by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Many or most may not understand the thirst that disturbs and drives their living, but it is
there because God created the human soul to correspond to God. JL Mays
Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Augustine
Thirst for God
Chippie the parakeet never saw it coming. One second he was peacefully perched in his cage. The next he was sucked in, washed up, and blown over. The problems began when Chippie’s owner decided to clean Chippie’s cage with a vacuum cleaner. She removed the attachment from the end of the hose and stuck it in the cage. The phone rang, and she turned to pick it up. She’d barely said “hello” when “sssopp!” Chippie got sucked in.
The bird owner gasped, put down the phone , turned off the vacuum, and opened the bag. There was Chippie – still alive, but stunned.
Since the bird was covered with dust and soot, she grabbed him and raced to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and help Chippie under the running water. Then, realizing that Chippie was soaked and shivering, she did what any compassionate bird owner would do … she reached for the hair dryer and blasted the pet with hot air.
Poor Chippie never knew what hit him.
A few days after the trauma, the reporter who’d initially written about the event contacted Chippie’s owner to see how the bird was recovering. “Well,” she replied, “Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore – he just sits and stares.”
It’s hard not to see why. Sucked in, washed up, and blown over … that’s enough to steal the song from the stoutest heart.
Most of us, at some point in life, feel like Chippie – sucked in, washed up, and blown over. Maybe you go through some sort of tragedy – cancer, a car accident, or some other crisis. Maybe it’s a series of small struggles that pile one on top of another. Or maybe you won’t have anything you can point to as the cause of your struggles. You just have a general sense of emptiness, loneliness, or longing that tugs at your heart.
When we go through times like this God gives us the Psalms of Lament to help us understand what we are going through, to help us express our story and to help us through these difficult times by giving us hope.
Psalm 42 is one of these laments. It starts with a metaphor of a deer that is desperate for water. It’s running for its life. It’s hot out and the deer is thirsty. It needs water, but there isn’t any. In most places Israel is a dry and barren land. There isn’t a lot of excess water.
The psalm talks about being cast down, or downcast. The Hebrew word here is shachach. Literally, it means to crouch or bow down. Figuratively, it means to be brought low, to be humiliated. The image is of someone curling up into a fetal position, head tucked between the knees, hiding from the world because it is too overwhelming. It’s an emptiness, a sense of despair and longing.
It isn’t clear from the psalm what the problem is. The psalmist talks about enemies oppressing him and adversaries taunting him, but it doesn’t give details. Verses 6-7 paint an image of a person who is completely overwhelmed by life. The word for deep, is the word that describes the chaos before the creation of the world. This chaos is overwhelming the psalmist like a flooding river. Mount Hermon is in the northern part of Israel. It’s over 9000 feet high and often covered with snow. When the snow melts there are three streams that join together to form the Jordan River. In many places the Jordan River is flat and flows gently into the Sea of Galilee and then out of the Sea of Galilee toward the Dead Sea. There are other places along the Jordan River where you can go white-water rafting. The psalm talks about waterfalls and being trapped underneath the waves and the billows. The struggle is that overwhelming.
Don’t believe someone if they tell you that Christians shouldn’t struggle or doubt or get depressed. Just because we believe in Jesus does not mean we are immune from the struggles of life or the emotions that make life painful. We experience them as much as anybody else, and it is not a lack of faith or a punishment for our sin. It just is.
When life is a struggle, whether it is an overwhelming despair or a thirsty longing, the problem comes with how we try to fill our emptiness. We all have different ways that we try to do that; food, alcohol, busyness, helping other people, exercise, work, buying things – the list goes on and on. These activities are not inherently evil. Most of them are socially acceptable, but none of them will satisfy us. Psalm 42 tells us that the only way we will ever be satisfied is with God. “… My soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1b-2a).
Trying to fill our lives with anything other than God we are committing idolatry. When I hear the word idolatry I think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with weird people participating in absurd religious rituals, worshipping idiotic stone images. For most of us, the idolatry of our lives is far more subtle.
Anne Lamott is one of my favorite authors. She started out writing novels, but now seems to be better known for her non-fiction writings about life and faith. In one book she talked about her journey toward becoming a published author. She started out writing essays and stories. Many of them were rejected, but then she started getting published, though she didn’t get paid enough to make a living. She worked hard at it and eventually she started becoming successful. She published a novel that was successful. She finally had made it as a successful writer. This is what she wrote about this.
I’d wanted to be a writer my whole life. But when I finally made it, I felt like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit she’d been chasing for so long – discovering it was merely metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn’t alive; it had no spirit. It was fake… “Making it” had nothing that could slake the thirst I had for immediacy, and connection. Anne Lamott, “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith” 304.
Becoming a successful writer was Anne’s idol. It did not satisfy. I love her image of a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit. That’s what idolatry is. Whatever we are pursuing does not fill the emptiness in our hearts. It doesn’t quench our thirst. Jesus tells us that he is the living water. He alone can satisfy us. “Those who drink of the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Only God can satisfy our thirst and the longing of our hearts.
So, what do you do when you feel downcast, when the longing in your heart leaves you feeling completely empty? I’d like to lift up two ideas from this psalm. Both of them have to do with memory. “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul” (Psalm 42:4a).
First, we need to remember the fellowship that is such an essential part of the Christian life. We belong to a community of faith that we can turn to during the difficult times. This goes far beyond belonging to a church and going to worship every few weeks. Fellowship involves friendships with other people, studying the Bible and praying together, serving together and celebrating together.
Notice what the psalm tells us to remember. “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” (Psalm 42:4). Three times every year the Israelites were expected to go to Jerusalem for the major festivals: the Feast of Unleavened bread, which is Passover; the Feast of Weeks, which is Pentecost; and the Feast of Booths, which is fall harvest festival. People would go on these journeys in groups and the trip would be like a grand party. Part of that would include worshipping with others as they travelled together toward Jerusalem.
Whoever wrote Psalm 42 remembered the good times he had with his family and friends as they journeyed up to Jerusalem. He knew that in those times when we are struggling with life we need to be surrounded by other people who love us, who will encourage us and support us.
We live in a culture that tends to be very individualistic. Some people take this individualism to such an extreme that they miss one of God’s great gifts to us – other people who are also on the journey of faith. We have a tendency to confuse two ideas that are similar, but not the same – a personal relationship with God and a private relationship with God. Everyone is invited to have a personal relationship with God. To God we are not nameless individuals who are part of a group. God knows us personally. He knows your name and everything about you.
If you go to a Pirates game there are thousands of other people there. The players know you are there and they appreciate you. The crowd brings energy and life, and you are part of that. But the players probably don’t know you as an individual. You’re just part of a crowd. God wants to relate to us as individuals, each of whom is unique. God wants a personal relationship with us.
However, our personal relationship with God is not private. Our relationship with God is impacted by other people. This includes our family and friends, and other people who are also on a journey of faith. We need each other, to grow in our faith, to worship together, to serve the Lord. That is why our mission statement includes the idea of fellowship. It is an essential part of the Christian life. We care for each other. We challenge each other to grow in the faith. We help each other, especially those who are struggling and hurting.
Psalm 42 points to a second thing that we need to remember. We need to remember God’s steadfast love. The psalm talks about going on these pilgrimages with family and friends. But they weren’t going up to Jerusalem just for a family vacation, because that’s where their family always goes on vacation. They were going up to Jerusalem to worship God, to celebrate their deliverance from Egypt and the salvation that God had provided.
I don’t have time to explain this psalm in detail. If you want to learn about it I’ll be happy to explain it some other time. Take my word that verse 8 is the theological center and the most important verse. Verse 8 talks about the steadfast love of God.
Steadfast love is one of the great concepts of the Old Testament. It is one of the primary words that describes God’s relationship with his people. The Hebrew word that is translated steadfast love is hesed. It can also be translated just with the word love, or compassion, or mercy, or loving kindness, or graciousness, or covenant love. It includes the idea of loyalty, commitment and faithfulness to a relationship.
All of that is to say that steadfast love, hesed, is a complex idea that I don’t fully understand and can’t explain adequately. It describes what God thinks about us and feels about us, as well as what God does to demonstrate his feelings. The best explanation of God’s steadfast love is to look at Jesus, who he is and what he has done for us. He is the living water who satisfies our thirst, who fills our emptiness.
When we are thirsty and longing for water, when we are struggling with life, downcast or depressed, we are invited to turn to Jesus Christ, who alone fills our hearts and satisfies our life.
Thursday, as I was finishing up this sermon, I read verse 8 again, thinking about God’s steadfast love. However, another phrase jumped out at me. “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8). I had never noticed the phrase “his song” before. I didn’t know that God had a song. But then I started to think about that song. It’s a love song that God sings to us, and for us, and with us.
I invite you now to join me as we sing one of my favorite songs, “As the Deer.” It is based on Psalm 42 and expresses the good news that Jesus, who is our friend, our brother, and our King, loves us and satisfies us.