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Praying the Psalms: Psalms 42, 43

September 27, 2010

Sermon: Praying the Psalms
Text: Psalms 42, 43

Our Scripture reading this morning comes from two chapters that are actually one psalm.  You will see a close connection between Psalms 42 and 43.  We will read the excerpt from Psalm 42 together responsively.

My tears have been my food day and night…
I pour out my soul when I remember
how I used to go to the house of God.
Deep calls to deep…
By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me –
a prayer to the God of my life…
Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

It is a great advantage to me to be a graduate of Furman University.  It is especially an advantage in this state during football season.  I do not get heavily invested in which teams win and which teams lose football games.  In fact, I learned only after the first service that Furman won yesterday.  The real issue for me is not so much being a fan of any one team, though I do pull for the Paladins when I can.  The real issue is being a good sports fan.  Honestly, my deepest enjoyment in college athletics is the lives of the young athletes.  I am very interested in the way they use their remarkable athletic ability to afford themselves a college education.

I had planned to use another psalm as our text today, but we often make shifts, audibles at the line of scrimmage, if you will.  We never know what the circumstances in our world are going to be.  I chose to preach today’s sermon on Psalms 42 and 43 because of the untimely death of a young athlete.  When I heard that Kenny McKinley had died this week, I was shocked, as were many football fans.  I felt a need to address the issue of his death.

Some gave Kenny credit for almost single-handedly winning the game against the University of Tennessee when he was a freshman at the University of South Carolina.  Kenny McKinley was a star wide receiver who caught pass after pass in the middle of the field.  Only about 5’10”, Kenny was a diminutive receiver as receivers go.  Though people much larger than he tackled him repeatedly, he bounced right up and went back for more.  After graduating from college, Kenny became a member of the Denver Broncos.

Those who knew Kenny remember that he was a delightful person who always had a bright smile.  His teammates and coaching staff loved him.  Even Steve Spurrier said that he was one of his favorite players of all times.  Kenny won many people over with his own endearing way.

Kenny was injured this year and placed on the reserve list.  He could not play.  Somewhere in the depths of his heart, he apparently fell into a deep depression.  All indications are that he died this week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  His death prompted this sermon.

I want to especially address our young people this morning.  I want you to listen to me carefully.  I did not know Kenny McKinley personally; but if I had had the opportunity, I would have said, “Kenny, please wait.  You do not have to end your life.  There is a better way.”  Who among us has not experienced in some way a moment of despair when we thought our life did not matter as much as we wanted it to matter?  Times of despair come to all of us.  Before you consider ending your life, as Kenny did, please talk to someone.  Your lives are important to us, and we want to do all we can to help. We do not want to lose a single one of you.

The Scriptures can serve both a diagnostic and a prescriptive function.  We can look into the Scriptures, as I said several weeks ago, and see our lives reflected there.  We can see the problems, and we can also find the prescription for the needed changes.  When we pray the psalms, we take our medicine.  We take the prescriptions that God has given to meet all kinds of circumstances.  I am encouraging you to pray the psalms as your own prayers in your daily devotion.  The psalmists, as you know, have given to us a rich storehouse of prayers.  The truth is that the book of Psalms has long functioned as a book of common prayer for people through the ages from the time of ancient Judaism until the present.

We find ample evidence that the time of despair, the time of discouragement mentioned in Psalms 42 and 43, is simply part and parcel of the journey that all of us make in faith.  We must never think that we are exempt from the difficulties of life, that we will never experience them.  The truth is that in our spiritual journey, no matter how strong we are as Christians and no matter how devoted we are to God and to the life of prayer, we may still go through the wasteland.  We may go through times when we are absolutely parched spiritually, when we feel as though we are dying of thirst spiritually.  This experience is common to all of us.

I am always a little suspicious of those Christians who never seem to have a bad day, those who always seem to be on a continual high.  I find that artificial, a bit saccharin.  I wonder if the person who does not experience harsh times has the spiritual equivalent of being hooked on methamphetamines.  The person seems really cranked up, but somewhere down the line, he or she must pay a terrible price.  The result will be destructive.  The truth of the Christian life is that all of us suffer times in this dry, parched land.  This trek through the desert is a normal part of the Christian walk.

Mother Theresa, known as the Angel of Calcutta, founded the Little Sisters of Mercy.  She gave her life to helping the poor and dying of India.  Her journal, Come Be My Light, was published recently.  Through letters to her superiors and a few others, Mother Theresa revealed that, in a life covering sixty-six years, she had spent a lot of time experiencing the absence of God.  She also revealed that she often wondered why she did not feel the presence of God for perhaps as much as fifty years of her life.  Mother Theresa often prayed that this feeling would be different.

Many absolutely horrified by her revelation ask, “How could such a person ever be considered for sainthood?”

In her journal, Mother Theresa explained that she felt God had allowed her to experience this wilderness time in her life because it gave her greater empathy for the people to whom she was ministering.  She claimed that she could better empathize with those who also felt the painful absence of God.

St. John of the Cross called this time of going through the desert the “dark night of the soul.”  A period of wilderness has affected so many of the Christians considered to be pioneers of faith, so many strong devotional writers.  Martin Luther King, a man many consider to be one of the most influential Christians in our time, was arrested early in his ministry for no apparent reason.  Later reflecting on that experience, King wrote,

I got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore.  I was weak.  I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself.  I bowed down over a cup of coffee…I prayed a prayer and I prayed it out loud that night.  I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right.  I think I’m right.  I think the cause we represent is right.  But Lord, I must confess that I am weak now.  I am faltering.  I am losing my courage.”  And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin, stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth.  And lo, I will be with you, even until to the end of the world…”  God promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.

Jesus, our Lord and Savior, also experienced this wilderness when the Holy Spirit led him into the desert.  During that time, he experienced all the temptations common to every human being.  He was “tempted in all ways that we are tempted,” Hebrews 4:15 says.  This experience allowed Jesus to clarify exactly what kind of Messiah he was to be.  Immediately afterwards, he went to his hometown of Nazareth, and according to Luke’s Gospel, read from Chapter 61 of the scroll of Isaiah that great passage about being a servant.  He declared that he was the servant that Isaiah had prophesied.

If you do not believe Jesus ever experienced a time of wilderness, all you have to do is listen to his words from the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).  Everybody who walks this path sooner or later will experience this.  I am convinced that at the very core of our being, is an emptiness, a yearning, a hollowness.  We long for God to fill that void.

Bertrand Russell, an agnostic at the turn of the century, describes this void perhaps as well as anyone:

At the centre of me is always an eternally terrible pain – curious wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beatific vision – God – I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life – it’s like a passionate love for a ghost.  At times it fills me with rage, at times with wild despair, it is the source of gentleness and cruelty and work, it fills every passion I have – it is the actual spring of life within me.

According to Bertrand Russell, he never found God.

We assume that finding God is entirely up to us.  Some think we just have to wait on God.  Samuel Beckett’s play entitled Waiting for Godot is about two men who idly wait for someone named Godot, who is really God.  In the play, God never appears.

God said, “Seek me while I may be found.  Call upon me while I am near” (Isaiah 55:6).  The implication is that God will not always be found, that He will not always be near us.  We have to make the most of those times when we do find Him, when He is near us.  Jesus said, “I have come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  We have here a double search.  God is not playing hide-and-seek with us.  He is seeking us.  We are seeking Him.

Where better to look for something that will give us strength and hope and comfort when we feel this terrible absence than the direct Word of God?  Where better to look than this psalm where David expresses his thoughts so beautifully?  Psalms 42 and 43 give us an example of just how we are to deal with this wilderness, how we can come to some resolution when we go through these times of spiritual parchment.

At the beginning of his autobiography The Confession, St. Augustine wrote that famous line about this inborn need for God:, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.”

The psalmist writes of his need right in the middle of this conundrum.  You can imagine that the psalmist has seen a deer trekking across the wasteland, coming across a dry, parched land.  Maybe he has seen a deer making its way along the underbrush at the edge of the desert.  Finally that deer comes to a stream where he laps water as best he can, drinking his fill until his thirst is quenched.  The psalmist draws a comparison between this deer and his own desire to know God.  He says, “Like a deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for God, longs for God.”  This thirsting after God identifies the terrible spiritual need in our lives.  The problem is that some people give up their search.

A great difference exists between spiritual hunger and physical hunger, between spiritual thirst and physical thirst.  If you are physically hungry or thirsty, your stomach growls.  You know that you must satisfy that need.  If you get to the point that you are spiritually hungry and spiritually thirsty, it is as if a kind of numbness comes over your spirit.  You forget this need in your life and begin thinking that you do not have a need at all.  You start ignoring the very things that would bring nourishment to your soul.  Spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst can be deadening, not just deadly, to all of life.

We find throughout Scriptures references to people who are thirsty for God.  Maybe one of the most striking appears in the Gospel of John where Jesus encounters the woman at the well.  Was there ever a woman dying of thirst more than that woman?  She has physical water available to her, but nothing in the way she lives her life gives her spiritual nourishment, spiritual refreshment.  It is why Jesus speaks to her about spiritual water, saying, “The water that I will give you will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  Jesus offers that same promise to all of us.  God has a way of bringing us to green pastures, by still waters where our soul can be restored.

In the first stanza of this psalm, you see that the psalmist is distraught and discouraged as he remembers.  He says he has tears, tears that are nostalgic:  “My tears have been my food day and night.”  That is a salty meal.  Drinking your own tears will not satisfy your thirst.  The psalmist may be asking questions similar to ones you ask:  “If God is so great, why am I so miserable?”  “If God is good, and I am an earnest believer in God, why do I have to go through these difficult times?”

Think about what happened to Jesus there in the wilderness.  His whole identity as the Messiah was instilled.

My dad told me one time when I was going through a particularly hard time as a teenager, “Kirk, let me tell you something.  A Christian is like a piece of iron.  God puts that iron in the fire, which tempers it and makes it strong.  Christians would be brittle if they never had any difficulties, if they never had any problems in their lives.  They would not be strong Christians at all.  In the same way that a piece of iron becomes stronger steel because it goes through fire, God allows us to encounter difficulty.  Simply going through these times is similar to the process of tempering us.  It makes us strong.”  There is so much truth in that analogy.

In the second half of the first stanza in Psalm 42, the psalmist says that he has looked to the past.  He remembers times that were different.  It is always helpful for us to remember when times were better.  Doing so allows us to count our blessings and acknowledge that our situation has not always been hard.  We are to leave the past behind and move into the present, just as the psalmist does in the next stanza.

The second stanza states that God provides the source we need for these times of dryness.  The psalmist talks about Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in the Holy Land.  The mountain, which is on the border between Israel and Lebanon, is snow-capped much of the year.  It is the only place where snow-skiing is possible in the Holy Land.  When the snow-caps of Mount Hermon melt, the waters form the Jordan River, which becomes the Sea of Galilee.  That fresh water then flows south through the Jordan Valley nourishing all of the land north of Jericho before continuing into the Dead Sea.

Water rights in that region have created much discussion through the years.  Syria has wanted to run a line to draw water out of the Sea of Galilee.  The Israelis have denied that request, saying, “This is our water reservoir here.”

The psalmist remembers, saying that in the same way that waterfalls come down from the mountain, “deep calls to deep,” so God is calling our soul, bidding us to come to this source of refreshment.

Finally in Psalm 43, the third stanza, the psalmist moves us into the hope that is tomorrow.  He says that he wants God to send forth His light and truth to guide him to Mount Moriah, God’s holy mountain.  There at the altar in the temple in Jerusalem, he will worship and praise God.  The temple is no longer there, but altars are located everywhere in this world.  God is to be found and worshipped in many settings.  This Sanctuary is but one place.

I wonder if you have had the opportunity to sit outside at night this week and look at the beautiful moon.  Have you seen the handiwork of God in the night sky?  Have you seen the handiwork of God in the face of a child?  Have you seen the handiwork of God simply in the love people have for each other?  God reveals His handiwork in so many ways.

If we learn to pay close attention, we will find opportunities to allow the presence of God to satisfy this deep hunger, this deep yearning.  Of course, the Scripture and the life of prayer are absolutely key to that satisfaction.  Sometimes we find that contentment in the hymns.  Consider the words of that great hymn the choir sang for us:  “Come, Thou fount of ev’ry blessing, Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.”  Don’t you want God to tune your heart?  My heart gets out of tune.  Yours probably does, too.  We need God to clean our hearts.

When Kenny McKinley died, my heart was broken.  Beyond his promising athletic ability, he had such a promising future.  I thought about the fact that Kenny felt as though he had no one he could talk with about his problems.

Everybody goes through these times of difficulty, these times when our soul is so parched and dry.  Danger exists when people become discouraged and feel that nobody cares, when they feel alienated from the body of Christ.  We are all on this journey together, you know.  It is the nature of the church.  At least part of our responsibility as Christian people is to think in terms of carrying a canteen from which we can give a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus to others who are having a hard time.  We must try to understand that we, as a Christian family, as a church family, have a responsibility to see to the needs of those around us, to nurture and refresh each other in ways that build up and restore.  If we do that, we become an example to others.

This support is especially important in Christian families, between parents and children, between spouses.  When I go through times in the wilderness, Clare actually carries me.  She is on a spiritual peak, praying well and finding meaning in the Scriptures.  Then sometimes the situation is just the opposite.  When she has a hard time, it is up to me to be a source, a reservoir, of spiritual nourishment for her.  Responding to each other’s needs is a part of what it means to be in a Christian marriage.  Praying the psalms is one way we all can get through these times of difficulty.

I want to address our young people again.  Please, please, if you ever find yourself in despair, if you have a difficult time, if you feel all alone, if you think no one cares, please call somebody.  Give us a chance to talk to you.  Give us a chance to give you a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus Christ.

Do you know Jesus as your Savior?  Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life?  If you have never done that, this would be a good day to simply say, “Lord, I need you to be at the center of my life.  I want to give my heart to you and invite you to come into my heart and be my Savior.”  It may be that you did that a long time ago, but you have been going through the wilderness.  As you have plodded along, you have wondered if your acceptance so long ago has made any difference.  Maybe this is the day you want to rededicate your life, to renew your commitment to Christ.  You can do that right where you are at this moment by bowing your head and saying to the Lord, “Lord, I want to know you better.  I want to rededicate my life to you.”  We invite your response.

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