Today is the third of four sermons which will be focused on beloved Psalms. When I picked Psalm 42 and 43 for today I could scarcely have imagined how beautifully it would be set up for me. It felt like “David Bailey Day” at the Homiletical Café when I sat down to write this sermon on the day that water service shut down in our city on top of a lengthy period without rain. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
We Americans truly do not know much about thirst. In fact, we treat it as a major catastrophe if our water tastes and smells different, even if it is perfectly safe to drink. There are many places in the world where things are quite different – where a lengthy walk carrying water containers is required to bring fresh water home; where water is extremely scarce; where raw sewage goes directly into the rivers used for drinking, cooking, and bathing.
I remember on a trip to Israel hearing the guide say that if we would look out the left side of the bus we would see a waterfall in the distance. I strained my eyes and could see no waterfall. What he meant was that on those rare occasions when it rained, that would be a waterfall. Same with rivers. It might be a completely dry stream bed and it would be impossible to imagine it being a river, but there are times when it is.
As a deer longs for flowing streams. In the dry season, the deer goes to the reliable watering holes, which dry up one by one and it becomes more and more difficult to find one. On the day when the water goes out we go to Bi-Lo, then Publix, then Wal-Mart, and if they are all sold out of bottled water we have a rising sense of panic and understand how the deer feels.
Thirst is a very common experience in Israel, so it is a frequent theme in the Bible. Psalm 61: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Psalm 143:6: “I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” Isaiah 41:17-18: “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.”
In each of these cases, water and thirst are metaphors. Our bodies cannot go long without water. We can get dehydrated without realizing it, and that has terrible effects on our bodies. In the same way that our bodies need water, so our souls thirst for and need God in order to be healthy. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
The Psalmist’s soul was dehydrated. “When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” We don’t know the specifics of the Psalmist’s problems, though there are some hints. “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” For a Jew in Israel that surely is a reference to going to the Temple in Jerusalem, where God was believed to reside. Is he sick, homebound, caring for an aging parent? Is he depressed, so beaten down by the taunts of neighbors that he can’t motivate himself to get up and go? He says memories flash through his head of joyous times when he was able to go with the multitude in procession to the house of God for the great festivals. For whatever reason, he is not presently able to do so and it is killing him.
In the next section he confesses, “My soul is cast down within me.” Cast is a term used with sheep which have turned themselves over onto their backs and are unable to get back up. It is a vulnerable and helpless spot, and it is easy to reach panic stage. Have you ever felt that your soul had become cast? “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
Even worse, he now returns to water imagery, only now there is too much instead of too little. “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.” It is scary enough to think about lying helplessly on your back, but then to think about rapids and waves crashing over you and immersing you is terrifying. He felt that his soul was both parched and drowning. The combination of the issue that was keeping him from worship and the taunting neighbors was too much. He lamented, “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’ As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”
In the last section the Psalmist prays that God will vindicate him, defend him, deliver him, and allow him to return to the Temple to praise him with great joy. If you have ever gone through a period when you prayed prayer after prayer of woe is me, God where are you, will you ever help me again, then this Psalm is for you. On the one hand you are so thirsty for some sign of God that you are almost delirious. On the other hand, the events of life seem to be drowning you so thoroughly that there is no hope. Even if your neighbors don’t taunt you verbally, their silent witness by ignoring God and not going to church might make you angry at God that you, a person of faith, are struggling so mightily while they are not.
Clearly Psalm 42 and 43 are one Psalm. The only reason I can think of for their being divided is that someone wanted an even 150 Psalms in the book, so one needed to be divided. I’ve talked about three sections – the first two are in Psalm 42 and the third is Psalm 43. I’ve talked about the lament and pain expressed in the Psalm. But I have skipped over some important things that I want to go back and pick up now.
The first is to say that the Psalmist is clear about knowing that a huge reason for his feeling unwell, unwhole, is his being disconnected from God. He is unable to go to worship, unable to recharge his spiritual life by being with kindred hearts and minds singing and praising God together. He knows this is a huge problem, that his soul is becoming dehydrated and is in serious danger. The God he worships has been the key to health and wholeness for him in the past and he knows God is key to health and wholeness for him in the future. He has some complaints, and life is really not good right now, but he has no thought of looking anywhere else besides God for his strength and help.
At the end of each of the three sections there is an affirmation of faith. It is as though he is having a conversation with himself. After the part of him that is overwhelmed by current problems gets through complaining a while, the part of him that can see the big picture and remember the faithfulness of God responds: “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.” Get a grip on yourself! This too shall pass! The time will come when you exit the tunnel into the sunlight and praises shall be sung once more.
And right in the middle of the full Psalm, the 8th verse out of sixteen, we read this strong affirmation of faith: “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” The power of memory is what sustains the Psalmist through the dark night of the soul. Memories of gathering with the faithful for worship; memories of God being faithful to promises and being present night and day and surrounding with steadfast love.
The prayer has not yet been answered at the end of the Psalm, but the Psalmist has the hope needed to continue living. When the better times come, the first thing he wants to do is take his harp and go to the temple for worship.
When water becomes scarce, we pay attention to that and do what we need to do to get the water we need to survive. I expect a few of us stockpiled some water on Thursday that we are now not sure quite what we will do with. What about when our souls begin to get parched? Do we pay attention to that? Do what do what is necessary to quench that thirst? Unfortunately, adversity frequently leads people to go farther away from God rather than to draw closer. Rather than stockpiling an abundance of treasures to nurture our spiritual lives, we try to quench the thirst in a hundred other ways which just make us more and more thirsty for what we really need. We get depressed, we don’t go to church. We don’t go to Sunday School. We don’t read the Bible. We quit praying. It must not have worked, so there is no point in it. We need that alter ego voice challenging us: “Why are you so depressed? Hope in God, for we shall again praise him, who is our help and our God!”
You know, Jesus picked up on this water metaphor as well. One day he was passing through a Samaritan village and met a woman at the well who had come to carry water for the day. He looked at the well and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14) A couple of chapters later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And at the very end of Revelation, Jesus gives this wonderful promise, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
“Got water?” was the question of the day on Thursday. My question is, “Do you have the water of life?” Do you know how to draw from that well when your soul seems dry and parched? I titled the sermon, “The Perseverance of the Saints,” which is one of the tenets of the Reformation. The Christian life is not a sprint to the finish line. It is a marathon. It requires perseverance and endurance and patience. It requires learning how to keep going when you hit the wall, when you get a cramp, when your legs just want to quit. It requires realizing that God is willing for you to complain to him when things are going bad, but it also requires realizing that you will never make it without God and God wants you to make it and will help you make it.
Today’s Psalm provides a wonderful memory verse for us all to learn, to have in reserve for those times when life does not go our way. “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.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 29, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church