Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 10th November 2010
‘O come, let us sing to the Lord’ Psalm 95:1
Psalm 95 goes with the Cattle Raid of Cooley in memories of a former time.
Going to college in Dublin in October 1983, five weeks after being married the previous month was not a happy experience. There was no provision for spouses; along with tuition, the church provided bed and board for single men. The annual grant was £700, if one was married there was an additional £180 per year. The college was a depressing, even oppressive, place; there were deep divisions, both theological and political, and few happy moments. Friday was the best day of the week, it meant a return home to Co Down directly after the morning lectures. A fellow student had a car and we would drive into the city and park at the underground car park of the Setanta Centre in Nassau Street – it was not cheap, but meant a quick escape when the weekly doctrine lecture had concluded at 1 pm.
It was with a spring in the step that Nassau Street was crossed and the Setanta mural was passed on the way to the car park entrance. The mural told the story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, a major event in Irish mythology. There seemed to be a great deal of battle and killing, including a fight between two bulls, and Setanta, who had become Cúchulainn, during the story ends up tied to a tree and dead. Being an Englishman barely off the Sealink ferry, the mythology was fascinating, but no-one else was interested. Many of my fellow students from the North disavowed anything Celtic. It seemed a matter of pride amongst some of them to denigrate all things ‘Irish’. For some of them, theology stopped in about the Fifth Century and started again with Martin Luther, and Irish history prior to the Seventeenth Century was mostly ignored. It seemed sad that there was no interest in a heritage that predated every religious and political division.
The disappointment of those days was overcome in the words of Psalm 95. Each morning there would be chapel at 7.45; whoever was officiating would stand and say ‘O Lord, open our lips’ and we would join in the opening responses and then launch into Psalm 95, announced by its Latin name, ‘Venite, exultemus domino’.
It was a good way to start the day: to remember why we were there; to put aside our own thoughts and focus on what it was that had brought us together. There were times when it didn’t seem like that; when saying the Venite took effort, when there seemed to be little inspiration in saying the same passage of Scripture on repeated occasions; yet for at least fifteen centuries Christians have said Psalm 95 at the beginning of worship.
A story of the life of Saint Porphyrius of Gaza, a leader of the church in Palestine from 395-420 AD, says that when he wanted the people to join in prayer he would have Psalm 95 sung; the “Venite exultemus Domino” would be sung and the people would reply “Alleluia” after each verse.
The psalm calls us to worship and in doing so it seems to recognize that there are people like me who are not as motivated as they might be in their worship.
“O come, let us sing to the Lord”, it calls. It’s important to note the word ‘us’; worship is a collective thing. Of course, we can worship God by ourselves, but being alone we can quickly become discouraged. Most of us will know the old preacher’s story of the man who was asked whether Christians need to go to church and in reply he takes a coal from the fire and puts it in the hearth where the light and warmth quickly go from it; being a Christian alone, we become like that piece of coal.
“Let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation. Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving and be glad in him with psalms” says the psalmist and you would feel that he realizes there is a need to give people a bit of a shove. ‘Heartily rejoice’, ‘thanksgiving’, ‘be glad’; the words suggest he knows what it is like to gather for worship on a cold and dark Irish November morning, or at least he knows what it is like when people are less than enthusiastic about saying their prayers. Hearty rejoicing doesn’t come easily to many of us at the best of times, but that is what is being requested. I wonder how often we come to church in a mood of rejoicing and gladness?
Being grumpy, there would be the temptation to grumble about having to be cheerful; there is a wonderful sense of self-righteousness in being grumpy! The psalmist knows about grumpy people and explains why we should be enthusiastic, “For the Lord is a great God and a great king above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth and the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have moulded the dry land”.
The psalmist knows that we worship God in different ways: there is hearty rejoicing, but there is also worship that is quieter, that is more reflective, “Come, let us worship and bow down and kneel before the Lord our Maker”
We are given two contrasting but complementary pictures of God in the psalm; there is the cosmic God, the creator God, the God who has the world in his hands, but there is also the personal God, the God who is near us, the God who holds us personally in his hand, ‘For he is our God; we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand”. There are times when we need confidence in the cosmic God, to believe that God is present throughout the universe, but there are other times when we need a sense of God being close to us, like a shepherd in ancient times was close to his sheep.
The closing four verses of the psalm always seemed odd, so out of keeping with the first seven verses that quite often they are not used.
The psalmist has coped with reluctant worshippers, but realizes that there are people who ignore God completely, who are going to take no part in worship, even reluctantly, ‘O that today you would listen to his voice’ he says, and then the voice speaking the words changes from the psalmist to God himself:
‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, on that day at Massah in the wilderness, when your forebears tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my works. Forty years long I detested that generation and said, “This people are wayward in their hearts; they do not know my ways.” So I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter into my rest.” ‘
Meribah and Massah are place names, but they also mean ‘testing’ and ‘contention’. They mark events in the books Exodus and Numbers where the people have turned against God. These concluding four verses are a warning to those who will not heed the opening seven verses; ‘They shall not enter into my rest” is God’s warning to the people then and now that choices have consequences—turn our backs on God and he will turn his back on us.
Psalm 95 used to carry us through those mornings in college chapel; perhaps its use Sunday by Sunday helped many, many people down through the centuries. It talks to us as we are and, as we are, calls us to bring ourselves before God.