The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 22, 2023
Years ago, the United States launched into outer space several exploration vehicles. Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 contained an album, made of gold, on which music and the sound of a human heartbeat had been recorded. The US was sending a message from humanity to anyone out there who might be listening.
NASA director Annie Druyan insisted that one piece of music be included in the playlist: the Cavatina Movement from Beethoven’s Opus 130. Why? She says, “When I [first] heard [it]…I thought: ‘Beethoven, how can I ever repay you? What could I ever do for you that would do justice to what you’ve just given me?’ So [as part of a record meant to last a billion years], I chose…this great, beautiful, sad piece of music on whose score Beethoven had written but one word: ‘longing’.”
NASA sent out into the galaxies the message that human beings are creatures who long, who ache, who yearn for something more than what they need just to survive.
The Bible says that what we ultimately long for is a relationship with God, for there is a God-shaped vacuum at the core of each soul that God alone can fill. This longing is fundamental to who we are, and it cannot be erased though we often try to suppress it. But it won’t go away. If we deny it’s there, it will latch on to something other than God, a fellow mere creature made by God that can’t do what God can and will break under the heavy burden of carrying our hunger for God.
We may think that financial success, a large number of Internet followers, or a lot of pleasure and fun can satisfy our deepest hunger. While such things are fine as far as they go – so fine in fact that they can for a while sustain the illusion that they’ll suffice – they will, if we have them long enough, eventually leave us unsatisfied, discontent and restless, and wondering, “Is that all there is? Have I climbed the ladder of my ambition only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall?” Maybe our greatest fear should be, not of failing, but of succeeding at something that doesn’t really matter in the end.
C.S. Lewis was puzzled by Jesus’ word that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God before those on top of the world until he realized that prostitutes are in no danger of finding their life so satisfying that they never feel any longing for God – while the rich, the powerful, the popular and the ethically advanced face that danger every day.
But once the God who is infinitely great and infinitely good comes to be to us all He is, He becomes for us all we need in order to be content, fulfilled, at peace, hopeful and grateful even should our life grow empty of what we used to value most.
David wrote today’s Psalm when his life had grown empty like that. The Bible says here he wrote it “when he was in the Wilderness of Judah”. Scholars don’t know whether that refers to the time before he was king and had to flee into the desert to evade King Saul’s assassins, or to the time well after he’d been Israel’s king and had to run for his life from Absalom, his third son, who’d murdered David’s first son Amnon, led a rebellion against his father, took the throne himself, and with murder on his mind chased David into the desert. Either way, David wrote this psalm in one of the worst seasons of his life, one emptied of so much that makes for happiness: safety, security, stability, serenity and family harmony.
How remarkable that a psalm David writes while suffering incredible loss, starts, not with a plea for the recovery of what he’s lost, but with a rejoicing over the relation with God he’s never lost. The first thing out of David’s mouth here is a glad exclamation: “O God, you are my God.” Despite all his deprivation, David exults in his being God’s and in God’s being his – in an interactive, person-to-Person relationship so exhilarating that David aches with longing for contact with God even more than for relief from his dire straits. David prays to 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.” And, remembering his old life back in Jerusalem, when in the sanctuary he’d look upon God and behold God’s power and glory, David exuberantly prays, “Your steadfast love is better than life!” – as if he values his life chiefly for its enabling him to know and enjoy God!
At a moment when he has lost his home, his country and his throne, David is elated just in having God. So, the text says, he “praises” God, “blesses” God, “lifts up his hands” in worship of God and “calls on God’s name”.
David’s resumption of delighting in God’s steadfast love transforms the mood of his soul. He, who in verse 1 is “fainting” in hunger for God, has encountered God once more and now sings in verse 5 singing: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast!” David relishes God’s companionship, savors God’s goodness, eats his fill at God’s table of grace.
And how does David maintain that nurturing, nourishing connection with God? He says in verses 5-8 that his mouth praises God with joyful lips, he thinks of God all the time even in bed, he gratefully recalls how God has been his help in the past, and he clings to the God whose right hand upholds him.
Notice here how David’s soul satisfaction is sustained more by what God does than by what David does. Though David may cling to God, God upholds him and holds him close.
Think of a small child crossing a freshly plowed field with his hand in his father’s. The uneven ground threatens to make the little guy lose his balance and fall. So he plaintively cries out, “Daddy, my hand’s slipping out of yours and I’m going to trip!” “Don’t worry, son,” his father replies with a warm smile. “Just reach up for my hand, and I will hold tight enough for the both of us – and you will make it without harm.”
David was, even in scary times, able to cling to God, and to his soul’s satisfaction in God, only because God upheld him in the firmness of the grip of God’s own strong right hand.
As our lives seem to be increasingly emptied of safety, security, stability, serenity and harmony, may we do our little part by reaching up for God’s hand – that God might uphold us and take us to His feast of grace: a feast that will satisfy our deepest longing even should our life grow empty of what we once deemed essential. For God’s steadfast love is better than life!