Imagine you’re thirteen years old, running “suicides” at the conclusion of basketball practice. As you race up and down the court—from the end line to the foul line, back to the end-line, to the top of the key, back to the end-line, to mid-court, back to the end line, and so on—you glance longingly at the water fountain. You can’t wait to finish running and have a nice long drink of ice cold water. Finally, the coach dismisses you and you race your teammates to the water fountain, only to find that it’s broken. Denied!
Fortunately, on the way home you stop at a 7-11 store for something that always makes everything better: a Slurpee. Because it’s the middle of January (and the early 1980’s ☺) small Slurpees are on sale for ten cents. You and your friend each get five small Slurpees of various flavors, one for each of the four slots in the drink tray and a fifth wedged in the middle for good measure. As you ride home you and your friend laugh while sipping from five straws simultaneously as you drink from all five Slurpees at the same time. Aside from the wicked case of “brain freeze,” it is one of the highlights of your entire middle school experience.
Today I’m preaching from Psalm 63, a psalm that speaks about being thirsty—not thirsty from running suicides at a middle school basketball practice—but thirsty from being in the wilderness.
Psalm 63 is attributed to one of the leading characters of the Old Testament, someone who found himself in the wilderness repeatedly during his life, David. David wrote Psalm 63 while he was in the wilderness of Judea. As a boy David lived in the wilderness as a shepherd. As a young man he wandered the wilderness as part of an army, fighting the Philistines and other enemies of Israel. Many years later as the king of Israel David found himself in the wilderness yet again as he fled from his son Absalom, who was leading an insurrection against his own father.
As you know, finding yourself in the wilderness is not a one-and-done event in your life. In the same way David found himself in the wilderness again and again in different seasons in his life, people often find themselves in the wilderness either internally or externally… again and again.
In the brilliant (and controversial) 1967 film, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, an accomplished but disillusioned college graduate who has moved back in with his parents. He is in a wilderness season, with no direction for his life. After several weeks his father finds him floating on a raft in their pool, and utterly exasperated, he asks,
“Ben, what are you doing?”
“Well, I would say that I’m just drifting… here…in the pool.”
“Well, it’s very comfortable, just to drift here.”
“Would you mind telling me, then, what were those four years of college for? What was the point of all that hard work?”
Ben thinks for a moment and replies, “You got me.”
Such wilderness seasons are common to all of us, seasons where we have no sense of what is happening or supposed to be happening, seasons when it seems we are simply drifting. Sometimes we may wonder what the point of such wilderness seasons are. Occasionally with 20/20 hindsight we may be able to see how God worked in our lives in the midst of such wilderness seasons, but often in the midst of such seasons, if we’re honest, when it comes to understanding what’s going on, we may echo Benjamin Braddock: “You got me.”
Even people who externally appear to more or less have it all together, internally may feel lost and full of doubt. In a recent essay in The New York Times Phillip Lopate describes this:
“Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side. Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself. My mind is filled with ‘yes, buts,’ ‘so whats?’ and other skeptical rejoinders. I am forever monitoring myself for traces of folly, insensitivity, arrogance, false humility, cruelty, stupidity, immaturity and, guess what, I keep finding examples” (2/17/13).
And wilderness seasons can make you thirsty… really, really, really thirsty.
Several summers ago I went backpacking solo for a several days on the Appalachian Trail. I woke up on the third morning out and realized that I had mismanaged my water supply. According to my guidebook I had about eleven miles until I came to the next water source on the trail, and all I had on this scorching August morning was a swallow or two of water. I had not planned properly, nobody’s fault but mine. As I trudged the last several miles to the brook I thought I’d never get there, and the only thing I could think of—especially when I tried not to—was how thirsty I was. The only thing that mattered to me in that moment was quenching my thirst.
When I finally arrived at the brook I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I drank and drank, filled up my water bottles, washed up, and just hung out in the water for awhile. It was the highlight of my trip.
But as intense as that thirst was for me, it pales in comparison to the long term internal thirst people experience while in wilderness seasons in their lives. Perhaps some of you here today may be in a wilderness season, with an internal thirst for something that is so intense you cannot even articulate it. Shakespeare, who could articulate anything, describes this in his play, King John:
“There’s nothing in this world can make me joy:
Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man;
And bitter shame hath spoil’d the sweet world’s taste,
That it yields not but shame and bitterness” (III, iv, 107-111).
As was the case with David, wilderness seasons of one kind or another recur throughout one’s life.
College students, once inspired by their classes and new friends, may find themselves in a wilderness season, doubting their choice of major or perhaps bearing emotionally scars from being burned by the hook-up culture, beautiful and bright on the outside, broken and hurting on the inside.
A married couple, once madly in love, may find themselves in a wilderness season, their relationship formerly marked by passion, care, and laughter now marked by boredom, indifference, and resentment.
Parents once thrilled with having kids, may find themselves in a wilderness season, facing challenges they never anticipated, as articulated by a stressed out George Bailey in the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”
Successful executives, once invigorated by their career progress, may find themselves in a wilderness season, feeling like a cog in the corporate machine, or seeing the front door of their “dream house” as a prison door.
Elderly people may find themselves in a wilderness season—feeling isolated as relationships with their grown children become strained.
These wilderness seasons tend to recur in various ways throughout our lives… and that is exactly where Psalm 63 meets us, right in the midst of such wilderness seasons.
David begins Psalm 63 this way: “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”
“My soul thirsts for you…as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”
Have you ever felt like that?
Sometimes you can be in a land that is neither barren nor dry and still be thirsty, as with the Greek mythological character Tantalus, who was thirsty and hungry, and condemned to stand in a fresh pool of water beneath a fruit tree—whenever he would reach up to eat, the branches would elude him and whenever he would stoop down to drink, the water would recede. Sometimes what we think we need the most to quench the real thirst in our lives seems just out of reach.
So David turns to God—“Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory,” and he continues, “For your loving-kindness is better than life itself.”
David, who experienced the highs of defeating Goliath and leading many military victories, and who enjoyed numerous privileges and immeasurable wealth as the King of Israel, also experienced recurring wilderness seasons throughout his life.
And David turns to God—to the power, glory, and loving-kindness of God.
Scripture is clear that both the power of God and the glory of God are expressed most fully in his mercy. The collects in The Book of Common Prayer accurately reflect this as we pray to God who declares his power “chiefly in showing mercy” and whose glory is “always to have mercy” (Collect for Proper 21, BCP 234 and Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, BCP 218).
And the Hebrew word translated as “loving-kindness” is hesed, which is often translated as “grace,” the unchanging love and compassion of God for you, regardless of the wilderness seasons of your life.
In 1962 a twenty-one year old songwriter stood up at a coffee house in Greenwich Village, tore out some pieces of paper out of a spiral notebook, and proceeded to sing the lyrics on those pages. No one spoke as a young Bob Dylan sang his epic song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The final verse goes like this:
And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
What’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out before the rain starts a fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
And I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
(from the 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan).
Indeed our lives are full of wilderness seasons—external and internal—where there is no water. Maybe that describes you today.
In Scripture Jesus says this: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me” (John 7:37).
You see, ultimately Psalm 63 points us to Jesus and his death on the cross, because the power of God, the glory of God, and the loving-kindness of God all converge at the cross.
On the cross Jesus found himself in a barren land where there was no water.
On the cross Jesus bore all the “shame and bitterness” of this tedious world at the hands of executioners whose faces were not well hidden, on the mountain of Calvary so all souls could see it.
On the cross Jesus gave his very life itself so that you could experience the loving-kindness of God that is better than life itself.
On the cross Jesus gasped, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28), and a moment later he died.
In Jesus’ death on the cross, the rain of God’s loving-kindness fell—and the good news of the gospel is that this rain is still falling.
And even though like David, you and I will continue to experience wilderness seasons in our lives, that will never alter one iota the loving-kindness of God toward you.
Moreover, in heaven there will be no more wilderness seasons, as John writes in Revelation: “They will… thirst no more…for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life” (7:16-17).
- Psalm 63:1 - 3