October 20, 2002

Psalm 95

I recall an occasion in the spring of 2000. The main road running from Jerusalem to Bethlehem was lavishly decorated, and people lined both sides of the street for as far as the eye could see. Our family and some friends had made our way earlier to Manger Square, and we were able to find a place among the crowd some fifty yards or so from the stage that had been set up there. Several hours before the anticipated event, people were virtually standing on top of each other, maneuvering for position. The excitement in the air was unmistakable and the sense of anticipation mounting. This otherwise humble place—a relatively small town inhabited by an ever-decreasing number of Christians—was to be the scene of a breath-taking celebration. Pope John Paul II was coming to Bethlehem’s Manger Square.

I sense a similar excitement here in Psalm 95. You can just about feel the enthusiasm swelling up in the crowd, can’t you? The people are gathered together, the worship leader is orchestrating the event, and everyone is either standing or sitting on the very edge of their seats. But what is all of the commotion about?

As the Psalm moves along, it becomes clear that the focus of the festivities is not on some elaborate human production or masterful human performer, but on God himself. In the same way that the countless Christians gathered in Manger Square those few years ago in anticipation of John Paul II’s arrival, so to do these early worshipers gather to adore God. For the Christians in Bethlehem, and particularly the Palestinian believers among them, John Paul’s visit was filled with enormous symbolism and hope. After all, the Palestinian Christians number only in the thousands, yet the Pope would take the time to join them on this occasion. His visit suggested to them that they were not forgotten, nor had the entire world abandoned them. As I looked over the crowd throughout the day, I could not help but notice how John Paul’s historic visit had left the people overwhelmed and amazed. “He is really here,” they must have repeated to themselves.

So it is in Psalm 95. The people are clearly overcome by the sheer magnificence of God: “…the Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods.” Nothing in this world or any other compares to him, they seem to say. They are similarly impressed by his creative might: “In his hands are the depths of the earth,” they chant, and “the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” Just think about it for a moment. There are 330 million cubic miles of water on and in the earth. Trust me—I cannot imagine that much water either. Perhaps this will help. One cubic mile of water equals more than one trillion gallons. And then you multiply that by 330 million!?! Perhaps not! Or imagine this. If all of that water was dumped on the United States, it would cover every bit of land to a depth of 90 miles! And God made it. How much of it? All of it.

Yet, not only are these people overwhelmed by God’s magnificence and might, they are awe-struck by this bewildering thought: “He is here.” “…he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” This very same God who stands above all other divine pretenders, this very same God who spoke the world into existence, this very same God has wrapped his arms around us.

When we declare in our new purpose statement here at the Grantham Church that we seek to worship God, we are first and foremost making clear this core conviction. Worship is about God. It is not so much about you or me, nor is it primarily about our likes and dislikes. Worship is about God. And if the anticipated arrival of Pope John Paul II was enough to inspire the crowd in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, how should we respond to the presence of God himself in our midst?

Notice how the crowd in Psalm 95 is encouraged to respond. “Come, let’s shout praises to God, raise the roof for the Rock who saved us” as Eugene Peterson paraphrases the opening stanza. “Let’s march into his presence singing praises, lifting the rafters with our hymns!” What we encounter here is worship that is real, genuine, and uninhibited. The worship of Psalm 95 is joyful. Various prophets, including Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos, remind us elsewhere that God finds no pleasure in religious rituals that are lacking in heartfelt experience and faith. “When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?” Isaiah inquires (1:12). “Trample my courts no more….” God does not delight in mechanistic maneuverings through meaningless motions. He wants our hearts.

I recall again that scene in Manger Square a few years ago. I was fascinated just to watch how various people responded and reacted. From time to time, a young man would step to the microphone and lead the gathering in a chant of sorts. “Viva la Papa,” many in the crowd shouted with considerable exuberance. “Viva la Papa.” “Life to the Pope,” they cried. Frankly, that was a real stretch for me! “Viva la Papa,” they continued to shout. But others stood by and said little. Some in the crowd whispered the chant. Others prayed quietly. Some laughed and danced, waving their hands for everyone to see. Others shed a few tender tears, giving evidence that their own, more reserved hearts were deeply moved by the proceedings. What struck me through all of this was how absolutely uninhibited everyone appeared to be. The shouters shouted, and no one asked them to be quiet. The more contemplative reflectors kept right on reflecting, and no one asked them to roll in the aisles. To be sure, people in these various groups crossed boundaries from time to time—the shouters grew quiet and the reflectors joined the chorus. What was wonderfully lacking, however, was a burdensome pressure to label and conform. The people in Manger Square seemed free to me that day. They were uninhibited. They were joyful.

We at the Grantham Church want to worship God “joyfully,” according to our purpose statement. To me, worshiping joyfully begins with our being genuine and real. Let me state right up front my vision for worship here. I am not so much concerned if our worship is “contemporary” or “traditional,” to use a few seemingly worn-out terms. Perhaps I am too much of a liturgical charismatic Anabaptist. I happen to believe that people can genuinely and sincerely worship God through vibrant singing and reflective readings, through “just-off-the-press” choruses and Gregorian chants, through exuberant demonstrations and total silence. I don’t have too many hang-ups about worship style.

What I pray for continually is that our worship of God—regardless of the form at any particular moment—will be uninhibited and joyful. It is far too easy for us to be more conscious of the person next to us than we are of God. It is no less easy for us to feel constrained by what others might think of us. And to be sure, part of worshiping together means that we do think of others and that we not exercise our so-called rights at their expense. What often happens, however, is that we stifle our own personalities, squelch various Spirit-directed impulses, and stay on our guard. We try so hard to “fit in” that we are never completely ourselves. In short, we are not real.

In Psalm 95, the worship leader invites the congregation to shout praises to God, make a joyful noise, and even to adopt a certain posture—“kneel before the Lord.” In a sense, the worship leader encourages the people to freely express the experiences of their hearts, both in word—shout and sing—and in gesture—kneel down. “Be real,” they are instructed. That is what the Lord desires.

Lastly, one cannot help but feel a certain degree of personal responsibility that finds expression here in Psalm 95. There is, after all, a series of commands or exhortations. “Come, let’s shout,” the Psalmist begins. “…let us make a joyful noise,” he continues. “Let us come into his presence…. O come, let us worship and bow down.” Again and again, the congregation envisioned in this Psalm is encouraged to worship. At the same time, we find no less vivid instructions for them to avoid certain attitudes and behaviors. “”Drop everything and listen,” Peterson phrases it. “Don’t turn a deaf ear as in the Bitter Uprising.” Here, the Psalmist clearly refers to certain episodes in Israel’s past when, instead of celebrating God’s goodness and faithfulness, the people murmured and complained. “Don’t be stiff-necked. Don’t harden your hearts.” Throughout this entire Psalm, we see glaring evidence that people can choose to worship or not.

As I stood in Manger Square a few years ago and joined in the festivities, I thought often of the people I was gathering with. I knew enough to realize that their personal stories varied greatly, and I also knew that a considerable deal of pain and anguish stood behind most of their shouts and prayers. These, by and large, were people who knew pain and suffering first-hand. They had experienced war, hatred, and hunger. Their lives had generally been much more difficult than mine. And yet, they came to this gathering and joined in the celebration. They sang and they shouted, and they were not about to let years of struggle get in the way. They chose, if you will, to celebrate.

So too it is for all of us. When we acknowledge that we are seeking to worship joyfully, we are affirming that we make significant choices as we come together. We recognize that our own attitudes and experiences deeply affect the way we either participate or fail to participate in worship. Quite frankly, I can’t make you worship. Neither can Karen, our other pastors, the choir, the worship team, or any of the other gifted people that we have here at the Grantham Church. We are only “prompters,” to borrow Philip Yancey’s term, trying prayerfully to guide this congregation into an ever-deepening and broadening intimacy with the living God. But you and I make choices, choices that I know are not always easy or painless.

For one thing, we have our own attitudes to deal with, and some of them difficult to overcome. We can choose to prepare our hearts and come with a sense of expectancy and anticipation, or we can reluctantly cram the service into our already overloaded schedules. We can join enthusiastically in the singing, whether we like a particular song or not, or we can murmur about the music that doesn’t quite suit our fancies. We can use the moments of silence to search our own souls or to pray for the needs of others, or we can let our minds wander during what we think is wasted space in the service. We can raise our hands or even kneel if we want to, or we can resist those urges and conform. We can increasingly focus our attention on God and adore him freely and openly, or we can watch everyone else and worry about what they may or may not be thinking. Sometimes our attitudes are tough to deal with.

But we also have a wide range of sometimes conflicting experiences to cope with, things that are often beyond our control. Sickness. Unemployment. Loneliness. Political unrest. Snipers. How can we worship joyfully, we might wonder, when we feel as though our lives or even the world are going down the tubes? “Isn’t that hypocritical?” we ask? Isn’t that being “unreal?” Worshiping joyfully should not be casually equated with worshiping flippantly, as though we were living in a state of denial. We do not always have to be happy, and I certainly have no interest in whipping people into an emotional frenzy. But choosing to worship joyfully, it seems to me, does involve shifting our focus from the concerns of life to the giver of life. Worshiping joyfully increasingly invites us to move from blaming God for our hardship to casting our cares upon him, knowing that he really does care for us. Worshiping joyfully enables us to see through the pain and suffering and downward turns of life and encounter firsthand an indescribably gracious God who, over the course of human history, actually does have things under control. We do not have to feel strong in and of ourselves before we can worship joyfully—where did we ever get that idea? No. The joy of the Lord is our strength (Neh. 8:10). It is in letting go of our cares and worshiping joyfully that we begin to sense a fresh breath of God’s spirit move within our souls.

John Newton is probably a familiar name to most of you. After many years as a slave trader on an English ship, Newton met Jesus Christ face to face. He became a pastor, and wrote, among other hymns, Amazing Grace. Newton once said that there was one passage in the Bible that he would never preach while his wife was alive—Habakkuk 3:17-19:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
In Newton’s mind, he would never know if he actually believed that passage unless his wife preceded him in death and he remained faithful to God. Newton’s wife did die first, and after facing his grief and anguish head on, he stood and preached her funeral sermon. The text? Habakkuk 3:17-19. The joy of the Lord is our strength.

“So come, let us worship: bow down before him, on your knees before God, who made us!” the Psalmist declares here in Psalm 95. Whatever our situation and whatever our lot in life, we can all shout on this very day: “Oh yes, he’s our God, and we’re the people he pastures, the flock he feeds.”

One last thing I should tell you about that day a few years ago in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. I can hardly begin to tell you how exciting it was—there was electricity in the air. But after the ceremony concluded, Pope John Paul II, a frail and decrepit man, climbed into the famous Pope Mobile, drove within ten feet of me, and left the area. I haven’t seen him since. When you and I worship joyfully, we celebrate God’s glory and grace, and we usher him into every area of our lives. Do we need any other reason to be joyful today?!? If so, here it is. We never have to usher him out!