God is Watching You (And That's Not Scary).
As I was meditating on our Psalm of response this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a song that was popular in my youth. It was the top song of the year in 1983 according to both the Grammy Awards and Rolling Stone magazine; It spent a full 9 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard charts (and reached the top spot in 5 other countries as well); And it is considered by many to be the “signature song” of the band that performed it… The Police.
Any guesses as to what the song might be? (I know you will recognize once I read you the lyrics)
Every breath you take And every move you make Every bond you break Every step you take I'll be watching you Every single day And every word you say Every game you play Every night you stay I'll be watching you
My apologies to everyone who now has I’ll Be Watching You playing on loop in your heads. It’s been in my brain for that last week, so “welcome to the party.”
And you can see the connection, right? The Psalmist writes:
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.
Even before a word in on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand on me. (Ps. 139:2-5).
This psalm is a celebration of God’s intimate knowledge of the psalmist. There is something wonderful, something awe-inducing about being known so completely. About have such consistent, detailed attention paid to us, isn’t there? The devotion embodied in this kind of attention is probably at least part of why I’ll Be Watching You was such a smashing success, even reportedly chosen as their wedding song by some fans!
But the song’s composer, Sting, was disconcerted by this interpretation of the song as an adoring love-song. Sting wrote the lyrics in the middle of a messy divorce, and he talks about them as describing an obsessive love – the kind that manifests by surveilling a lost lover, not able to let go.
And there’s something a bit threatening about many of the things he sings about watching… Every vow you break; every smile you fake… Every game you play; every night you stay…
He is watching, and keeping track of every deception, every violation of the lost relationship.
And then there’s the chorus of the song. Oh, can’t you see, you belong to me.
Separated from the driving rhythm of the music and Sting’s compelling vocals, it starts to sound pretty controlling, doesn’t it? We don’t usually equate possessiveness and constant surveillance with genuine love.
And I have frequently heard a related ambivalence about the claims the Christian faith makes about God – and how God both knows and lays claim to us. In our individualistic culture, one of our deepest values is independence – the belief that we each belong to ourselves, and no one else gets to claim ownership of us…. Not even God.
Not to mention the problems that arise from popular theologies that turn God into a kind of divine Santa Claus – an all-knowing figure who “see you when your sleeping and knows when your awake” and who grants blessing or punishment based on what our constantly surveilled behavior “deserves.”
Perhaps even more disturbing, some Christian communities play directly into this characterization of the Big Brother-Constant Surveillance-God. This week I found a rather graphic music video on vimeo that actually overlays the original recording of I’ll Be Watching You onto a re-enactment of the story of Jesus, primarily focusing on his trial and crucifixion. After watching the Christ figure get bloodied, beaten, and hung on a cross, as the soundtrack of “I’ll be watching you” begins to fade, these words appear on the screen: “Have you ever realized that everything you do is seen by God?”
That tactic might scare or guilt some people into church, but it seems to lose the wonder, and the joy of being intimately known that we get from psalm 139. Instead, it sounds more like a threat, or at the very least an accusation that we have failed to earn God’s love.
Of course, we have failed! We can’t possibly earn God’s love.
So… knowing, as we all do, that we don’t WANT God to watch every move we make, because we don’t always make moves that we are proud of, how CAN we hear the psalmists’ words about God’s vigilant attention as cause for celebration? How can God’s devoted commitment to knowing us in every detail be good news?
I think our gospel’s account of Nathaniel’s call to discipleship offers us an answer to that important question. That’s because Nathaniel gets a little taste of “I’ve Been Watching You” in his introduction to Jesus. And, from what we know about Nathaniel in this story, he’s not the kind of guy to be blindly trusting and enthusiastic about this kind of thing. In fact, one scholar describes Nathaniel as “a master of suspicion.”
When his friend, Philip, tells Nathaniel with great excitement that he has found the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Nathaniel doubts this can be true of someone from a (fill in the blank) like Nazareth – because Nathaniel thought HE could know someone’s value by where they came from, and write them off if they came from the wrong place.
And then, when Jesus greets Nathaniel – positively - as though he already knows him, Nathaniel again responds with suspicion, challenging Jesus’s presumption to say anything about him: “where did you get to know me?”
Nathaniel seems like the kind of man who would back away quickly from someone who presents as a stalker - someone who claims to know all about him and claims an intrusive right to say who he is.
But he doesn’t. Jesus tells him, if effect, “I’ve been watching you; I know all about you”, and Nathaniel’s response is to say: “Wow! You’re it! You are from God! You are someone to whom I can give allegiance!”
This brief story doesn’t really give us many clues as to why Nathaniel makes such a dramatic shift so suddenly, unless we connected it to the larger themes of John’s gospel, and notice that this story included a little three-word phrase: “come and see”
This little phrase is repeated 4 times in the first half of John’s gospel and it comes at pivotal moments – twice in the stories of the calling of the disciples, once by the Samaritan woman at the well, and once in the raising of Lazarus.
It is a theme of invitation to relational knowing.
Seeing is a gateway to knowing, to a faith that is about being in relationship, coming close enough to know and to be known.
It’s a revelation that the psalmist understood. That what God offers us is not a set of doctrines to believe, but rather an awesome intimacy. A promise that we have been known since our conception and even when we die we will still be with God.
Nathaniel the skeptic is invited to “come and see”, and when he gets nervous about Jesus’s claims to know him, Jesus says “I’ve already seen you.” And that seeing, of course, includes seeing Nathaniel’s prejudiced dismissal of anyone from Nazareth.
But Jesus is not watching him to keep a record of wrongs; nor is he a creepy stalker.
“I’ve already seen you” is Jesus’s offer of reassurance that there is no need to fear exposure, because Nathaniel is already known, and he is loved.
And this has implications for each and every one of us – whether we have run to follow Jesus like Philip, or felt a little nervous about the claims he is making, like Nathaniel –
Because we are all invited to “come and see” as well.
To come and see the God who has already seen us – seen our hidden, shame-filled moments, and seen our beauty – and in response God has come close to us in Jesus, so that we can see God’s deep, abiding, constant love for us.
That’s what it means for God to be watching us. It means that God knows us – REALLY KNOWS US – and God loves ALL of us.
And that changes everything, doesn’t it?
Because it means we don’t need to hide. Not from God, and not from each other. We don’t need to hide our pains, or our fears, or even our mistakes - because, I PROMISE YOU, we all make them, myself very much included - but we can’t try to hide those parts of ourselves that WE find unlovable, because that act of hiding is a barrier to relationship, and to witness.
It’s a barrier to relationship, because relationship is about being KNOWN.
Throughout John’s gospel, relationship is connected with knowing, with the drawing near of “come and see”; and that can’t happen if we try to avoid being known in the imperfect truth of ourselves.
And hiding is also a barrier to witness, because we can’t say “come and see” if we don’t want to be seen.
Our lives, our stories, our experiences of God knowing us and loving us is the best and most powerful witness we can offer to why a God who is watching us in genuinely good news.
And we can ALL witness to that good news, because being known means that we don’t have to fix something FIRST before we can answer God’s call. God has already seen us. God KNOWS who we are and God calls us anyway.
Come and See.
 Jan Schnell Rippentrop, “Commentary on John 1:43-51, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3529 (accessed 1/8/2018).