Isaiah called out to the exiles living in Babylon:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. (Is. 55:1)
Are you thirsty? Are you hungry? Then come and drink and eat, freely, for the gift of God is one of grace, and it alone will satisfy.
As we continue our Lenten journey, the word we hear from the Psalmist echoes the words of Isaiah. This Psalm is said to come from David as he was in the wilderness of Judah. Both Isaiah and David speak of hunger and thirst. The question then becomes, for what do you hunger and thirst? Is it physical or is it spiritual? The fact is we will experience both forms in the course of lives. Both are real and both seek satisfaction. And in way or another, God is the source of that satisfaction.
This morning as we ponder the words of the Psalm, we are invited to consider what it means to be truly thirsty. As we consider what this means, the words of Jesus, which we will hear on Good Friday, speak to us. While hanging on the cross, with death being imminent, Jesus cries out: “I Thirst” (John 19:28-29). That thirst Jesus experienced was both physical and spiritual. The ordeal that had taken place since he gathered with his disciples for his last supper, would have led to dehydration. So the physical thirst was real and unbearable, but so was the spiritual thirst. It is Mark and not John who records Jesus crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” But, those words speak to the spiritual thirst that Jesus was experiencing at that moment (Mk. 15:34-35).
The paradox of Good Friday is that the one who offered the Samaritan woman living water, water that would quench one’s thirst forever, was now in need of refreshment (Jn 4:7-15). His soul thirsts for God, as he suffers on the cross, feeling abandoned by God and humanity.
We’re not quite at Good Friday, but Jesus’ own thirst takes us back to the desert, where David is crying out: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you.” It is said that David wrote Psalm 63 while fleeing into the desert, because his son Absalom was seeking to seize David’s throne. David had no place to go except for the desert, and the Judean desert is a hot, dry, barren, and foreboding place. No wonder he is thirsty, and yet he expresses faith in God whose “steadfast love is better than life.”
If you’ve been in the desert, you can sympathize with David. You don’t have to go to Israel to experience what David experienced. When Brett and I traveled to California this past summer, we drove through several deserts, including the Mojave Desert. We made it across the desert without incident, but I was reminded of what a dry and weary land might look like. I even have pictures. If this is David’s song, then he would have experienced physical thirst.
The Psalm as we have it before us, offers us a strong word of assurance and comfort. It embraces God’s steadfast love. It leads to praise of God. Of course, there is another side to the story. The lectionary omits the final three verses of the Psalm, which remind us David was fleeing for his life. We hear him praying that his opponents, which would include his own son, would face the power of the sword and be prey for the jackals. It ends with the words “But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped.” I understand why the creators of the lectionary omitted them, but they do reflect how we sometimes feel when we face opposition in life. We want to see our enemies suffer. It’s understandable why David would think this way.
I mention the omitted words for your consideration, but I will stick for now with the Psalmist’s expression of trust and hope in God, even in the midst of difficulties. As the Psalmist declares: “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”
If we return to the opening words of the Psalm, we hear words that fit well with the season of Lent. The Psalmist calls out: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you.” Then, Isaiah responds with the invitation to “everyone who thirsts” that they would “come to the waters.” Come to the waters and be satisfied.
When it comes to spiritual thirst, are we not like the deer mentioned in our opening song. The song is based on the opening lines of Psalm 42. With this song we make melody before the Lord, singing: “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after You. You alone are my hearts desire, and I long to worship you.”
So what is it that our souls long for? What is the nature of our thirst? St. Augustine suggests that we all thirst for something. He calls this the “thirst of the soul.” This “thirst of the soul” is deeply embedded in our very being. Apparently, there is something built into us that seeks satisfaction.
Here is what Augustine wrote about this thirst of the soul in his Exposition on the Psalms:
And see ye what longings there are in the hearts of men: one longeth for gold, another longeth for silver, another longeth for possessions, another inheritance, another abundance of money, another many herds, another a wife, another honours, another sons. Ye see those longings, how they are in the hearts of men. All men are inflamed with longing, and scarce is found one to say, “My soul hath thirsted for Thee.” For men thirst for the world: and perceive not themselves to be in the desert of Idumaea, where their souls ought to thirst for God. ... [St. Augustine of Hippo. Expositions on the Book of Psalms: Psalms I – LXXII (p. 485). ]
Although the language of this translation of Augustine is a bit dated, I think we get the point. We have this thirst, and we try to satisfy it with all kinds of things, but in the end they don’t work. So, will we thirst for God? Or will we keep looking for love in all the wrong places?
Why do we have this thirst? Augustine offers another answer in his Confessions. In this memoir of his spiritual journey, Augustine addresses God: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” [The Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics) (p. 3). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition].
It is this restlessness, I believe, that accounts for the continuing presence of religion and spirituality in the modern age. Science was supposed to do away with religion, but even in places like China and Russia, which were officially atheist for decades, religion persists. In fact, it’s getting stronger. It persists, I believe, because our souls thirst for God, even if we don’t always look to God to satisfy that thirst.
In this Psalm, David follows his thirst into the sanctuary of God, where he beholds God’s power and glory. Because of God’s steadfast love, which is better than life, David gives praise to God. So, if we respond to the invitation of God, we can join David in the sanctuary declaring: “I will bless you as long as I live” and I’ll “lift up my hands and call on your name.”
In other words, our thirst for God leads us into worship. As we worship God, we discover our source of hope. Then we can declare with open hearts: “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” So, once again, we have the opportunity to share in a song of assurance.
Amanda Benkhuysen helps us get a handle on what this Psalm is designed to do:
Psalm 63 functions as a counter-liturgy to the liturgy of consumer capitalism, schooling our hearts in the things of God so that what we long for, what we seek, what we desire is not more of the world, but more of God. While the whole book of Psalms is meant to disciple us in an alternative set of values, expectations, and practices that reflect God’s heart for the world, this psalm is the most explicit about directing our desire away from the things of the world and toward the things of God. [Working Preacher]
We all have this thirst, this restlessness in our souls. The question is, where will we turn to satisfy this thirst? Will we find ourselves among those whom Augustine says “thirst for the world: and perceive not themselves to be in the desert of Idumaea, where their souls ought to thirst for God?” Or will we answer the call issued by Isaiah? “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Is. 55:1). Will we say yes to Jesus’ offer of living water, so that we might not thirst again?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 24, 2019