The praise driven church - Psalm 95
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
You can call yourself an agnostic or you can even call yourself an atheist but whatever you are you are a worshipper. It is as natural for human beings to worship as it is for them to procreate - it is part of what we are. Now what we worship is, of course, an entirely different question, but that we worship is indisputable. Let me back this up; few years ago there was a poster on the billboard at the corner of Cottingham Road which was pretty up front about this. You had a large picture of Old Trafford football ground and in bold letters underneath were the words- ‘Come and Worship’. So we worship all sorts of things- football teams, food, performers, careers, families, - the list is endless. That, the Bible calls ‘idolatry’, which is corrupted worship and as such will never satisfy. In its place the Bible offers true worship, worship as it is intended to be because it is directed to the only one who is worthy to receive worship and that is the One True God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To my mind no one has offered a better definition of authentic worship than the late Archbishop William Temple, he says: ‘Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose- and all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for the self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.’ In other words, worship is something which embraces the whole of our lives and covers as much as what we do at home as in church. But worship is what God’s people are meant to be doing when they meet like this. And one of the Psalm’s which is not only a vehicle for corporate worship but an incentive which enables worship is Psalm 95, traditionally known as the Venite, which means ‘Come’ in Latin, taken from the opening line – ‘Come let us sing for joy to the LORD;’
Now there are three things this magnificent song highlights with regards to the way God’s people are meant to worship.
First, there is the greatness of God which inspires vigorous worship vv 1-5. As far as this writer is concerned dull worship is a contradiction in terms, because the one who is the object of worship is anything but dull, so how could his praise be dull? Just look at the way he describes what he is calling God’s people to do- ‘Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.’ What is to characterize that adoration of God of which William Temple speaks? Three things: first it is joyful- ‘Let us sing for joy’- we are God’s chosen people not God’s frozen people and that should be reflected in the vigour and exuberance of our praise. Secondly, it is to be grateful, ‘Let us come before him with thanksgiving.’ A characteristic human failure is ingratitude, we not only see it in our children but in ourselves, the failure to say ‘thank you’ and mean it. In part the reason why we take things for granted is that we think of everything as a right. Not so. Everything is a gift from the great giver and the Christian is profoundly aware of this fact and so should accordingly show it in praise- a hearty ‘thank you Lord’. The Christian writer G.K Chesterton once said that ‘the test of all happiness is gratitude’ and then went on to write, ‘You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the play and the opera. And grace before the concert and the pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing; and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.’ (p16) And he is right- the millions of things which we do day to day all come about because of the Maker’s design and say so- thank him for them! But in the third place worship is thoughtful, ‘extol him with music and song.’ We don’t just come tripping into God’s presence making a racket by shouting out whatever happens to come into our minds. We use music and song so that our words are thought out and expressed in a way which is not only is fitting for God but right for us- which means songs which are singable, songs which are biblical and songs which are memorable.
But the question is: what is it that will make our worship all of these things- joyful, grateful and thoughtful? The writer tells is in vv 3-5- knowledge of a great God leads to great praise of God- ‘For (here is the reason) the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.’ This is why our praise should be vigorous because it is directed to this God, inspiring worship flows from inspiring theology. A shallow view of God will result in a superficial worship- for if we do not see God as this God, then all we will be doing when we sing our praises will be like a man singing down a deep well we will just hear back the faint echo of our own voices. But not when you begin to conceive God the way the psalmist does. Just look at what he says!
This is Yahweh-the LORD-who just ‘is’ with no beginning and no end-perfect and complete within his own majestic being, ‘the great King above all other gods.’ By speaking in these terms about God having the depths of the earth in his hands, the peaks of the mountains, the sea and the dry land, our composer is taking a swipe at the paganism of his day and all forms of idolatry. This is the way the pagan nations saw the universe (pic on screen) with different god’s propping up different parts of the cosmos. What nonsense, the true God doesn’t have to ‘prop’ up anything nor does he need the help of lesser beings- he simply speaks a universe into being and by his personal royal decree ensures that every single atom spins on its axis as well as every planet spinning on theirs.
And to stir praise within us the psalmist uses the most evocative imagery to convey the shear grandeur of the God. He speaks of the ‘depths of the earth’- ‘the deep’- i.e. that which is mysterious. He talks of the ‘heights’- the peaks of the mountains- all that is majestic. He refers to ‘the sea’- all that is chaotic and troublesome- mayhem- the picture is that of a raging sea throwing up driftwood and the like. Then we are told his hands shaped ‘the dry land’- the mundane- that which is familiar and yet beautiful. Listen again to Chesterton, ‘We should always endeavour to wonder at the permanent thing, not the mere exception. We should be startled by the sun, not the eclipse. We should wonder less at the earthquake, and wonder more at the earth.’ When you look up at the stars on a cold winter night your immediate thought should be ‘Wow, my God made this’. When you ponder the intricate little hand of a newborn baby, the words which should come out of your mouth should not just be, ‘Isn’t this wonderful- but isn’t God wonderful?’ Look at little Ruth if you want any more proof! It is as we ponder and grasp this God in all his infinite glory and sublime beauty and blinding radiance that we will not be able to do any other than sing for joy; you would have to be dead from the neck upwards not to. In others words, worship is an invitation to enjoy God and as we enjoy him we are glorifying him. Of course Sunday worship is meant to be enjoyable, but only on God’s terms, as we are engrossed and enchanted by his being as he reveals himself to us through His Word.
Which brings us to the second point, the nearness of God inspires reverent worship-vv 6-7a, ‘Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture the flock under his care ( lit ‘his hand’).’ Again we have the Venite- ‘Come’. Come and do what? ‘Bow down in worship, kneel before Yahweh our Maker.’ The posture ‘shouts’ reverence doesn’t it? - the proper, humble acknowledgement that we are creatures, sinful creatures at that, coming before a holy Creator. Now I think that it is interesting that at a time when so much store is placed in the importance of body language, as Christians we may have lost something here, because the psalmist speaks of bowing and kneeling. ‘Ah’ you say, ‘it’s what is in the heart that is important’- yes, but that doesn’t mean that the way we approach God with our stance is unimportant. Sloppy worship is hardly reverent worship. I doubt very much that if we were invited to meet the Queen on a Royal visit to Hull, we would turn up chewing gum or stand around with our hands in our pockets or just chat away to one another when she was standing in front of us- but it is sad to say that is not such an uncommon sight at church on a Sunday. Maybe adopting a more humble posture, bowing our heads in prayer, even kneeling, may actually be an aid to remind us in whose presence we are specially gathered. Yes, I know you can have all the pomp and ritual without the reality and it is a poor substitute, but perhaps we can try to be a little more thoughtful and so a little more reverent when we gather like this in that it might make it more real and special for us.
And why should we be reverent? Because of God’s nearness, ‘for’ – ‘he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.’ Do you see what the psalmist is doing? He is connecting these verses with verses 3-5 and he really can’t get over it. The God who is the immense God is also the intimate God. The cosmic God is the close God which is why we should be reverent- you do not mess with the God whose power brings a universe into being. You are not flippant with a God whose radiance outshines a million suns and whose voice if we were to hear it naked as it were, would burst our ear drums beyond repair. And it is this God who in a movement of divine humility has deigned to be in the midst of his people when they gather. It should simply take our breath away; this should simply not be possible. You have to ask: what is this God doing mingling with people like us? But not only is he in our midst he is actually ministering- we are a flock under his care or literally, ‘under his hand’. As one of the great Christian documents of the church the Westminster Confession says, when speaking of God’s children- Christians, ‘God pities, protects and provides for them.’ Isn’t it wonderful to know that this God actually feels for us and acts like that towards us out of affection? ‘He pities, protects and provides’
There is a story of a London City Missioner in the 19th century who over a few days happened to notice a street sweeper whose responsibility it was to keep the streets neat and clean outside the Houses of Parliament, was missing. And being the caring diligent individual he was made a few enquiries to try and find out where he was and eventually tracked him down to his home- if you could call it a home- it was more of a hovel, an attic room with hardly the bare essentials in terms of furniture and decor. So he went to visit him. And as he entered the room, he saw the street sweeper lying in his bed on a rather thin, worn out mattress, sick. So the Missioner said to him, ‘you must be rather lonely living here, has anyone been to visit you?’ And the sweeper replied, ‘Oh yes, Mr Gladstone has been here.’ ‘You mean, Mr Gladstone the Prime Minister has been to see you?’ said the astonished Missioner. ‘Oh yes, he sat right where you are sitting and he read the Bible to me.’ There is something amazing about that isn’t there? Here is the Prime Minister of what was then the largest Empire on earth, William Gladstone, who takes time to meet with a lowly street sweeper and read the Scriptures to him. There is a certain incongruity about that, a kind of mismatch- but it happened. And here we are this morning and the God who without having to take a breath created our galaxy with its 100 billion stars and the other 100 billion galaxies in the universe, stooping down to be with us, to hear us, and dare I say it- yes I dare because the Scripture says it- ‘delights to be with us- doesn’t that simply make you stop and go ‘wow’? That is what the Bible teaches is happening and we are to believe it and act upon it.
But then the psalm suddenly changes tone and we may begin to wonder whether the writer has suddenly lost the plot for in the last few verses we have a Word from God which requires submissive worship v 7b Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways." So I declared on oath in my anger, "They shall never enter my rest."’ It is God who is now speaking. And this is still part of worship. Worship is not just what we offer to God-our prayers and praises- but first and foremost it is what God presents to us- himself in the proclamation of his Word. He is the one who addresses us before we can address him as he calls us into his presence and enables us to stand before him by the Word of the Gospel. You see, unless God does this so we come to him as believing people, forgiven people, we cannot be worshipping people- he won’t accept anything which is not on his own terms- namely, believing in what he has spoken. Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, No one can come to the Father but by me’- that is clear and uncompromising- whatever else we may call it-such as ‘worship’- if we are not coming to God through Jesus we are not coming to God at all. God speaks to us so we can speak to him. He preaches, we praise-that is the order.
But look what happens when that order is abandoned- ‘Today if you hear his voice (and you are each time the Bible is open and taught), do not harden your heart’. Is it possible to meet as God’s people and yet not meet God/ Too true it is possible if we do not listen to his Word. We are still engaging in worship but it is worthless worship. There is, I gather, a medical condition called ‘scleroderma’ in which the skin and other soft tissues gradually thicken and harden. The result is that the sufferer is unable to move joints, the heart tissue may thicken and the heartbeats become infrequent. Those who suffer from this disease do so through no fault of their own. But that is not the case with the spiritual condition being described here- it is ‘sclerocardia’, the hardening of the heart. It is something people bring themselves by refusing to listen to God- maybe by absenting themselves from the place where they can hear it-church, or if hearing it refusing to act on it. And God goes back to a time in the history of his people when they did just that after the Exodus from Egypt. The people had seen miracles with their own eyes, they had crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land, they saw the pillar of fire at night and had heard the voice of God at Sinai and were scared spitless, but it made no difference at all- they still did nothing but doubt and complain and so test God. The result? For 40 years God was angry with them- literally he ‘loathed’ them. Can you imagine that- having God loathing you for 40 years? Friends I can tell you, that is not a position you want to find yourself in.
And we needn’t think that this hardening of the heart to God’s Word is a result of one act of rebellion, it can happen very, very slowly, almost imperceptibly through over familiarity-taking the preaching and the access to Christian teaching for granted so that we just become nonchalant until eventually we become blasé and so deaf. A number of years ago there was a party in someone’s home. And as the guests arrived they placed their overcoats and fur coats onto the bed in the major bedroom and then went downstairs to enjoy the food and drinks. And one of the couples who had come along suddenly thought to themselves, ‘Where is our baby that we bought with us tonight?’ They had become so caught up in the enjoyment of things, the fact that they had brought a baby with them had slipped their minds. And so they rushed upstairs and to their horror they found the baby under the pile of coats smothered to death. That was every parent’s nightmare and an unspeakable tragedy. And yet there is a spiritual counterpart to that story when you think about it. We can become so taken up with our activities and even being with other people, that the Lord Jesus and his voice gets smothered because we forget he is here and that we are meant to be listening to him. And that is a tragedy.
And so here we have this wonderful psalm all about worship when suddenly the tone changes and we have this dire warning direct from God himself. It’s as if God has deliberately wrecked the Psalm, it was going so well! Verse 11 sounds such a downer – ‘So I declared on oath in my anger- ‘They shall never enter my rest’. Is it possible for professing believers, eventually not to enter God’s rest- heaven? The writer to the Hebrews thinks so since he refers to this psalm is in his letter as a warning to Christians. There are those who can peel away from Jesus, who lose their love for him because they don’t get to know him and the reason they don’t get to know him is because they don’t listen to him and meet him with his people. Do you see what a serious business worship is when our eternal destiny and those of our family is dependent on it? Let me put it like this: God so loves and cares for us that he will even ruin a psalm so that we won’t be ruined. The warning is crystal clear: the anger of God will cut you off from the rest of God if you harden your heart to the Word of God. Some of you have not yet surrendered your lives to the Lord Jesus- please don’t spurn that invitation he is making to you now. Some of you are letting things slip, please don’t let that continue. Some of you are making good progress, then thank him for that and let your worship be joyful, grateful and thoughtful.
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