WHEN YOU CAN’T WORSHIP — Pete Bauer
This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on October 13th, 2013. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Ps.42.
This is a Psalm about loss, sorrow and the inability to worship. We should note that it is a part of the worship corpus of God’s people. Scholars believe that this Psalm sounds like the struggle of the Jewish people either during or after the Babylonian exile – a time during which God’s people were cut off from the Temple, their land, and their worship. This, of course, would mean that David never wrote it – and that someone else used his name to write this Psalm in order to include it with Davidic Psalms – a common enough practice at that time.
The Exilic Psalmist, then, is struggling with the question – ”Where is your God?” – a question put to him by the Babylonians who have defeated his people – and whom he now lives among. But the Psalmist isn’t struggling because the Babylonians don’t believe in Yahweh – his God – but, rather because he himself is asking the same question – “Where is God?” He himself is unable to worship and all that he valued and loved seems lost.
The irony of the Psalm is that, in the midst of longing for God and for a reason to worship – the Psalmist creates what becomes part of the regular worship of God’s people.
What The Psalm is Going to Do: The Psalmist doesn’t resolve this question. He does not give an easy or Theological answer to, “Where is God when we are suffering with loss, pain or sorrow”. Instead he writes a Psalm that becomes a very honest, if painful, way of worshiping God. This morning we want to look at this form of worship, so we are going to look at three things the Psalmist does…
1. Begin By Expressing Your Longing.
He Expresses his Longing for Something That Has Been Lost: “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 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.”
What has the Psalmist lost? If this is the exile, everything has been lost. The Temple where God’s presence was supposed to reside had been utterly destroyed… the homes of the exiles had been destroyed or given to another people… the land, which was theirs – promised to them by God – had been taken from them and given to others… many of their neighbors leaders – the line of royalty – had been put to death. All of this, according to the Prophets, was due to disobedience and sin.
He Remembers: The Psalmist remembers – he longs for, with great fondness – the crowd going up to the temple – the joyful procession going to the three yearly feasts which now can no longer be held. He remembers being joyful and longs for those past days.
He remembers the land, the mountains and waterfalls of his home – and this has a profound effect on him. “ Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; all Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me.” His memory of his home tumbles his soul like a wave.
Express Your Longing to God: This Psalm, we sing as a pretty worship song – is an expression of desire for what was lost. The Psalmist says, I am like a deer that is dying of thirst, longing to find a stream somewhere, so that I can live. He longs to worship, but his reason for worship seems to be gone. He is saying – I am dry spiritually – I am pouring out my heart with tears.
So what does this Psalm model for us in the face of loss? It models honest longing and the sense that God has abandoned us – and that everything we loved has fallen to the ground. This is where the Psalm begins. We long for what is good – what we enjoy – what we hope in – to continue. We long to be able to worship with freedom and with joy. We long for people and relationships that we enjoy that have been lost for whatever reason. Maybe we feel like we shouldn’t long for those things – that we should give them up and get over it. But we need to see that this expression of longing – and even the admission of despair (“O my God, my soul is in despair within me”), is worship! This is preserved as a worship psalm for the people of God. Weeping and longing and remembering, not just the people and the experience, but what they meant to us – the blessing of God! God welcomes us to express this as a way of worship. But the Psalm doesn’t end here – and worship does not always remain here.
2. Ask God Why!
God, Why Have You Forgotten Me? “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?’”
Again, this is part of worship. The Psalmist holds in tension two very different ideas:
- That God is his rock – support, strength, help.
- That God has forgotten him – has stopped helping, blessing, seems far off. God has allowed him to be shattered!
This is what we can feel like when we are suffering, struggling with loss, disappointment, pain, sorrow or fear. We can feel like God has forgotten us – withdrawn and left us in our suffering. Of course, we can come up with Theological answers for this – but the Psalmist doesn’t. He doesn’t seek to justify God’s actions. Instead he wrestles with these questions and with God.
Wrestle With Your Questions and With God: Wrestling with God in this way is at the heart of what it means to worship. God does not need our trite justifications or our stiff upper lips. God wants to be near to us in our longing and our questions, our fears and frustrations – as well as our joyful worship…
- Abraham wrestled with wanting a child – (Gen.15:2-3)
- Moses wrestled with God on the mountain – (Ex.33:12-16)
- Jacob literally wrestled with God – (Gen.32:22-32)
- Jesus wrestled in the Garden of Gethsemane – (Matt.26:36-46).
All of these wrestlings with God led to a greater grace and understanding in the lives of those who wrestled. Abraham received promise, Moses was told that God’s presence would go with him, Jacob became a new/ redeemed man with a new name, Jesus received grace to go to the cross. Their difficulties did not go away. We are not told that any of them “felt better”. Abraham still had to believe – Moses still had to lead difficult people – Jacob still had to wrestle with his family – Jesus still had to go to the cross – but God cared for and helped each of them as they wrestled with him and their hard, sorrowful, frustrating, suffering questioning.
Question Your Motives: The other questions are those the Psalmist asks of himself, “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed (clamoring) within me?” Why do we despair? The Psalmist doesn’t give an answer to this, although he has plenty of reasons to be despairing. Instead, he uses the question to challenge himself. Here, “Why are you in despair, O my soul? “, means something like – “What am I really afraid of?”, or “What do I really believe?”. Asking these kinds of questions is a way of confronting our despair and refocusing our faith.
3. End By Expressing Your Hope.
A Psalm like this would have been written near the beginning of the exile – which lasted 70 years – so it is unlikely the Psalmist ever made it back to his homeland – much less joyful worship in the Temple. We don’t know what happened to him. But this Psalm – an expression of his longing and suffering has become one of the more well known worship Psalms – used most often to express our longing for God. The Psalmists’ hope and desire come true through this Psalm. Expressing hope, even regardless of what we are feeling, is redemptive. This is what the Psalmist does.
Through Discipline: “The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; and His song will be with me in the night.” The Psalmist says, in the daytime – in better times – the Lord will command his loving kindness – I believe he will. But in the night – when it is dark and I can’t see God’s goodness as well – his song will be in me. In other words – I will worship . In other words, even when I don’t feel it – and until I do feel it – I will worship as an expression of hope.
I Will Yet Praise HIm: “Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.” In this kind of hope, Jesus went to the cross and fulfilled this Psalm by becoming the one on whom God turned his back, so that, in Jesus, and because of his death and resurrection, God now turns towards us with grace and favor and the promise that he is always with us.
This morning we want to see that this expression of longing – wrestling with God and asking why – and expressing hope – are also ways that we can worship, even in the face of suffering.