Exactly twenty years ago, a writer called William Langewiesche, who writes for Vanity Fair, but more especially writes books and novels, wrote Sahara Unveiled. In recounts as one of the many stories of life in the Sahara, the story of a man called Lag Lag, from Algeria. Evidently Lag Lag had friends visiting when they became isolated because of a windstorm, and they were nowhere near an oasis. Caught in this storm, they experienced the most incredible thirst. It was so bad that Lag Lag goes through in considerable detail to the writer, Langewiesche, exactly what thirst can do.
On one level, there is a word that is used to describe a thirst for water: dipsogenic. When you are dipsogenic you simply want to have a drink. The next phase: eudipsia is normal thirst, where you are thirsty, you go to the fridge, you pull out a drink – and there it is! But then comes: hyperdipsia, a much more intense but transient, coming and going thirst. You know you need it. It is sort of like sitting on a beach for an hour and realizing that you are getting dehydrated, or going for a long walk and your mouth turns dry. Then there is polydipsia, where you are so thirsty you will drink anything.
They were suffering from hyperdipsia. As the days rolled on, it became polydipsia. So much so – and this is really frightening – that they began to drink the fluid out of the radiator of their truck. That is how bad it was! Their thirst was so intense that they were drinking something that they knew could kill them, but they simply couldn’t resist. When you are in the desert and you experience that kind of thirst you will drink anything!
In many ways, I think the writer of today’s psalm is feeling the same thing. Whatever the level is, it is hard to tell, but clearly he was thirsty. He says, “As a deer longs for a flowing stream, so my soul longs for you, O God! My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Here is a man who is dry and barren. Here is a man whose thirst has overwhelmed him and taken him over, and he is turning to God. You notice the thirst that he is describing is not a physical thirst. He is not in the desert, Sinai, or the Negev, but he is thirsty. But what is thirsty is his soul, his spirit. It has become dry. It has become hardened, and he wants the living waters of God. It is understandable. This Psalm is called “a psalm of korah and the sons of korah.” The sons of korah were really Levitical priests, who would write hymns and psalms on behalf of the people of God. Clearly, he writes in the first person – I and my – but whoever wrote this is writing not on behalf of himself; he is writing on behalf of the people. It is very well known in Jewish circles that this particular hymn, this particular psalm, was sung in the Temple by the people. While it might be “My soul thirsts....” what they are really singing is “Our souls thirst...” They are craving something.
They are craving because they have been living in exile. They have been forced out of their country, and are living in another land. They are not allowed to go back to their own temple. They are not allowed to worship as they normally would, so this is a song of. They don’t take it for granted. They know how important it is. This is a cry from the heart: “as the deer pants for the stream, so O God, my soul thirsts, our soul thirsts for your living water.” The psalmist was also concerned because he knew that if this thirst was not quenched, then they might turn to other things. The people might drink from what I would call this morning the “poisoned chalice” of self-sufficiency. In other words, they would forget about God completely, and they would drink whatever it is that comes along that helps their souls.
I love the phrase “poisoned chalice”. It comes, as one might expect from William Shakespeare. In Act 1, Scene 7, of MacBeth, MacBeth speaks these words: “We still have judgement here, but that we teach bloody instructions, which being taught, return to plague the inventor! This even handed justice commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice to our lips.” In other words, a “poisoned chalice” is something that you drink even though you know it is bad for you, even though you know that it can damage you, just like rusty water from a radiator in the Sahara. Yet somehow, when you are this thirsty, you will do this. The psalmist, on behalf of the whole community of faith, is feeling the anxiety of thirst. By the way, the soul is not a part of our body located somewhere in here or up there, but rather our soul is our entire being. Our soul thirsts for something. It is made all the worse, because there are people who torment the people of God. They say, “Where is your God? You are living in exile and you don’t have worship. Come on, where is your God?” Three times in this Psalm they are taunted: “Where is your God? Your God doesn’t do anything for you!” Even the psalmist, at one point on behalf of the people, suggests, “Yes, we wonder ‘Where is our God?’”
Psalm 42 is a desperate cry from the very bottom of their souls. Their thirst is overwhelming and made all the worse, because they are victims of violence, with enemies all around them. There is the beautiful phrase: “Even your bones and your joints hurt from all that has happened to you!” This is a cry from the heart. This is the soul of the people who desperately thirst.
Martin Lloyd-Jones, who I think wrote the greatest book was ever written on Psalm 42 called this, “the depression of the Spirit”. He said, “When our spirits become depressed, we start to ask questions of ourselves, we start to ask questions of God, we wonder where there is any justice or truth in the world, and our depression takes hold.” When our spiritual depression – it is not clinical depression here, this is spiritual depression – they have lost their hope, they have lost any sense that God is going to do anything for them, and they are downcast. The great danger for the psalmist is that the people, if they do not turn to God in the midst of all of this, will turn to a “poisoned chalice.” I think that in every generation there is a poisoned chalice. It might make you feel good for a while and it might give you a sense of comfort for a while, but it will never quench your thirst.
I think right now we are seeing the poisoned chalice in a very thirsty age. We are seeing it, are we not with the politics of division and hatred, scapegoating and finger-pointing? It seems wherever you turn right now there are accounts of groups and communities set against each other. Be it sexual orientation versus religion, leaving the European Union or staying in the European Union, right or left, particularly in American politics, pro-gun or anti-gun. What is happening in our world right now, and it is a sign of a soul sickness, is that we are willing to drink from the poisoned chalice of hate rather than to turn to the life-giving power of God. Humanity has done this from time immemorial. It seems to be something that we slip into when our souls become thirsty and they are not filled with the righteousness and the joy and the love and the compassion of Almighty God. This is exacerbated when people use violence, when the unstable think they are going to personally solve any division or problem. It becomes all the worse in a world that thinks it can be self-satisfied or self-dependent or self- aggrandized, as if somehow everything simply depends on us.
The great poisoned chalice for the people of Israel was not that they understood that they were like deer, panting for water in the stream, but which stream would they go to? Where would they turn today? The psalmist gives the answer. The hymn says it so beautifully! “By the day,” he says, “the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” Notice the language – “a prayer to the God of my life.” He knows where to turn. He knows that when violence is all around him and they cannot worship, he knows his source. By day and by night he believes he can turn to God in this greatest gift of all, prayer.
I don’t watch movies very much, and suppose most of my movie watching is on airplanes. But I am afforded the opportunity to watch at least a couple of good movies so that I am up to speed on what’s happening in our culture. I remember some years ago watching the movie Despicable Me. I thought it would be very good, because it could be autobiographical really, and I thought it would be fun! Then I realized it was a children’s movie by Pixar or whoever, but what was really embarrassing is that I put the headphones on and was actually laughing out loud during the whole of the movie! The person sitting next to me was most aggrieved – especially when he saw what I was watching! But in this there is a wonderful battle that takes place between Vector and Gru, two very evil characters, doing some despicable things with the help of the minions.
Gru finally wins the day, but there is a moment when the three little girls, and I am talking now to you parents who have probably seen this, others won’t know what I am talking about, but there are three little girls who have been kidnapped, and they are desperate because they have Gru, who is taking care of them, and Vector who has kidnapped them, both of whom are supposed to be evil and they do not know what to do. So what do they do? They get on their knees and they pray! They know that in this desperate situation, torn between the Scylla and Charybdis of evil, that they need prayer. They pray that they will be able to perform their ballet and that Gru is transformed watching these little girls perform their ballet! It is profound, because this is exactly what the psalmist had in mind: in the midst of being torn and pulled apart by the poisoned chalices being offered to the world, the people stopped and they prayed, day and night, to the God who is their life.
It is no coincidence that one of the greatest characters in Christian history, St. Augustine of Hippo, at his own baptism, had Psalm 42 sung. He did because his soul cried out to God, but now in his baptism, his God has found him, and he has found his God. Psalm 42 summed up St. Augustine’s thirst soul. His thirst was quenched by the life-giving water of Jesus. That is what we find in The New Testament. There are moments where I think Psalm 42 is very much on Jesus’ mind. When he is in the Garden of Gethsemane, about to get ready for the Cross and the trial that is before him. He says not my will, but “Thy will be done” as I preached a few Sundays ago. But he also says, “Take this cup” – notice the language – “take this chalice from me.” The “chalice” for him was weakness. The chalice for him was the lack of courage and faith. “Take it from me.” In the end, Jesus drank from the chalice of the living water of his heavenly Father and he was saved.
So too, when we drink from the chalice of good rather than from the chalice of expedience. It might appear at times, that the evil ahead of us and behind us, above below us, takes life and massacres the innocent. When I think of that, I often say like the psalmist, “Where are you? Come on, where are you?” God responds, “Don’t forget, I have been with you. I am with you. I am going through this with you.”
We need to turn to that living water. C. S. Lewis said the Christian faith and living in a faithful world is not about teaching a horse to run faster; it is about attaching to it wings and teaching it to fly. The Christian faith is not just about a little improvement to the world, a little change here; it is about radical trust in Almighty God. Isn’t it interesting that even for people who might have had little or no faith, after a tragedy like this, they turn to a vigil and they pray? They know inside themselves that they thirst for something more. In a world that has often drunk from a poisonous cup, we should be offering the world that living water. If you find yourself this day as one of the people who have felt like the psalmist felt, and that you are thirsty, take on through prayer the stream of living water. For everyone there is hope. Share it with a thirsty world for that is true joy! Amen.