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7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Where is God? That is obviously an important question. Almost twenty years ago, I was on a backpacking expedition into the extreme northwestern corner of our state. By the time we drove over to the area, parked our cars and donned our backpacks, it was already late afternoon. We walked a few of hours, and it was totally dark. We pitched camp in the dark. That is not a fun thing to do, but somehow we got it done. We sat by the fire and talked for awhile, and eventually climbed into our sleeping bags. I woke up about dawn. We had not realized it, but the previous night when we made camp, we were on the eastern slope of a small mountain. In the morning, the view was spectacular. The sun was coming up all red and orange and gold into what promised to be a clear day. I had a long view down a green valley. It was beautiful, and I felt the real presence of God. That moment became emblazoned on my mind as a God moment, one of those times that I knew that God was real and God was with me.
On Monday of this week, here in York, SC, I walked outside about sunrise, a little before 7 o’clock. The sun was coming up in the east all red and gold. The air smelled fresh. It promised to be a beautiful day. And, once again, I knew the presence of God. I knew that God was there and God was with me. I remembered that earlier vision I had of God in the mountains, and I thought God is just as real and as present to me on this morning in York, as he was on that morning in the mountains of Tablerock State Park.
Where is God? God is everywhere in his creation. God is present in every event, not only in every sunrise, but in every sunset, and every high noon, and indeed in every moment and in every second.
Scientists tell us that the smallest subatomic particles are quarks. They recognize six kinds of quarks that make up the neutrons and protons of the nucleus of an atom. Now realize that our most powerful microscopes can barely make out the nucleus of the largest atoms, and we certainly cannot come close to seeing a neutron or a proton, and quarks are the things that make up neutrons and protons. But God is present even to each quark. God is present to the smallest things of the universe and to the largest things. The largest thing in our solar system is the magnetic sphere surrounding the planet Jupiter, which is ten times as large as the sun. God is present in that magnetic sphere.
This is what theologians call the doctrine of omnipresence. Back in 1788, John Wesley wrote a sermon “On the Omnipresence of God” [Sermon 111]. He called it a “sublime subject.” He used as his text Jeremiah 23:24, "Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord." Wesley says, “there is no point of space, whether within or without the bounds of creation, where God is not.”
Some folks have the idea that certain places on the earth are more sacred, more filled with the presence of God than others. For example, we call Palestine the Holy Land. Obviously we call it that because the events of the Bible took place in that area, but really that area is no more holy than any other area. When you consider the amount of blood that has been shed in that place, you could argue that a better title would be the God-cursed or God-forsaken Land.
In the religion of Islam, every Muslim is supposed to visit Mecca at least one time in his life if possible. The belief seems to be that God is in Mecca in special way, and you get a special charge out of going to that city in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Not so. God is no more in Mecca than he is in York. Let me state that positively: You can find just as much of God in York, as you can in Mecca, or Jerusalem
Again, some folks picture God as a faraway being who lives in heaven, and occasionally breaks into the world to do some miracle. Not so. God is right here with us right now. Our God, the God of love, the God of grace, the God of mercy, is always near to our hearts and minds and souls.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said: 'Nature is too thin a screen, the glory of the omnipresent God bursts through it everywhere!' All around us we can see that God is all around us.
God is creation's environment. The universe does not contain God, God contains the universe. nothing exists beyond God. Everything that exists dwells within God. Just as the sea is the environment of the fish, God is the environment of his creation. A catechism asks: “Why is there but one God?” The answer is: “There is only one God because God fills every place in the heavens and the earth, and no room is left for another.”
In 1 Kings 18, the prophets of Baal called upon their god from morning till noon, and there was no reply. They cut themselves, and they shouted for their god to come forth. “At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’” They did cry aloud, they did shout, but Baal never responded because baal was an idol of dead stone.
But our God is not like that. We do not need to behave the way Baal’s priests behaved. We do not need to cry for God's presence. God is already present.
God’s presence is like the air we breathe. Air is odorless, tasteless and invisible. I must qualify that a bit, when I lived in North Charleston, sometimes the air smelled terrible, it tasted bad and you could actually see it. But most of the time we do not even think about the air we breathe, yet we depend on it for our very existence. Likewise, God’s presence is all around us, and if it were withdrawn, none of us could survive for even one moment.
This awareness of the living presence of God is what the Psalmist is discussing in Psalm 139.
In verse 7, the Psalmist asks two questions: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? These rhetorical questions are an emphatic way of declaring that God’s presence is everywhere. There is no place where we are not in the presence in God.
In verse 8, the Psalmist contemplates what would happen if he tried to go up to the heavens. I know we generally think of heaven as the place where God lives, but in the Bible there is another possible meaning. What we now call space, the Bible calls the heavens. The psalmist is saying if I could travel through the reaches of outer space, I find God. If I could travel to the center of the galaxy, if I could travel to another galaxy, even another universe, I would still find God there.
Then he says, what if I went down to Sheol? Sheol is the old testament Hebrew word for the abode of the dead. It is often translated as the grave. Many translations have it as “the depths.” The psalmist says if I could descend to the deepest place, I find God there.
Note the personal way the Psalmist talks about God. The Psalmist says, I find YOU there. The psalmist is saying that wherever I am, I am united in a loving relationship with you God.
After mentioning the heights and the depths, the Psalmist turns to horizontal directions. In verse 9, he meets the dawn and travels with the sun to the far side of the sea. This is the Mediterranean Sea, which is west of Palestine. The Jewish people, for the most part, were not sailors and did not like the sea, but the psalm emphasizes God is there.
The prophet Jonah found this out the hard way. We read in chapter one of the book of Jonah that the prophet was commissioned by God to preach to Nineveh. He was to tell them about how wicked they were. Jonah did not like his mission because he knew that God would show the Ninevites mercy. These people were the mortal enemies of Israel and Jonah wanted no part of God’s redemptive plan for these barbarians.
So he tried to flee from the presence of God. Like most people in ancient times, Jonah did not believe in the omnipresence of God. He believed that God was localized and tied to a certain land or people. He believed that the God of Israel had no power or presence outside Israel. Thus, 1:3 says that instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah booked passage on a boat sailing in the opposite direction. He went west instead of east. He headed toward Tarshish, in what is now Spain, trying to get as far away from Nineveh, and as far from God as he could.
He breathed a sigh of relief when the ship sailed away from the shore. He thought he had got to a place where God was not, but what Jonah found out was that God was with him on the ship, and God was with him even in the belly of the whale. One major point of the Book of Jonah is that you cannot hide from God. That is the negative what to put it. The positive way to say it is that no matter where we are God is there with us.
Jonah teaches us that God cannot be localized in a city or a nation. This truth should keep us from having an exalted opinion of the USA. God is God of all peoples and nations. God does not wear red, white and blue. I have to remind myself of that often. I know we saw a company of soldiers go off to Iraq this morning. God loves every one of those soldiers. But God loves every Iraqi also.
Another lesson from Jonah is that God is always present whether we believe it or not. In the early days of space travel, one of the Soviet cosmonauts returned from earth orbit the earth and announced that when he had looked out of his space capsule he had not seen God anywhere. Of course, he was echoing the Communist party line, trying to stay out of the Gulag. But God was there anyway. God is always there.
Let us make some personal application of this then. If God is always there what does that mean to me personally.
John Wesley, in the sermon he preached on this subject applied the doctrine in this way. He said, that if we believe God is always with us in every place and time, then we should “take care not to do the least thing, not to speak the least word, not to indulge the least thought, which you have reason to think would offend him.” Wesley says, “Suppose that a messenger of God, an angel, be now standing at your right hand, and fixing his eyes upon you, would you not take care to abstain from every word or action that you knew would offend him?” Of course we would. Then Wesley adds, “How much more cautious ought you to be when you know that not a holy man, not an angel of God, but God himself, the Holy One ‘that inhabiteth eternity,’ is inspecting your heart, your tongue, your hand, every moment.” That then is the first application. We should live like our lives are always an open book to God.
The second application is the comfort we receive from the doctrine of our omnipresent God. To quote Wesley again, he says, “Cheerfully expect that He, before whom you stand, will ever guide you with his eye, will support you by his guardian hand, will keep you from all evil, … [God] will make you perfect, will stablish, strengthen, and settle you; and then preserve you unblameable, unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!"
In the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned two incidents when I was especially aware of God’s presence. Of course, God is with me always not just those two times, but notice this, when I was really aware of God’s presence, it was a moment of exaltation. I felt lifted up and loved and comforted. This reminds me of what God said to the Prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”[41:10]. We do not ever need to be anxious and afraid, because God is always with us to strengthen and uphold us. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 5/17/05