Guest speaker Alex Costanzo reminds us that God is still good and great, and worthy of our praise – no matter our personal circumstances.
I get to have the concluding expression for the Psalm Series and I’m so grateful for it. I had a chance to think long and hard about the 84th Psalm, what it meant, and why I thought it would be helpful for us. One of the reasons I wanted to share this Psalm was because it is to me what I call a Life Psalm. There are 150 of the Psalms. They all have different ways of being expressed. A lot of them have to do with things that are very gritty and real. They’re prayers. They’re aspirations. Many of them are very applicable to our real life.
Even though the Psalms were written thousands of years ago, they have so much power in them. The Word of God is very alive. Whether we’re young or old, there are things that we’re going to be able to glean from this. Whether we’re at a point in our life where we’re doing well and things are going smoothly or we are struggling. We may be at a point of feeling somewhat at peace. Struggle can be a very personal issue. Oftentimes, someone can look very composed and be going through a high degree of inner turmoil. We may look like we’re very courageous, but we’re very afraid of something. The truth is that God’s Word has a lot to hit us in a good and positive way to help us.
If we’re open to it, it can be life-giving because much of this has to do with negotiating through adversity. As we started at the beginning of the year, I wanted to bring the last Psalm to bear. I feel that it also teaches us how to take adversity or hard things and see them as an opportunity for God to do something remarkable in our lives. Another thing that was interesting for me is that the 84th Psalm directly refers to autumn. It talks about the season of fall specifically. It is helpful because this series is the last of the summer series as we head into the fall. It talks about the autumn rains. In the area of Israel in the time of the Bible, what was often called the early rains and latter rains had an effect on the people. The people were predominantly agricultural and depended a lot on crops. Early and latter rains each meant something.
The early rains were associated with the months of late October and November. The latter rains were often connected to springtime. It’s a little different than what we might think of. Having said that, you’ll see this come up in the Psalm. The Psalm itself bears a lot of similarities to Psalm 42. I shared that earlier in the summer. Whoever the writer was, many people think it was David, who submitted this to the worship leaders are known as the Sons of Korah. It’s clear that it was something that was initiated out of a sense of deprivation. The reason for the psalmist sharing it is he feels deprived of something that was very meaningful to him. He experienced a loss, something that he missed. Loss is powerful. If we’ve ever had a loss of something that was very important to us, a person, or a series of losses that hit us, sometimes they come in succession, which can be devastating. A singular loss can be difficult to work through. In David’s or the psalmist case, he felt loss. In his situation he was an exile, had to run for his life, or he was sick.
Whatever the reason was, he felt deprived of being able to go to Jerusalem and worship in the sanctuary. For him, he felt disconnected from something that had great meaning to him. The feeling of not being able to go is what propels this entire song. It’s part of what is making him feel so challenged. It’s something he dearly misses. He has to wrestle with the reality that he can’t get to the place he wants to be. At the outset then, I want to pose a couple of questions that I’m hoping will create a foundation for us. Many of us can relate to the feeling of being deprived of something that has meaning to us. We wonder if perhaps something that we’ve lost will ever be restored. Will this wound that I perceive ever heal? Can my joy return in full?
Here’s a question or two that I want to put out at the beginning. How do we endure hard seasons? How do we move through them? How do we negotiate them? Seasons of sadness will hit us in life. Maybe it’s a season of loneliness. Maybe it’s the season I alluded to of loss. We’ve lost things that are meaningful to us or we face a loss that scares us. It may have to do with the season of struggle. Maybe some of us are struggling deeply. This is a season of tremendous upheaval in our lives. It’s become a real struggle for us to try to get through something that we’re dealing with. We find ourselves in tremendous emotional fluctuation around it. It’s become hard.
Whatever season we’re in, how do we get through this? How do we move through it? It’s going to have a practical component to it. The other thing is how do we stay hopeful and not lose our way as we make our way forward to the place the Lord wants us to be? How do I keep a good attitude? How do I stay in a positive place? How do we keep from becoming really depressed, discouraged, beaten down, or defined attitudinally by it? Another thing to think about is how do we adapt to new realities? Something that is real to us and we have to position ourselves for the blessing that God wants to bring. How do we do that? We may have to adapt to that reality, so how do we adapt to that reality and not fight it? There are some things we can fight all we want. It’s not changing. We will have to adapt.
How can we adapt in a way that creates a pathway for God to bless our lives? That’s what we’re going to get at here. I have been following Jesus now for about 40 years since I was a teenager. I committed my life to Jesus right at the beginning of high school. In that period, it is almost exactly 40 years and it was in this place that it happened. I can still remember the day vividly when I made the decision that I didn’t just want to passively be connected to the faith of my mother and grandparents. The church that I had grown up in. But I truly sincerely wanted to follow Jesus. I felt his presence at work in my life. That began a 40-year journey for me that’s got me to this place. As I’m thinking about it, I remind myself that we’re all going to have rough chapters in life. Rare indeed is a long season without any trouble or challenge. There will be trouble, all right. Jesus told us so. Look at John 16:33, “These things I’ve spoken to you that you may have peace. I’ve given you my words so that you might have peace.”
Some of us are struggling with peace in our minds right now. We’re fighting things. We fluctuate. “These things I have spoken to you that in me, you may have peace.” Jesus said, ‘in the world, you will have, tribulation. That is, our ways, in the world you will have troubles. I need you to not be defined by them. Instead, let the joy reign over your life. That cheer fills you. I’m taking all your troubles away. I have overcome the world. I am with you. If you are with me, there is nothing that we cannot face that I cannot bring good from and help you through. I can give you peace in anything.’ It’s no denying that there will be trouble in our lives because we’re going to have it. Jesus said it. That’s real life.
Jesus wants for us to be at peace. There are going to be different kinds of trials and difficulties that will come. I look at it and think there’s external trouble. We know it. It’s real. It’s out there. You would have to hide your head in the sand not to see some of the stuff that’s going on. It seems as though every week, we have something going on. Not only on a national but a global level. Right now, we’re coming off another round of terrorism in London. We have brinkmanship going on right now. We have potential nuclear warheads being launched in North Korea. We have tensions in North Korea as well. Asia is in turmoil around this. The Middle East is always a powderkeg. It’s just always there. So much so that we’re disconnected a little bit but it’s real. It’s out there. It’s trouble. we’ve got trouble in the country. Everybody seems so angry. I can’t help but notice it all the time. People are divided, angry, upset, and taking sides. Some of us might think, “Oh, yeah, that’s real trouble. But I got stuff inside of me going on that honestly, I don’t have time to even think about the other stuff that’s going on outside.” So, our trouble could be things that we’re struggling with. Things that have been a part of our lives are passed down to us generationally and we don’t want them in our lives. Stuff that we got into and now we can’t get out of it. Stuff that makes us feel disconnected from what we believe.
There’s so much internal dissonance inside of us because we feel the tension between what we want to be doing and what we’re actually doing. These places, trouble. Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble.” External and internal trouble. Maybe we are battling something that’s hard for us such as a health issue. We might be in a relational challenge right now. It could be vocational, our job, external, internal, or relational, in this world. The Lord said, “I want to teach you how to prevail.” How do we do that? Over the years again, I’ve talked to many people, fellow travelers of faith. I’ve listened to their stories. The stories of their lives, struggles, or survival. In this Psalm, the preeminent feeling is someone who is feeling deprived. The Psalmist is feeling deprived.
It’s connected to wanting to return to the sanctuary of the Lord in the memory of going to the Lord’s house. We would say he wants to go to church and he can’t. Let’s start with verse one and we’ll make our way through it. Look how the Psalmist says it. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Heaven’s Armies. I long, O yes, I faint with longing to enter the course of the Lord. With my whole being, my body, and my soul, I will shall joyfully to the living God.” There is something about coming to the Lord’s house, about pulling away to be present with the Lord. Present, yes, even with others who love His name. There’s something different about that. Over the years, I’ve heard so many people who said, “Coming through those doors was like coming home. I felt like I was home.” Sometimes they came fearfully into the Lord’s house. Some of them hadn’t been to church in years. Some of them have been injured. Some other places had been really damaged by certain things, but yet inside a yearning to reconnect with God in a way that they knew and felt would bring them closer to Jesus. I’ve watched people and what I see sometimes is someone in the middle of a message or time of worship. I see the tears flow.
Many times I ask them what happened. “I felt like I was coming home.” Some people run away from God because of the bad stuff they experience. They come to San Francisco, and lo and behold, they come home to Jesus. Part of the reason our church exists is to be part of the expression of grace in the city for Jesus. Part of that joy is we get to see prodigals or people who’ve been disconnected from the Lord come home to Jesus in a safe way that is serious, loving, and committed. You run away from God and find Him in San Francisco. The psalmist feels homeless a little bit. He says, “Even the sparrow finds a home.” In his mind’s eye, he’s drifting back to the times when he saw the birds with their little nests in the sanctuary flying to and fro feeding their young, moving, and darting about. He thinks of the birds.
He says, “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young at a place near your altar, O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King, and my God.” There are some things we take for granted until we realize we can’t do them anymore. In his case, he can’t go to the Lord’s house in Jerusalem. That’s where he wants to be. He can’t go there. He misses it. For me personally, I know I’ve shared a few times, but two years ago in 2015, for the first time in the 30 years that I’ve been serving here in ministry, I had to take a sabbatical. It was a medical sabbatical.
I was getting vocal surgery, but also my nerves. I was pretty stretched out. That was a tipping point as well. It’s just wasn’t a great time. I remember what happened, though. We had a meeting set up with our board of directors and some of our executive team on the pastoral staff, and then probably most powerful person and CEO of my life, my wife. I’m just kidding. But she was there as well. So the group of them were there. We started talking and they said, “We want you to go on sabbatical to heal up completely. We don’t want you to have to talk. We just want your body to rest. We want you take five to six months.” I said, “Well, I don’t know if I need five to six months.” They said, “We don’t want you to actually go to church here.” I said, “Really?” “Yes, we need you to stay away.”
When we went out of state, it was fine. We have family. I just visited the churches. It was a good experience. But a couple of months into it, I started feeling like I miss it here very much. There was one weekend, in particular, one Sunday that stood out to me. I remember it vividly. Part of the reason I remembered is I was starting to feel better but was still in this agreement that I had to not come to church because I was not supposed to be interacting a lot. They wanted me to rest. I remember though, a couple of my adult children were living at home with us at the time. My kids were going around the same time shooting out to serve at the different campuses. Two of them came here to the Mission Campus. My oldest son was already at the Lake Merced Campus. My wife came here as well. I remember watching them all getting ready to go and serve the Lord in the Lord’s house. I said, “This is what I do.” They said, “Well, you can’t come, you stay here. You can live stream.” I said, “It’s not the same.” Before I watched it, I remember the next message was pretty good. I can listen to a message that’s from the live stream, even a replay, and I feel fine. The part that didn’t translate for me was worship. Because no matter how much I tried, it felt very different to me.
Worship felt different because I wasn’t with people in the Lord’s house. It was different. There was something about it as I was watching it in light of my circumstances. This probably isn’t necessarily relatable to a lot of people but it was pretty relatable to Psalm 84. I was listening and watching. All of a sudden, I had a hard time singing. I remember I had a tear start going down my cheek. It wasn’t because the Lord had touched me; it was because I felt like I was being left out. I felt sorry for myself. I wanted to be in the Lord’s house with the people, the place I know, and the people I love. I wanted to worship the Lord there but I couldn’t.
I understood that feeling. I remember how good it felt two months later when I got to return. One of the things I got to do was lead the Thanksgiving morning service. We have had this service for almost 20 years now. We do the Thanksgiving morning service for those who are here and able to come. We do it for one hour to start Thanksgiving morning by saying thank you to Jesus. We share communion and thank the Lord for His goodness. It was one of the first services I got to lead when I came back. It felt like, ‘Yes! This is what I’m talking about.’ Let’s go back and look at verse 4. You can understand what he says. He starts thinking, “What joy for those who can live in your house, always singing your praises. What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord, who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” We read, “When they walk through the valley of weeping.” we wonder, “What is he talking about?” In his mind’s eye, he switches. He starts by saying, “How joyful they are to be able to worship in your house, O Lord. I want to do that too. Just like the bird finds a home and near your house is where I want to be with the people who are worshiping you. How blessed are those who were able to travel and make their way and journey to the city of David to Jerusalem, who make their pilgrimage, who make that journey together, rejoicing on their way.” He starts thinking about what would happen during the Great Feasts of Israel. Many times, families will start to make their way to Jerusalem. They would have a caravan of people who would be making their way to Jerusalem, a pilgrimage.
Along the way, they would rejoice. In verse 6 he says, “When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,” which was a literal section of the journey known in Hebrew as the Valley of Baca. He says, “It will become a place of refreshing springs. The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.” The older version of Psalm 84 says, “Blessed is a man whose strength is in you whose heart is set on pilgrimage as they pass through the Valley of Baca.” That’s the Valley of Weeping and the lamentation of sadness. It seems to refer to a particular part of the journey to Jerusalem that was difficult. In the summer, it was very difficult. At certain times of the year, it was dry, arid, hard, and inhospitable. It was the part of the journey no one looked forward to.
He said, “When you’re inspired by a chance to do what they’re doing, you even go through that place that no one wants to go through.” He starts saying how in his mind’s eye he remembers, “And they just kept worshipping you all the way through the badlands. They took that bad place and turned it into a place of joy and refreshing. Not unlike what would literally happen to the dry Valley of Baca when the early autumn rains fell, filled it with pools of water, covered the summer parched land with grass and flowers, and brought refreshment to the thirsty pilgrims along the way.” All of a sudden, when the early rains started falling, that dry land would have pockets where there would be certain cisterns naturally hewed out of the rock where the water would gather. They would become like little pools of refreshing cisterns of water to refresh them. The Psalmist has all this imagery going on in his mind.
In verse 7 he says, “They will continue to grow stronger and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.” The older version says, “They go from strength to strength.” That is, instead of being beaten down and quitting, they gain strength along the way until they arrive at their destination where the presence of God is experienced and celebrated. In the final four verses, “O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, would you hear my prayer. Listen, O God of Jacob. O God, look with favor upon the king, our shield! Show favorite to the one you’ve anointed.” Most likely David. And then a great verse, “A single day in your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else.”
The Psalmist pushes it out. In fact, I would rather be a gatekeeper, an usher, a greeter, or a parking attendant. “I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of the Lord,” look at that, “in the house of my God than live the good life in the homes of the wicked. For the Lord God is our sun and our shield. He gives grace and glory. For the Lord will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right. O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, what joy for those who trust in you.” We note a couple of things here. Here’s the part I would like us to wrestle within the minutes that we have left. I have one particular thing that motivated me at the core of this message. One of the things I want us to be aware of is for us to consider the value of a godly aspiration. The value of something that we are moving towards that honors the Lord.
Look at verse 5 again. It says, “What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” That’s the idea of having your mind set on something, a path, a highway, a journey with a destination. Anyone who follows Jesus is on a journey to an ultimate destination. Anyone who’s following Jesus is making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem. Jesus said, “There is more to this life than just is life.” He told His disciples, at one key point in His ministry, “Look at me, things are going to happen. It’s going to get real bad. Let not your hearts be shaken and troubled. You believe in God. You need to believe in me. I’m telling you right now. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would tell you right now, I’m not making it up nor trying to create a pipe dream. There’s no interest in it. If this was all there is, I’d tell you right now. But I tell you, there is more to come. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. And I go to prepare a place for you that where I am, there you may be also.” When we follow Him, we must remind ourselves that we are heading somewhere. Yet between now and then, no matter where we are in life, it’s important to have an aspiration. In Christ, it is utterly essential. It’s important in life to have one. It’s absolutely essential in Jesus to have one. What I’m trying to get at is one of the keys to staying young at heart at a spiritual level. We can be young in body and spiritually ill inside. We can be older in body and spiritually vital inside. There’s no exclusion, you can be both. If I had my choice, I’d go young in body, young in spirit but it doesn’t always work that way.
We need to be moving towards something. Rarely can we call out our best meandering, taking it easy. When we spiritually take things easy and don’t apply ourselves, we are going to have a hard time living a vital life with God. There is a time for that, I get it. I understand not all who wander are lost. I get that. At the same time, you have to have a goal. Every season, spiritually speaking, needs a ministry North Star. We need to have something that is compelling us to pursue growth in our lives with God. It’s usually connected to serving people in some way, shape, or form in His name. That’s why a lot of what the community does is it creates opportunities and pockets to have North Stars because we’re not made to just take in.
Like our bodies, we have to exercise. If it’s just intake, intake, intake, we will not be healthy. It leads me to the second piece. This is the reason why I wanted to preach this message and share this word. It’s because of what we’re about to look at right here. Choose not to be intimidated by the valleys of weeping. Instead, embrace the transformation He longs to bring. Go back to that sixth verse when they walk through the Valley of Weeping, those Valleys of Baca. He says, “In the midst of that difficult place will be a place of refreshing springs. The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.”
When I was younger, we had a young family. We didn’t have a big budget. We have four kids and tried to be very creative with what we did. A lot of our family vacations were built around national parks. Over the years, we have seen a lot of the national parks in our beautiful places of land that have been preserved. What a gift they are to our nation and our heritage. I say that truly because I’ve seen some amazingly beautiful things. A lot of times people will ask me, “What are some of your favorite national parks?” Of course, I’m very attached to Yosemite because it’s right in our backyard. I love it. There are other national parks that stand out to me. But one of the ones that I often refer to when asked, “Hey, tell me some of your best ones,” I’ll say, “Well, here’s a couple that are often underappreciated.” I’m only going to tell you one of the two.
I’ll tell you both of them but I’m only going to talk about one of the two. One of the underrated ones is the Badlands. I just absolutely loved it because of the hues and colors. The experience of it was haunting. The other one is not far from here. It’s not often thought of as a wonderful place to visit but it’s an amazing place. It’s Death Valley. Death Valley is a stunning place. It’s one of the hottest and most arid places on the North American continent. At certain times of the year, it looks like this. You can see the beauty, the colors and yet the ground looks so dry and dead. We’re talking inhospitable. One of the things about Death Valley people don’t often realize, it’s got many different types of natural expressions. They think, “Oh, that’s all it is.” But it’s not true.
One of the other cool things about Death Valley is it has sand dunes. It’s not that far to get to them either. When you get there, you can get to visit those. You can walk along the ridges. I walked along those ridges. It was a fantastic experience. But here’s the thing about that valley. It was in the news last year because, in 2016, that valley had something happen to it that only happens usually around every 10 years. It had what was known as a super bloom. The super bloom occurred in a remarkable way. It started because they had a series of rainstorms in 2015. Three of them to be exact if I’m not mistaken. Deep within that parched ground were dormant flower seeds waiting to come to life. It required a succession of rainstorms and the right combination of warmth to create an environment where the whole place opened up like a bouquet.
One of the things you’re going to see in my mind is a picture that I almost think isn’t even real. It’s so remarkably beautiful. It almost looks fake. Look at those colors. Death Valley in super bloom. I see that and say, “Wow, that harsh desert floor sprung to life.” God would work in us in the same dry, hostile, arid place into the Valley of Baca, if you will, the Valley of Weeping and Sadness. Whatever we want to call it. He can cause inside of us a spiritual super bloom, a spiritual super bloom.
Here’s the principle. It has to be the right combination of adversity and refreshing to make a spiritual super bloom possible. It can’t just happen at okay times or, no, it’s been a tough period. No, it only can happen when it’s dry and hard. The right thing hits. All of a sudden, the right combination of the rain, I call it grace-like rain, falls and the sun hits. The warmth comes at the right place in our life. This can only happen about every 10 to 20 years in a life where something so remarkable occurs at a spiritual level in our lives that it is transformative. We go into the Valley of Baca and watch as it is refreshed and turned into a spiritual super bloom.
One of the things that I was reminded of that cannot happen anywhere other than in a very difficult place. Is when the grace of God is allowed to combine with my willingness that certain things come out that would not have been possible in a different kind of situation. It can only occur if the right combination is there. Many times, it’s in that very place where God will say, “This is your time for a spiritual super bloom in your life.” On that ground, yes, right there. When we come out of that, it’s transformative. We have different aspects of us. It’s underneath. Someone said when they saw that picture on Saturday night, “You know what that picture reminded me of?” I said, “What?” They said, “Pure joy.” Another person said to me, “The seeds were there. They were the seeds the Holy Spirit planted.” I said, “It’s good. You’re good. You’re wrestling with this. I like it.” The Lord calls us to these places.
Another thing to remember is that God wants to move us from strength to strength to help us grow. In the seventh verse, he says, “They will continue to grow stronger, each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.” Though my outer man is perishing, yet my inward one is renewed day by day. This is one thing I’ve come to the conclusion of. My outer tent cannot sustain the dreams of my inner true self. It can’t sustain it. This body cannot sustain the dreams within me that were planted there by a God who loves me. There’s a part of us that was made for a Creator God. We can search everywhere. We can cut Him off. We can deny His existence. We can act like He’s not there. But we’re going to worship something in this life. Everyone will because human beings worship things. They may say, “I believe in no God but they worship.” It’s just what do you worship?
We were made for something this body cannot contain in its present form. There’s a dream, a yearning, and a longing for a certain type of home. It cannot be sustained. But between now and then, I’m called to grow. I’m invited into growth. Growth best occurs by what the psalmist closed with, by us leaning into the promises that He’s given to us. “No good thing will I withhold. No good thing will I withhold from those who do what is right in my eyes, not in the eyes of the prevailing culture, which can change with each generation and change. But on the solid ground of what the Lord’s Word teaches us, no good thing will ever hold.” What that is saying is this. Remember, Jesus didn’t say ‘no troubles.’ What He said was, “My goodness will prevail. In this life or the next, it will prevail.” Walk in it. Never forget that it is possible that the hardest places can actually be the places of spiritual super bloom. We get changed for the better.
Lord, we want to welcome your goodness and grace even now. We thank you for your words of life. Thank you for your promises. Thank you, Lord. Even now as we have our time of giving, I thank you for all the faithfulness that is in this church community of those who give so faithfully and honor you. Even in their tithes and offerings. Lord in their service, the beautiful ways they express their love for you so we can do what we’re trying to do for you. Be part of an expression of grace in this amazing city that needs to see you. We ask that you would also continue to do a super bloom in our church, Lord. Let it be, Jesus. Let it be in each of our lives. Let’s remember the beauty that you can bring if we’re open. We might not get there all at once, but who can say when it’s about to happen. We stay close to you, Jesus. We ask for your blessing over this closing song, this closing time of giving. Let’s finish this well, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Guest speaker David Brickner illustrates how Psalm 22 points us toward Jesus.
Where is the perfect justice we are longing for? Guest speaker Jeff Louie helps us answer this question.