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Psalm 42

Good morning, church. Please go with me to Psalm 42. If you want to use one of our Bibles this morning, you can raise your hand, and we’ll get one to you.

Last week we began a series of sermons through the psalms. My hope in this series is twofold. I want us to fall more in love with the Psalms, and I want us to use them like Jesus would have used them.

Psalms is a book of prayers, spiritual songs. It’s poetry, really, and I talked last week about what we should expect from this book. We should expect beauty, imagery, and honesty. Beauty is something we can’t live without, and something in short supply in the modern world, because beauty can’t be manufactured usually. Beauty is bound to personhood. It has to be given as a gift. The moment you sell it, something is lost, and yet it’s something we need desperately.

Many of our spiritual ancestors would have considered the soul to be in three parts: thought, beauty, and gut feeling. It was believed beauty bound rational thought and gut feeling together, that without beauty in your life you would end up either as cold, emotionless rationality, able to justify anything because nothing was sacred—either that or you would end up as an impulsive creature chasing after anything you want regardless of the consequences. In our culture today we have a lot of thoughts, a lot of visceral reactions, but not a lot of beauty to bring the two together.

I talked at length last week about the imagery and honesty of the Psalms, because I want us to understand the psalms well as we go through them, especially the truth of the psalms. This book is not the Chronicles, or the Kings, this isn’t going to give you a lot of historical events, and this book is not filled with heady philosophical truths like you would get if we were in Romans or any other of Paul’s letters. This isn’t even like Isaiah or Revelation, prophetic works where God is speaking to humanity. This is humans, in all of their flaws and failures, speaking back to God.

So in our psalm this morning, when the psalmist asks God, “ why have you forgotten me?” What’s true about that statement is not that God forgets us, and we shouldn’t approach this asking what the psalmist might have done to cause God to forget him. What we need to understand from this is the honesty of a man speaking to God saying, “Lord, sometimes I feel like you’ve forgotten me. Father God, sometimes so many things go wrong, and hit follows hit without time to recover, that I wonder if you’re even paying attention to me.”

That’s true. That’s a prayer I’ve prayed in the past year. It’s not true in the sense of doctrine, theology, but it’s true to the human experience of a life lived in pursuit of the God of the Bible. So I want in this series to help us fall in love with the psalms, to experience the beauty of them as something our soul desperately needs. “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and waves have gone over me.” The beauty of these prayers is something your soul needs.

I want us to use the psalms as Jesus used them. This was his prayerbook, his hymnal. Mysteriously, when we pray the psalms we pray them in the Spirit alongside our God. There’s power in that, just like there’s power in singing your heart out to the Lord, even though the words are something someone else wrote, that multitudes of people have already sung. Prayer doesn’t need to be spontaneous or original to be meaningful. There’s power in spontaneous and original prayers, too. I’m not arguing for less prayer, but more. We have the Lord’s prayer, and the book of common prayer, and hymnals many of us have sung since childhood. Jesus, and centuries of worshippers before and after him, had the psalms.

My hope is, as we read through this book all Summer and into the Fall, we would learn to pray these words together. Go with me this morning, psalm 42. If you will, please stand as we read the word of the Lord together. [] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me.

Meg, our liturgist, is a librarian, and Kallee told me last week she’s considering becoming one, so I’m ashamed to admit this to both of them. My personal library doesn’t follow any kind of decimal system. In fact, if you came to my office, you would probably have to work hard to discern any kind of organization at all, the reason being, all of my books are arranged autobiographically. I’ve been an avid user of the library for a while, so all of the books I’ve bought and kept are the ones I’ve read over and over again, marked all over. I pull them off the shelves again and again to reread quotes or refer to ideas.

The vast majority of my books are fiction. Lewis, Tolkien, and Dostoevsky pretty much have a shelf to themselves. I want to find that coffee shop in the renewed earth where they are all sitting around sparring. But this sermon series is organized autobiographically as well, and I’m doing that intentionally. The best way to use the psalms is not to read them in order. They don’t really have an order. There are some psalms that are grouped together—you’ve got the psalms of ascent, which would have been sung at festivals and on feast days when everyone was gathered together. There’s the Egyptian hallel, which are more historical and praise God for rescuing his people from Egypt—the imprecatory psalms, which call down judgement on enemies (those are fun, it’s like listening to a really good breakup album.)

But when it comes down to it, the best way to use the psalms is to treat them like you would treat music. There are a lot of actual albums of music which go through the Psalms. I really like Sandra McCracken’s psalms album, Red Rocks worship, a lot of Jon Foreman’s stuff—but there’s a lot of really good stuff singing and praying the psalms. I actually started a Spotify playlist this week that I’ll share with whomever wants it, just come talk to me after service, or text me and I’ll send you a link. The psalm we just read you may recognize from a more recent hymn—it was one I grew up singing because I was born in ’88 and it was written in 1984 in Seattle. I would encourage you to listen to the psalms in the car, or at night while you’re going to sleep. Or for a long time I would listen to them on the bus on my way to school. The point is, like any good album, if you just kind of familiarize yourself, they’ll start to make sense to your daily experience of life in Christ. You’ll start to go back and play a song or read a psalm when you’re dealing with something specific the psalm speaks to.

This psalm, the one we just read, psalm 42, speaks to our longing for God. That’s a longing I believe is universal. Even if you’re here this morning and you see God more as an idea, a thought, and you have no relationship with him as a living being who understands us, who knows us. Even then, I’ve been there and I know there is this longing in every human heart. Everyone knows there is more to this world. And just as hunger teaches us, even as infants, to cry out; just as hunger teaches us there is some real thing in the universe which can satisfy our longing, so the universal human longing for divinity and existential meaning should teach us there is some real God which can satisfy our souls. “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.”

The distance between the psalmist and God here is physical. For this period in the Old Testament, worship of the Lord would have been centered in Jerusalem, where the temple sat atop the mountain of the Lord. In v.6, though, the psalmist says, even though there is a festival happening in Jerusalem, he’s in Galilee, days away. He’s missing it. He doesn’t say why, what’s keeping him away, which is probably intentional in the psalm. The reason he can’t join in the festival praising God doesn’t matter. The ambiguity helps us pray along—the reason he’s left out of the congregation might be the same as my reason or yours for why we’ve been left out of some sort of celebration. For the psalmist, that physical distance has begun to feel like a spiritual distance between him, the Lord, and God’s people.

As I was writing this sermon, I was thinking about all of the people in churches I’ve pastored or attended who for one reason or another weren’t able to join us: momma Rose, right now, who is too sick to join. I deeply appreciate all of you who have reached out to her to make sure the physical distance doesn’t become spiritual. I remember in the pandemic closures, when we were unable to gather, the physical distance became spiritual for me. I remember, when we started gathering in the park for small group, it meant everything. Then when we were able to gather again here, in the building, that was worth more to me than any festival.

I thought, too, as I was writing about all of the people who are separated from the Church because of anger, hurt, and doubt. I wish they would come into the gathering even with all of their anger so that their physical distance doesn’t become spiritual. And I thought about people who keep their physical distance just out of pride, like how people don’t want to go to AA because they don’t want to admit they have a problem. Many of us don’t come to church just because we don’t want to admit we need a savior. Maybe you see religion as a cane, a crutch, and you don’t want to admit that in your mistakes, in your sin, you’ve grown old, and you’re limping along a bit.

In the psalm, even though the psalmist feels distant from God, the tone of the psalm is ultimately hopeful. The refrain asks us, as we pray, to have hope, to know that we will praise him again. This distance between us and God won’t last forever, and in v.8 we know why: because of God’s steadfast love. He is the God who’s with us. We can turn our backs on him, he’s not going to break our will entirely, but he is always going to pursue us, and he always stands ready to forgive us and draw us back into family.

The image of flowing streams at the beginning of the psalm gives way into an image of waterfalls and breakers, waves and an overwhelming flood. Sometimes we go to God seeking satisfaction, but instead life lived in him is out of control and overwhelming. God is not safe—he’s never claimed to be—but he is good, and even in the wilder moments of life lived in him, there is an intense beauty, like walking through an incredibly difficult time with a loving spouse or a good friend. You’re not grateful for the difficulty, but from a deep place, you’re grateful for the person, as from chest to chest deep calls to deep.

“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so my soul pants for you, God.” Every hunter knows, especially in arid places where there aren’t many streams, if you want to find a deer, you can start by looking for tracks and paths near a stream of water. The deer may walk ten, twenty miles a day through every kind of wilderness, but eventually, if you’re patient, it’ll return to the water. And so if you are here this morning looking for some piece of your own soul that’s still alive and moving, I would tell you to come to the stream of living water that is life lived in relationship to God, our Father. There is no other place your soul will rest. There is no other spring to satisfy your longing.

Every time I read this psalm I’m reminded of the book, The Silver Chair, which is one I’ve loved since I was a child. It’s one of the Narnia books, so God is represented as a fierce lion named Aslan, and because of his wildness, most of the time when people meet him for the first time, they are afraid. There’s a great moment in the book when a girl named Jill meets him—I’ll read it to you: “Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
”I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.
”Then drink,” said the Lion.
”May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
”Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
”I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
”Do you eat girls?” she said.
”I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
”I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
”Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
”Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
”There is no other stream,” said the Lion.”

Lewis says beautifully there the main of what I would tell you this morning. You can search your life long, but there is no other stream that can satisfy the kind of thirst in us that longs for God. I say that from experience, but not the experience of trying everything. Longing isn’t an empirical process where you trial and error religions, people, and experiences until you find something to make you feel whole. It’s the kind of knowing like when I got glasses for the first time and could see leaves and clouds as more than shapes and colors and I knew in that moment that I was seeing the world truly and every other time I had looked up at the sky before that moment, something was lacking.

My invitation to you this morning is the same as the lion’s in the story. Come to the table and drink. Find satisfaction for your soul.

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