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Monday, November 10, 2008

Discouragement (Psalms 42-43)

November 9, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Traditionally, today would begin a several week focus on stewardship and giving. But between the focus in October on following Jesus through personal ministry and mission, and the piece in the newsletter on “Stewardship as Worship,” I am led to move on to other matters such as the doubt, discouragement, and questions many are facing with the economy, political change, job loss, and personal challenges. Bill Katibah began to address these questions last Sunday as he spoke on “Crying Out in the Storm.” Today, we’ll turn to God’s Word to consider the emotional sadness and spiritual dryness of deep discouragement.

Our text today is Psalm 42 and 43, which many scholars think are two halves of one Psalm. I will treat them as one and think when you look at them with me you’ll see why. This is no upbeat call to constant praise and celebration. This is a Psalm full of sorrow and struggle, yet it does look to God for help.

The perspective of the Psalm writer is that of one captured in battle and taken away from home and family. Along with the very tangible implications of that capture are also some serious spiritual implications. Why did God let this happen? Where is God now? Why does God seem so far away?

Many of you can relate to these questions. You may have lost something or someone and be asking some of these same questions of God. Or as you face the future and all its challenges and uncertainty, these questions also can arise. Why did you let this happen? What am I supposed to do now? Will I ever get through this? And where are you, God?

This is one of the most REAL Psalms I know of. It doesn’t hold back or cover up the real struggles of the one who wrote it. Because of that, I think it can be encouraging to us, not because it gives simplistic answers but because we can realize that we are not alone in our situation or feelings. And it is okay to express those feelings out loud and before God. Turn with me to Psalm 42 and let’s walk through this text together.

Things Have Changed (42:4)

Psalm 42 begins with a verse that may be familiar to you, “As the deer pants for the water… so my soul pants for you.” (v. 1) For some reason, I always pictured that deer standing at the water. It has been thirsty, but now it’s about to drink. But that’s not the image at all. The Psalmist (and the deer) are still far from water. That’s why the spiritual throat is parched. The Psalmist cries out, “When shall I come and appear before God?” (v. 2) God seems far away and there seems no soon-coming satisfaction for a parched soul.

The imagery just gets stronger from there:
My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” (v. 3)
Rather than God’s presence being food and drink for the soul, the Psalmist is overwhelmed by sorrow from within and questions from without. While we may think we see some of the reason for the sorrow in the situation of captivity, it is the next verse that really tells us what has happened:
These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. (v. 4)
It is only in reading verse 4 that we see how much things have changed. At one time the Psalmist was so close to God, joyful and full of the Spirit as he led in the worship procession. Now, captive and far from home, with captors teasing and taunting and with tears for food, God’s absence is all the more keenly felt.

Have you ever been where this Psalmist was? Have you ever felt like God was nowhere to be found and your tears were your only food and drink? Have you heard that question so clearly, whether from others or in the hidden privacy of your own thoughts, “Where is God now?”

Things have changed so much. Surely this sounds familiar to those who have lost loved ones, for whom life at the deep level and on the every day level is just so different now. These verses must sound familiar to those who once felt close to God, whether in youth group or in another stage of life, and for whom God now seems distant or doubtful. Those who have been through divorce or who are really struggling in marriage might know what this Psalmist is talking about. Things have changed and aren’t as they once were; and while that describes earthly things and relationships it almost always also impacts our experience of God.

At this point the Psalmist has a little talk with his soul. He says:
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. (v. 5)
You may have experienced this as talking to yourself or simply as a knot deep within that defies words and untangling. In this case, the Psalmist surely hadn’t figured it all out. He wasn’t feeling suddenly better or more holy. In fact, if my experience is any indication, these words simply marked his realization that something was very wrong and perhaps only God could make it right. If you have lost someone or something, and it feels like your faith went along with it, listen carefully, for the writer of this Psalm knows what you feel like.

The Psalmist will have similar words with himself two more times, like the refrain of a song. Each time, the words take on more weight, as if the knot is untangling and his thoughts are developing. As if the memory of that procession to the house of the Lord takes hold, the Psalmist now consciously decides to remember more about God and what God has done in his life.

Remember What God Did (42:6)

The first memory of God in this Psalm was in terms of what was lost: “I remember leading in the Assembly… and now that’s gone.” But in verse 6, the Psalmist remembers in a different way:
O my God, my soul is in despair within me; therefore, I remember you from the land of the Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. (v. 6)
It is as if the Psalmist, disconnected from God, chooses to try to remember that previous time, when God seemed near. The Psalmist does not dismiss the despair, minimize it, or hide it from God, but out of it CHOOSES to remember what God did.

And listen to what comes next. It is very powerful and a bit mysterious.
Deep calls to deep at the sound of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have rolled over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; and His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life. (vv. 7-8)
What is being described is God “talking” to us. Whether he can yet hear it, the Psalmist remembers God’s ways and the sometimes subtle way God has of communicating with us.

That remembrance opened him back up to conversation and relationship with God. He turns from choosing to remember to planning to talk God in earnest (note “I will”):
I will say to God my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” (vv. 9-10)
Again, the Psalmist has words with his soul. This time, the refrain takes on different meaning…
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God. (v. 11)
He has taken steps to hope in God: he has chosen to remember God’s previous works in His life. In doing so, he opens himself up to communication and relationship with God. This is valuable counsel for us when we have lost much, when things have changed. Of course we remember how things used to be; but consider God’s faithfulness and constancy previously in our life. God does not change; God is still faithful and compassionate. Invite God to reach out to you deep down – where sometimes God communicates without words. You may find yourself pouring out your sorrow and even anger to God, but that is also a new beginning to conversation and to relationship with God.

Prayer: Honest Conversation with God (43:1-4)

Look at Psalm 43 at what happens next. It begins as a prayer, concluding with the same refrain that was used twice in Psalm 42. It is as if that memory that led to remembering and an intent to converse with God has now taken root: the conversation begins as direct prayer.

I know from experience what it feels like to not be able to pray. I also know that when we once again are able to, whatever the content or attitude of our prayer, that communication is important in our experience of God. Listen to the Psalmist’s prayer. It is not pretty or nice or gentle. He holds nothing back, but that is exactly the point. If we don’t or can’t or won’t pray, we are holding everything back from God. When we pray, God scoops up our words, our concerns, and our lives.
Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation; O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man! For you are the God of my strength; why have you rejected me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling places. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and upon the lyre I shall praise you, O God, my God. (vv. 1-4)
It’s a prayer asking God to make things right. It’s also a prayer asking God to restore some of what was lost, even if it won’t be exactly the same. The Psalmist, who once led the worship procession to the house of God is praying that he might once again praise God in a place of worship. To ask again for something that was lost – a relationship, a peace, companionship, closeness with the Lord – that may seem unimaginable now. But that’s what the Psalmist does.

Here for a third time in sixteen verses we have this refrain:
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God. (v. 5)
Does it sound different this third time? I think so. At this point the Psalmist has acknowledged what was lost, remembered what God has done previously, and come to God in heartfelt prayer. Note that the soul is still disturbed, but note too the way the last sentence sounds. It sounds hopeful to me: “I shall again praise Him.” I believe it can and does happen that way; it has in my life and I’ve seen it in other peoples’ lives.

Hope: I Shall Again Praise Him (42:5,11; 43:5)

Finally, let me point out two phrases that mark the progression in this Psalm. I want to be realistic, too. This is not a five step march out of grief or loss. This is not a prescription for feeling better. This is more like the personal diary of one person who is in the process of God’s healing and help. We don’t see the ending, which is probably okay; that would be too neat and tidy, and life isn’t neat and tidy.

I want to point out two phrases: “tears for food” and “the help of my countenance.” I think “tears for food” is self-descriptive. If you’ve lived with that, you know what it means. It is a heart-breaking sorrow where it just seems like the storm will never lift. That’s where this story starts, but it ends with the other phrase, which is part of the refrain the second and third time.

In the first refrain in Psalm 42:5, it is “the help of God’s presence,” which is important. But in v. 11 and then at the end of Psalm 43, it is “the help of my countenance.” Literally, that phrase means “the lifter of my face.” The image is related to “tears for food.” The image as this Psalm progresses and the refrain is reached each time is that God comes (His presence) and re-establishes communication and relationship with the one who has lost so much. God bends down, tenderly, and raises the tear-stained face of His child, lifting their face to look once again into His.

If you have lost something dear or things are not as they once were, I invite you to soak up this Psalm this week, or for weeks to come. Share with this Psalmist as one in process of rediscovering God’s presence. And that presence is not a wave-the-magic-wand and fix it presence. It is not a buck-up-and-put-on-a-happy-face presence. God’s presence is a gentle, compassionate, loving presence that reaches down to tenderly raise your eyes to see Him in your life once again. I invite you to once again look into the face of the One who loves you so very much. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just listened to your sermon on discouragement and you hit the nail on the head. God is the lifter of my head. I live in Chicago (Batavia) and my parents go to your church. I'm glad they do. Hope to meet you someday when I'm in Charlotte.


p.s. Chuck Neder was my youth pastor in high school. I'm sure you know him through PFR.