March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8

“With All Our Hearts”

This morning I want to invite you to think about what you love. Perhaps it is that first cup of coffee in the morning, or your favourite dessert. Maybe it’s that wonderful sports team that you root for, or the movie that you’ve watched again and again because you just can’t get enough of it. Maybe you love your music, or your hobby, or the feeling of satisfaction you get when you have done your work well.

Of course, I am sure that there are some people that you love truly and deeply. Perhaps your spouse, your children, your best friend. You love them so much that your heart aches when you are apart. You love them so much that you are filled with anxiety when they are hurting or in danger.

Today’s psalm gives us an idea of what that kind of love sounds like when it is directed towards God. The psalmist writes: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water… your steadfast love is better than life… My soul clings to you…”

I wonder how many of us got up this morning thinking, “Oh, how I need God today! I can’t wait to jump out of bed and get myself to church so that I can spend time with God, and listen for God, and praise God!”

It’s more likely that most of us just got up and came to worship out of habit, because it’s what we do on Sundays… or out of duty, because we said we’d be here to help with something… or out of commitment, because as Christians we have dedicated ourselves to worshipping and serving God week-by-week throughout our lives.

Is it possible that sometimes we start to take God’s presence and love for us for granted? Like when we start to get so used to the things that a friend does for us so frequently and faithfully that we stop saying “thank you” and just come to expect their help.

Some time ago, I was talking to a Christian friend who had drifted away from church and the practices of faith. He contacted me because he was really struggling with his relationships and other things going on in his life. He needed someone to talk to about his challenges, and I could be that listening ear for him.

But after a while of talking, it became clear that it wasn’t so much a friend that he needed, but it was God. When he reached out to me, he was really reaching out to God for help. And he even put it that way after a while of talking… He said, “Everything is falling apart around me. Everything is going wrong. And I just realized that I really need God!”

I think that’s very much what the author of Psalm 63 was feeling as well. The psalm is attributed to David and he is supposed to have written it when he was in the Judean wilderness. Several possibilities arise. The psalm could have been written when a youthful David ran for his life from King Saul, or decades later when David (as King) fled Jerusalem during his son Absalom’s insurrection, or perhaps it was written at some other time of trouble in David’s life.

In a commentary on the psalm, Robin Gallagher Branch points out that the psalmist needs immediate help and protection. “The psalm juxtaposes his physical need for water with his spiritual thirst for God. Surprisingly, the latter dominates! Although his body wastes from dehydration, his spiritual longing for God takes precedence. Hunted and afraid for his life, the psalmist remembers God’s protection and loving-kindness. He recalls seeing God’s power and glory in the sanctuary, and his soul longs for God.”

Certainly, in those times in our lives when we have turned away from God, tried to manage life on our own, and perhaps encountered troubles and trials, longing for God makes sense. When nothing seems to be going our way, when our loved ones leave us, or our projects fail, or tragedy strikes with serious illness or injury… we long to know that we are loved, that we are valuable, that our lives and futures matter to someone – indeed, that they matter to God, the Maker of the universe and all things.

But what about in the good times, the great times, or even in the ordinary times when life is good, and we are managing fine, or even when we are prospering? I read in one commentary that in the Early Church, Psalm 63 was often sung first in the singing of the Psalms on the Lord’s Day. Perhaps they sang it first because their weeks were filled with struggles, and on Sunday mornings they were truly longing for God like thirsty people searching for water in a desert.

But my guess is that the early Christians, like us, didn’t always FEEL an intense need and desire for God. Rather, by singing Psalm 63, they were acknowledging that nothing else would truly satisfy their spiritual needs, and they were opening themselves up to receive God’s Word, wisdom, and guidance.

When Presbyterians worship, we tend to keep our emotions fairly private. Sometimes there are a few tears shed in church, but most of us don’t want to get carried away with our emotional reactions so we avoid showing our sadness or our joy too obviously. But perhaps some of us have attended a service in a more demonstrative Christian tradition – perhaps a Pentecostal Church or another church that has a tradition of Praise and Worship music.

Sometimes the service begins with a long series of songs, one flowing into the next, with occasional free-flowing prayers expressed by the song leader in between. And some of the worshippers close their eyes, and raise their hands, and they seem to immerse themselves in the longing for God expressed in the very personal songs of praise.

That kind of worship has sometimes caused me to wonder if the worshippers always FEEL that longing for God on Sunday mornings. I have wondered if they are just putting on a show, because it doesn’t seem possible that such emotions could be authentic each and every week.

But I have also come to believe that our love for God needs to be nurtured and cultivated, just as our love for family, friends, or favourite past-times grows over time with our attention and commitment.

Some people say that there is “love at first sight” but I think for most of our relationships we work at it and our love grows. We spend time together, we listen to each other, we get to know and value each other’s gifts and talents… and our love flourishes.

In fact, with most things that we love, at some point we actually DECIDE to love that thing or that person. It’s not just a feeling that comes over us, but an intentional decision to invest ourselves in that activity, in that person, in that relationship. Could the same be true of those enthusiastic worshippers? That they have simply DECIDED to express their love for God in passionate praise, independent of their feelings on a given day?

Because loving God is also a decision that we make. At some point, we need to come to the realization that we really, truly do need God. I may have a house, a car, a great family, a circle of good friends, an education, and a fulfilling career… but the one thing that truly gives my life meaning and purpose, and the thing that guides and directs all those other things in my life, is my relationship with God.

This morning’s passage from Isaiah 55 invites us to return to God, to seek the Lord who is near. The prophet proclaims that God is the one who can satisfy our deepest longings, quenching our thirst and filling our hunger, without cost to us at all. Preaching to the People of Israel who were struggling in exile, the prophet encourages them to open their eyes and realize that their other strategies for fullness of life are not working.

And perhaps we might pause to think about all the other ways that we sometimes try to fulfill our longings as well. We spend our money on accumulating things. We work like crazy to achieve success, or earn respect, or do better than someone else. We try to fill the emptiness of our hearts with food, or entertainment, or sex, or other distractions.

Isaiah asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” And no, he isn’t literally talking about food. He’s talking about the spiritual food that comes from knowing God, and listening to God, and praising God in worship, and serving God in the midst of our lives.

Lindsay Armstrong shares this reflection: Today’s psalm offers a vision of the faithful life as hungering and thirsting for God, ultimately feasting on God’s presence. Centuries later, Jesus similarly advocates big passion for God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.

The example of faith demonstrated in Psalm 63 invites us to measure ourselves not by how well we care for others, our gifts, our responsibilities, but by what goes on in our deepest being.

In a world filled with competition for our affections, allegiance, energy, and love, Psalm 63 challenges the faithful to cultivate gusto for God. The faithful develop our hearts, honing our desires until we find, with St. Augustine, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God].”

Some of us today might be feeling that kind of restlessness. You may be feeling far from God, and you are ready to return – drawing close to God through prayer, worship, reading scripture, or service to God’s purposes. Some of us, though, may not have wandered away from God – at least not in any significant way.

But in the Season of Lent, we are all invited to enter into the wilderness experience. If we give something up – if we engage in a fast from some luxurious food, or from television, or social media, or some other indulgence – may it help us to discover that none of these things truly satisfy us. Only God can fulfill our deepest longings.