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我的心渴想神 From a distance (I)

September 13, 2020, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Psalm 42:1-11) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Psalms
Preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service

Tags: Korah, Maskil

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on Psalm 42

“When shall I come and appear before God?” (v.2b). Some of us might have been asking that question repeatedly since the end of March. For 3 months, we have been separated from this worship hall. We hope to come back to church for worship, and appear before God. That may seem like an irrational desire, since theologically speaking, we can justify that God is everywhere. It doesn’t matter where we worship, whether it is physically in church or remotely at home. God is there wherever and whenever we are in worship. God’s presence is therefore, not dependent on our sensory feelings. We are connected to God by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. His presence is a theological truth based on who God is.

But emotionally, we might feel that there is a real difference in the experience of worshipping in church. It could be the architecture and liturgical décor of a church. Certainly the liturgical colors and the stained-glass image of the cross all contribute to an immersive worshipful environment. It could be the welcoming faces of brothers and sisters in fellowship. Though as part of our safety measures, we must continue to keep our safe distancing, and half our faces may be hidden by a mask, I believe we can sense an immediate connection between us somehow. When we gather in this place, there is a palpable kinship that comes from seeing one another eye to eye literally. So the separation from Outram Road breeds a longing in our hearts, a longing to return to worship in this place, a longing to meet God and be present here physically.

The psalm today expresses such sentiments perfectly. For the psalmist, there was a deep longing to go back to worship in the Jerusalem Temple. For the people of Israel, there are 3 pilgrimage festivals; the Passover, the Pentecost and the Sukkot (Tents), where they make their triannual visits to the Jerusalem Temple. So you can imagine the crowd and the atmosphere in Jerusalem during these festival times. In ancient days, the number of worshippers reached almost 3 million people by New Testament times. The exuberance of the pilgrimage was not just picked up in Jerusalem but throughout the entire road trip, as more and more pilgrims joined the traveling cohort. In expressing to God about meeting him in Jerusalem, the psalmist was also reminiscing about the good old times of worshipping there.

4 These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.

I think we can all identify with the joy and cheer of a festival. Immediately when the Singapore elections were announced this week, I saw on social media how some were reminiscing about the excitement of huge crowds from past election rallies. They shared about how they enjoyed themselves, even if they were just standing along the common corridors of the surrounding flats of the rallies. Though I generally avoid crowds, I also have fond memories of my trip to Korea when they were hosting the soccer world cup. Everywhere we went, people cheered when they saw us wearing the red T-shirt supporting Korea. This is also why people ballot for tickets to attend the National Day parade even though it is on live telecast. So I have to acknowledge this indescribable vibe when we are gathered together in huge numbers for a transcendent purpose. In Jubilee Church, I feel that especially in our combined services, particularly during Easter and Christmas. And I can only imagine it amplified by the thousands when it is the triannual festival times in Jerusalem. And this is why the psalmist mourned to God. Because he wanted to go back to the Temple, but he couldn’t.

Now, why couldn’t he go back? This is a challenging question because we are not given much information about this. There are two clues in the header of the psalm. The first clue is that this psalm was composed by the sons of Korah. The backstory of Korah can be found in Numbers chapter 16 of the Old Testament. So it may be possible that this psalm was referencing something that happened to Korah and his descendants. Since I will be speaking next week on Psalm 43, which is the second half of the combined psalms 42 and 43, I have decided to share the significance of Korah next week.

Instead, I will focus on the second clue, which is that this psalm is a Maskil psalm (训诲诗). [1] The root word of Maskil in Hebrew is a word for wisdom or skill. So, although it isn’t stated explicitly, some believe that these Maskil psalms were songs of encouragement and instruction to the congregation. [2] So what is this psalm hoping to teach or motivate? I believe it taught the people of Israel how to deal with their physical separation from the Jerusalem Temple.

We can imagine that there would be times when the people of Israel might not be able to go up to Jerusalem Temple for their annual festivals in worship. Individually, it could be due to illnesses or personal emergencies. Collectively, it could be due to war or being deported into exile. We know from our past sermons how the Assyrians exiled thousands of Israelites when they conquered the northern kingdom. [3] So this psalm became a very meaningful worship song, a prayer that those living in exile could offer up to God to express their longing to return back to Jerusalem in worship. Undoubtedly, the psalmist and those who worshipped with this psalm knew that God’s presence was with them, or else why would they even bother to pray. But the troubles that overwhelmed them, be it sickness or living in exile, could make them feel alienated from God.

So the psalmist declared, 9 I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

Verse 9 sounds like a paradox. If God was the Rock, it was a metaphor of his strong and steady presence. If God was the Rock, then the psalmist should be protected from all storms and waves. How could the psalmist be lamenting to God and yet still profess that God was his Rock? Furthermore, it is logically impossible for God to forget anything or anyone. Herein lies the most valuable lesson from this psalm: our faith in God is precisely often a paradox. The psalmist reflected an honest inner dialogue that we have, whenever we face times of trouble.

11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

This line is expressed twice in Psalm 42, and repeated again in the second half of the combined psalm in Psalm 43. It reminds me of the cry to Jesus from the father of the possessed child in Mark 9: 24 “I believe; help my unbelief!” We might believe that God is our Rock. We might believe that God is present no matter where we worship. We might believe that God is our salvation. We might believe that God can never forget. But despite our belief, we can still cry out and say, “Help my unbelief.” This psalm teaches us that we can pray, “Where are you God?” We can lament to God saying, “Why have you forgotten me?” We can be honest about our longing, and say we are thirsty, like a deer pants for the water. And the psalm teaches us to tell ourselves to hope in God.

Talking to yourself and telling yourself what to do may seem strange to some of us who prefer to bottle up everything, and pretend everything is fine. But it is not. It is actually a very important mental tool to stay resilient in our faith. In psychology, we call this affect labeling. “Years of research suggests that if we can name the negative emotion we’re experiencing and describe succinctly what’s causing that feeling, we can reduce its hold on us.” [4] But this is not wallowing in our negative emotions. It is about “keeping it crisp and using it as a mental stepping-stone toward thinking more clearly about solutions.”

In the psalm today, the psalmist wrote down how he felt and what caused those feelings. So he described the enemies who mocked his faith in God. He was calling out to God directly. Most importantly, he was honest about his doubts and questions, so that he could reflect and tell himself what he needed to do. And when he did all that, he discovered his source of strength. He remembered.

6 My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you.
7 Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

When the psalmist labelled his emotions and desires and brought them to God, he remembered the true nature of his relationship with God. Despite the seeming alienation he might have felt, it was only temporal. What is eternal is the steadfast love of God, a reminder of God’s covenant with his people. And God spoke to him in song and prayers, his love washing over him. [5] The troubles we feel may seem overwhelming, but we must remember that his love is even greater. As Paul declares in Romans 8: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Speaking of our Lord Jesus Christ, you might also remember what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman in John 4: 10 “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 14 whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

“A single deer, driven almost mad by the heat of the sun and stumbling across a desert landscape in exhaustion, suddenly comes upon water. A trickle between the rocks would have been enough, but suddenly there are flowing streams, "living water," in abundance.” [6] To all of us present in this place, and to all the viewers watching the live streaming at home, I hope this Maskil psalm brings you renewed strength. Your thirst to worship God as one big Jubilee family will one day be quenched. That we will “come and appear” before God as one united body. We know that will be fulfilled because our faith is built on God, our Rock. But for now, we have to pray, just as how the psalm instructs us to do. And we have to remember, just as how God’s love will bring us to do. And we have to hope, just as how we will tell ourselves to do.

11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

For the people living in exile, their hope was not in vain. Eventually they returned to Jerusalem in worship, and rebuilt the Temple there. Ezra 3: 11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:
“He is good;
his love toward Israel endures forever.” [7]
If God is willing, let that also be fulfilled amongst us soon.

[1] http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/?stag=Maskil
[2] https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/maschil/
[3] http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/?sermon_id=1025
[4] Webb, C. (2016). How to Have a Good Day: The Essential Toolkit for a Productive Day at Work and Beyond. Pan Macmillan. p. 249
[5] Although most commentaries suggest that the deep waters refer to flash floods of troubles or divine judgment, I concur with Prof. Hawkins that they may refer to divine comfort and blessings: https://www.religion-online.org/article/a-howl-of-despair-psalm-42/
[6] Ibid.
[7] http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/?sermon_id=866

Psalm 42 (Listen)

To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah.

42:1   As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    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 say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”
  These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
  how I would go with the throng
    and lead them in procession to the house of God
  with glad shouts and songs of praise,
    a multitude keeping festival.
  Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.
  My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
  from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
  Deep calls to deep
    at the roar of your waterfalls;
  all your breakers and your waves
    have gone over me.
  By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.
  I say to God, my rock:
    “Why have you forgotten me?
  Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10   As with a deadly wound in my bones,
    my adversaries taunt me,
  while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”
11   Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

(ESV)