January 17, 2021 Worship Sermon - "Known by God"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
In psalm 139 we hear:
Lord, you have searched me out; O Lord, you have known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
As a film director, Michael Apted was not as well known as Steven Spielberg or Spike Lee. Nevertheless, he did have a kind of cult following. He was the director of a series of nine documentaries called the “Up” series. The first of these documentaries was filmed in 1964 and it was a collection of interviews of seven-year-old children from a variety of backgrounds in England. Seven years later, Apted went back and interviewed the same children to see how their lives had developed. The cute little seven-year-olds were now fourteen and going through all the awkwardness of adolescence. Seven years later, he interviewed them again. Now they were twenty-one and just beginning adult life, starting careers and families. Apted interviewed them again at age 28, and then at age 35, and 42, and 49, and 56. Then, finally last year, Apted produced the most recent edition of the series in which the seven-year-olds he interviewed 56 years ago were now 63.
The series is fascinating because you see how the lives of these children unfold as they grow through adulthood and now into their retirement years. It’s full of surprises as some of the kids you think aren’t going to amount to much do quite well; while others who you think were born with a silver spoon in their mouths struggle. Actually, all of the participants struggle at some point or another: there’s divorce, and unemployment, and mental illness, and homelessness. But there is also love, and family, and forgiveness, and healing, and satisfaction. After seeing the participants every seven years for 56 years, you feel like you really get to know them and even love them.
Michael Apted died last week, so there is some doubt as to whether the series will continue; which made me a bit sad because I’m just a little younger than the participants and I was looking forward to seeing how they handled the challenges of old age. It was interesting, though, to hear some of the participants describe what it was like to participate in this documentary that covered their entire lives.
One of the participants, a man named Nick, described how painful it was to make these films every seven years. In some ways, Nick seemed like one of the success stories: he has a productive career as a college professor and is happily married. But he said he never watches the films because it makes him so uncomfortable to see his life played out in front of the camera every seven years.
Another participant, a man named Neil, described how his perception of his own life is so different from how people say he comes across in the films. Neil seemed like a really happy, well-adjusted seven-year-old, but during his teenage years and young-adulthood his life started to fall apart as he struggled with mental illness and homelessness. By midlife, though, it seemed like his life was coming together: he had a home and a job and friendships. You think, “Here is a person who has really triumphed against tremendous odds.” That’s not how he sees his own life, though. He says that he feels like he has failed in everything that he has tried to do.
Who really knows us? A documentary like the Up series is a massive, fifty-six-year undertaking. But still, it can’t capture the complexity of a human life. So much of who we are is hidden, not only from others, but even from ourselves. And if we can’t know ourselves, can anyone really know us? Do we even want to be known? Sometimes I worry that to be known is to be judged.
According to our scriptures this morning, God knows us… even better than we know ourselves. Psalm 139 says of God, “You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.”
And our Gospel reading from John explores how two men, Nathanael and Jesus, come to know each other. Nathanael thinks he knows Jesus even before he met him. When Nathanael hears that Jesus is from Nazareth, that’s all he needs to know. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” he asks.
Jesus also seems to know Nathanael. He says of him, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” To which Nathanael responds, “How do you know me?” Jesus’ response is quirky, like so much of the Gospel of John. “Before Philip called you,” he says, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree.” Whatever it was that Jesus saw in Nathanael, it was enough to elicit the response, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the king of Israel.”
In the Gospel of John, eternal life is to know God and to be known by God. The Samaritan woman at the well marvels at how Jesus told her everything she had ever done. And then there is the man born blind: while everyone else is debating about whether he is a sinner, Jesus pushes right past that argument in order to heal him.
The scriptures reveal a God who knows us and loves us. Part of the reason we hide from each other and isolate from each other is because we worry that people will judge us. The Gospel makes clear that Jesus’ intent is not to condemn us. God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him
God knows and understands even our fear of being known. So, in each of Jesus’ encounters, there is a gentleness as reveals his knowledge of them and encourages them to acknowledge the truth about who they are. This encounter usually results in an experience of healing and relief. The only times when it doesn’t are those times when people respond by trying to judge someone else. How often do we shift the blame in order to justify ourselves? In the Gospel, that approach does not lead to the healing God intends for us.
Only God can know the true meaning of a person’s life, because only God knows us completely. Thanks be to God, you are known and your life has meaning in the presence of the God who loved you into existence.
Christ Lutheran Community Church