The Wilderness, Now That I Recall

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, February 28, 2016
Taken from Psalm 63; Luke 13:1-9

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Think a moment about getting together with old friends, I mean, these are really old buddies of yours.   You all went through some major stuff together.   You and they could probably tell some really embarrassing stories on each other.   So, you get together and you start talking, and before much time, you’re reminiscing.   “Hey, you remember that time when…”   Or, maybe your friend’s telling you about something going on in their lives right now, and they say, “you know what this is like?   This is just like that time when…”.   Off they go now.

Why these particular stories and not others?   Out of all the hours and days and maybe years you and these people spent together, why is it these particular stories that stay with us?   I’ll tell you why.  It’s because these stories are iconic for us.   These are the stories about the things we shared that made us who are today.  Those kinds of intimate happenings represent; they are markers of where we came from, of how far we’ve come, of how much we’ve changed, or not.

This doesn’t just happen between close friends.  It happens all across whole groups of people.  Cultural icons, we call them:   just mention the event, the name, the time.   And we and a lot of other people we’ve never met, we all could shake our heads in agreement, “oh, yeah”.   That’s all…you wouldn’t have to add another word because you all get it because you all share it

Take Michelle Pfeiffer, for example.   Michelle Pfeiffer is my generation.   I mean, the lady is pushing sixty.  But Michelle Pfeiffer’s name is getting dropped on the radio practically every hour of every day by performers who are significantly her junior.   Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, for example, just won two Grammy Awards for their song, “Uptown Funk”.   They sing about “that Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold”.  Why are these couple of musical hipsters singing about Michelle Pfeiffer?  I hope sometime soon the choir might lead us in its own rendition of “Uptown Funk”!

Vance Joy, twenty-eight years old.   A singer/songwriter who grew up on Australia.  Vance Joy is winning awards for his indie-hit song, “Riptide”.   He sings about his unrequited love by way of mentioning Michelle Pfeiffer:  “Lady, running down to the riptide/Taken away the dark side…I swear she’s destined for the screen/Closest thing to Michelle Pfeiffer that you’ve ever seen, oh.”   (That’s Vance Joy’s “oh”, and not mine, by the way.)

What’s with “them young artists” these days referencing Michelle Pfeiffer?  Because she’s a cultural icon of beauty and glamour and other qualities.   All they’ve got to do is mention Michelle Pfeiffer’s name and their audience of teens and twenties and thirties get it.   Even us old guys who are in our sixties, even if not another word of those songs make sense to us, those two words will make sense to us! “Michelle Pfeiffer”, us old guys will scratch our chins and go, “oh, yeah…I get that.”

Which, believe it or not, brings us around to Psalm 63.  This Psalm 63 and many other psalms like it, name-drop a cultural icon.   Psalm 63 calls all the worshippers together like old friends who momentarily reminisce, “Hey, you remember that time when…”   “What I’m talking about today is a lot like that time…”   We miss this call to remember, because it comes in a spot in the Psalm that in our Bibles doesn’t even look like it’s part of the Psalm.  It’s that little note that comes at the top, before the Psalm starts.   A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.

We might not even notice it’s there.   We just jump right into our verse one, O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; so starts our verse one.  But in the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 63 doesn’t start with our verse one.   It starts with the Israelites’ verse one, which in their Hebrew Bible was, and continues to be, this verse one, A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.   Do we recall that?   Of course, we don’t recall that.   That’s not a cultural icon for you and me.

Suppose our verse one started out this way:  “ A Song of Michelle Pfeiffer, when she was in Movie, The Fabulous Baker Boys”   Now, that reference a lot of us would get.  In an instant, a whole room of people would be transported into sultry scenes of nightclub performers: “oh, yeah, we’re there with you.”  Hear it like that, then, as the Israelites heard it:   A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.  You remember what that was like when David was in the Wilderness of Judah?  Well!  This is just like that!

This is what it’s like for me in my soul sometimes, when something in me cries out to God, O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee…” , as if I were in a Wilderness the way David was once in the wilderness.   Not for a long hot weekend, mind you, but for years, when David was on the run, an outlaw, a man being hunted down.   David, dispossessed of his family, despised by the king whom he’d served so faithfully, unwelcomed and unable even to be part of his community of faith.

What is it like, for me, when I can’t seem to worship God?   When something so precious to me is somehow taken from me, for reasons, frankly, I cannot fathom.   Now that I think of it, it’s like being forced out into a stark, desert, where the water is hard to come by.   It’s like a wilderness, now that I recall.

Have you experienced such spiritual thirst for God as though your very body were having its most basic essence of life wrung out of it?   Something kept you away from God…circumstances that literally kept you away from worshipping God.

Whether it stopped you from coming to worship in this sanctuary or it stopped you from drawing aside to worship God in the sanctuary of your own heart and mind.  Whatever it was, you could no longer find your way to God.   The only evidence of God in your life was this unsettling sense of God’s absence from your life.   I remember God was here once…right here, in this spot set aside for God…the spot’s still there.   I just can’t seem to lay my hands on God, though; God use to be there.  It’s like a thirst that can’t be quenched.

Maybe your longing for God has never been quite so dramatic or even melodramatic as what this song sings about.  Songs can get somewhat overly intense, and you may not be a particularly intense person that way.  But  have you at least been physically thirsty and unable to satisfy your thirst and unsure of when you will be able to get that precious drink of water?  Maybe that’s the place to start, not in the spiritual part of your reality but in the physical.   It’s where our psalm singer starts, with the physical:  “recall that time when even David got banished into the wilderness.”

As a community, we shared a bit of that thirsty desperation, back in 2002.   Just a couple of weeks ago, we were reminded of that drought.  That’s when the good news came that the Ragged Mountain Reservoir, with its new and improved dam, had finally reached its full capacity.  If I read it right, the newspaper said that expansion of the Reservoir’s dam was completed in 2014, but it’s taken this long to get it 100% full.   Apparently it takes a long time to secure a reservoir with that much water.

The big push to expand our water supply was the serious drought that culminated back in 2002.  The Governor appointed a state water czar; restaurants used paper plates and cups so they didn’t have to wash.   We faced restrictions on our personal use of water.  Going through a significant drought…that is a big deal.  It forces a community to stop and face a reality that on most days we don’t even think about: we’ve got to have water; it’s the most basic element of human existence.   We may have all the faucets and plumbing in place everywhere, but, if we don’t the water, well, then, we’ve got us a situation on our hands.    You’ve got to have the water.

A congregation can reach the same crisis in its life together.  What’s happened to the spiritual waters that we need, not just to survive, but to thrive as a faith community?

Yes, this Psalm 63, speaks in the most intimate way of an individual believer seeking God.    But, this song of personal spiritual thirst, is getting sung in the midst of a worshipping congregation.   This believer has come into this sanctuary, into the presence of this congregation, as if to tap into a great reservoir of the satisfying waters of God’s presence.

So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary/beholding thy power and glory.
Because thy steadfast love is better than life,/my lips will praise thee.
So I will bless thee as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on thy name.

That’s what we call, going to church.  Verse 2 and 3 and 4 are words of a worshipper who’s come with other worshippers.   Each one trusts that in this place of all places, my spiritual thirst will find its source, and it will be quenched.   In this place, my hungry soul will be sustained, because I know that here, says the Psalmist, I will behold the power and glory of God; I will meet the God of steadfast love, the God of grace, the God who to me is more than life itself, says verse 3.

Do we come here, to this sanctuary, expecting to share in that kind of worship?  Are we, University Baptist Church, are we that kind of reservoir of God’s presence, in the midst of a spiritually dry and weary land?  A sanctuary of spiritual refreshment is not built on one particular liturgy or another; nor is it built on one spectacular style of church service over another; and certainly it is not built on one clergy person or another.  All these things are important, for sure, sort of like having all the right plumbing in place.  But, where’s the water?

This kind of well-watered, 100% filled reservoir of God’s presence is founded in the souls of worshipers themselves who have experienced that refreshing love of God.   They know God’s Eternal Spirit welling up in their own hearts and souls.   A meeting room such as this is a soul-nurturing place because it is a place well-stocked by people who know what God’s presence means to them personally.   They’re just looking for the place and time and manner which best helps them to get their experience of God out and share it with one another.

These are well-sourced worshipers who would say with certainty, “without God, well, I’d right there with you, David, banished into a wilderness I’d do everything in my power to get out of.”   David was in that wilderness, not yet a king, but a refugee fleeing a king who sought to kill him.   But, though he was in that wilderness– for how long he could not predict–David clung to this one conviction:  God would not abandon him; God would make a way for his rescue, a way created not out of David’s own strength or strategizing, but a saving way opened up by God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

Though David did not know how God would deliver him nor when God would do it, David knew God, and that trust was as water to him as he went through his own wilderness time.  Days of feast later came for David, when he was sated and secure.   No longer a fugitive in the wilderness, but now David himself made king, God’s anointed one on the throne of a United Kingdom.

So, our song-writer now turns to look ahead to those days of David’s gain.  Even there, the psalmist can join David in singing of what it is like when God delivers him his soul’s deepest longing.  In verses 5 to 7:

My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat,/and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips,
when I think of thee upon my bed and meditate on thee in the/watches of the night;
for thou hast been my help,/and in the shadow of thy wings I sing for joy.

This worshiper’s wilderness days are behind; days of feasting on the riches of God’s presence are as daily food and drink, the subject of satisfying and pleasing meditation.   Recalling those former day of the wilderness make these present days of fullness all the more richer.

There’s a saying that “hunger is the best sauce.”  Well, I’ll tell you another pretty good sauce:   drinking refreshing and plentiful water, while recalling the time when the water was hard to come by.  This sanctuary that we know as University Baptist Church, this is always to be that kind of pleasant place, for anyone who thirsts for God, that they may come and drink fully of that Divine Water.

There are Christians, men and women, who no longer experience God as they once did.   The wells from which they once drank have dried up.   Churches which once were their source of spiritual nourishment have become tainted near to the point of being poisonous because of the rancorous and short-sighted and mean religion they now find there.   So, they ask themselves.   Where may they once again find the refreshing water of God?  May they find it here, among us?

There are men and women for whom this Christian way of faith is a thing they only know about from a distance.   This way of Jesus is as a place they’ve only heard about, but to which they’ve never been personally.   They’re not even sure they’d want to risk a visit, from some of the things they’ve heard about the followers of Jesus.   “I’ll take the wilderness,” they’ve decided, never knowing what it is to drink fully of God, as we have come to know God through Jesus.   Is University Baptist Church a place they might risk coming to, to see for themselves this one we know as Lord and Savior?  I know it is.

This congregation is an oasis that lies hidden just over the horizon for such men and women, disenchanted believers and wary nonbelievers.   We must go to them and help them find their way back over that horizon. You are a reservoir of God’s sweet water that the Spirit of God has gathered up and secured, as in a dry and weary land where water can be hard to come by.   On any given Sunday, as we worship together, there will be one or two or three who come to be with us.   They may be our own Christian sisters and brothers, believers who call upon the name of Jesus but they are lost in a wilderness, as if they carry within themselves a drought draining away their soul’s vitality.  They seek a sanctuary.   We all seek a sanctuary.   It is our common human thirst.   We express it sometimes so eloquently in well-versed liturgy, and sometimes, we just cry it out in the incoherence of a broken heart:   O God…I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee…as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

In the sanctuary of our souls and in the sanctuary of this building, hear God’s call to come!   Come, and behold God’s power and glory.   Come, drink deeply of a love better than life itself.   Receive without reserve, God’s love now made plain in the Good News we profess of Jesus.  Jesus, himself who, like David, knew his own wilderness, who also cried out for God, and whom God met and raised up.  We declare the way of the Risen One, who has become our way into that Eternal sanctuary of God’s presence.

May our witness ever be, Amen and Amen.

*exegetical notes from Artur Weiser, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, Peter Ackroyd, et al, eds. (The Westminster Press, 1962) pp. 453-456.