possible only because there is a correlation between the structure of human thought and the structure of the physical world. The origin of this correlation, this match-up is our Creator through whom the realm of nature and scientists themselves have alike been created.

Here is a wonder that Psalm 139 declares.  The One whose intellect from whom all human intellect finds its source; this One deploys mind and being—including the massiveness of this intellect that created the ratio of circle circumference and diameter, that made the subatomic particle travel faster than light; this One deploys all of this for knowing you and me.  “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

When Jesus called Nathanael to follow him Nathanael was surprised by how much Jesus knew about him from a comment Jesus made about him.  Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael was so moved by this experience with Jesus he replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’  So powerful was this encounter that Nathanael went from skepticism about Jesus from Nazareth—“can anything good come out of Nazareth”—to worshipping him—you are the Son of God!

Now Jesus drives the point home to Nathanael’s heart.  ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ Now, what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree? Devout Jews would find such a place for prayer and reading or contemplating scripture.  When Jesus said to Nathanael “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending” it is likely that Jesus is referencing the Older Testament story of Jacob’s ladder; the very story that Nathanael was in all likelihood reading or contemplating in his daily devotion that day as he sat under the fig tree.

When Jesus calls you and me to follow him to this same extent he knows us too.  Indeed, as the Psalmist said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

2. No one doubts the importance of knowledge. It's important to know what a red traffic light means and what the poison label on a bottle means. But what almost no one understands is that it is far more important, ultimately, to be known than it is to know. For our deepest-down identity and our innermost security it is far more important to be known than it is to know. Think of the child. A child grows up with an unassailable sense of who she is and an inner core of self-confidence not because she knows whatever it is that eight year-olds know; she grows up with self-confidence and security because she lives in a family where she is known. Her parents know her. Because they know her they cherish her; they do all manner of good to her.

Unquestionably scripture says much about our knowing God. It even says that it is important for us to know God. But scripture says far more about God's knowing us; it's even more important that God knows us. Psalm 139 shows us what we all know; that my knowledge of God will always be slight compared to his knowledge of me. And if my identity before God and my security in a turbulent, treacherous world depended on my knowledge of God, then so very much would be hanging by so slender a thread. The most significant truth concerning any of us is this: God knows us.

The psalmist exults in God's knowledge of him. And so he should. We should too.

You see, when the Bible says that God knows us it doesn't mean that God is sniffing out negativities about us; it doesn't mean that the cosmic “snoop” is spying on us. It means something entirely different: God prospers us, God protects us, God blesses us, God renders us useful servants. Listen to the prophet Nahum: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him”. When Nahum says that God knows those who look to him and trust him, he means that God protects and prospers and uses such people even when, especially when, troubles without number come upon them.

Speaking through the prophet Hosea God says to the Israelite people, “It was I who knew you in the wilderness, it was I who knew you in the land of drought”. To say that God knew Israel in the wilderness is not to say that God became aware that they were in the wilderness, that he acquired information which he had previously lacked. “God knew them in the wilderness” means “God sustained them, encouraged them, nurtured them, prospered them when they were without resources themselves and the taunt of the nations”.

The communication technology we have today has brought to us much that is helpful; the ability, for example, of families to remain connected even when geographically remote is, for the most part, blessing.  With it has also come exposure to harm—exposure to those who would steal identity to pilfer financial accounts and so we create ways to shelter ourselves from the searching eye of those who would know us to do us harm.  Friends, we should never shrink from God's searching us and knowing us. We should welcome it and exult in it. God's knowing us can only prosper us.

3.  “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  Implied is wondrous declaration—and in many other texts of scripture—is the affirmation that we are God’s handiwork.  You are intricately and exactingly shaped by our God’s crafting.  It speaks volumes about worth to know that each human life is so loved and treasured by the word made flesh—our Saviour Jesus Christ—through whom all things were made.  God’s knowing you is God’s treasuring of you.

Why is it, then, that we are so insecure; so awash in feelings of worthlessness; ever battling a seemingly deeply-seeded sense of inadequacy.  If it is a glorious truth, as the Psalmist asserts, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” why are we filled with some much fear and so little wonder?  Something has clearly gone awry.  The Bible tells us that our sin—our distrust of the goodness of God—has so corrupted our beings such that we cannot perceive aright.  It is God’s forming of us that makes us; his knitting us together that shapes our being.  Instead we reject that and have gone each our own way making our selves the measure of who we are; we tell God—I can knit my life together just fine.

To the Corinthian Church the Apostle Paul wrote: “Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.”  In Paul’s day Corinth’s reputation of sexual licence was such that the name “Corinthian” was used as synonym for fornication.  Whenever one aspect of human life is elevated above everything else as “the aspect” for life then human life is reduced and demeaned.  In our culture we think we fashion identity for ourselves; sexual proclivity is spoken of in just this way.  To reduce human identity to any one thing—sexual or otherwise—is to diminish the human God so intricately fashioned.  Sexuality is to be treasured because it was God who formed my inward parts.  Our identity is grounded in God’s knowing of us and is revealed in trusting ourselves to his knowing.

4. We often like to think that we know ourselves best.  When someone says “I know exactly what you are going through” we protest wondering how anyone else can really know what is going on inside of me.  But how well do we know ourselves?  I have had a child walk up to me and tell me something about myself that I refused to see.  I suspect that those closest to you have revealed things about you that you did not know about yourself.  I once attended a preaching workshop where we were videoed and then made to watch the video; I discovered that in a 10 minute sermon I pushed my glasses up on my nose 17 times.  (The professor advised me to purchase glasses that fit.)  Now if I was unaware of that how could I ever to profess to know the intricacies of my inner being.

We human beings are enormously complex and complicated at the same time that we are exceedingly frail and fragile. Freud helped us to see the unconscious rationalization of the human. It's easy to be aware of  the things of which we are conscience. Since you and I are rationalizing every day, do we know ourselves? profoundly know ourselves? How much of ourselves can we know?

Not only are we complex, complicated creatures, we are frail, fragile creatures as well. A germ so small that it can be seen only with the strongest microscope can crumble the champion weightlifter. An accidental nick in Norman Bethune's finger ended the surgeon's life in China. Since life is so very transitory, I shall have an identity eternally, I shall be “me” eternally, only as I am known to be “me” by the eternal one himself -- for his knowing me makes me; that is, confers identity, even as his knowing me preserves “me” and honours me and exalts me.

What's more, we are complex and fragile at the same time.  Think of those who suffer from dementia; for loved ones the devastation in being cut off from them—from the person who I once knew—is crushing.  What is the precise relationship of mind to body? of mind and body to spirit? Nobody knows. We are dealing with uttermost complexity and fragility at the same time. Then what are we? Who are we? What is our end? God alone knows. But God knows. God knows us.

To say that God knows is to say much more than God understands or God is aware. To say that God knows us is to say that God has fashioned for us—both the very wounded (i.e. dementia sufferers) and the somewhat less wounded (you and me)—an identity which guarantees we shall not be overlooked or misplaced or set aside. To say that God knows us is to say that God will prosper us in whatever wilderness we find ourselves, even if the wilderness is going to feel like wilderness for as long as we are in it. To say that God knows is to say that while others may disdain those who are socially insignificant or intellectually ordinary or politically dismissable, God uses such people on behalf of that kingdom which cannot be shaken.

5.  In Psalm 139:10 (a part we did not read) the Psalmist maintains that God's hand leads him, and God's right hand holds him. Think of it: we are held by God's right hand. For Hebrew people the left hand symbolizes judgement while the right hand symbolizes mercy and strength. To be held by God's right hand is to be clasped by a mercy whose grip on us will never relent.

When a small child first learns to walk she will grip her parent’s hands and thus upheld step out to walk.  What the parent knows is that the child’s grip can be tenuous and so grips her to make sure she does not fall.  It is the grip of the parent that secures the child.

Our security rests not in the strength of our grip on him (our faith), but rather in the strength of his grip on us. Paul tells us in his Roman letter that God has so loved us as to withhold nothing in his self-outpouring. If God has withheld nothing, then he cannot love us any more than he loves us at this moment. He loves us right now with nothing of himself held back.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.