You can see this and previous sermons along with the Sunday’s prayers and music on our Facebook page, Congregational Church of Northridge-UCC
(We had three weeks of outstanding guest preachers. Their manuscripts are not available, but you can view their sermons on our Facebook page)
Longing for God
Psalm 42-43 11-8-20
Sermon Part 1
There’s a strange episode in the Old Testament.
Moses, who was no spring chicken at this point, had climbed the jagged paths up Mount Sinai and then spent blistering hot days and bone-chilling nights with God receiving the Ten Commandments and hundreds of details that would constitute the law.
In all of history, no one had spent time with God like this – and he knew the dangers of the moment.
He’d been warned that the Glory of God is so intense and overwhelming that anyone whose eyes even get a glance of God will instantly die.
So, hour after hour he keeps his head down and listens carefully to the thunderous dictation of God.
He carried the weight of his people on his shoulders – the slaves he’d led out of Egypt who were often impatient and rebellious.
Looking down, he’d see the edges of the huge crowd waiting for him at the foot of the mountain and then wilderness stretching endlessly in all directions.
Behind him was Pharaoh’s brutal army.
Looking forward to the Promised Land … well, he wasn’t even sure which direction that might be.
They were lost.
Then God stops midsentence and announces that the people – God calls them your people – have just done the unspeakable: Growing tired of waiting for Moses and fearful for the future, they had fashioned a golden calf to worship.
A false god that made them at least feel secure.
God was outraged and threatened to withdraw and leave the people stranded in the wilderness because, He said, He was so angry that He’d likely destroy them all.
Moses responded that they are your people that you said you care about … and anyway what would the neighbors think?
What would Pharaoh and the tribes who had followed the exodus think of God if He didn’t lead them to the land he’d promised?
So, Moses says – and I’m speculating a bit here – I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but why don’t you just show Yourself to me and let me in on the big plan You have.
I could be a better leader and frankly I’d feel a whole lot better if I just knew what’s up … where this whole thing is going.
That’s when this strange exchange takes place.
Exodus 33:19-23 And the Lord said, “I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, … But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for no one may see Me and live.”
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near Me where you may stand on a rock. When My Glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”
Moses was granted a look at God’s backside … what did that mean?
Ancient rabbis said that in the original Hebrew language, the word “back” should be understood as a euphemism for “where I just was”.
So, God says “the best you can do … the most you are capable of, is seeing where I just was.”
Even Moses cannot see God fully, but he can see the afterglow of His presence.
That means that God is reassuring Moses by saying, “The part of me you can see is the part that you would see if you were following me.
“I promise to stay on the journey with you, and if you follow you will see my backside.
“Anyway, Moses, following me is the real point.”
After seeing the backside of God, Moses did not look down and see that the wilderness had disappeared.
Warring tribes still lurked out there, the rebellious people still stirred trouble … but staying in God’s path allowed Moses to lead to where God wanted to take things.
People expressed a lot of anxiety to me during conversations we had last week.
The election, the growing pandemic, tensions that had grown at home after months of being on top of one another are all intermingled.
It’s human to want those anxieties to disappear.
We often think that if we just knew what God was going to do with this mess that we’d feel better.
I guess that is a way of feeling some control, but as much as we may want it, that is not ours to have.
That is like wanting ourselves to be God – and just ask Adam and Eve how that worked out for them.
But God does promise to be personal and to guide and love us through whatever wilderness we face.
In his book The Trivialization of God, Donald McCullough shares his experience in Scotland that taught him about true faith.
A few days after his arrival, he attended a concert at Usher Hall and at the end of the performance he walked out into a very rainy night.
“Not to worry,” he thought. “I’ll be back at my room before I’m completely soaked.”
So, with confidence bolstered by complete ignorance, he raced off through dark streets.
The rain fell with increasing conviction, everything became unfamiliar, and fear formed in his stomach and gnawed at his courage.
He needed help, but even muggers and stray cats had quit the night.
As he wandered aimlessly, a man appeared out of the darkness.
Don asked the man, “Sir, can you tell me the way to Pollack Residence Hall?”
“Aye. You need to go three blocks down this street, and then left on Clerk, go for two blocks, and then turn right….”
The man stopped when he saw the confusion in Don’s eyes.
“Ahh.” He said, “I’ll show ya. Follow me.”
Don says that in the moments that followed he had perhaps the purest form of faith he had ever experienced: he entrusted himself totally to this man’s guidance.
He dedicated not a fleeting second of thought to his watery appearance, his fearful panting, his confused speech – or his trust in this stranger.
At the time, his faith was completely unremarkable; his attention was devoted exclusively to his savior, to what he was saying and where he was going.
Our times of anxiety, grief and fear are not over.
But, if we let go of having to know how everything will turn out and instead concentrate on being close and faithful to the Lord, He will lead us through.
The only promise I can make is that things will not turn out as we imagined … but that God will be in the midst of it all, so that even in the midst of wilderness, His Grace – love, comfort and strength – will be there.
Then, as Paul experienced, Philippians 4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Sermon Part 2
From my talks with you I sense how fragile and vulnerable we are feeling.
And we’re not alone.
The one-two punch of our hostile social division and the pandemic has hit us hard.
According to the CDC, in late June 41% of Americans reported significant emotional adversity such as depression, anxiety or increased drug or alcohol use.
Depression was up four-fold from the year before.
And with 90% of voters saying that the future of our nation is at stake in this election, more than three-quarters of Americans (77%) say that politics has become a significant source of stress for them.
At the same time, we have been living amidst all this stress, we have been robbed of what for many of us is our primary source of sanctity, stability, and – well – sanity: our sanctuary and our personal contact and touch with one another.
The author of Psalm 42 also finds himself removed from his worship home feeling isolated and yearning to be at the Temple and with his fellow worshipers.
Psalm 42:1 As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
We don’t know who was the author of Psalms 42 and 43 – which originally were a single psalm.
He may have been a musician who led the worship procession to the Temple, and for reasons we can only speculate about , he now is far away and his heart longs to be gathered at worship again.
Like us, he tried to find God while apart from the Temple, apart from fellow worshipers, but apparently, it had not been easy for him.
Psalm 42:3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
His sense of isolation is so great that he chose the phrase “Where is your God” because it is the haunting taunt of military victors to their defeated captives in the Ancient Near East.
In a polytheistic worldview, a conflict between two rival nations was understood as a conflict between their rival gods – so the defeated soldiers were left wondering if their god was weak or if maybe he’d just abandoned them.
Oh, how the psalmist longed to be surrounded by the singing and reassurance of worship and worshipers.
Three times in Psalm 42-43 the psalmist challenges God, “Why have you forgotten me?”
That question is not a sign of weak faith.
Rather, it is testimony to the depth of hope and encouragement he had experienced before he became isolated from the Temple.
Separated from the Temple, and his life-giving community, the psalmist writes
Psalm 42:4 These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival
But these memories of community and worship also rekindle both his trust and hope in God.
Psalm 42:8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night His song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
God comes to us at different times in different ways.
The psalmist said in Psalm 43:3 Send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
Right now, God continues to send His light and Truth in the midst of the specific needs of this pandemic, but God is every bit as present as when we were in our sanctuary.
God comes to us through our community that is strong even if we must keep physical distance.
I see the prayer requests that come to our Prayer Team that is holding many of you personally in daily prayer.
I know of the phone calls people are making – and sometimes when something isn’t confidential, I get reports back about needing to reach out to someone.
If you aren’t already, join in this effort by calling someone and just checking in with them
And we have this technology, thanks to people like Andrew who make it happen.
Embracing where we are at allows us to be embraced by God.
Thomas Merton wrote,
“We receive enlightenment only in proportion as we give ourselves more and more completely to God by humble submission and love. We do not first see, then act: we act, then see . . . And that is why the person who waits to see clearly, before he will believe, never starts on the journey.”
God is with us throughout our life journey, including right now when we miss Him most.