If you are familiar with the Old Service of Matins in the Book of Common Prayer you will have recognised our Psalm this morning. Psalm 95 – otherwise referred to as `The Venite` – is a recognisable invitation to sing out God`s praises at the beginning of our worship.
“O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation”. (Psalm 95.1)
What`s always amused me, however, (and it`s actually our habit here in Troutbeck) is that we tend only to sing the first seven verses of this Psalm. And I have to say, (and I`m only the Vicar!) I`m really not sure how we have come upon this particular practice.
What I find intriguing that it`s in verse eight that the tone of the Psalm swiftly changes. In other words, from the opening verses filled with praise we suddenly turn to something rather different: because the bit we don’t sing begins…..
“O that today you would listen to his voice: ‘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. (Psalm 95.8-9)
Now, this obscure observation about Matins is hardly the kind of thing that keeps you up at night I`m sure and if you brought it up at a party I`m equally sure people would begin to give you a wide berth…. “Have you noticed we only sing the first seven verses of the Venite…” shock horror! But for our purposes this morning I think there is something here worth looking at here.
Firstly, I think it`s the genius of this particular Psalm that manages to hold together both these words of sublime praise as well as recalling what is evidently a record of the complete opposite… The account of a time when as the people of God, we really let ourselves down.There`s something which is so `true to who we are` contained in these few verses. I mean, this is a Psalm which at one and the same time reminds us of our high calling … whilst also managing to keep our feet very much on the ground.
And then secondly, I think this brings home one of the important themes of Lent- which doesn`t often get too much attention…. Which is that of our `collective` sin. What I mean is that the story referred to at the end this Psalm confronts us with our collective attempts to live as if God is not God. This matters because Lent is traditionally the time for welcoming newcomers into the faith. That we have some way to go to make this more of a theme of our common life tells its own story…. But the underlying point is that during Lent as well as examining our individual life and conduct we also `fess up` to our collective imperfection… And all newcomers are therefore under no illusion that when it comes to fidelity to God our collective record leaves much to be desired!
And this is, as I say, is brought home (as you perhaps noticed) because that second part of the Psalm is a re-telling of the events we heard about in our Old Testament Reading this morning. There before us, is one particular example of our infidelity … We heard about the thirsty Israelites groaning in the wilderness (Exodus 17.1-7).
Now the best way to approach a passage such as this is plain and simply to allow ourselves to be drawn into it. We`re asked to see ourselves as part of it. We`re asked to see these escapees from slavery in Egypt as our kith and kin… And then to reflect on how very good we are at demonstrating the family resemblance; at showing ourselves to be `chips off the old block`. Not least because (as should be evident) our behaviour before the Lord is no different from theirs, is it? We have the same high calling… and yet we exhibit the same degree of infidelity… But what especially do we learn?
Well the first and most important thing is what we might call the `Fidelity of God`. Israel is out there in the wilderness and the Lord does indeed give them the water they need- the means to sustain them on the way to all that he promised. And we shouldn`t make light of this.
But what the second half of the Psalm and the reading point out however, is the degree of moaning that preceded it: the in-fidelity of the people. At the heart of it all, is how what me might call the `water` question (“We`re thirsty”) eventually turns into what we might call, the `God` question (“Is the Lord among us or not?”). And what`s interesting to me is that the people don`t immediately ask the God question at all.
Firstly we`re told, “The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ (Exodus 17.2) And then secondly, “the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ (Exodus 17.3) It`s all very bitter.
But what we need to grasp is that first target was Moses. They looked on him as the guilty party… He was the one who should give them water…. And for some unaccountable reason they saw him as the one responsible for bringing them out of Egypt in the first place. As far as they were concerned it was `The Moses question` that was at issue. But this is where we stand back and we marvel at his wisdom. They`re all having a go at him… and yes, he`s knocked back on his heels by the ferocity of it all but Moses refuses to take it personally. He stands there and says, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”. In other words, they`d singled him out as the one to blame….. but Moses asked the `God question` and he knew that what was really going on was between them and the Lord. Basically he turns the whole thing into prayer.
It`s not an easy prayer by any means: “Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ (Exodus 17.4) But, trying to put it in simple terms, it seems that the real `collective` sin of the Israelites was their forgetfulness. Yes, they were in the wilderness (it was difficult) but they forgot that this challenging period was only part of a much bigger story in which God worked out his good purposes for them. And so, in pointing at Moses as their apparent `liberator` they demonstrated just how far they`d lost their sense of being caught up in God`s story.
Secondly, in calling on Moses for water we see how they`d lowered their horizons completely. By effectively saying that their escape from Egypt was the result of good political moves by Moses or a stroke of good fortune… effectively setting aside any sense of their divine calling and purpose… the only resources they could expect in their troubles would be what their `all too fallible` leader, Moses could provide. In other words, if their great escape wasn`t a `Godly` thing… they could hardly expect `godly resources for the journey.
A few moments ago I suggested that we should allow ourselves to be drawn into this story… to see it as ours….and ourselves as `chips off the old block` and prone to the same `collective sin`. And my point is that this is exactly what happens when for example, we think or speak of ourselves (the Church) as if it were just another social construction; something that we create; something that we `do` or are responsible for. When like the Israelites we forget that our origins are in what God has done in Christ we can`t help but think and act as if “It all depends on us”… and consequently, the only means of coping is our own resourcefulness.
And so, just as Moses got it in the neck we find our own scapegoats. General Synod? The House of Bishop`s? (Yours truly!) Yes, fallible, unprofitable servants all… And this is how it will stay until we learn to turn the water question (“We`re thirsty in these difficult days”) into the God question (“He has called us and he is faithful”).
To put it another way, while ever we fail to grasp (amazing though it might seem) that we have `divine appointment` we`ll just continue to try to cope under our own strength and fail to draw on the resources the Lord wishes to give… The `Living water` of which Jesus spoke. (John 4)
And this is why, during Lent, we place so much store on reminding ourselves of our Baptism. Here`s another connection with that Exodus story: You see, like the people of Israel going through the Red Sea we are those who have come through the water; the waters of Baptism. This is the Lord`s doing; it`s the sign of our liberation and our divine appointment. The promise is that the one “who has begun this good work will bring it to completion”. (Philippians 1.6) But Baptism is also a call (as I colloquially put it) to continually ask `The God Question`. Not only to recognise this divine appointment but to live in the strength HE gives. As Rowan Williams says: “When we pray (basically, when we ask the God question) we are at our strongest- because we have surrendered the false notion that we are facing a problem as God and instead find the blessing of facing it under God”.