A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on August 28, 2011.
We thank you today, O God, for not leaving us to ourselves. We confess that we have tried to live on our own with our own wisdom, with our own insights, with our own cunning for our own purposes, but we thank you that you have not left us alone. We thank you that you have made us for yourselves and that our souls will not rest until we find you. We thank you for the unquenchable thirst that will not be satisfied by anything less than your presence. You know our hearts. You know how many times we have tried to stifle the impulse that you have placed within us where we fear that loving you will cost us too much. Help us to be aware today that our longing for you is not an enemy to be fought but one of the greatest gifts that you have given us. Help us to see that your glory and your peace are so much greater than the petty things we would prefer or the things that we would choose first if left to ourselves. Remind us of those wondrous moments when we have read scripture and you did shed light into our hearts in that moment that we read. Remind us of the acts of compassion where we have known that we stood with your Son, Jesus Christ, as an instrument in the world. Remind us of those moments that we had not planned but when your peace from your spirit was simply too powerful to be denied and we knew your grace and forgiveness was real. Remind us of these things. We pray that you would give a song to our hearts that we might be glad that we still hunger and thirst for you. Make us glad today that our hearts have not been satisfied with less. We thank you that your Son has come and been an example for us, that he has come and pointed our hearts to you, and that he has revealed your very truth to us. We thank you that he has taught us to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
It is not by our feet but by our affection that we either leave Thee or return unto Thee.
Many of you know that I have taken up cycling. I enjoy the exercise and, particularly in the heat of this weather, a couple of hours on a bicycle certainly makes you thirsty. Of course, everyone knows the key is hydration. No matter how hard I try in this weather, I usually go to bed thirsty and wake up thirsty. That kind of exercise just does that to me. I bet you have experienced the same thing.
There are foods that make me thirsty. I have given up on country ham, but in those moments when I slip, I can tell in a couple of hours that I have had that ham. It is all I can do to get my lips to separate off my teeth.
There are medications that make us thirsty—different antibiotics, antihistamines, and other types of medications. There are a lot of different experiences in life that make us thirsty. We all know the importance of water. We hear in the ads about exercise and good health that we need to drink so many glasses of water a day. A typical person—it changes with your age and with your body composition—is made up of 50% water. We all know that if someone takes water away, we will die. Water is more critical to the extension of life than food, even though sometimes we think food is more important. It is so basic to life that the very concept of thirst is common to us all.
What do we remember about Jesus on the cross and Jesus in the moment of his greatest identification with our humanity? We remember that statement: “I thirst.”
The Psalmist takes us to a whole new level of understanding about what it means to be thirsty. In Judea, what we call a drought is just every day. It is life. A Judean wilderness is particularly dry and sparse. Any plant or animal that has not learned to live without much water at all is doomed. They have already passed from the scene.
If you look in the Old Testament, there are actually several stories about the importance of wells—people meeting husbands and wives at wells, people fighting over wells. In the New Testament, Jesus has the encounter with the Samaritan woman in the heat of the day at the well. It is there that he is able to talk to her about living water. If we can get this dry, barren landscape in our mind, we begin to understand a little bit about what the Psalmist wants us to understand. If we can imagine this dry, rocky, barren landscape with very little green anywhere on it, all of a sudden we become aware of a fragile presence.
Imagine a young deer. Perhaps this deer has found a boulder big enough that it casts a shadow. Like many of our dogs that try to get on the cool ground of a shadow instead of being out on the ground that has been baked by the sun, this fragile deer has tried to hide itself in the shadow of this rock where it is just a touch cooler. The day has been spent doing two things: running from predators and looking for water. The deer has been running from predators to give itself a chance to live longer and searching for water which is just as important as outrunning the predators. Now as the heat of the day is upon this fragile presence, it is panting with thirst. That word panting takes on a new level. It is not only thirsty but now it is consumed by the need to drink. Now it thinks of little else at all except that brook that it might find somewhere. This animal has the thirst of desperation.
This is not thirst after you have run a couple of miles or thirst after you have taken Benadryl, but this thirst of panting desperation is how the Psalmist says his soul feels about God. My soul longs for you, God, like the deer that pants in the desert, and can think of nothing else but water. My soul can think of nothing else but you.
What do you do with this verse as a preacher? How do you try to expand it and make it communicate to people? If you are not aware of this, the “how to” sermon is very popular today. You can look in a lot of different places and find how to have a better prayer life, how to be a better mom or dad, or how to have better business ethics. You name it and you can find it. Does a preacher say, “How to thirst for God?” That seems silly to me.
Another great approach of many preachers is shame, so I guess a preacher could say, “Shame on you because you don’t thirst for God enough?” But if you read the Psalm, that seems to be the exact opposite message of the Psalm, doesn’t it? Maybe the key to a message on this particular Psalm is to just simply help us all recognize that there are moments in all of our lives, and probably none of us would be here today, if there were not these moments of great thirst that we already know.
Sometimes we recognize them for what they are and sometimes they pass through our lives and we did not even realize what the thirst was. There are different expressions of this. We live in an age where people seem to be obsessed more than in the past with certain things.
I have a hobby and I love my hobby, but we all know people who cross the line and the hobby becomes an obsession. The hobby is trying to fill a void in their lives.
I have a pet and I love my pet. I don’t love my pet as much as my wife does, but don’t you know people for whom their pet is filling up some gaping hole in their life and it is clear that it is not right. Something is missing.
Some people collect things. I don’t collect much but I have known people who have great collections of different things, and I have seen some people where there is clearly a collection of something that is trying to gather to themselves enough something to fill up the void.
A pastor friend pointed out something several years ago in one of his sermons that has always stuck with me. He says there are two great needs in the human life. There is the need to touch the holy—to somehow experience the holy in our lives—to know that God’s presence and spirit somehow invade our lives and there is the need for pleasure. He says that people feel so good when they have those moments of touching the holy that they confuse that with pleasure. They go around much of their lives trying to fill their lives up with pleasure when what they are really looking for is the holy. The very invitation, “Let’s party,” is often an admission for the thirst of the living God. As a culture, some of the silliest holidays have become an excuse to throw incredible parties and these are a way of admitting that there is an emptiness we are trying to fill up. We are thinking that if we could fill it up with enough pleasure, it would be the same thing as having touched the holy, but it is not.
There are the obvious ones. People sometimes open a window to their souls to me, and they will talk about prayer. I wish I knew how to pray. I wish I knew what to pray. I wish that somehow it did not feel to me like my prayer goes to the ceiling and stops. How do I know that God is listening?
People will come to me and say, I want to study the Bible. I really want to open this book and I want it to speak to my heart and my life. What are they saying to me? They are saying, “As a deer longs for a flowing stream, my souls longs for the Living God. My soul pants for God.”
I could approach this sermon and say, Here’s how to thirst for God or I could say, Shame, shame, shame because you don’t thirst for God enough. But the truth is all of us have it. Sometimes it expresses itself more often than others, but all of us have it. We are here today either because we have it today or we have had it in the past or we know it is going to surface again. We all know what it means to thirst for God.
In the 4th Century, there was a man named Augustine. Augustine became one of the most influential Christians in Christian thought really throughout time. He did what he wanted to do. His mother wanted him to be a Christian, but he said he cared less. He was in riotous living. In his 30’s which in that particular day was getting late, he had a conversion experience. He wrote this poem:
Late have I loved you,
Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong—I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
You lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Late, he realized he had wasted so much time either denying it, looking someplace else or trying to get away from it. Then all of a sudden, he realized that the one thing that satisfied his soul was the Living God.
How late is it for you? You may be 10, 12, or a lot older than that, but whenever we waste time in not acknowledging that God is really what is going to satisfy the very depths of our souls, we are wasting time. We could have turned to God and we could have had the living water to satisfy the thirst of our souls.
This Psalm, as many of the Psalms do, starts in a worry, in a sense of being frantic, but it ends after remembering all the goodness of God in faith. He is almost arguing with his own soul. He says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” All he is saying there is that the deer pants for water. I know that if this is a moment of dryness, God comes afresh. God comes anew. God will satisfy my thirst.
The key is to understand that it is God we are thirsty for. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, for he is my help and my God.”
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.