Sunday, June 6, 2010

“Longing for God” Psalm 42:1-8

This is the sermon text for June 6, 2010 at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. It calls us to consider what it means to long for God. It also contains the second half of a story where God has turned "no" into a remarkable "yes!" Join us in our journey in longing for God.

One of the most popular movies out right now is Letters to Juliet. The BBC reports that ” Letters to Juliet is the fictional story of a young American woman who travels to Verona in Italy - the city where Romeo meets Juliet - and joins a group of volunteers who respond to letters written to "Juliet" that seek romantic advice. She discovers a letter sent 50 years earlier, then helps its author - played by Vanessa Redgrave - in her quest to find a long-lost fiancé she had left decades before. Is it just Hollywood schmaltz? That will be for viewers to decide. But behind its heavily-beating heart are a number of truths. Firstly, there really is a Juliet's house in Verona, though many historians question whether she actually existed at all.....And secondly, many people do write to "Juliet" every year, pouring out their aching thoughts onto the written page. The letters, which are often just addressed to "Juliet, Verona", are read by a team of 15 secretaries. They are kind of agony aunts (and at least one uncle) who deal in the pain inflicted by love, or the lack of it. "We receive about 6,000 a year, from every corner of the world," said Giovanna Tamassia, who has been replying to the letters for 16 years. "Seventy percent are from women, 30% are from men." Asked what kind of people write, she described them as "sad". "Those who can't find love or have been rejected by it and who need to communicate with a stranger, like 'Juliet'." (1)I think the reason I found this article so interesting was not because of its tie in to the movie, but rather that thousands of people write to a fictional character in hopes of hearing something to encourage them. They so long for the kind of Shakespearean romantic relationship that might mean something that they will seemingly do anything to find it. Can you imagine someone eagerly checking the mailbox each day looking for a letter that might speak to the hole in their heart?

It continues to amaze me the lengths many people will go to try to claim love, but are willing to settle for a relationship with God defined by routine religious rituals, rather than the depth of relationship with God for which they were created. It seems that we can become content nibbling on the crumbs that fall from the table rather than feasting on the banquet of love, grace, and faith to which we have been invited. On Wednesday nights we have begun a study of the Psalms. That study now finds its way into this moment as we hear the Psalter cry out with a longing for God what draws toward the wonder of God’s presence and the depths of God’s love. Join me in looking at Psalm 42, verses 1 through 8. As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, "Where is your God?" 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. NIV

The psalmist begins with a compelling image. He sings out that he thirsts for God as a deer thirsts for water in the desert. It is important we do not miss the power of this image. At the time this psalm found its voice in song, deer were very present on the edges of the desert. Like the buffalo on the American west, the deer population along the desert plain dwindled to the almost nothing over time. But the first hearers of the Psalm would have resonated with the picture of the deer coming to the water – panting, almost yelping for water. Imagine a deer looking for water in the heat of a triple digit Oklahoma summer afternoon. The streams or “water brooks” the deer finds are springs which flow continually with cool clear waters from subterranean rivers.(2) The earthy image is that the Psalmist thirsts for God like one desperate and dry- deeply longing for God’s refreshing and renewing presence.

The Psalmist cries out again, My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? When was the last time you longed for a time with God that your soul cried out for it; when you would let nothing stand in your way of being in God’s presence? Can you imagine what worship would feel like if we all rushed in with eager anticipation, celebrating the opportunity to be in God’s presence, rejoicing in the moment we can lift our voice in song, thrilled at the prospect of lifting our hearts in prayers – waiting, wondering, longing to hear God speak? It is too easy to come in to this moment consumed by the distractions of the week and the tradition of moving through the motions.

Part of what helped the Psalmist come to into worship with a thirst for God’s presence – a longing for the living God is the power of memory. He remembers the grand parades to temple and the power of the song and celebrations that that drew him into the presence of God. These memories were so strong and so wonderful that even in difficulty it calls him back toward God. I think we need to stake our claim to some memories that can remind us over and over again the nature of God that can draw us into worship with longing and anticipation.

Let me share a memory that I am now claiming that will continually remind me about the incredible God I serve. Last week I stood in this moment and shared a story of a personal moment of failure. I had been trying to raise the money needed for a scholarship for a young Chin woman living and working in the slums of Rangoon. Our hope was that she could take part in a special two year program held by the Baylor School of Social Work. I told you that I had dealt with congregations and people of means, all who were trying to be as conservative as they could because of the uncertain economic climate. So, the BSSW had to communicate to this young woman that maybe – just maybe – in two years we will have the money in hand. I then shared that one of the students, a single woman from Malaysia, heard that we could not raise enough money. She came to office at Baylor and told them that she thought it was very important for this young woman to take part in the program. She had been saving to buy a car. She told them that she had decided that this young woman was more important than her car – she could live without it – on offered the $5000 she had. I told you that there was one more thing you should that you should know – that the woman had never met the young woman. She just understood the need. I then pronounced with sadness - No, we still do not have enough money on hand to offer the scholarship. I thought the story was over, but God was not through. A couple of people in our congregation offered to join the effort with personal pledges. We still had a long way to go, but God still seemed to be at work. I shared this word with the folks at Baylor and they were moved. Emails began to fly and a meeting of key leaders was called. These leaders stopped everything else and looked for any possible solution. Did you hear that – key leaders stopped everything on behalf of one student! Clearance was given for the Development Office to reach out to see if they could find someone, anyone, who might make up the difference. If God was going to do anything it had to happen quick because the visa application timeline was within hours of coming to a close. God moved!!!!!! A woman in Texas stepped forward with a pledge of $10,000 to finish off the required monies. When I saw failure, God moved! Last Friday the BSSW wrote Biak Sung to tell her “no, not now.” 48 hours ago they sent a second letter that began, ”God has moved in amazing ways this week in your behalf. Through diligent work and effort by many, we are pleased to let you know that there is available scholarship funding for the 2010/2011 academic year. Therefore, you have been accepted as a Global Mission Leadership Scholar for the 2010/2011 academic year.” Biak Sung will arrive at Baylor in a matter of weeks. Our “no” became God’s moment to say “yes.” This grand act of God makes me long to be in God’s presence in worship. I can hardly wait to stand before the God that turns “no” into “yes” and answers my prayers beyond my wildest expectations.

This is not the only great story of the movement of God’s hand this week. You might want to ask Joe Hodges about how God has started to move in his life and ministry. Or maybe you might want to talk to Merlyn Sweet about what it meant to her to be a part of a team that saw 1500 patients in just a handful of days in Haiti. Our maybe you could come by this afternoon and talk to one of our youth about how God spoke to them as a part of this weekend’s Youth Prayer Retreat. Or maybe we should call Jay Allen on his cell phone and hear how God is moving this morning at the grand opening worship service at the new church facility for the Cowboy Country Church in Chickasha. I wonder what God might be doing in your life that might that would invite you to come into the presence of God with longing and anticipation? Have you so crowded your life that you miss seeing God’s hand? Have you gone through the motions so long that you have forgotten the memories that defined your early walk with God? It is time to create a spiritual memory book – a virtual photo album of great moments with God that will call you back to this place – that will call you back to worship – that will create in you a longing to claim more time in the presence of God.

The heart of the second half of the Psalm reads again; 5 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 6 my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar. 7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. 8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life.

Perhaps the best known waterfall for most of us is Niagara Falls. Did you know that “With more than 6 million cubic feet of water falling over the crest line every minute in high flow, and almost 4 million cubic feet on average, it is the most powerful waterfall in North America?” (3)I vividly remember my moment on the Maid in the Midst boat at the base of the waterfall. You could feel the awesome unadulterated power of the water. The Psalmist feels the pain of despair – but again memory calls him back. The image of the gentile stream in verse 1 is now replaced with the Deep Roar of the waterfall – with its rush of water filling every place of angst. 8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life. The Psalmist’s longing for God has given birth to a faith strong enough to sustain him in the midst of difficulty. It is a faith strengthened as it endures the fire of real life. But, hear clearly, God’s does not desire for us to languish in the desert of despair – but to be fill the cool, refreshing waters of hope. The Psalmist last words sing out; 11 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. The first word and the final word is hope – born in an authentic personal relationship with God.

This morning I want to invite you to claim the kind of faith that leads to a longing for God – the kind of history with God where the memories sustain you – the kind of worship of God that refreshes and renews your depths of your– the kind of relationship with God that fills your heart and calls you to sing in God’s praise. Are you ready to let go of your comfortable religious routines and instead discover a longing for God that will call you to lead the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving? You do not have to write a fiction character in another land and wait for an aunt of agony to respond. The living God awaits you. This is exactly what you were created for. Don’t let anything stand in your way.

(1) available online on June 3, 2010
(2)Williams, D., & Ogilvie, L. J. 1986. Vol. 13: The Preacher's Commentary Series, Volume 13 : Psalms 1-72. Formerly The Communicator's Commentary. The Preacher's Commentary series . Thomas Nelson Inc: Nashville, Tennessee
(3)“Niagara Falls” Wikpedia, available online at on July 22, 2007.

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