Psalm 95

Sunday March 15th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 95:1-7; Romans 5:1-11

Psalm 95

Today we continue our Lenten series of the Psalms by looking at Psalm 95. Our study of the Psalms has felt very appropriate not only to this season of Lent leading up towards Easter, but also to this time of change and uncertainty that we are living in due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The poetic imagery and deep heartfelt emotion of the Psalms provide expression to worries, fears, and feelings that might otherwise be difficult to put into words.

One of the things that I love about the Psalms is that the writers of the Psalms did not shy away from the painful realities of life. Although many of the Psalms depict God and the world in beautiful, soaring imagery, the Psalms also confront the deepest and harshest realities of life. While this is a wonderful quality of the Psalms, I admit that it can also be quite shocking when a Psalm seems to start out light, and airy, and beautiful, and then takes a startlingly harsh tone.

Psalm 95 is one such Psalm. Let me read the first half again for us, this time from the Message paraphrase of the Bible:

Come, let’s shout praises to God,

    raise the roof for the Rock who saved us!

Let’s march into his presence singing praises,

    lifting the rafters with our hymns!

And why? Because God is the best,

    High King over all the gods.

In one hand he holds deep caves and caverns,

    in the other hand grasps the high mountains.

He made Ocean—he owns it!

    His hands sculpted Earth! 

So come, let us worship: bow before him,

    on your knees before God, who made us!

Oh yes, he’s our God,

    and we’re the people he pastures, the flock he feeds.

Drop everything and listen, listen as he speaks: (Psalm 95, 1-7, The Message)

Isn’t that beautiful? Every one of those verses could be combined with a gorgeous photograph, and placed on a calendar and I would buy it. Just picture those majestic, soaring mountains, the jaw-dropping stalactites and stalagmites of the caves and caverns, all perfectly illuminated and captured by a photographer the likes of Ansel Adams or Galen Rowell. Imagine God creating the oceans and sculpting the earth. Picture God’s people all over the world, bowing down before the Lord, with God as our shepherd, looking out for us.

But then we get to verse 8 of Psalm 95, and the soaring, beautiful imagery seems to disappear:

    “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.

And I was provoked—oh, was I provoked!

    ‘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.’”

If you’re like me, you love the first half of the Psalm — with the beautiful mountains and oceans, but you’d probably prefer to skip over that whole last part — that whole part about how the people rebelled against God, and how God was “provoked” and “exasperated” at them. Psalm 95 ends with God saying “They’ll never get where they’re headed, never be able to sit down and rest.” Sort of reminds me of all the sketches that include Debbie Downer, the character on Saturday Night Live who would show up at social gatherings and interrupt the conversation with her negative pronouncements!

But even though God said, “They’ll never get where they’re headed,” we know that the Israelites eventually DID enter the Promised Land! Or, at least the next generation did. So what happened? What changed for God? 

Well, therein lies the beauty and the poetry of the Psalms. Because, although the Psalm ends with a rather harsh word from God, the end of Psalm 95 is not the end of the story for the Israelites. Rather, Psalm 95 is an invitation to place ourselves in the unfolding narrative of God’s people. Psalm 95 is an invitation to look back, to see how God dealt with the people of Israel, and to consider, in light of that, what God might want to say to us today.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I like to think of the end of Psalm 95 as a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. When I was growing up, I used to love those Choose Your Own Adventure books. You don’t read straight through a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Instead, you read a chapter, and at the end of the chapter, it asks you a couple questions. If you decide, for example, to keep running straight into the sand dunes, then you turn to page 17 and read from there. But if you decide to stop and hide in the shack, you turn to page 20 and read from there. 

Of course, the first time reading through a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you have no idea which one is the best option. You just have to go with your gut feelings. But when you read it through several times, choosing different options, you see how your various choices would play out. Choose Your Own Adventure books invite you more deeply into the story than regular books, since you help the main character make the decisions. You are, in essence, the author of the story.

And that’s really what Psalm 95 is. It’s an invitation to see how our various choices would play out, by seeing how God interacted with the Israelite people. Will we choose to rebel against God, as the people of Israel did so many times? Or will we obey God’s commands and follow God’s path, as the people of Israel did at other times?

The psalmist tells us to “Drop everything and listen, listen as he speaks: Don’t turn a deaf ear” (Psalm 95:7-8a The Message). Or, in another translation, “Today, if only you would hear his voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness” (Psalm 95:7-8a NIV).

Meribah and Massah are references to the story of the Israelites people in the book of Exodus. God had just led the Isarelites out of slavery in Egypt, and had promised to take them through the wilderness, and to enter into the promised land. We see there that God wanted the Israelite people to enter the Promised Land. God wanted them to choose the “adventure” of faith, to follow God’s commands. 

But in Exodus chapter 17, the people arrived at a place that Moses later named Massah and Meribah, which means “to test” and “to quarrel.” It was there, when they were walking through the wilderness and had run out of water, that they began to quarrel with God, asking Moses why God had brought them out of slavery from Egypt, just to let them die in the wilderness. Why hadn’t God just let them stay in Egypt where they had enough water to drink? 

The problem was not just that they doubted that God could provide for their needs, but even more problematically they were doubting that God would provide for them. TIn other words, they were not just doubting God’s ability to give them what they needed, but fundamentally they were doubting God’s goodness.

In the end God did provide water for them – and God did it in a miraculous way. God instructed Moses to take his staff and strike a rock, and water gushed forth from it. It actually wasn’t at that point that God told them they weren’t allowed to enter the promised land, but in many ways that experience was indicative of the Israelite’s whole journey in the wilderness. They continued to doubt, continued to contend and quarrel with God all throughout their journey, and it had real repercussions for them. Their lack of faith meant that they were not able to enter into the promised land for 40 more years, which for some of them meant that that they didn’t get to enter into the promised land, but instead it was their children and grandchildren who got to go in.

Our Choices Matter

So often we’d like to think that our choices don’t matter, that in the end God will just sort of give all of us a passing grade. But the things that we do or don’t do have real impact — not just on ourselves, but on others as well. 

Now there’s no way that we’re ever going to be perfect, this side of Heaven. We’re going to make mistakes, and we’re going to doubt sometimes. But therein lies the choice. When we make mistakes, when we mess up and fail, we can either choose to curl up in a ball or blame, or we can come to God and humbly repent of our wrongdoing, and ask for God’s forgiveness. 

As the psalmist says, 

So come, let us worship: bow before him,

    on your knees before God, who made us!

Oh yes, he’s our God,

    and we’re the people he pastures, the flock he feeds.

Drop everything and listen, listen as he speaks (Psalm 96:6-8a).

Romans 5

The apostle Paul provides more insight one what happens when we choose to come before God in humility and repentance. In Romans 5, Paul says “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:6, 8-9 NRSV). 

Here we see that we can try to do it on our own — try to be good, and holy, and righteous apart from God, but the reality is that we’re going to fail. We can’t do it on our own strength. Or, we can choose to receive the love, and grace, and mercy and forgiveness that Christ offers us, and the reconciliation that God made possible for us through Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul goes on to say that “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10 NRSV). Or, again from the Message paraphrase, we now have “amazing friendship with God”! (Romans 5:10, The Message). 

And so, while Psalm 95 provides a wonderful reminder of God’s amazing ability to protect and provide for us, it also lays out the stark choice that is set before us. Will we harden our hearts, and refuse to trust in God’s goodness? Will we spend our lives contending against and rebelling against God? Or will we allow God to soften our hearts, will we turn to God in obedience and trust, and open ourselves up to receive the  grace, mercy, and forgiveness that is offered to us through Jesus Christ?

Let’s choose to trust in God! Let’s choose to bow down and worship, to be reconciled with God through Christ Jesus. Let’s look to Jesus as our Shepherd, and let’s place our faith, hope and trust in God’s goodness!