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Sermon for 19 March 2017

 
 

Psalm 95 – The Lord is a Great God

 

This psalm that we have just read is one of those psalms where we only really want to enjoy part of it – the first half.   The first half is a rallying call to faith – but the second half seems to descend into self-examination and self-criticism for forgetting that God is big enough, solid enough, and mighty enough to save.

 

What I want to do this morning is dig into that self-examination and self-criticism.  Why does it seem so abrupt?  What is it that happened?  And what was it that made the Lord detest a generation of his people, be so full of wrath, and delay the fulfilment of a promise?

 

The incident goes back to a time just after the greatest liberation of the people of God and what happened afterwards.  Outside of war, this was the greatest release of prisoners ever known but totally overshadowed by the failure of those freed to find their new identity - the failure of those prisoners to move on from captivity and to a land of hope, of prosperity, of security - the failure to be "strong and courageous” and consequently to miss God’s call and blessing.

 

If we understand the severity of the failure of the second half of the psalm, and the magnitude of the promise that was there, I think we start to understand the first half of the psalm much better.

 

By understanding the second half, we start to realise why the psalmist pleas for us to recognise that the Lord really is a Great God.

 

And that lesson of grasping freedom speaks not just to the Israelites released from Egypt but to us granted a life in Christ, with the power to be free from the control of sin, and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, to live in the strength of a Great God.

 

A quick history

The Israelites had been captive in Egypt but broke free under the leadership of Moses.  This happened three thousand years ago.

 

The Israelites were basically the expanded family of Jacob and they all came to Egypt because of Joseph.

 

If you remember, Joseph (of the technicolour dream coat) became the right hand man of the leader of Egypt, Pharaoh. 

 

Joseph knew from one of his dreams that a big famine was coming to the entire region and invited all his family to come and join him in Egypt, where he knew he could take care of them. 

 

Joseph’s dad was Jacob. The family was pretty big because Joseph and his eleven brothers all had plenty of children.  They were the foundation of the twelve tribes of Israel.

 

Having been a wonderful place, however, the Egyptian leadership changed and Joseph had long gone and been forgotten.  The Israelites meanwhile had become too numerous and too powerful, so effectively a new Pharaoh enslaved them. 

 

Despite this, and attempted birth control, at the time of the escape, just the adult male population of Israel numbered 600,000.  Jacob’s family had become a whole people group.  They had been in Egypt 430 years.

 

It was God giving Jacob the new name of Israel in his old age that gave name to this people without a country.  The country would come later.

 

God had heard the plea of the Israelites in captivity and raised up Moses to lead them out of slavery, but first, the Egyptians had to let them go. 

 

What followed was a series of curses, laid upon Egypt.  Before each curse came, it was spoken to Moses in prophecy and warned of to Pharaoh, with the demand that he let God’s people go. 

 

The big one was the tenth: The threatened death of the first born of every family.  Once again, Pharaoh was warned but did not buckle.

 

[Moses received a word from God ahead of that final curse: Each Jewish household must take a lamb The blood of that sacrificial lamb must be daubed on their door posts and door lintel. And the families were each to eat the lamb, roasted, and with unleavened bread.]

 

[God’s word was that when the Angel of Death visited Egypt, any house with a lamb’s blood on it, would be passed over.  The blood of the lamb would signal their claim to safety and redemption.]

 

The curse fell and the Angel of Death visited Egypt.  True to the God’s word, in the morning, the Jewish people awoke, finding their own families safe, but otherwise, the first born of all Egypt dead.  It is this passing over of the Angel of Death that defined the Passover.

 

After the final plague, Pharaoh commanded Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, they were liberated from slavery.  The year was 1446 BC.

 

The Jews were led out of Egypt, across the Red Sea.  God held back that sea, exposing the dry land.  Pharaoh’s men were swept away as they chased after them

 

The first 7 verses of our psalm today reflect the joy and celebration that must have been on the minds and hearts of the Jews at the point of liberation, at the point of relief on the other side of the water.

 

Verse 5 "The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land”.

 

The Passover, from that moment on has been and is the biggest Jewish celebration in the calendar year. It remembers this liberation of the Jewish people from slavery under the Egyptians. 

 

"Though they had seen my work”

Now, you would have thought that after that monumental event in Egypt that the Jews would have no doubt as to the power of their God. 

 

Well, you certainly would have thought so.

 

But sadly, verses 8-11 hints at what happened shortly after and is a terrible reminder of how short a memory we all have of God’s blessings upon us.  We see the Israelite people move from a point of God’s mercy being poured out, to one where his wrath is laid bare.

 

Psalm 95 refers to Meribah and Massah as being a turning point.  "Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah.”

 

The story of the exodus from Egypt is covered in chapters 1-15 of Exodus.  After this dramatic release, it takes just six weeks and one chapter to get to a point where the Israelites have had enough and want to go back…

 

So what happened?

 

The Israelites were liberated but the Lord now had to take them to their new land, and to help them clear that land of people who were occupying it. 

 

The period that followed was a period of testing, of learning. They start off in something of a wilderness.  It was an in-between time. 

 

They walked first for three days with no water, then water was found but was bitter, yet the Lord had Moses throw a log into the water and it became sweet.

 

The next place they travelled to was like an oasis, but again God had them move on.

 

With that moving on, the Israelites started to really grumble "would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us all”

 

God started to provide fresh bread and meat for them to eat, every day.  In the morning it rained "manna from heaven” and in the evening quail arrived.  Each time they were to take just what they needed.

 

Groups of the people started to move on but when thirsty there was yet more complaining "why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

 

It was at that point that Moses struck a rock with his staff and water flowed.  The place where that miracle occurred was named Massah and Meribah, the place named in our psalm. 

 

These are not separate place names but a single place with the meanings "Testing” and "Rebellion”.

 

This is just the start of the journey, summarised in Numbers 33, where there is wandering but also there are battles, and where the Israelites start to conquer anyone in their way. 

 

But how long did the journey last?  The journey should have lasted less than two years.  It lasted for another 38.

 

The Promised Land

In Numbers 13, the Jewish people stood on the edge of Canaan. 

 

They were still living off a daily delivery of manna and quail.  Water was provided for.  A column of fire led their walk.

 

The Lord told them he would give them this land. 

 

He asked them to send out spies to check its layout: one from each of the twelve tribes.

 

After a symbolic forty days of spying, the men returned and reported. 

 

They spoke of the land as being of one flowing with milk and honey. 

 

But they also spoke of giants and fearsome peoples. 

 

Only one of the spies had confidence of the approach, Caleb.

 

Again the people grumbled. They screamed that it would be better to be back in Egypt.

 

And at this point, God, who had been so patient and so full of blessing and so full of promise, gave up on them. 

 

Ten times they had put him to the test (Numbers 14:22) and not obeyed his voice.  Ten times.

 

He spoke to Moses.  He gave his judgement.

 

None of that generation, except Caleb (the hope filled spy), and Joshua, Moses’s successor, would see the Promised Land. 

 

The Israelites would stay in the wilderness.  He would continue to provide for them, but this generation would not be moving.

 

So perhaps now we understand the caution in the second half of the psalm:

 

Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

 

For forty years, I loathed their generation and said "They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways”

 

Therefore I swore in my wrath, "They shall not enter my rest”.

 

A new Day

38 years later, the Jews did enter the Promised Land.  If you read chapter 1 of Joshua you read first of the sudden death of a healthy, although 120 year old, Moses and then of Joshua, the appointed successor, picking up the baton.  It is a wonderful passage:

 

God spoke to Joshua.  "Moses my servant is dead.  Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.  Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. 

 

Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.  I will not leave you nor forsake you.  Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.

 

Be strong and courageous.  Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” 

 

The Levites, the priests, carry the Ark of the Covenant in front of the people.  The chest that contains the tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed, with the Seat of Mercy atop it. 

 

The river of Jordan is held back for them to cross, just as the Red Sea was held back when they escaped Egypt; the resistance of the occupying people falls away, and he Jews, now Israelites, occupy a new home.

 

It is not the time to delve into current affairs now, but perhaps when we understand some of this history of the land, we get some sense of why tensions are so high around the physical land of Israel today.

The character of God

Who is this God that we see leading his people?    Has he been fair?  What principles does he live by? 

 

Let’s think back to the story and what can we learn.

 

 

This God wants to bless his people and he doesn’t want them under sufferance.

 

He is generous and he provides.

 

He is forgiving and tolerant of complaining.

 

Sometimes he gets really frustrated with his people when they go off the rails, but keeps trying to teach them.

 

He tries really hard to get his people to the right place efficiently.

 

But he does demand a principled and a law abiding lifestyle.

 

And sometimes he draws a line, and sometimes there comes a point when he puts his blessing on hold

 

Sometimes he forces us to wait, but he never gives up.

 

He prepares his people for the challenges ahead.

 

When God wants his people to step out in faith, he makes it clear. He speaks.

 

He does not want his people to be frightened. 

 

He wants his people to be strong and courageous in Him because he is with them.

 

He stands up for those who stand up for him.

 

He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

 

Passover and Easter

That first Passover, God directed his people, the Jewish people, to accept the blood of the lamb for their freedom from death.  Accepting the blood of another shed for them brought them out of slavery.

 

God demanded that the Israelites celebrate the Passover every year from that first time.  Just as it was commanded on that first occasion, three thousand years ago, the Passover has been remembered and celebrated.

 

The first two days of Passover, The Seder, is a marathon feast when the Jewish people will read, tell stories, eat special foods, sing and drink wine.  This year the first day of Passover is the Monday before Easter. The celebrations remain totally tied by time.

 

At the last supper with the disciples, Jesus, celebrating the Passover, will have known all of the symbolism of this key point in Jewish history and what was to come. 

 

The bread he broke (Matzah) at that supper and the wine he drank was core to the tradition in the Passover, but it was to take on a new meaning. 

 

He knew he was going to be the new sacrificial lamb to free the people:  Freeing them in a different way.

 

We talk about Jesus dying to save us from our sins, being the lamb that died for us.  How do we figure this? 

 

Arguably, in a totally just world, we should be punished for our sins, our wrongdoings during our lives. 

 

But Jesus died to absorb the punishment that we should be due for our sins.  We don’t need to fear judgement.  We just need to accept this sacrifice. 

 

I think this concept of accepting the sacrifice of another for our wrongdoings feels slightly alien to us, but for one of the Jews in Jesus’s day, it would have been an easy step. The notion of blood sacrifice for sins was absolutely fundamental.

 

In the same way as the first Jews needed to rely on the blood of the sacrificial lamb at Passover, we need to rely on Jesus’s sacrifice and embrace the freedom for judgement as a result.

 

More than that, he wants us to live a life full of the Holy Spirit. Live in his strength.]

 

The big take-aways from the psalm today

First, God has bought us freedom. Remember it.  Grasp it.  First it was Passover for God’s people and a physical freedom; then the sacrifice of Jesus and the freedom to come into direct relationship with God and have his Holy Spirit with us. 

Hold onto the memory of the time when Jesus came into your life.  If you haven’t had that experience, then ask for it.  Remember it, be thankful for it.  Not just once and year, at Easter, but every communion, every time you sit in prayer.

Second, if you an in an in-between time. Try to recognise it as such. Don’t sit there complaining and missing the rush of past blessing.  We need in-between times.  Even Jesus needed an in-between time - his time in the wilderness came just after his baptism.  If you read the biography of any Christian leader today, they will have had an in-between time.

Perhaps you work is changing, perhaps you have retired.  Perhaps you have lost a partner.  Children have left home.  You’ve changed schools.  You’ve moved house.

Think of the in-between time as just that: an in-between time.  A place before promise.  Not a wilderness that you get lost in but one where you learn to trust God again, one where you seek his plans for you.  One where you find new meaning and purpose.

It is not easy.  I don’t want to trivialise.  But ask for revelation and hope.

Third, be strong and courageous. The Israelites were shown the Promised Land and thought of every reason not to step forward.  God had spent two years trying to prepare them but they were reluctant learners.  The baton passed to Joshua, 40 years later.  God’s purposes stood but were effected by a another at another time. Don’t miss what God has for you.

Hold on to, grasp, the freedom. Recognise and work with the in-between time.  Be strong and courageous.

Communion

So, as we come to communion, let’s think upon the imagery we have before us today

- our Lord Jesus, breaking bread and serving wine at that last supper of his with his disciples, knowing that his own blood was about to be shed

- acknowledge his death as being the right of freedom for us from sin, and the act which gives us ability to have a direct and living relationship with God

- receive not just his freedom but his strength.  That we would be "be strong and courageous”, as Joshua was, because he is with us.

- and using the words of the psalm:

remember that our Lord is "the rock of our salvation”.

 "let us come into his presence with thanksgiving and be glad in him with psalms”

  "For the Lord is a great God”

- let us not squander the freedom that has been paid for.  Let us not sit in the wilderness, in the in-between.  Let us move forward.

Psalm 95

1  O come, let us sing to the Lord; •
   let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation.
2  Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving •
   and be glad in him with psalms.
3  For the Lord is a great God •
   and a great king above all gods.
4  In his hand are the depths of the earth •
   and the heights of the mountains are his also.
5  The sea is his, for he made it, •
   and his hands have moulded the dry land.
6  Come, let us worship and bow down •
   and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
7  For he is our God; •
   we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.
8  O that today you would listen to his voice: •
   ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
      on that day at Massah in the wilderness,
9  ‘When your forebears tested me, and put me to the proof, •
   though they had seen my works.
10  ‘Forty years long I detested that generation and said, •
   "This people are wayward in their hearts;
      they do not know my ways.”
11  ‘So I swore in my wrath, •
   "They shall not enter into my rest.” ’


Posted: 19-03-2017 at 20:41
Tags:  Sermon  Simon
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