A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Lent 3 ~ Psalm 95
It’s a little bit ironic (well, actually I planned it this way), that we are looking at a scripture text about not losing our focus, during a worship service that has an annual congregational business meeting integrated into it that pretty much guarantees we won’t really be focused on worship.
The first 7 verses of Psalm 95 are all happy-go-lucky and positive. “Let’s sing to God! God is awesome! Yay, God! Let’s worship, and bow down, and kneel!”
Worship literally means ‘to ascribe worth’ to something – to indicate or say that something has value and is worthy of ardour, praise, devotion. Worship could be expressed as ‘worth-ship’. And please don’t trip on that ‘bow down’ language. It doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to grovel, at all. ‘Bowing down’ is about honour, and reverence, and awe, not fear.
So, we begin wonderfully – singing praises to God. Then the psalm turns on a dime, as they often do. Out of nowhere, in the midst of all that praising, the psalmist suddenly, perhaps ominously says, “O that today you would listen to God’s voice!” And then, as psalms also often do, the ‘voice’ of the psalm changes. By that I mean that the first 7 verses are the psalmist speaking, and then the last 4 verses it changes to God doing the speaking. And, I’m sorry to say it, God isn’t all that happy, apparently.
Well, God is downright livid in the New Revised Standard Version and only somewhat miffed in The Message translation. (We chose The Message for these verses today!)
The NRSV reads like this: (Psalm 95:8-11)
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.” Therefore, in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”
Yikes! The ‘Meribah and Massah’ incident happened during the great Exodus, when the people of Israel, in the wilderness, having been freed from slavery and servitude, turned on Moses, and complained bitterly at God, and blamed God for not helping them. The word ‘Meribah’ actually means ‘strife/quarrel’, and ‘Massah’ means ‘test’. They put God to the test. (That’s not wise.) The response was one of the ‘water from rocks’ thingies.
The NRSV chose the harshest translations of some words. To say that God ‘loathed’ the people just feels wrong. It could equally mean ‘grieved’, as in to say that God felt grieved by their lack of trust. The Message chooses ‘provoked’, and ‘exasperated’. That sounds truer to God to me. I bet I exasperate the heck out of God! (Maybe you do too?)
And to say that God was so angry (literally that God’s nostrils were flaring – Hebrew is such a colourful language) that God would declare that the people could never enter God’s rest? Double yikes!
So, instead of that harsh, unhelpful language, here’s The Message version: God says,
“Don’t turn a deaf ear as in the Bitter Uprising, as on the day of the Wilderness Test, when your ancestors turned and put me to the test.
For forty years they watched me at work among them, as over and over they tried my patience. (You ever have your patience tried?) And I was provoked—oh, was I provoked!, (God said.)
‘Can’t they keep their minds on God for five minutes? Do they simply refuse to walk down my road?’
Exasperated, I exploded, ‘They’ll never get where they’re headed, never be able to sit down and rest.’”
“Can’t they keep their minds on God for five minutes?”
That one stings, but only because it’s true. How we must try God’s patience with our constant lack of focus. And what do I do? I take away your worship focus by integrating a business meeting. I can almost feel God’s eyes rolling. Oh, there are really good reasons for us to do it this way, and we’re not really all that unfocused, but still.
Then again, while we may be distracting some of your focus from our corporate worship today, this sacred hour on Sunday mornings (or whenever you watch online) is not, must not be the only time you worship God. Remember, worship isn’t just what we do in church. Worship is ‘worth-ship’ – so we can bring to heart and mind God’s worth, God’s awesomeness, God’s beauty, God’s grace, God’s love – anytime we want. Any time.
Or how about ALL the time? I can’t think of a single time when it wouldn’t be appropriate and beneficial to feel worshipful toward God’s Presence. Holy mindfulness. Sacred awareness. Noticing (that God surely is in whatever place you are). How often should one worship? The same amount that one might breathe. The same amount that one should pray! Without ceasing!
Yes! Wonderful! Fantastic!
And do we? No.
Why not? Focus, focus, focus. We are endlessly distracted by a seemingly infinite number of things.
“O that today you would listen to God’s voice!”
O that today we would not be distracted, and would focus on God’s loving presence.
You may recall that Henri Nouwen – a Catholic priest, spirituality author, and professor of religion – is being our spiritual guide through Lent this year. Each week I’m incorporating a prayer from his beautiful book called A Cry for Mercy, which was written during an extended stay at a monastery – which he needed because he had lost his focus on God’s presence! Here is his prayer:
“Dear Lord, help me keep my eyes on you.
You are the incarnation of Divine Love, you are the expression of God’s infinite compassion, you are the visible manifestation of the Father’s holiness.
You are beauty, goodness, gentleness, forgiveness, and mercy.
In you all can be found. Outside of you nothing can be found. Why should I look elsewhere or go elsewhere?
You have the words of eternal life, you are food and drink, you are the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
You are the light that shines in the darkness, the lamp on the lampstand, the house on the hilltop.
You are the perfect Icon of God.
In and through you I can see the Heavenly Father, and with you I can find my way to the Trinity.
O Holy One, Beautiful One, Glorious One, be my Lord, my Saviour, my Redeemer, my Guide, my Consoler, my Comforter, my Hope, my Joy, and my Peace. To you I want to give all that I am.
Let me be generous, not stingy or hesitant. Let me give you all – all I have, think, do, and feel. It is yours, O Lord. Please accept it and make it fully your own.”
That, is worship. That, is focus.
O that today we would listen to ‘his’ voice.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002), 60.