Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 28, 2016

Psalm 63:1-8 Commentary

I have always been moved and challenged by Luke’s description of Christ’s decisive turn to the cross in Luke 9:51. “At the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” An older translation put it more graphically; “Jesus set his face to go up to Jerusalem.” I imagine a face set like flint, his jaw jutting forward, his lips compressed with determination, his eyes blazing with laser like intensity. Nothing would deter his march to the cross.

I wish I had that kind of intensity in my Lenten journey. Instead, I waver and wander, sometimes focusing on Christ and his passion, but more often gazing at the passing scenery or glancing at a rabbit hopping across the desert trail in this “dry and weary land where there is no water.” (verse 1) My lack of resolution is the reason I’ve always found Psalms like Psalm 63 so foreign to my experience and thus so intimidating. But rather than avoid Psalm 63 in this Lenten season, we ought to focus on it more carefully because it shows us the way to a more Christ-like pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world on the way to heaven.

I never really appreciated Psalm 63 and others like it until my wife and I were driving down to Louisville a few years ago for a grand daughter’s birthday. We were searching for something on the radio to take our minds off the long trip, when we got much more than we ever expected. It was a conversation on public radio with Winifred Gallagher, who had just written a book entitled, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. The title of the first chapter says it all–“Pay Attention: Your Life Depends on It.”

The opening lines of that chapter explain what Gallagher means. “Far more than you may realize, your experience, your world, even yourself are the creations of what you focus on. From distressing sights to soothing sounds, protean thoughts to rolling emotions, the targets of your attention are the building blocks of your life.” It was such a fascinating interview that before we knew it we were in Louisville, celebrating the birthday. But that whole business of paying attention has stayed with me ever since. Because of it, I finally know why I have often been so uneasy with Psalm 63 and similar Psalms.

The Psalmist gushes forth these magnificent expressions of his desire for God. “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.” (In patristic times, these words were associated with martyrs who valued God more than life and gave up their lives rather than deny their testimony.) “I will praise you as long as I live….” “My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods….” I love that kind of language, but it’s not my language. I mean, I believe in God with all my mind. I trust God with all my heart. I try to obey God in my whole life. I want to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength. But do I desire God? Do I hunger and thirst for God? Do I enjoy the sort of relationship with God that fills me with love and praise and satisfaction? Do you? Honestly? I read Psalm 63 and I feel guilty, inferior, spiritually weak, because I don’t desire God as David did, at least not all the time, and certainly not with the same kind of intensity.

I wonder what’s wrong with me. I’ve wondered if it’s because I’m not wandering in a desert, as the heading of this Psalm says David was. As he fled from Saul, or more probably from Absalom (note how the writer refers to David as the king in verse 11), David found himself surrounded by enemies in a place where there was no food and water. He was absolutely desperate. While I do have troubles in my life as every Christian does, I would not describe my life as a desert. Maybe that’s why I don’t have David’s passion for God. Maybe I’m not desperate enough.

Maybe, but now I think it is something else. I think it has something to do with verse 6. “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” No, I don’t think this means I have to stay awake all night. Sleep is a gift from God that should be enjoyed, says Psalm 127:2. “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.” No, the secret of desiring God is not sleepless nights; it is paying the kind of rapt attention to God that David did, even out there in the desert. Instead of worrying away his nights, anxiously counting the hours of each watch, he thought of God. And because he paid such rapt attention to God, he was filled with desire for God.

As Gallagher writes, what you pay attention to will shape your world—your thoughts, your emotions, your experience, your desires. If you pay attention to financial matters, for example, you will think about money all the time, your emotions will ride the ups and downs of the stock market, and you will desire financial success and stability more than anything. If you pay attention to your family, your emotions will be tied to their joys and sorrows and your greatest desire will be for their happiness. If you pay attention to what’s wrong with your life, you will always be on the lookout for more bad news, sensitive to every insult, passionate about getting even or running away, living with anxiety and depression all the time. What we pay attention to shapes our desires.

The problem is that so much of paying attention is involuntary. Gallagher calls it “bottom up attention,” because it is more like the attention of an animal, an involuntary response to the immediate stimuli of our environment. We automatically zero in on the most obvious, compelling thing at that moment: a cell phone vibrating in the middle of an important conversation, a bee buzzing around in your car as you are hurtling down the highway at 70 miles per hour, a screaming child, a pain in your toe. So much of our attention is captured by the most pressing sensation of the moment.

To pay attention to the invisible, inaudible, intangible God, we must engage in what Gallagher calls “top down attention.” It is voluntary; we can choose what we want to pay attention to. Gallagher says, “It is very easy to let your attention wander, but it is far more productive to focus on a top down target that you’ve intentionally selected.” As the title of her first chapter says, “Pay attention: Your life depends on it.” That is surely true of our life with God. If we don’t pay attention to God, we won’t desire God, even if we believe in him and trust him and obey him. And if we don’t desire God, we won’t enjoy God.

To pay attention to God, we must decide that we won’t focus on other things. It’s that way with all attention. When Tiger Woods stood over a putt in his heyday, he screened out the noise of the crowd, the flashing of flashbulbs, the falling of the rain. When I prepared this sermon commentary, I had to decide that I wouldn’t answer the phone, or listen to the chatter in the office, or think about the stock market. You cannot pay attention to God if you let your bottom up attention take over. It’s a big wide world out there with so much that demands our attention, so if we want to pay attention to God, we have to decide what we won’t pay attention to. As Romans 8:5 says, the mind that is set on the desires of our sinful nature will not desire what the Spirit desires. Col. 3:2 says simply, “Set your minds above, not on earthly things.”

Then once we have made that negative decision, we must positively decide that we will direct our focus to God. I know, that sounds so elementary. But it is essential. And we don’t do it very often. Even sitting in church, how often do we intentionally say to ourselves, “I’m going to focus on God right now? I’m not going to be distracted by that squirming child, or by that new hymn I didn’t like, or by the preacher’s mannerisms, or by the perfume of the lady sitting in front of me. I’m going to pay attention to my God. ” When was the last time you said that, either in church or elsewhere?

So we must intentionally direct our attention to God. But how do we pay attention to someone we can’t see or hear or touch? The Psalmist shows us how. We begin by approaching God in prayer. You say something like the Psalmist said. “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek your face….” Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened to you.” In the very act of asking, seeking, or knocking, we are paying attention to God.

But even in the act of prayer, our attention can wander. Indeed, that is probably our major problem with prayer. We begin by talking earnestly to God, and then we begin to focus on the things about which we are praying, and suddenly we’re not praying anymore. We’re worrying or solving problems or even sleeping. So we must then do what the Psalmist talks about in verse 6. Think about God as you pray. That’s not easy to do, of course, because in a sense God is unthinkable. Oh, we might have our little pictures of God, our mental graven images, but that’s not really God. God is so magnificent that we literally cannot comprehend him. How do you think about a God so big that our minds can’t take him in?

As I’ve noted in other recent posts, John Calvin always said that we can know the person of God from his works. So you pay attention to God’s works as a way of paying attention to God. As you gaze at the majesty of a mountain, or the awesome power of a storm on the Great Plains, or the tender beauty of a tiny flower, or the face of a child you love, focus on what that work of God reveals about God. Or you remember the works of God in providing for your needs, in protecting you from danger, in pushing you to make an important decision. And you pay attention to what that work reveals about God. Or you remember the great saving works of God in history or in your own life—the Exodus of Israel, the conquest of the Promised Land, the return from Exile, that moment God converted you to faith in Christ, that time God delivered you from a potentially disastrous situation.

Most important, you focus on Jesus. The Bible makes it very clear that we see God most clearly in Jesus. In our text David says that he had seen God in the sanctuary. We’re not told how that happened. Was it a vision, some ineffable epiphany? Did he, against all regulations, peek behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies where the Shekinah cloud hovered over the Ark of the Covenant? Or was it a more ordinary sense of God’s Presence brought on by the God-designed beauty of the tabernacle?

We’re not told. But on the authority of the New Testament, we can say to David, “Brother, you ain’t seen nothing vet, until you have seen God’s own Son in human form.” Jesus is the very image of the invisible God, says Col. 1, the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). We see the glory of God in the face of Christ, says II Cor. 4:6. So, to pay attention to God, we have to focus on his works, especially the work of salvation personified in Jesus. When your attention wanders, focus your attention on Jesus, using the Bible.

If we pay attention to Jesus properly, we will be reminded that we are not saved by paying attention. We are not saved by being perfect– not in our faith, not in our obedience, not in our love, and not in our efforts to pay attention. We are saved by God’s grace that brings us forgiveness and healing through Jesus. So don’t grade yourself as you try to pay attention to God. You’ll fail more than you succeed. Rather, let your efforts to focus on God lead you again and again to Christ. Then you’ll find yourself awash in grace. And that will make you desire God even more. I love the old hymn, “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art,” that ends like this: “Father of Jesus, love divine, what rapture will it be, prostrate before thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on thee.”

Illustration Idea

I love to watch my grandchildren play their sports. Recently I watched the 10-year-old play basketball. His great goal in life is to play in the NBA, but he has a ways to go. He has a great coach and a deep desire to succeed. But his attention tends to wander during timeouts. As the coach is giving instructions, my wannabe professional is gazing in rapt adoration at the referees who are killing time by executing all kinds of fancy moves out on the court. (They are all former wannabe’s.) What a picture of the Christian life. We all want to be like Jesus, but our attention wanders from him. And then we keep making the same old mistakes. We all have some spiritual ADD, and only Jesus through the internal power of the Spirit can cure us.


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