It’s so good to see you all! I hope you had blessed Thanksgiving, and all online worshiping with us! We’re going to be in Psalm 42 in a moment. If you’ll turn there, Psalm 42. But I want to give you a little heads up as to where we’re heading over the next few weeks. Next week we begin a very unusual Christmas series entitled “The Heresy and Majesty of Christmas.” I’ve never known anyone to do a Christmas series like this, and probably for good reason. We’re going to encounter people like Arius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches. These are not elves. These are heretics. But these heretics and the heresies they represent, point us toward the most mind-boggling miracle in the Bible. That’s a strong statement, but it’s a true statement. The incarnation of Jesus Christ. God became man.
This is also the greatest controversy in church history. For hundreds of years the church fathers wrestled with, what does it mean that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us? In order to understand what it means, you have to wrestle with what it doesn’t mean; hence, the name — The Heresies and Majesty of Christmas. And so, as we end a year gazing on Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we have the privilege over the next four weeks leading up and surrounding Christmas to continue gazing on the One who was, is
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.”
Let’s pray. Father, we are eager to plunge into this study, even though it’s an unusual study for Christmas, because we’re asking that you would continue to renew our minds. And even do that regarding this nationally recognized holiday, which is often misunderstood and perverted. For your people, Lord, renew our thinking. Refresh our minds and hearts with who you really are: Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. And we pray that the same work of the Spirit would occur this morning as you have brought each of us here for a reason. Speak to us now. Teach us to praise defiantly. In Jesus’ name, amen.
When trouble comes, it tends to feel … especially when it comes in waves … it tends to feel permanent. Abraham Lincoln knew that feeling. In a harsh winter in 1840, he thought he was drowning. Doris Goodwin in her classic book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, gives some of these reasons. One is that Illinois was in a massive recession. He was part of the legislature, and Lincoln was taking much of the blame. Also, he had recently broken off his engagement to Mary Todd, the woman he would later marry. But at the time, he was convinced he couldn’t support or satisfy a wife, and he was tormented by the sadness and the humiliation he had caused her. He began to question his ability to do anything. He said at the time,
“I cannot trust myself in any matter of much importance.”
He became bedridden yet couldn’t sleep. His best friend, Joshua Speed, had recently lost his father and felt compelled to return home to care for his widowed mother, and Lincoln interpreted this as simply another blow. He said to Joshua,
“How miserably things seem to be arranged in this world. If we have no friends, we have no pleasure. And if we have them, we are sure to lose them and be doubly pained by the loss.”
At the time, Lincoln wrote to his law partner words that embody or practically define depression.
“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me …. I can write no more.”
Lincoln’s experience, although varying in degrees, is a universal experience. Dark times tend to feel like permanent times. And because of this, God has been so kind to give us prayers to pray and songs to sing when we feel like we have no prayer or no song. I know Psalm 42 is not a typical Thanksgiving psalm. But this year has not been a typical year.
A couple weeks ago, our staff set aside a couple hours to pray through Scripture. And Psalm 42 was one of those psalms, and I just got stuck in this psalm and gripped by this psalm. And one of the things that was most compelling to me was what the psalmist does in the dark times of despair. He does three things in this psalm. We cannot miss them: thirsting, remembering, talking. Let’s look at those one at a time. And they build on each other and culminate in what we’re calling “defiant praise.”
So first, he is thirsting for God. Verse 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.”
Not the god of my imagination, not the god of my culture, not the god I heard about or read about. The living God … “When shall I come and appear before God?” That phrase “appeared before God” could be translated, “When can I come face to face with God?”
“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’”
So, physically he is hungry but cannot eat. His appetite for food is gone. His tears are his meals. He’s tired but cannot sleep. Socially, he’s humiliated. He’s viewed as abandoned by God, maybe even delusional. Where is your God, this God you claim to trust in? This God who promises to bless you? Sure doesn’t look like blessing right now. And for Christians, discouragement and depression can feel like a one-two punch. We feel bad, and we feel bad for feeling bad. How can I feel so bad if I believe in a God who claims to be so good? So, in this psalm, the skeptics aren’t the only ones asking the questions.
I’ll put up on the screen the questions in this psalm: When am I going to see God’s face? Where is God? Why, soul, are you cast down? Why are you in turmoil within me? Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go on mourning? The psalmist is questioning everything, but don’t miss the fact that the questions go to God. He is thirsting, longing for God — number one.
Number two, he is remembering. And he remembers in a couple of ways. First, he remembers experiences of joyful praise. Look at verse 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.” He can’t see light in the future, but he can remember the presence of God among the people of God and the joy they experienced. Never forget that when we gather for public worship with lots of people who are in lots of different places spiritually, that when we pray and we sing and we grieve, we are not doing this just for ourselves. We have no idea of the people on our row who might not have a song today, might not even know how to speak words of prayer. But these songs that are sung and these prayers that are prayed … and I know I’ve experienced this … this is perhaps why God calls the weakest of us to the ministry because I’m here for multiple services experiencing waves of truth coming over me, sung by you, prayed by you, that nourish, refresh my soul. So, David, or the psalmist here, is in a place where right now singing does not feel natural. It’s not erupting from his heart. Giving up feels natural, and yet he remembers the times where he gathered, heard joyful praise. And the memories, the echoes of that praise, ministered to him long after those songs were sung.
Secondly, he remembers not only the joyful praise, but experiences of deep darkness. Look at verse 6.
“My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.”
It’s hard to tell what these locations represent. Mount Hermon is far north, on the far extreme of Israel, near the headwaters of the Jordan. Mount Mizar may be one of the mini mountains around Mount Hermon. No one knows for sure. But perhaps the psalmist is referring to this geographical distance between Mount Hermon and the temple, which represented the presence of God among the people of God, as a picture of the distance between God’s presence and his soul as it feels to him in the moment. The images in verse 7 are vivid. Look at verse 7,
“Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”
Now back then, the deep represented chaos, disorder, dark forces, unmanageable circumstances. And the irony is striking here. Notice in verse 1… He’s panting for what? Yeah, flowing streams. Could I have a cup of water? And in verse 7, though, he’s drowning. Doesn’t it feel like God does that sometimes? I need a cup of water …. Niagara. And he’s drowning under the waterfalls and the breakers and the waves, everything feeling out of control. But notice the remembering that he’s doing here is not mere nostalgia. For example, in verse 4, he remembers the joyful praise in the house of God. And here in verse 6, “you from the land of Jordan.” He’s referring to God. And in verse 7, even the waterfalls and the breakers and the waves are described as “your waterfalls, your breakers, your waves.” So, many of us try to protect God by distancing him from our troubles. The psalmist doesn’t do that. Brings him right in. These are your waterfalls, your breakers, your waves. He is remembering God’s sovereign presence, not just in the joyful praise, but in the deep darkness. And what he does next is key because he’s thirsting, longing for God. He’s remembering both the happy and the hard.
And then number three, he is talking. He is talking to himself. He is preaching to himself. What he does here is completely unexpected, and he does it first, in a subtle way, and then in a very direct way. Verse 8, he sings to himself of God’s love. Verse 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.”
So, verse 7, he’s drowning under waves of troubles. Verse 8, he’s singing and praying of God’s sovereign, steadfast love. “His song is with me.” That’s an interesting way to say it, because that would include both times where he might be singing that song and times where he can’t sing that song, but the song is still “with me, being sung over me, around me, in me.” When? Day and night. Verse 3, My tears are day and night; therefore, verse 8, my songs need to be day and night. His songs are sufficient for my tears. And the key here is that, notice the relationship between verse 7 and 8, when “deep calls to deep.” There are many ways we can look at that, but when the chaos within me mirrors the chaos around me and I feel like I’m drowning and everything inside of me wants to be able to put my feet back on any kind of ground that feels solid … but if I never go deep, I will never experience the depth of his steadfast love. Notice the psalmist is seeing and singing his steadfast love in the depths.
When I was praying over this passage, Psalm 139:12 kept coming to my mind. There the psalmist says, “The darkness is not dark to you.” And it’s as if the psalmist here is saying something similar. The deep is not deep to you. The deeper I go in my insecurity, weakness, and despair, the more clearly I see the depths of your steadfast love. As Paul said in Romans 8,
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
How deep the Father’s love for us!
But then finally, he speaks to himself about hoping in God, praising God. Verse 5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” The word turmoil in Hebrew “hamah,” it means “uproar” or “disturbance,” “being disturbed.” Psalm 46 uses this word when it translates the waters “roaring” or the nations “raging.” Psalm 59:6, dogs “howling.” Isaiah 59:11, bears “growling.”
William Styron describes depression as “a veritable howling tempest in the brain.” So, what do you do when your soul is disturbed, when you have a howl in your soul? And here the psalmist is training us to be soul whisperers. Or shouters. Look how the psalm ends. Verse 11 is the same as verse 5:
“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.”
Now don’t miss the fact that there’s no bow on this psalm. The psalmist is still in a deep, dark place. Everything isn’t resolved. It’s not a happy ending yet. He’s still in crisis, but he is refusing to be a child tossed to and fro by the wind and the waves. He is quite active in his response. He is doing what, as we’ve talked about many times over the years, what Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his classic book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure, describes. In the first chapter of that book, he writes about Psalm 42 and about what the psalmist is doing in verse 5 and verse 11. Listen to what he says.
“He is talking to himself, he is addressing himself …. I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us! Do you realize what that means? I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now, this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down O my soul?’ he asks. His soul has been depressing him, crushing him. So, he stands up and says, ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.’”
Does that sound crazy to you? I’m telling you it will keep you from going crazy. Do you see the defiance there? Do you see the faith-fueled stubbornness? “Right now, I don’t feel like praising. As a matter of fact, sometimes I feel like cussing. But soul, that feeling is not the final word. That feeling is not even the truth. You listen to me, soul.” You see what the psalmist is doing — talking to himself, taking himself by the chin and saying very stubbornly, “I shall again praise him, whether I feel like it right now or not, whether it feels natural and automatic or not.” Many days we come in here to worship, right? And you just stand there, and it feels fake. What do you do? “I’m not going to fake it. I’m just going to stand here.” Or you can learn how to talk to yourself, that your feelings and your momentary experiences are not going to define you. “Self, let me tell you what we’re going to do today. First, we’re going to repent of our apathy. And then secondly, I shall praise again.” And notice the repetition. Don’t miss that. Verse 5 is repeated in verse 11, and if you keep going to Psalm 43 … which some people say they should continue into one another … Psalm 43 ends with the exact same words. Why? Because God understands our neuroplasticity far more than we do. You don’t change the ruts in your brain and your heart overnight. It happens from repetitive talking to yourself. What is really true? Not lies that we have grown too comfortable with.
At the end of your notes, you’ll notice an opportunity for us to practice. As we look back on this year, there are many opportunities for us to empathize with the psalmist here. This year, at times, I have felt like I was drowning. Waterfalls, breakers, waves of what? And I would encourage you to take a pen, and right now, I you can’t do it completely and beautifully like you’d like to write out, but just start writing out some thoughts. What are the first thoughts that come to your mind? Some of you know right away. “Yeah, I feel like I’ve been drowning in loneliness … or uncertainty. Just never know when the next wave is going to hit. Anxiety. Fear. Lust that has thrown me into a cycle of hopelessness. Can I ever be free? Skepticism. Doubt.”
And these waves, even our own response to the troubles, can feel like waves that we are drowning in. For example, many of our struggles carpool. Anger, almost always, if unresolved, carpools with depression. Unresolved anger will lead to despair and depression. So, as you take a moment right now and think, “Okay, what is it? When I think of what would I tend, apart from the grace of God, to drown in this year?” I know you can’t write everything. Some of you are like, “I need a lot more room.” But what are some first thoughts that come to your mind? Take a moment right now and write it out or just pray it through. Do the same thing at home if you’re watching … not if you’re driving. “This year, at times, I have felt like I was drowning in ______.”
And then, “Although I may still be in a place of longing, I am following the example of the psalmist: defiantly choosing to hope in God and praise him because ________.” And what are some promises he’s made to you? What are some miracles he’s worked in your life to bring you to where you are that you’re remembering back? What is that … How has he stimulated your thirst for him? This year you’ve sucked down a lot of salt water, and you’ve realized it does not satisfy, and all of that is pointing you to the One, the only One who truly satisfies. So, “I am defiantly choosing to hope in God and praise him because ________.” So, keep working on that as we pray.
Father, you know, a little longing feels like life to us. It is life, like when we’re outside on a cold day and we come in to a warm coffee or hot chocolate. That longing leads to a quick resolution, and it just feels like life! But while a little longing is life, a long longing feels like death. We begin to question everything, and we become like Lincoln, where we feel like we cannot even trust ourselves in any matter of much importance. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why you’re leading us out of the shallows into the deep — to drown our self-dependence in the depths of your steadfast love, that the waterfalls and the breakers and the waves that feel like they were sent to drown us are saving us from ourselves. The deep is not deep to you. And you’re stimulating a longing within us for you because no depth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So, Spirit of God, we’re begging you to move mightily on us. Many of us are in a vulnerable place. Wave after wave can weaken our resolve, and we feel like our snorkel is not long enough. Our feet are tired, our arms are giving up. And yet you have brought us here together today to increase our thirst, to teach us to remember, and to train us to talk to ourselves and not just float along listening to ourselves. “I shall again praise you.” May this be life to many today. In Jesus’s name, amen.