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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
Title:A Wineskin in the Smoke
Text:Psalms 119:81-88 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Selections from the 1976 Psalter Hymnal:

407 - Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah     
453 - O For a Closer Walk with God
198 - Thou, O Lord, Art God Alone
176:1-3, 6 - O God, Our Help in Ages Past

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

“A Wineskin in the Smoke”
Psalm 119:81-88
The metaphor “a wineskin in the smoke” describes the feelings that come at the lowest points in our lives. We all have those low points and so did the Psalmist. This stanza of Psalm 119 reaches down into one those low points in the life of the Psalmist.
In the previous two stanzas, the human author of this Psalm recognized that it was good for him to be afflicted; he recognized that affliction enabled him to know God’s decrees, and that it was the Lord who in faithfulness allowed affliction to come into his life. And now, in this stanza, the full weight of affliction pressed upon the Psalmist and he cried out in verse 83, “I am like a wineskin in smoke.”
Wineskins would become parched, dry, and shriveled from the heat and smoke of the fires. A “wineskin in the smoke” became symbolic of suffering to the point of shriveling up with sorrow. John MacArthur explains it this way: “Just as smoke will dry out, stiffen and crack a wineskin thus making it useless, so the psalmist’s affliction has debilitated him.”
The Psalmist had come to that point where, even as a believer, life seemed hopeless. We see from the context that the Psalmist (who most commentators believe was David) had many enemies. Verse 84b – “When will you punish my persecutors?” Verse 85a – The arrogant dig pits to trap me…” Verse 86b and 87a – “Help me, for I am being persecuted without cause. They almost wiped me from the earth…”
As he reflects on his enemies, and all his troubles he cries out, “My soul faints with longing for your salvation” (81a), and, “My eyes fail, looking for your promise” (82a).  And that feeling of the Psalmist is a feeling that all of us can relate to, at least at times in our lives, isn’t it? Even though perhaps we don’t have the same types of problems with enemies that he had, we have all known the weight and burden of affliction and sorrow, and those in the persecuted church especially know the affliction of having many enemies.
Although we may not have had the same experiences of the Psalmist, I know that each one of you has felt, at times, maybe even this very afternoon, as though you are shriveled up with sorrow like a “wineskin in the smoke.”
What happens when people come to that point in their life?  
Some murmur and complain against God. There is, admittedly, a place for a proper expression of grief and complaint in prayer. In Psalm 142:1-2 the Psalmist writes: With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.”
But many times, through murmuring and complaining, people bring God’s anger and righteous judgment on themselves, especially as they complain about God’s providence in their lives. Old Testament Israel stands as a tragic example of a group of people, who, in the time of testing, in the dark times of their national life, complained bitterly against God.
They blamed God for their troubles and complained against the very One who gave them life as a nation; they complained against the very God who protected them from a great famine by placing them in Egypt. They murmured and complained against the God of grace who, in due time, delivered them out of Egypt in a spectacular display of divine power.  
Numbers 14:2-4 describes their complaints this way: “All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’”
Murmuring and complaining against God and his providence is especially grievous to him. Complaints about God’s providential guidance imply that God is not sufficiently wise, faithful, and loving in the way he guides our lives. One writer notes: “Grumbling (and) complaints directly or indirectly declare that God is not sufficiently good, faithful, loving, wise, powerful, or competent. Otherwise, he would treat us better or run the universe more effectively. Faithless complaining is sinful because it accuses God of doing wrong.” (Jon Bloom, How to Complain Without Grumbling)
Others who reach a low point in life, stoically look to themselves for strength. They hold to the old adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and they plan to tough it out on their own. That attitude is reflected in the famous poem by William Earnest Henley, Invictus:
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be, For my unconquerable soul. 
It matters not how straight the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
In the Bible, Samson stands as one of many who looked in their darkest hour to themselves for strength. In Judges 16:20, Delilah had his seven braids of hair shaved off when he was sound asleep on her lap. Then she called out: “Samson, the Philistines are upon you.” Judges 16:20 records how “He awoke from his sleep and thought, ‘I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.’  But he did not know that the Lord had left him.” He relied on his own strength, not realizing that the Lord had left him on his own in order to humble and sanctify him through that traumatic experience.
By God’s grace, Samson was humbled and restored to strength. After the Philistines plucked out his eyes and put him to work grinding grain in the prison, he prayed to God, asking for the strength to bring down the temple of Dagon. He was granted that request and killed more Philistines in death than he had during his life. 
But Samson’s problems in life came, in part, because in the dark times – in the sorrows and conflicts with the Philistines – he looked to his own strength instead of the strength that God provides. Likewise, he lived to please himself instead of God. It was only at the end of his life that he truly realized that he was not the master of his own fate, nor the captain of his soul.
Still others, in the sorrows and darkness of life, turn not to God but to spiritualism and witchcraft. 1 Samuel 28 is an eerie chapter describing Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor. Clearly the Witch of Endor did not have the capability to bring Samuel’s presence up from the dead, for she was absolutely shocked when she saw Samuel.
But God allowed it to happen. He allowed Saul to show his full rejection of the Lord by looking for wisdom, not from the means God provided, which were the scrolls, the prophets, and the Urim and Thummin used in Old Testament times, but from a medium, a practice that the Bible clearly forbids.
Seeking answers to the problems of life through witchcraft isn’t confined to the Old Testament era by any means. As our society leaves her biblical roots we see a growing acceptance of the spiritual realm, not the Holy Spirit, but dark, evil spirits.
In the United States, Wiccans – that is, witches and warlocks – are filing for and receiving tax exempt status. In the military there is a push for wiccan chaplains to give spiritual advice, while at the same time Christian chaplains are commanded not to pray in the name of Jesus.
In the dark hour, in that time of conflict when the heart feels like a wineskin in the smoke, as though we are at the end of our rope, so many people, whether in biblical times or today, look in all the wrong places and are led further into the depths of sorrow.
God’s Word Transforms Lives
But the Psalmist, here in this stanza, offers the right response: When we feel like a “wineskin in the smoke” we are, first, to place our hope in God’s Word. We see that in the first part of verse 81, My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word.”
God’s Word alone holds out true hope to a hurting world. More lives than we will ever know have been totally transformed by the Word of God.  And often those lives that were completely transformed were lives in the pit of despair until they came, in God’s providence and grace, into contact with his word.
Consider William Cowper, the well-known hymnwriter. He attempted suicide numerous times. Each time he was spared, but he certainly would have tried again had he not come across the letter to the Romans and been radically transformed. He went on to write many of the great hymns we still sing today such as O for a Closer Walk with God, God Moves in a Mysterious Way and There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.
That transformation by the Word of God in the lives of those who were debilitated and crushed, still happens more times than we will ever know. Just through the placement of Gideon Bibles in motel rooms many people, “at the end of their rope” as we would say – or “a wineskin in the smoke” as the Psalmist put it – have been turned from despair to faith in Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit applies the Word of God to despairing human hearts.
It is in God’s Word that we come face to face with our Lord. God’s Word reveals ourselves in all our sin and misery and shows us our great need as sinners for the only Savior. And it reveals to us who that Savior is. Only when we see Jesus Christ with the eye of saving faith do we have reason to hope in a world that is filled with trouble. 
And as we put our hope in God’s word, we will increasingly remember his decrees. That is a second response which we read about it in verse 83: Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your decrees.” The word translated “decrees” in the NIV and “statutes” in the ESV (and many other translations), springs from a root word meaning “permanent” or "engraved.” What is permanent and engraved? It is the Word of God in its entirety, including God's commands (86), precepts (87) and statutes (88, “testimonies” ESV).
God’s word is graciously given us so that through the Holy Spirit’s work in the word, we see our sin and the only Savior, Jesus Christ. As John 20:31 puts it, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That applies not only to the gospel of John, but all of Scripture. All Scripture points us to Christ and our great need for saving faith in him alone, faith that in the words of verse 81 caused the Psalmist to write, “My soul faints with longing for your salvation.”
But when we are saved, we continue to face situations and circumstances that cause us to feel like “a wineskin in the smoke.” You have found out, I’m sure, that our faith in Christ does not exempt us from suffering, from sorrow, from feeling at times just as the Psalmist did when he felt like he was at the end of his rope, barely hanging on, like a wineskin in the smoke. And at that time, in the pit of despair or in the overwhelming troubles that we face, even as Christians, how crucial to remember God's decrees, statutes, commands, and precepts – to remember and to put our hope in the promises of his word. 
God’s Word Guides Our Pilgrimage
It is crucial to be constantly in the Word of God because after saving us from our sin, God guides us by his word in all its intricacies. Just as a parent gives their children commands for their good, so does our heavenly Father. When you have young children, you command them not to go near the hot stove; you do so not be mean to them, but for their own safety and well-being.
In a similar way God gives us his word to not only save us from our sin but also to protect us and guide us through the pilgrimage of life. And the Psalmist is saying that he remembers that truth when he is in the depths, in despair, at the end of his rope, like a wineskin in the smoke.
And it is crucial for you and for me to do the same. It is crucial to focus on God’s Word always, including those times of trial. Because it is at those times that the evil one works to dissuade us of our faith. In the dark times of life, he loves to plant the seeds of doubt. If you aren’t rooted in the word of God – in the decrees, commands, statutes, and precepts of the Bible – you will fall away.
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explained that “the one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away” (Matt. 13:20, 21). That is why it is so crucial to have an open Bible, not only on Sunday, but throughout the week. The Lord will always sustain his people, but he does so through the promises of his word applied by the Holy Spirit to our hearts and lives.
Another proper response when we seem to be "at the end of our rope" - when our heart is shriveled with sorrow like “a wineskin in the smoke” - is to wait patiently for God’s comfort. In both verse 82 and verse 84 the Psalmist asked God when he would bring comfort to the afflicted, when he would punish the evil doers and bring justice to the Psalmist.
Because God is not bound by time, and we are accustom to measuring time down to a split second, it often seems as though God is slow in bringing about justice on the wicked and comfort for believers. Yet the assurance of Scripture is that God will bring about justice; he will comfort his people, and there is great blessing in waiting on the Lord to fulfill his promises. 
Consider Psalm 27. The Psalm concludes by saying, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” God has a way of strengthening us and drawing us closer to himself as we wait upon him. He uses those times of waiting for our spiritual growth and sanctification. It is indeed, as the Scriptures declare, a good thing to wait on the Lord. And as we wait, we have full assurance that God will work his sovereign will at his time and in his way.
God will punish our persecutors and comfort his people. Sometimes he punishes in this life, but ultimately the judgment of God will be revealed on the last day. The questions of verse 84, “How long must your servant wait?” and “When will you punish my persecutors?” are ultimately answered in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10:
God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
As we wait on the Lord, taking heart in his decrees and promises, we are also to pray for help.  Verse 86(b) has one of those short prayers of exclamation, “Help me!”  It is the same sentiment behind the prayers of the disciples in the storm-tossed sea, of Peter when he began to sink while walking on water, and of innumerable other believers who have gone before and found help and strength from God alone.  
Our reason for confidence in prayer centers on Christ, our great high priest. He has experienced the sorrows and temptations of life on earth in its every aspect. He is the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He knows first-hand what you experience in the deep valleys of life. And although he is like us in every way except for sin, he knows the power of the temptations that have led us into sin. When we come to him in humble repentance, we have full assurance of forgiveness. Having been forgiven through saving faith, we also find the strength that God supplies for the difficulties and challenges of life. No wonder Hebrews 4:16 tells us, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
As we wait patiently for God’s comfort, praying to him, we are also to strive to live obedient lives. This stanza closes in verse 88 with both a request and a commitment. The request is, In your unfailing love preserve my life,” and the commitment – the reason for asking the Lord to preserve our life – is, “that I may obey the statutes of your mouth.”
­The purpose for our life is to glorify God. We do that by living lives of obedience that spring out of gratitude as we obey “the statutes of his mouth” – his word. Wherever there is true saving faith there is also the obedience that comes from faith (Rom. 1:5) and the fruit of repentance (Acts 26:20) when we fall. Together they equal conversion. Those converted by God will strive to live obedient lives, not to earn salvation for it was earned by Christ, but out of deep and sincere gratitude. And in obedience we find great joy, for in the words of verse 86, “All your commands are trustworthy.”
This stanza of Psalm 119 reaches down into the lowest point of the Psalmist’s life. Charles Spurgeon observed: “This octave is the midnight of the Psalm, and very dark and black it is.”  But he also notes that even in the blackness “stars… shine out and the last verse gives promise of the dawn.”  (The Treasury of David, Vol. 3, pg. 304)
That’s how it is with the Lord. Even in the darkest trials, even in the most despairing situations in life, even at those times when we seem to be “at the end of our rope” – when our heart is shriveled with sorrow like “a wineskin in the smoke”, God holds out before us the truths of his word.
He has redeemed us at the cost of his Son’s precious blood. He has decreed all things for our ultimate good, so we are to prayerfully wait on him, striving to be faithful and obedient always.  Amen.
sermon outline:
              Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke,
                          I do not forget Your decrees.  – Psalm 119:83
                           “A Wineskin in the Smoke”
                                     Psalm 119:81-88
I. A “wineskin in the smoke” is symbolic of suffering to the point of
    shriveling up with sorrow. When people come to that point in life
    there are many reactions:
     1) Some murmur and complain against God (Numbers 14:2-4)
     2) Some look to themselves for strength (Judges 16:20)
     3) Others turn to spiritualism and witchcraft (1 Samuel 28)
II. The Psalmist offers the right response: When we feel like “a wineskin
      in the smoke” we are to:
      1) Place our hope in God, trusting in His Word (81)
      2) Remember His decrees (83, “statutes” ESV), and live by them in all
           the circumstances of our lives
      3) Wait patiently for God’s comfort (82, 84), as we pray for help (86)
          and live obedient lives (88)



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Rev. Ted Gray

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