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Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: When We Thirst for God

August 11, 2013

Sermon:  Finding Ourselves in the Psalms:  When We Thirst for God
Text: Psalms 42-43

Have you ever been really thirsty?  This morning I have listened to the passages of Scripture read – Psalm 107:1, 4-9, Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-11, and Psalms 42-43 – to Brian Alexander’s song about being thirsty, and to Rebekah Dodds’ Children’s Sermon about a man getting lost in the desert and having no water.  Afterwards, I felt parched and had to ask Chris Kurtz to get me another cup of water.  I was not the only one who was thirsty though.  I saw my state representative get up from his seat, go out into the vestibule, and get a cup of water.  All people can get very thirsty at times.

You would expect that thirst would be a prevalent theme throughout the Bible since that region is arid.  If you have ever been to Judea, you know that the land is parched.  The word for thirst or thirsty is found no fewer than fifty-seven times in the Scriptures, and the word for drought appears at least seven times.  More than 300 references to the desert are present in the Bible, reminding us of the dryness of the climate of Palestine.  The sirocco winds blowing in from the desert make it is so difficult to maintain an adequate water supply.

These same terms also remind us of the spiritual thirst of human life.  Psalm 63:1, written by David while in the desert of Judah, words it this way:  “You, God, are my God; earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you.  My whole being longs for you in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”

We read in the heading provided before our text of Psalm 42 that it is “A maskil of the Sons of Korah.”  Perhaps professional musicians serving in the court of David wrote this song, but it is difficult to know the exact meaning.  Our text today was actually divided into two separate psalms somewhere along the line, though you can see clearly from the context that the three stanzas and the repeated refrain are all one unit.

Psalm 42 begins with a comparison, saying that we thirst for God:  “As a deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for the living God.”  Because of the content in the first stanza, it has been used to identify the plight of people in exile.  That exile is possibly the separation from the temple.  The psalmist remembers the temple and reflects on those times when he was able to go to worship, as suggested in Verse 4:  “These things I remember as I pour out my soul:  How I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.”  The separation is also possibly the result of the psalmist going into the northern region of the Jordan Valley, as suggested by Verse 6:  “…therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.”

Today’s text was read at the baptism of St. Augustine.  Said to be one of his favorites, it is probable that the passage itself prompted the opening line of his confessions:  “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Have you ever talked to yourself?  You might try it sometime.  Psychologists say it is good to talk to intelligent people.  Kathy Green catches me talking to myself sometimes.  I catch her talking to herself, too.  Working with me will make you do that.

The vacuum here in this psalm expresses an emptiness of the human soul, an emptiness that can only be filled by an intimate relationship with God.  This longing, this thirst, is based on a spiritual journey that leaves the psalmist talking to himself.  In the refrain, which is repeated three times, he asks, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?  Why have you become so disturbed within me? Why are you in despair?”  He then answers himself by advising, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.”  All of the passages of Scripture we have heard today remind us that the human soul, the human spirit, has a deep thirst for God.  Psalm 143:6 succinctly tells us, “My soul thirsts for you like a parched land.”

An ancient legend from India tells of a young man approaching a sage and lamenting, “I have been searching for God, but I cannot find Him.”

The wise man answered, “I can help you.  Come with me to the river.”

The two walked to the river and waded out until the water was about neck-deep.  All at once the old sage jumped on the other man’s back, pushing his head under the water and holding it there.  The young man thrashed about, frantically trying to reach the surface.  Finally the sage released his hold.

As the man surfaced, gasping for air, the sage asked, “When you were under the water, what is the one thing you wanted more than anything else?”

He answered, “Air!  I wanted air.”

The sage explained, “When you want God like that, when you long for God as if your very life depends on it, you will find Him.”

All of you in this congregation today have a thirst in your soul for God.  Let me explain some differences in this thirst.

First, a person who has never accepted Christ as Lord and Savior has the thirst of an empty soul.  That person is forever looking, searching, for something to fill the void.  That person goes after other things but simply cannot satisfy the spiritual thirst, the thirst of the soul.  That person chases many mirages in this life, which is like putting makeup on a wound.  Consider some of the many types of mirages:

            Pleasure: “If I could just have more fun, more entertainment, more distraction…” 
            Power: “If I could just get to the top of the ladder…If I just had more control…” 
            Possession: “If I just had one more thing…one more this or one more that…” 
            Knowledge: “If I could just learn more.  It is all head, no heart.” 
            Change:  “If I could just change my job…my house…my marriage partner…” 
           Self-fulfillment:  “If I could just look deep into my soul and see what makes me happy.”  The problem with self-fulfillment is that the person winds up being full of himself. 

Second, the believer who has tasted the Lord, the person who has accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, may develop the thirst of a dry soul.  That person, while knowing that the Lord is good, is missing something from life.  The Christian life can become absolutely arid and parched if we try to satisfy our thirst with things the world has to offer.  They cannot fill us and do not hydrate us.  Instead it is sometimes like drinking acid.  Do you know what happens if you pour gasoline into a Styrofoam cup?  The cup just dissolves.  If a person is really thirsty, it does not pay to drink caffeinated or alcoholic beverages.  Likewise, some of what we put into our soul actually eats away at it and does not satisfy this thirst at all.  We must find our spiritual nourishment in the living water God offers.

When I was just a teenager, I was camping with a group of Boy Scouts in the Camp Croft area when volunteer firemen asked us to help them with a nearby fire.  Once it was under control and pretty much extinguished, we all drank water from a big cooler that was so, so good and refreshing.  I remember the statement of an old fireman sitting next to me as he lifted his cup: “Nothing the good Lord made is better than this!”

At times the believer’s soul seems parched and dry because we feel as though God is guilty of desertion.  The book of Hebrews makes the promise, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.”  That passage reminds me of a poem written by Mary Stevenson in 1936, “Footprints in the Sand.”  The poem tells of a person dreaming about walking on the beach and seeing previous events from her life.  Sometimes the speaker saw two pairs of footprints, walking side-by-side.  During the difficult times of life, however, the narrator saw only one set.  This prompted a questioning of the Lord, “It is as if you made me walk alone.”  God explained, “No, those were the times when I was carrying you.”  God made the promise that He will not desert us.  Though we may seem to experience His absence, God is always with us. He never deserts us.

A Christian soul may experience a spiritual dryness due to prolonged mental and physical fatigue.  Jesus gives us an invitation, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  This invitation from the Lord reminds us just how much we need Sabbath rest.

All long-distance runners know how it feels to run until they are so thirsty and fatigued that they can hardly endure the pain.  Football teams all across the United States – from junior high to the professional NFL – are having summer practices during the month of August.  Many are scheduling what we used to call two-a-days, two practices every day.  Various precautions are now taken to keep those athletes out in the heat from feeling extreme thirst and becoming dehydrated.

Two football teammates lived in our house during their senior year of high school:  Erik Neely and Elton Ogar.  Clare and I actually became the legal guardians of Elton, a young man who made the All-State football team while at Spartanburg High School, when his family moved to New Jersey.  In order for him to have a chance of receiving any scholarship offers, he needed to continue playing as a Spartanburg Viking.  When Doc Davis asked if we could find a family for Elton to live with, we decided we were the family.

Both offensive linemen, these boys were big.  Erik was 6’2½” and weighed about 275 pounds while Elton was 6’4” and weighed 295 pounds.  Those guys, having lost a lot of weight during football practices, would each drink a gallon of orange juice when they came home at night.  I thought I was going to have to back up a Monarch food truck at my door to feed those guys.  You have never seen such food consumption in all your life!

Jesus speaks of the third kind of thirst among Christians in one of the Beatitudes:  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).  The Christian who has a satisfied soul has a persistent thirst. In order to understand that statement, we have to understand the difference between physical hunger and thirst and spiritual hunger and thirst.

Physical deprivation will drive a person to desperation.  We have seen newscasts of hungry people diving into dumpsters, searching through the town rubbish heap, and competing with rats for any edible garbage.  Some of those people have even resorted to eating the rats.

Listen to a few lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s great poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which speaks of physical thirst.  You can see here a sense of desperation in the narrator.

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the board did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was wither’d at the root;
We could not speak no more than if
We had been choked with soot.
There passed a weary time.  Each throat
Was parch’d, and glazed each eye.
A weary time!  A weary time!
How glazed each weary eye!
With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could not laugh or wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I suck’d the blood.

Physical thirst may lead to desperation, but spiritual thirst may lead to apathy if we are not careful. We are to be persistent in our quest to learn more about the Christian life. If we stop reading our Bible for about six weeks, we will get to the point that we just do not care about searching God’s Word.  The longer we go without spiritual water, the more accustomed we become to living without it.  We can absolutely kid ourselves into believing that we do not need any nourishment.

In John 14 we read the story about Jesus stopping by a well in Samaria and speaking with a woman.  Women generally came to the village well either early in the morning or late in the afternoon to draw water.  This Samaritan woman, however, is an outcast.  She comes in the heat of the day to satisfy her physical thirst, but she does not know that she is dying of spiritual thirst.

Lo and behold!  A Jewish rabbi sitting there, Jesus, asks if she will give him a drink.  Jews did not associate with Samaritans.  Though she answers, “You ask me for a drink?  You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan,” she might have said, “You are a rabbi, and I am a sinner.”

Jesus informs her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman points out, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.  Where can you get this living water?”

Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks the water from the well will be thirsty again.  But, whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed the water that I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  Jesus offers artesian water, fresh water, coming out of the ground, and welling up to eternal life.

The woman requests of Jesus, “Give me this water.”

Jesus then directs her to call her husband, but she answers, “I don’t have a husband.”

“That is right.  You have five husbands, and the man you have now is not your own.”

The woman goes through town and tells those she sees, “I think I have found the Messiah.  He told me everything I had ever done.”  That woman learned that the only way to satisfy her spiritual thirst was by coming to Jesus.  He is the only source of living water.

A.W. Tozer prayed, “O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirst for more.”  When our thirst is quenched by living water, we want more and more and more.  That is what it means to live the Christian life, to “have life and have it more abundantly.”  Perhaps you know this little verse:  “Fill my cup, Lord.  I lift it up, Lord.  Come and quench my thirsty soul.  Fill my cup.  Fill it up and make me whole.”

Are you thirsty for God?  The only way to satisfy that thirst is to come to the living water, come to Jesus Christ.  Our invitation to you is to acknowledge Christ Jesus as your Savior.  Some of you have already made that decision, but you are going through a desert time in your life.  You need that thirst quenched by the only One who can give you the satisfaction of living water.  We invite your decision.  You know how God is leading.

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2013

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