Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 42 and Psalm 43: The Cry of the Thirsty

When was the last time you were thirsty? For me, it was this morning, as I sat down to write the sermon, started thinking about thirsting, and suddenly, my mouth went dry, and all I could think of was a nice cup of tea or a glass of water. (Could it be that when you think of thirsting you suddenly are thirsty in the same way that you think of yawning and then all you can do is yawn, even if you aren’t tired? - Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned yawning during a sermon - I’ll have to make sure you don’t fall asleep!)

You might have been thirsty after a hard day’s work on the farm or in the garden. You might have run after children or grandchildren all day. You’ve hit the shops, and now it’s time for refreshment. You’ve got back from training for a marathon. You’re thirsty. The picture the psalm writer gives us is of a deer longing for water - thirsty after being chased, perhaps.

The writer declares his thirst - but not for water. Rather, his thirst for God. ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ You might have experienced physical thirst, needing water, but what about this spiritual thirst? Have you ever been thirsty for God?

Perhaps things aren’t what they used to be. Your prayer life has become dry and dusty. You’re not as on fire for the Lord. The Christian life doesn’t seem as exciting as it once did. God seems distant, he doesn’t seem to answer prayer. What do you do when it’s like this? This might be you as we speak. But you might be thinking to yourself - what is he talking about? It’s never been like that. The Christian life is full of peaks and troughs, mountains and valleys. Listen in, this could soon be your experience.

His thirst is great; his need is deep - ‘When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ He’s crying - it’s made worse as other people ask ‘Where is your God?’ you talk a lot about him, but where is he? As if that’s not enough, in verse 4, he remembers when things were different:

‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.’ The writer looks back and remembers how things used to be - he was a leader of God’s people; he was at the heart of the service, he was in the thick of it, among the noise and music and joy. But now he’s thirsting, longing for God.

Perhaps you look back to when things were different. Those first days when you trusted the Lord and everything was exciting as you opened the Bible. You saw prayers answered, and enjoyed worship. But it’s not like that now. You thirst for God. Where is he?

In the second section, the writer feels distant from God. Verse 6: ‘My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.’ He’s right on the edge of Israel; he’s as far away from Jerusalem while still in the land; about 120 miles away (further than Brookeborough to Dublin). He’s separated from the temple and from God.

God seems to have forgotten him; the enemy (whoever they are) oppresses him. Their taunts are like a deadly wound - like a cut or a sore that they keep poking. They continually ask: ‘Where is your God?’

What the writer experiences physically, being so far from Jerusalem, we can also experience spiritually. It seems as if God is so distant. As the hymn puts it: ‘Where is that blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord?’ God doesn’t change, God doesn’t move, so if we’re distant from him, it must be us who have gone astray.

By the third section, in what is Psalm 43, the cry becomes even more desperate. Here, the call is for vindication - for God to act and defend his cause. For God to intervene and demonstrate his power. You see, even in the darkest moments, the writer never loses his trust. Even when things are going against him and God seems distant, he still continues to call to God. It’s the very nature of the Psalm, isn’t it? It’s a cry to God.

In verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 43, the writer cries for resolution: ‘O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.’

He recognises that God must act; that only God can bring him back and satisfy him. He asks for God’s light and truth to lead him and bring him, and cause him to praise. It’s precisely what he needs - light for the path (being so far away), and truth (surrounded by the enemy’s lies).

It’s what we need as well - whether we’re far from God because we’ve never been intimate with God before; we’re still wandering far from him; or whether we’ve been a Christian for a long time and yet, things have slipped; the worries of life have carried us away; we’ve become separated, feeling far from God; we’ve lost the joy and excitement of the Christian life. What we need is for God to send his light and truth - or rather, the one who is the light of the world; the one who is the way and the truth and the life - Jesus, the one who brings us near to God, brings us into God’s family and causes us to worship.

Now you might have noticed that we’ve left out a fairly important part so far. If you’ve been following along, you’ll have thought - he’s missed a bit. You see, when we’re reading the Bible, it’s always good to look for repeated words or phrases - sometimes that’s the key to the whole passage. And here, it would be hard to miss the repeated phrase, because it’s actually a repeated refrain. What’s the chorus?

‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.’ (42:5, 11; 43:5).

I wonder do you talk to yourself? Don’t be afraid to say yes - you see, whether we realise it or not, we’re always talking to ourselves. There’s always some sort of conversation going on. Whether it’s as worries are recycled and repeated and on and on; or you’re wondering how you’re feeling and psyching yourself up to get out of bed or make that awkward phonecall.

Here, in this chorus, the writer asks himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?’ And you might be thinking to yourself, well, isn’t it obvious? He’s given us a litany of reasons. Haven’t you been listening? He’s thirsting for God; he’s far from God; he’s desperate for God to act.

But look how he responds to himself as he talks to himself: ‘Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.’ You see, he recognises the situation he’s in. He knows the list of reasons why things look so bleak, and why he could be depressed. But he reminds himself of the hope he has in God - he doesn’t just focus on himself and his problems. He turns his focus instead on God. What he’s doing is, in effect, preaching to himself. He’s reminding himself of the gospel; he’s encouraging himself based on God’s promises.

It goes something like this: It might be tough now, but there is still hope in God. God loves me - I know this because Jesus died for me. I am a loved child of God, adopted into his family, my sins are gone; there is no condemnation.

If you had a friend who was discouraged, you would hopefully draw alongside them and gently remind them of the hope of the gospel in Jesus. So why not do it to yourself? Talk to yourself in the best possible way. Remind yourself of the gospel as you preach to yourself. It’s as we do this that we find that hope, which brings us to praise him, our help and our God. The thirst is quenched in him.

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 20th February 2013.

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