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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Discouragement and Despair (Psalm 42-43)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 17, 2016
Text: Psalm 42-43

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Hymn of Praise: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (SOLID ROCK)
Song of Praise: As the Deer (Nystrom)
Song of Praise: All Who are Thirsty (Brown, Robertson)
Offering of Music: Cry No More (Forrest)
Song of Sending: My Soul Longs for the Lord (Getty, Kendrick)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Today we continue in our series, “Dark Season of the Soul: Where is God?” We have looked at the loss of strength and hope. We have looked at fear, which so often can turn to anxiety. Today we look at discouragement, which so often can turn to despair.

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 everyday 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.

I have felt this Psalm 42 kind of thing most keenly right after I graduated from college.  Like the Psalmist, in college (and high school) I led the procession of the faithful to worship God.  I was involved in church, Bible study, small groups, retreats, mission trips… I was surrounded by a supportive Christian community and had many dear friends to share in faith and worship.  When I graduated from college and moved to Nashville, I was following a dream of pursuing music writing and publishing, yet I quickly found myself alone and feeling far from God.  A friend from college lived with me for the summer, but then he moved back for his senior year and I felt truly alone.  Things had changed so much!  I wasn’t sick, hadn’t lost anyone to death, and was in fact doing one of the things I loved most.  But, things had changed so much and God no longer seemed real or near to me.  I remember, in fact, thinking about this Psalm, mainly because I knew the song, “As the Deer.”  I remember thinking about the deer panting for the water and thinking that God seemed so distant and unreal that I didn’t even feel thirsty.  It would be a spiritual step just to get to where I thirsted for God’s presence again.  It just didn’t matter to me anymore, but I knew enough to know that it should.

Soul Conversation: At this point the Psalmist has the first of three of what I would call “soul conversations.”  By that I mean that he 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)

I remember having that chat with myself.  I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with me?  God used to seem so real.  What will it take to get that back or to feel God in my life again?”

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 return to this “soul conversation” two more times, like the refrain of a song.  Each time, the words take on more weight, as his thoughts develop.  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. The change in focus from the self-focus of v. 4 to God-focus here in v. 6 is noticeable as well:

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.  (v. 7)

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. It also marks a move from the past (what God did) to the present of what God is doing (“deep calls to deep”). That itself marks a significant shift of perspective.

In my life I have had two dreams that I think have come from God.  One of them came nearly two years after I moved to Nashville, after about 20 months of this isolated, lonely, and spiritually dry time.  I didn’t even want to want God, yet I knew that I needed to.  The few times I prayed, it was, “God, help me want to want you in my life.”  That’s how distant and removed God seemed.  I did finally make myself start going to church, mainly to be around the people of God.  I think that was part of me remembering what God had done before, even if these were new people and I felt like I had “lost” the old college friends.  I kept hoping that some sermon or conversation or realization would open everything back up, and it just never happened.  Then I had a dream. 

In that dream I was visiting a large mansion with a huge grassy lawn all around.  One of the musicians from the church I was attending came out… it seemed like his house.  And he came out and hugged me and invited me to run and play in the yard.  If I could have scripted the dream, I would have made him Aslan, but I think he probably played the same role.  And I wept tears of release and joy.  I hadn’t cried once in the two years I had been there, and not much before that.  Something opened up in me during that dream – something deep within me.  The best description I have of that is in verse 7… “deep calls to deep.”  I believe God answered my prayers and communicated with me in the way I needed it.  I had probably created enough walls and barriers that no sermon or song or thought could have done it.  But God’s ways are far deeper than our ways.

It was not an instant turnaround, but it was the significant spiritual turning point in that very dry and lonely time in my life.  It opened me back up to conversation and relationship with God.  That’s what seemingly happened with the Psalmist as well.  He turns from choosing to remember to believing that God will act to planning to talk God in earnest (note the use of the forward-focused “will”):

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. I will say to God my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?  Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”  (vv. 8-9)

Soul Conversation: Again, the Psalmist has a conversation 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.  It’s what I was eventually able to do after two years of feeling very cut off from God and church.  And it took time to grow back and never looked exactly like it did before in college, but that closeness and peace did come back.

Soul Conversation: 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.

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