The Dangers of Complacency - Psalm 95
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In 1969, in a small coastal town in Mississippi, USA, a group of people were preparing to have a "hurricane party" in the face of a hurricane named Camille. It was foolish and dangerous in the extreme, but they were determined to enjoy themselves. Perhaps it was the pride of youth, perhaps they didnt believe it could happen to them. But they were there to stay despite the warnings. Sometime after dark, as the wind speed picked up, Police Chief Jerry Peralta pulled up outside the posh Richelieu Apartments. Facing the beach less than 250 feet from the surf, the apartments were directly in the line of danger. A man with a drink in his hand came out to the second-floor balcony and waved. Peralta yelled up, "You all need to clear out of here as quickly as you can. The storms getting worse." But as another joined the man on the balcony, they just laughed at Peraltas order to leave. "This is my land," one of them yelled back. "If you want me off, youll have to arrest me." Peralta didnt arrest anyone, but he wasnt able to persuade them to leave either. He wrote down the names of the next of kin of the twenty or so people who gathered there to party through the storm. They laughed as he took their names. They had been warned, but they had no intention of leaving. It was 10:15 p.m. when the front wall of the storm came ashore. Scientists clocked Camilles wind speed at more than 205 miles-per-hour, the strongest on record. Raindrops hit with the force of bullets, and waves off the Gulf Coast topped almost thirty feet high. News reports later showed that the worst damage came at the very place where this party was being held, and it ended in the deaths of those twenty people having their "hurricane party" in the Richelieu Apartments. Nothing was left of that three-story structure but the foundation; the only survivor was a five-year-old boy found clinging to a mattress the following day.
Complacency can be a killer. If you foolishly ignore the warnings of impending danger, then you only have yourself to blame. And it is possible for Christians like you and me to suffer from this same disease of complacency, but in the spiritual realm. It is possible even for professing Christians to grow a little weary of their Christian lives and to allow their spiritual discipline to slip. I mean lets face it there are many pressures on us in the world in which we live. Not just the pressures of life that assail everyone. But the particular pressures of living a Christian life. So were faced by an antagonistic world, perhaps by an unsympathetic family, perhaps by unbelieving colleagues at work; or maybe were having to undergo a painful trial or were in the midst of enduring some form of suffering. And its in those times of pressure that we are tempted to be complacent. We think to ourselves: "Why should I bother? Why follow Christ when its just so hard? Ive got so many other things to worry about, its hard keeping up my walk with God." Of course the flip side is that things are actually very good. Were enjoying life, things are good at home and work, there are no particular pressures at the moment. And the danger for us there is to forget that it is God himself who has given us all good things. And we can become self dependant. Whilst we might not say it, were living as if we dont need God. Well both those life situations, the hard times and the good times, can have the same dulling effect on us spiritually. Its possible to become complacent and to grow spiritually cold. So we perhaps arent as ruthless with sin as we used to be. Were not quite as devoted to reading Gods word as we once were. And our prayer lives arent quite as passionate as they once were. And thats why every so often we need to come to a passage like this psalm to bring us up to the mark and to warn us against slipping into spiritual complacency.
Now we dont know who wrote this psalm, or when he wrote it, but its written by someone who clearly thinks his hearers are in danger of becoming spiritually complacent. God has done so many wonderful things for them, but they need to obey the voice of God otherwise they will suffer the consequences. And its a psalm that the writer to the Hebrews uses to warn NT Christians of the dangers of spiritual complacency. Every so often the Bible slips in passages like this to warn us of the dangers of spiritual complacency. For it was the apostle Paul who once wrote: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith." And these passages are written not to cause us to doubt we are saved, but to urge us to give ourselves a spiritual health check up, a spiritual MOT, so that we wont break down, or slip away from the great God who has saved us. So as we hear from our writer this morning, let us not be cold hearted and ignore the warnings. But let us sit humbly under these words of scripture and hear Gods warnings to us not to be spiritually complacent. And our writer gives us two words to help us battle against complacency:
1) A Word of Thanks (Vv 1-7)
2) A Word of Warning (Vv 8-11)
1) A Word of Thanks (Vv 1-7)
And our writer begins first of all with a word of thanks in verses 1-7. In fact thats a little tame really isnt it? Its more like ecstatic joy. He delights in His God and is overjoyed! So look at verse 1: "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." Now our writer is in absolutely no doubt that there is much to delight in when it comes to God. And he invites us to join in his praise and adoration of God. And its important to note that our writer begins with thanksgiving because thanklessness is the slippery slope to complacency and eventual denial of God. So for example if you fail to thank your mother in law or your great aunt for her gift to you at Christmas of a knitted jumper, then you are really revealing what you think of your mother in law. You think her and her gift worthless. Youre ungrateful. And that ingratitude unless stopped will continue, so you become more and more hardened to her every Christmas until one Christmas she sends you nothing and you dont even care. And the relationship is broken. And it all stems from your heartless ingratitude. And the apostle Paul argues in Romans 1 that that is precisely what happens with humans and God. Thanklessness of his character and his gifts to us leads to a hardening of our hearts towards him until we reject him and he gives us what we want- to rule our own lives, which is actually a mark of his judgement. And the way to avoid that slippery slope to destruction is thankfulness. To recognise that God is the great giver and that we live in dependence on him. So thankfulness is vitally important in the battle against complacency. And the Christian will long to praise and thank God for who he is and what he has done.
So notice what it is that the writer is thankful for. In every case it is something about the character of God, that he is the Rock, the King and the Creator. And again our writer raises another important point. That we need to get into the habit of praising and thanking God not just for what he does for us, but also for who he is in himself. You see if all our focus in thanks and praise is on what God has done for us, then there is a danger that even our gratitude can become a little self obsessed. So rightly we praise God for saving us and helping us. But God is far more than a God who simply does things for us, as if he were a genie in a bottle. No, in and of himself he is a God worthy of praise and adoration. So the Bible often urges us to praise God simply for who he is, before we rightly go on to praise him for what he has done for us. Because the very fact that God does things for us is rooted in the kind of God he is. Simply by being the kind of God he is, he is worthy of our praise and adoration. So do you make it your habit in prayer simply to spend some time praising and delighting in God for who he is. How much spiritual nourishment and encouragement we would receive simply by reflecting on and praising God for his amazing character, before we come on to praise him for what hes done for us. Take a psalm like this one and use it to adore and praise God! Come let us sing for joy to our Lord, says our writer. And what is it that he praises God for?
a) God is our Rock- He says first that God is our Rock. Verse 1: "Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation." Its a way of describing God that is found on the lips of many of the Biblical characters. And it speaks of total dependence and immovability. God wont let us down. He will save us. Whenever I think of verses like this I think of my favourite spot in Cornwall where we go for our holidays. Its a place called Trebarwith Strand, and a few hundred metres off the shoreline is a huge rock which sits in the middle of the ocean buffeted by massive North Atlantic breakers year in year out. And nothing moves it. Even in the face of hurricane force winds and mountainous seas, that rock stands firm. And God is like that. Which is why David could say of God: "I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock in whom I take refuge." (Ps. 18 v 2) God is our rock. While everything around us may fail us and collapse, God never will.
b) God is our King- But another reason for praise is that God is our king in verses 2 and 3: "Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods." God is the great King. There is no other like him. There is no other god apart from him. Hes the one who sits enthroned in the heavens. Hes the one who rules and sustains the world. Hes the one who will one day bring justice and judgement on the earth. How we need to remember that in these very uncertain days that there is only One God. He is the King.
c) God is our Creator- And then thirdly, our writer praises God because he is our creator. Verse 4: "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." God is the loving and great creator of the world. He watches over everything from the highest mountains to the lowest depths. And the more we look into the great intricacies of world, the more we should be amazed at the glory and wisdom of God. Truly he has made for us an amazing world. And what do all these characteristics cause the writer to ask us to do? Verse 6: "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." We bow before him in adoration that he is God and that he has saved us his people. He is our shepherd and we are his flock. We dont deserve his grace and mercy and protection. But that is the kind of God he is. The rock, the King and our creator.
You see thats the reason the psalmist calls us to join him in praise, because of who God is. And such praise of Gods character is not limited by circumstances. In other words whether were having a bad or a good time, then we are called upon to praise God. Because his character is unchanging. Its not that we necessarily feel joyful or feel happy. Rather Gods character is something always to delight in, whatever our earthly circumstances. And in fact, the praise and adoration of God for who he is, is a wonderful tonic for our soul.
So consider Martin Rinkart, a man who knew this all too well. Martin Rinkart lived and worked as a pastor in the German city of Eilenburg in the first half of the 17th century, when Germany was in the midst of terrible wars, famine and pestilence. During one especially oppressive period, Rinkart conducted up to 50 funerals a day, including members of his own family, as a plague swept through the town in the midst of the Thirty Years War. Yet during those years of darkness and despair, when death and destruction greeted each new day, Rinkart wrote 66 songs and hymns. Among them was the song "Now Thank We All Our God." As sorrow crouched all around him, Rinkart wrote: "Now thank we all our God, With hearts and hands and voices, Who wondrous things hath done, In whom His world rejoices; Who, from our mothers arms, Hath blessed us on our way With countless gifts of love, And still is ours today." Could you or I say the same in such difficult situations? Because what Martin Rinkart and our psalmist knew all too well was that thankfulness is the first step on the road to guarding against complacency. So hear the word of the Lord today and dont ignore the warning. A word of thanks.
2) A Word of Warning (Vv 8-11)
But then secondly, the psalmist gives us a word of warning in verses 8-11. And at first these verses seem totally out of place with what has gone before. Its a real gear change from a great psalm of praise to a serious psalm of warning. In fact, some writers believe that this is really two psalms sewn together at some point! But that would be to miss the point that the psalmist is making. Because his point is that it is possible to agree that God is a great and awesome God and perhaps even to have experienced his greatness to a certain degree and yet still to turn your back on God, to ignore him and turn away from him. It is possible despite all of verses 1-7 to still have a heart that is cold towards God. And so the writer is warning us against spiritual complacency. And interestingly the Reformers back in the sixteenth century saw the value of this psalm and its warnings when they were putting together the Book of Common Prayer which became the standard prayer book for the Church of England. For in the order of service for Morning Prayer which ideally is supposed to be said every morning in every church in the land, we are to say together Psalm 95, or what is known as the Venite after the first word in Latin of the psalm. So every day Christians up and down the land would recite this psalm as a reminder to them not to grow complacent. But surely we wouldnt turn our backs on God would we? We wouldnt harden our hearts after seeing all that God has done and who he is. Well says our writer, just listen to my warning before you get too complacent. So lets see what our writer says to his own generation before we turn to see how it applies to us.
a) The Warning Then- So first the warning then. What was the writer saying to his own generation? Verses 8-9: "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." He is speaking the words of God and warning his hearers not to be like the people of Israel many years before. And he refers to an incident that happened in Exodus 17. Now at this point in Exodus, the people of Israel have just been rescued from the Egyptians. And they have seen some incredible things. They witnessed the ten plagues in Egypt. They witnessed the cloud lead them by day and the pillar of fire lead them by night. They have seen the Red Sea divided before them, and then close behind them swallowing up the entire Egyptian army. God had done amazing things for this people. But now what happens? They start grumbling and complaining that there is no water to drink, and they question why they ever came out of Egypt in the first place. Can you imagine it? Not five minutes after they been dramatically rescued, then they are grumbling against their rescuer. As if God wouldnt provide for his people having rescued them! And so the place where they grumbled become known as Massah which means testing, that is putting God to the test; and Meribah which means quarrelling. That is quarrelling with God. And this episode in Israels history perfectly captures their general attitude to God which is one of ingratitude and distrust. And so what does the psalmist say happened? Verse 10, he quotes God as saying: "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." Everyone who complained so appallingly against God was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, what God calls his rest, the place where the people could rest from their labours. Everyone one of those hundreds of thousands of people who came out from Egypt, including Moses himself, died in the desert. All apart from two who remained faithful. All because they refused to trust God. As our writer says they hardened their hearts against God. You see it does happen, says our writer. Your forefathers hardened their hearts, after all they had seen and experienced! They refused to trust God. And they paid the price. So the application for our writers audience is in verse 8: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah." Dont ignore Gods Word today, like your forefathers. Dont be complacent. Trust Gods promises today, and dont fall into the same trap of ignoring God, otherwise you too will find yourselves not entering Gods rest.
b) The Warning Today- And so what is the warning for us today? Well the writer to the Hebrews takes this psalm and applies it to us New Testament Christians. So turn with me to Hebrews 3 and 4. And have a look at Hebrews 3 v 7: "So as the Holy Spirit says, Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." The writer says that the Holy Spirit continues to speak a powerful contemporary message through this ancient psalm. And the message is the same in about 800BC or whenever the psalm was first written, and the same in 60AD when Hebrews was written and the same for us in 2005 AD. For the Holy Spirit speaks the same message which is "Dont harden your heart." And what does that mean in practice? Well our writer tells us in verses 12 to 14: "See to it brothers that none of you has a sinful unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sins deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." Hes saying that we need to encourage one another to keep believing the gospel promises. We need to keep walking with God Today. Because if we ignore his word to us, then we are hardening our hearts against him. Were in danger of drifting away from God. In fact in Hebrews chapter 2 the writer had used that illustration to show what was happening with these Christians to whom he was writing. You see they are like little boats tied up in a harbour. But the rope tying the boat to the mooring has come loose and the boat is slowly but surely drifting away on the tide. And thats the warning of this passage in Hebrews and our psalm. The warning of drifting away. So in order to stop the drift, we need to act Today.
In other words, being a Christian is a daily exercise of faith in Gods promises. We cannot afford any slacking off, because the moment we slacken off were allowing those ropes tied to the moorings to become loose. They are slipping slowly but surely. Its not that God hasnt promised to keep us. His promises are sure and trustworthy. But that does not mean we just sit back and enjoy the ride to heaven. No, the flip side to Gods promises to keep us going are that we must act in faith. We need to keep believing the gospel promises and keep living the life God wants us to live. Its about actively living out the promises of God each day. And if we dont? Well our writer is very clear. We are in danger of missing out on Gods rest, which is the writers way of talking about heaven. Because our constant ignoring of Gods warnings, and our persistent slipping away from God actually reveal what our hearts are like. We reveal ourselves to be hardened against God- and there is no place in heaven for those whose hearts are hardened to God.
Can you see the real force of the warnings? Its one of the passages in the Scriptures that fires a warning shot across our bows not to slide into spiritual complacency. We just cannot afford to let that happen. Because its so serious. So each one of us needs to ask ourselves the question whether we are obedient to Gods word today. It maybe things are going well for you and you are walking with the Lord daily. Well can I urge you to hear the word of the Lord today. Remember that complacency can lurk round the next corner. We mustnt get proud of our spiritual stability. Rather be dependant on God today like yesterday and do the same tomorrow. Because only by constant and obedience and dependence on him will we keep ourselves from slipping away.
But it maybe that you recognise yourself here. If you are honest you can see that you have slipped away. The spiritual moorings have come loose, and you know you are slipping. Well the right response is not to feel guilty or regretful. The right response is to hear the word of the Lord today and act on it. Not to harden your heart any more. Come back to the Lord who loves you and start afresh with him. Maybe you know you have allowed sin to dominate your life in a particular way. Perhaps church has not been a priority these last few weeks and months. Maybe the word of God has little place in your life each week. Well if God is speaking to you today, and he is as we open his word, then please dont harden your heart to his voice. Repent and come back to him. Because to hear Gods voice and then not to repent or to harden your heart is foolishness in the extreme. You are ignoring the warnings. And that is as daft spiritually as staying in a house which is the direct line of a hurricane. Its spiritual suicide. Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.
But I want to end with a word to those who would not yet claim to be Christians. You see it may be you have come to St. Johns for a while, and you know you have not yet trusted Jesus Christ with your life. Well none of us knows how many more warnings we will receive. None of us knows how long we have on this planet. And even if we have many years left, yet our hearts can become hardened to God if we persistently ignore the warnings. So what holds you back from trusting Christ if you have not yet done that. Will you continue to resist? If so you are playing a dangerous game. I would urge you to fling yourself into Gods loving arms. Because that is the only place where we can be sure of being safe when the hurricane of Gods judgement strikes, as one day it surely will.
D L Moody was one of the greatest evangelists of the last century. And in one of his sermons he told this story: "I was in the north of England in 1881, when a fearful storm swept over that part of the country. A friend of mine, who was a minister at Evemouth, had a great many of the fishermen of the place in his congregation. It had been very stormy weather, and the fishermen had been detained in the harbour for a week. One day, however, the sun shone out in a clear blue sky; it seemed as if the storm had passed away, and the boats started out for the fishing ground. Forty-one boats left the harbour that day. Before they started, the harbour-master hoisted the storm signal, and warned them of the coming storm. He begged them not to go; but they disregarded his warning, and away they went. They saw no sign of the coming storm. In a few hours, however, it swept down on that coast, and very few of those fishermen returned. There were five or six men in each boat, and nearly all were lost in that dreadful gale. In the church of which my friend was pastor, I believe there were three male members left. Those men were ushered into eternity because they did not give heed to the warning." Then Moody said to his assembled congregation: "I lift up the storm signal now, and warn you to escape from the coming judgment!"
You see both the psalmist and the writer to the Hebrews are warning us in the same way against spiritual complacency. And whether we would claim to be Christians here this morning or not, we all need to hear what the Lord is saying. To obey both the word of thanks and the word of warning. For Today, if you hear his voice, dont harden your heart.
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