The Sixth Sunday after Easter May 20, 2007
219, 215, 421, 216
As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”
When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.
Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.
O my God, my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
The Lord will command His loving kindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
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?”
As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.
Dear fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus, who gives Living Water:
When we travel through the Sand Hills country of Nebraska, there is an area about fifty miles out of North Platte where the terrain is especially barren. There is not a dwelling to be seen, only fences and the loose sandy ground barely secured by scattered tufts of bunchgrass. But soon the traveler crests a hill where he surveys a valley that has more vegetation, a generous scattering of juniper trees, and a winding river passing under the bridge at the bottom. It is a refreshing sight compared to the terrain that is before and after it.
But when we reach the bottom of the valley, a sign on the bridge informs us that the sparkling stream below that offers such a welcome relief to the drive is known as the “Dismal River.” That doesn’t seem quite right, really. What did some early pioneer see in this river that looked so unfortunate, so “dismal,” that he should forever spoil it for future travelers?
Maybe it is a reminder that all that glitters is not gold, and all that is cool and wet is not fit for a drink or a swim. We live in a world of extraordinary beauty and pleasant things. But that doesn’t mean they are all that they promise. Today, we hear the words of a godly poet—apparently one of the Levite musicians—who finds himself isolated from his people and from his spiritual center. He is in a beautiful area near one of the highest mountains in the Middle East with cool mountain streams passing by. But they offer nothing to him. He is distressed and longs to be somewhere else. When we consider his situation we will appreciate his distress and we will also find comfort where he does. This is the story of godly people in an ungodly world. May the Holy Spirit use these words to refresh us on our journey. We will consider: I. The isolation of the godly in the world, II. The presence of God in His Word, and III. The richness of the company of the godly.
The children of God definitely experience an isolation in this world—it’s a spiritual desert. Our Levite friend thinks of this as he watches a doe coursing her way through some barren foothills searching the coulees and wadis where a few months earlier she might have found water. Now, she finds nothing but dust, weariness, and perhaps signs of death.
It reminds him that he is far removed from the things that really make his soul tick. “My soul thirsts for You, O God; the living God.” [v.2]
We can have meat and vegetables on the table. We can get in the car and drive to the mountains or the coast. We can view nature’s wonders and marvel at the hand of the Creator. We often think that there is so much to be had in this life. But do we have what we really need?
Even while the Levite talks to God and reflects on Him, he feels remote from Him. The problem is that in this life we all too often find ourselves seeking that which does not last. Think of Isaiah’s question: “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2)
Millions of people in our own country spend themselves in empty pursuits with the expectation that they will find success, satisfaction, and contentment in their money, their cars, their homes, their social circle. Aren’t we also tempted to look to these things for the same satisfaction? One hymn writer offered his own analysis:
Many spend their lives in fretting
over trifles and in getting
things that have no solid ground.
I shall strive to win a treasure
that will bring me lasting pleasure
and that now is seldom found.
The godly Levite knew how seldom true satisfaction is to be found. What is a lot easier for the godly person to find is ridicule, abuse, and blasphemy against the living God. His own soul is tormented by the ridicule of the heathen around him: “My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me ‘where is your God?’” [v.3] He knows by the tone of his tormenters’ voices that they do not seek his living God. They are questioning His existence. They are mocking His power to help because this stranger, this Israelite, seems so forlorn and helpless.
We could be here all day pointing out the ways that unbelievers around us mock and despise the living God. They include the worldliness of our society, the constant effort to legitimize what God has forbidden, and the absurdity of what passes for Christianity in our day.
Shouldn’t things be different? No, actually, that isolation felt so poignantly by the poet is part and parcel of the life of the godly in an ungodly world. Jesus assured His disciples of that very thing: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19).
Just because an ungodly world surrounds us, that does not mean we are without comfort and peace. For God is very near to us—as near as the Word and Sacraments.
As we consider this Psalm it is worth noting that we are between the two festivals, Ascension and Pentecost. They are two reasons for godly people—people who know and believe in the true God—to celebrate. We celebrate Ascension because it powerfully demonstrates a divine work accomplished—the work of our redemption through the infinitely precious blood of Christ. He now sits at the right hand of God ruling over the world for the sake of the godly here in this world. Pentecost celebrates the fact that our risen Christ, though He has ascended, has sent us the Holy Spirit. Far from leaving us orphans in this world, He has enriched us in faith and power, in love and righteousness through the Holy Spirit.
This was the sort of refreshment that the Levite sought while watching that deer looking for a bit of a drink. It was that inner peace he desired while mocked and tormented by those around him and even by his own doubts. He wanted to know and experience the nearness of God.
And he knew that it was there, that in fact the Lord is not far from those who know where to look:“The Lord will command His loving kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me—a prayer to the God of my life.” [v.8] God isn’t far from us right now even if we are isolated, or outnumbered, or overwhelmed. He is with us through the Word that “commands his loving kindness” namely, that exercises the marvelous grace that we find in Jesus with the Righteous redeeming the unrighteous—the Innocent paying for the sins of the corrupt and the mighty Right Hand of God holding the feeble hands of mankind.
God deals in covenants. He comes to us in our distress and states what He will do to save us; and He binds Himself to that promise even if we have barely the faith to hang on to it. That’s why the writer can say to himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance.” [v.11]
“Hope in God,” that is, the God who for the Levite revealed Himself through all the ritual and ceremony of the Old Covenant. It is the God who in our day speaks to us of His works in the prophetic Word and acts in us through the Sacraments instituted by Christ. These are acts in which God comes and confirms that we are washed from sin and taken into the family of God. These are acts whereby the Lord comes in bread and wine and assures us that we are in fact receiving the very body and blood that were offered for us for the remission of sins. He really is not far away from those who receive Him through Word and Sacrament.
Jesus comes in this way to all His godly people in this ungodly world. That is why we also join the Levite as he reflects on the richness of the company of the godly.
Sitting in the little Gentile town up near the Hermon mountains—an exile, for whatever reason, from Jerusalem—his longing for God transforms into a longing to be with the company of believers: “When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise.” [v.4]
Some of you may have similar recollections: sitting as a child in church gathered together with family, friends, or people whom you scarcely knew outside of that hour of worship. Not all of us may have that sort of background, but if you do you realize how important, how formative it was to be a youngster in church.
The Levites were the choirs and composers of God’s house. They understood what a powerful element musical praise can bring to the worship of God. Remember the joyous hymns at Christmas and Easter. Recall the somber ones in Lent. Remember the reassuring elements of the liturgy which bring us back to the constants of sin and grace. In church we find a small taste of heaven. Here we find material goods that are used for an eternal purpose: a church building that might be one day be gone, our offerings given to support a message that saves from a godless age, the short time of life spent in Sunday school or Christian education preparing us to use our talents for a lifetime of service.
What a joyous thing it is to assemble in the Lord’s name with our eternal hope confirmed in His Word and Sacraments. What a joy to assemble with people who share this saving faith and scriptural confession, who are committed to the Lord’s work while we are here, and who are conscious that our time together is very limited and precious.
Here, in God’s house, in God’s company—here is where our soul finds true refreshment. Here we have not a “Dismal River,” but the Waters of Life. May the Spirit lead us to drink deeply from them. Amen
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.