Left Hanging

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.
—Ps. 95:4

Hymnals are important. There are hundreds of different hymnals, and each of them has a unique purpose. Very often, that purpose is to reflect the beliefs—or at least the emphases—of a particular church or denomination.

For many years (all them before I arrived on the scene here in Chardon), this congregation sang from the Pilgrim Hymnal. This was the hymnal of the former Congregational Churches—which is how half of this congregation started its life. This was an excellent hymnal, and I still ask that we sing from it from time to time. For example, I like singing Our God, Our Help in Ages Past. But I only like it from the Pilgrim Hymnal. There are a couple of other songs I prefer from the old hymnal, but that’s the main one.

Several years ago, you all decided to update your hymnal. And this time, you moved from a hymnal of one of the UCC’s predecessor churches to the current hymnal of our other denomination: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). For the most part, this is an excellent hymnal, and if you leaf through the pages, you can see a lot of Disciples history and you’ll probably notice some Disciples values, such as peace and justice and Christian unity. More than anything else, I think the Chalice Hymnal’s greatest distinction is found in the large number of hymns for the Lord’s Supper found in the middle of the book. This reflects the fact that virtually all Disciples churches (except ours) celebrates communion every Sunday.

But beyond differences in hymnals, Christians often have a shared understanding of the theology of hymns. There’s often one type of hymn that we’d place near the beginning of the service, and another type that we’d place after the sermon. And there are some hymns that we associate with certain days or seasons.

For example, we know and love the hymn Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, but we generally only sing it on Easter Sunday. And if we sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, you could probably assume that it’s the opening of worship four Sundays before Christmas. We sing Christmas carols in December, of course. On the Day of Pentecost, we love singing Spirit of Gentleness. And here’s one you might not remember, but most pastors do: We sing Holy, Holy, Holy the First Sunday after Pentecost.

Sometimes individual churches have their own customs surrounding which songs to sing on which days. For example, I have certain hymns that can be sung anytime, but I always make it a point to choose them on Mother’s Day. And this congregation loves to sing I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry whenever we have a baptism.

Books with hymns from all kinds of different authors are a relatively new development in Christianity. This was especially true of our Congregational ancestors, who only sang the psalms. In fact, the first book ever published in North America—in 1640—was the Bay Psalm Book, and it contained metrical—or rhyming—versions of the 150 psalms. So, for example, here are the words they would’ve used for verses 1, 3 & 4 of today’s psalm. It’s common meter, so there were a lot of tunes they might’ve used.

O come, let us unto the Lord
shout loud with singing voice.
to the rock of our saving health
let us make joyful noise.
For the Lord a great God and great
King above all gods is.
In whose hands are deeps of the earth
and strength of hills are his.

So why did old Congregationalists sing only psalms and no other hymns? Well, that’s because the Book of Psalms—or the psalter—was the Bible’s hymn book. The psalms were the songs the ancient Hebrews sang in worship, and they would’ve been the hymns that Jesus knew.

And obviously, we still have these psalms. We use them in worship—sometimes as they’re written in the Bible, sometimes as they’re adapted for singing in the style that we’re accustomed. But our lives are vastly different from the lives of the people who wrote them and first sang or chanted them. So different, in fact, that it’s hard for us to imagine how they were used in Old Testament days.

Some of the psalms are very personal. They appear to be written by someone who fears for their life. Others are a confession of sin. And others are a personal affirmation of faith. We’ll look at one of these next week when we read the 23rd Psalm.

Others are psalms of pilgrimage. They’re written by people on the road as they make the difficult trip to Jerusalem. That’s what we found out when we looked at the 121st Psalm last week.

But others are clearly written for the whole community to sing or chant. And today’s 95th Psalm is one of those. In fact it’s one of the best examples of a community’s psalm of worship. Three times it invites people to come and praise God: It opens with the words, O come, let us sing to the Lord. In the 2nd verse, Come into his presence with thanksgiving. And then in verse six, O come let us worship and bow down.

These calls to worship are based on three things. And it seems to me that they’re in backwards order. The first one in verse one calls on Israel to worship their Savior. The next one in the next two verses calls on Israel to worship their Ruler. And finally, in verses four and five, God is identified as Creator.

But when you think about it, it is our own personal experience of God that first makes us want to praise God. And after this, our understanding of God grows. We begin to understand that God is not just our God, but is the God of our people—and not just our people, but the God of all people, of all the earth.

So after all these calls to worship, and all this broadening of the scope of the reasons we should worship God, the psalm takes an odd turn. If only you would listen to his voice today, the psalmist exclaims. The closing verses then list places where Israel rebelled against the God who delivered them from slavery, the God who was their Ruler, the God who created the earth. And though we didn’t read it in our responsive reading, the whole thing ends on a very strange note—unique among the psalms. So in my anger I took an oath: ‘They will never enter my place of rest.’ God is angry and the anger isn’t resolved.

And so this psalm’s place in Hebrew worship must’ve been to call Israel to worship, not just once, but three times. And then to lead them to meditate on their own faithfulness… or, in this case, faithlessness. The congregation had begun to worship with glorious and stately words, with wonderful proclamations about how great God was. But they couldn’t continue without admitting that they had a history of straying from the path. They experienced first-hand the power of God, but the first time things seemed to go wrong, they questioned God’s power and God’s commitment to them.

In the Book of Exodus, the people demanded to know, “Is the Lord among us or not?” They blamed Moses for bringing them out into the wilderness. And though we know the journey continued and Israel eventually arrived in the Promised Land, here in Psalm 95 we are left hanging. We don’t see what the congregation does after being confronted with the unfortunate truth of their lack of faith.

It seems we modern Christians only want to pat ourselves on the back. We only want to hear the positive aspects of our faith. But this psalm reminds us that we have things we need to think about. We’re not supposed to gather and sing our victory hymns on Easter unless we’ve gone through the wilderness of Lent.

Psalm 95 leaves us hanging. And I can’t imagine a more fitting song to help us understand that than the song Who Is That Man that we heard earlier this morning. The composers never actually answered their own question. Who is that man, abandoned by his friends, dying alone and in pain? We know the answer—who the Man is, and why he died. We’re tempted to run past the reality of the crucifixion in order to get to the resurrection.

So whether it’s Israel in the wilderness or Christians during the Lenten season, the scriptures call upon us to deal with reality—to admit the truth—before moving on, before rejoicing. What are our truths? What do we need to face up to before we can truly celebrate? What in our lives do we need to let die before we can truly take part in the new life of Easter morning?
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.