“Harden not your hearts”

The Psalm now commends to us something we need to avoid if we are to hear God’s voice today as we attend to scripture in private prayer and public worship.  Something more than stillness and attention is required.

We are not to harden our hearts: we are to be open to receiving what God would say to us.

The heart in the Hebrew bible is not the centre of romantic love and emotion but the centre of our will: the centre of our being and the place where decisions are made.

To listen without hardening our hearts is to come open to acting on what we hear.  This is not simply listening with a view to saying :”That’s interesting or comforting”.  This is listening with a view to saying: “Now I must do something in response”.  This is listening which is prepared to say: “Here I am, send me”.

One of the images underlying the idea of hard hearts is the picture taken from agriculture.  God tells us through the prophets to “plough up our unploughed ground” within (Jeremiah 4.3 and Hosea 10.12).  Before the seed is sown in the spring, the soil is broken up with the plough. One of the key parts of this operation is breaking up the deeper levels of soil.  Unless this happens the seed lies on the surface and is snatched away (as in the parable of the sower).

Hearts become hard through disobedience (as we shall see in the next verse).  Hearts become hard through pride, thinking too much of ourselves.  Hearts become hard through comfort and overconsumption.

These are the words of Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel”:

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor, God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt and the desire to do good fades” (2).

Earlier generations who preached the gospel in Britain knew and understood that a vital part of that preaching of the gospel was to call the Church to repent of their hardness of heart towards God and towards others and to hear God’s voice afresh and in such a way as their own lives would change.  Evangelism is about far more than methods or techniques: it is about the Church becoming absorbed again with the holiness of God.

Repentance for the state of our hearts is therefore part of our response to Psalm 95 and part of our response to the Lord who came and preached in Galilee: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Repentance in Greek is “metanoia”: a change of heart and mind.

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

Today if you will listen to his voice

This final part of the psalm presumes an ongoing conversation between the LORD and his people, between the LORD and each person who will hear him.  This is the conversation which began in the story of the Garden of Eden as the LORD God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening.  It continued in the call of Abraham and the friendship of Moses.  It continues in the call of the prophets. It is focussed in the person of Jesus, who is God’s living word to us and who enters daily into dialogue and conversation with the Father. It continues in the gift of the Spirit to the Church, the Holy Spirit who comes to lead us into all truth.  It endures through each generation in the prayers and reflection and dialogue of the Church.  The great conversation will continue in heaven at the marriage feast of the lamb, in the great banquet in the City of God.

To pray the psalm is to step into this ancient conversation: to long to hear God’s voice, God’s living word today.  To pray the psalm is also to find help in our listening.

We believe by faith that God is with us at all times.  His Spirit dwells in our hearts through faith.  Christ has promised to be present when only two or three are together.

But certain things are required in order to listen to his voice.  Even though God is with us, we need to come into his presence with thanksgiving. Praise and worship is a stepping stone to stillness.  And then there is the expectant hush: the quietness in which we come to hear God’s voice on the pages of the scripture, in the quietness of our hearts.

The Voice is a (semi-)popular television series in which four celebrity judges look for a new singing talent.  At its best, the Voice emphasizes the beauty and the emotion which can be carried by a human voice.

But the voice of God in scripture is different. Sometimes the voice of God is loud and powerful, like thunder in the mountains (see Psalm 29).  But most often, the voice of God is found not in earthquake, wind or fire (as in I Kings 20) but in the still small voice of calm, speaking within, speaking life to the weary.

Listen to his life giving voice today.

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

Today if you will listen to his voice

We will look tomorrow at what it means to listen. But today we need to pause and think about the clearest and most profound truth which underlies these words: the presumption on which they are based.

The LORD speaks.

The creator of heaven and earth, who made the sea and all that is in, whose hands shaped the dry land, who redeemed Israel, this God speaks.

The LORD desires to communicate with us, with part of his creation.  The LORD desires to speak with us not simply so that we might hear his commands or even understand his ways.  The LORD desires to communicate with us so that we might know him and be known by him.

Listening to the LORD is not like listening to our commanding officer, or listening to a wise teacher.  Listening to the LORD, at its best, is a conversation with a friend:

“Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33.11.

There are moments in life when God speaks to us directly. There is a place in the Christian life for the guidance of God in our daily living.  The next verses of Psalm 95 are an oracle: words from God spoken in the midst of the worship of God’s people.

But the foundation of listening to the voice of God is the discipline of attending to what God is saying to the Church and to us through the Scriptures, and especially to the Scriptures as they speak to us about God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

It is vital for the health of the Church that we attend to the scriptures both privately and publicly.  They are the means by which we listen to God.  From earliest times, one of the distinctive acts of the Church has been to read the scriptures aloud and reflect on their message. This is the place where we attend to what God is saying.  In our own daily walk with God, reading the scriptures needs to find a place: this is where we listen and ponder the grace of God, and find life and guidance in every situation.  This is the place where we put down deep roots to enable us to flourish even in a dry and barren land (Psalm 1).

But for today, try and catch again the wonder of this thought:  God speaks.

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

Today if you will listen to his voice

At the end of verse 7, Psalm 95 changes gear[1].  The final section of the psalm makes it unique in the psalter.  95.1-7a is a beautiful hymn of praise but like many others in the Psalms (see Psalm 100).  The final four verses take us deeper into what it means to worship not only with our lips but with our lives.  They are the reason that the Psalm has been used to introduce Christian worship since the time of Benedict.

Commentators remind us of the sense of development and contrast between the first part of the psalm and the second.  We begin with praise and processession, with loud cries of joy and shouts of thanksgiving.  We move on to prostration: to peace and stillness before God.  We have remembered that God is creator and redeemer.  We are now in a place where we are able to listen: to hear the still small voice of God speaking to us.  We are reminded of Isaiah in the temple in Isaiah 6 where loud praise gives way to a call of God.  We are reminded of Elijah on the mountaintop in I Kings 20 where God is not in the earthquake, wind or fire but the still small voice of calm.

The first part of the Psalm summons us to joy and to speak aloud our praise.  But the second part summons us to listen.  The first part looks back to the past as we remember God our Rock and our salvation and the stories of the Exodus and the history of God’s people. The second part looks to the present and the future:  how will we live when we leave this time and place of worship.

The Psalms and prophets of the Old Testament wrestle with the tension between the worship of God’s people and the daily life of God’s people.  Israel is called to worship the one true God, the king above all gods.  But that worship is not simply about singing the right songs and attending the temple on the right days.  The LORD is a holy God.  Worship is meant to transform our lives and the life of our community. Therefore an essential part of coming with joy to the LORD is to listen and to understand and to obey God’s word to us today.

Today if you will listen to his voice

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

[1] Most English translations move the final part of verse 7 into verse 8 to emphasise the change of mood

“the sheep of his hand”

The image which lies beneath the verse 8 is the same image as Psalm 23: The LORDis my Shepherd.  It is an image associated with the story of the Exodus.  God leads his people out of slavery to freedom in the flight from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.  The LORD gives the gracious gift of the law at Mount Sinai.

There then follows the years of wanderings in the wilderness.  The LORD as Shepherd is very present to guide and to provide.  Guidance comes not only through the law which establishes the lifestyle of the community.  Guidance comes through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, in the midst of the people when they are at rest and going ahead of the people when it is time to move on.

The LORD as Shepherd provides in the wilderness, where food is not regularly available, through water flowing from the rock, through birds landing in the camp and most of all through the gift of manna, the food from heaven, daily bread.

As we reflect on Psalm 95 today, we thank God that he is our shepherd: that he guides and provides in different ways in our own lives, in our families and in the different church commuinities we are part of. We thank God for his guidance and provision for this Diocese of Sheffield over the last one hundred years, that the LORD has been and remains our shepherd.  Like the people of Israel, the calling of the church is to find her way in the wilderness of this world, to remain together, to live in God’s way in challenging times.

Remember that guiding and providing today.  Look back and give thanks and rejoice.  But remember the story and the image of the Exodus, present in the first verse of psalm (the Rock) and this verse.  Psalm 95 has yet more to teach us, rooted in the Exodus story as we journey on.

“…and we are the people of his pasture”

Remembering that we are the people of God is part of our summons to joy.  It is not only about looking back to the past.  We are also calling to mind the present day.  We bring into our minds the people of God of which we are part: the church throughout the world.

Throughout the whole cycle of day and night, God is praised all over the earth by those who are his people, by our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Through his death and resurrection, Christ has created a new people drawn from every race and people.  Christ has created one people in whether there are no divisions of race or gender. Christ has drawn to himself one people, the destiny of creation.

I may come to worship today cast down, or confused, praying on my own and facing immense pressures.  But I come to worship today, as well, as part of the people of God stretching all around the earth: Roman Catholic and Orthodox, Protestant and Pentecostals and everything in between.  I have Anglican sisters and brothers in every part of the world.  For many of my sisters and brothers, life will be very difficult today.  Some will be persecuted for their faith.  Others are living in great poverty and need.  We are one family.

Even the people of God in this Diocese of Sheffield is greater than I can hold in my mind at one time.  There are Christians living our their discipleship today in Doncaster, in Rotherham, in Goole, in Barnsley, in every part of the city of Sheffield.: teachers, medics, administrators, shop workers, students. There may only be one or two in a workplace or a council chamber.

There may only be a small number gathered in some places on Sunday morning.  But together we are salt scattered through the life of this region.  Together we are light, seeking to reflect the way of Christ to those around us.  Together we are part of the people of God, holding to the faith of Jesus Christ, all across the earth.

Our greatness and confidence does not rest on our numbers or our goodness.  As we will see in the next verses, we are not perfect people.  Our confidence rests in the truth that God has called us, the LORD is our shepherd, the LORD walks with us and before us and behind us, today and every day:

“ we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand”

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

“For he is our God”

What does it mean to declare in the midst of worship that “he is our God and we are his people”?

Those who prayed the psalms in the Temple and in their private prayers in ancient Israel and those who pray the psalms as members of the Jewish faith today are declaring that they are part of the covenant people of God.

They (and we) are recalling in these words the story which begins with the call of Abram in Genesis 12 and the promise of a people who will be a blessing to the earth.  They (and we) are recalling especially the accounts of the Exodus and Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the law at Sinai. These were the events which created the people of God, Israel, the nation of the earth in a special relationship with God, redeemed from slavery, entrusted with the law and with a particular calling to witness to God’s way’s on the earth.

For the Christian, the words have a still wider and deeper meaning.  As I say these words as a Christian, I am recalling the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is because of Jesus’s  sacrifice that I am able through faith and baptism to become part of the people of God. It is because of God’s grace in Christ that I and other Christians can be joined to God’s covenant community.

Paul writes profound words about the wonder of belonging to God’s people in Ephesians:

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (2.19-20).

In similar ways, 1 Peter invites us to remember who we are and the privilege of belonging to the people of God:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2.9).

Ponder today the story of the people of God from the story of Abram, through the Exodus and the long history of Israel, God’s amazing grace in Jesus, and the story of the church down the long ages, to the local church you are part of, to your baptism, to your faith.  Give thanks and rediscover joy.  We belong.  We are part of something bigger than ourselves.

This is what it means to say: “For he is our God and we are his people”.

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

“For he is our God, we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand” (Psalm 95.7)

Psalm 95 has been building to this point and we could and should linger here.  Through the Psalm we call ourselves and one another and the whole world to rejoice in the LORD, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We are called to worship God first as the creator of heaven and earth, the beauty around us.  We are called to worship in the heights and depths, in chaos and in order.

Then once again we are summoned to praise, magnifying the LORD and bowing down before him.

And now comes this deeper, most profound reason for praise and joy.  The words need to be spoken with wonder and awe even though they are very familiar: “For he is our God, we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand”.

The Psalm is claiming a special relationship between the congregation who gather to worship and the God we adore.  We are not reaching out in praise to a God who is at a distance.  We are kneeling in adoration of the LORD who has called us, who has come near to us, who has made himself known, who has made us a people who were no people, who nurtures and sustains us.  This is the LORD who has called us into a relationship of faithful, covenant love.

Again there is an echo of the Psalm in the first line of Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven”.  The words claim immediately a relationship with God which is not of our making but his.  They place us immediately in a relationship with a community for we say our Father, not my Father.  They carry a sense of both closeness and intimacy yet of the majesty and greatness of God.

Worship in wonder and in joy: “For he is our God”

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year

“….let us bow down….let us kneel….”  Psalm 95.6

John’s gospel tells the story of a conversation between John the Baptist and his disciples.  The crowds are discovering Jesus.  Everyone is going to him.  They think that John will be deeply concerned about this.

John’s answer is a model for any Christian who has ever been jealous of time and attention given to others.  It also has something profound to say about our worship and prayer.  John can speak only of his joy in Jesus:

“The friend of the bridegroom….rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled” (John 20.29-30).  He must increase but I must decrease”.

Praise and worship are dynamic acts. When we practice them regularly, they form and shape us in certain ways.  You can see that very clearly with the opposite of praise, the criticism of others. When a person allows a habit of criticism to grow within them, it shapes and shrinks them within.  Praise and worship have the opposite effect.

One of the ways in which praise changes us is that it helps us to remove ourselves, daily, from the centre of our own lives and recognize that God is much greater than we are.  The only and proper response to God’s greatness is to bow down, to kneel in humility.  We recognize our own place in the universe is not at the centre but at the edge, held firmly in the love of God.  Finding humility (or decreasing) is not to negate ourselves or our character or become invisible to others or ourselves.  It is to find our proper place and destiny and be freed from the continual stress of trying to be what we are not.

Christians are people who say to God and to themselves every day: “I am not the most important being in the universe.  God is. I will kneel and bow down in worship”.

He must increase and I must decrease.

“the dry land which his hand have formed”

We’re about to move on from the beautiful section on the Psalm about taking joy in God because of the glories of creation. We’re called to sing for joy to the Lord because of the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the vastness of the sea and the dry land which his hands have formed.

As we’ve seen, all of these elements in creation can be images and pictures in our spiritual journey and in the landscape of our life with God.

But we are also reflecting on the wonders of the actual creation: the oceans teeming with life, the beauty of the mountain tops, the sculpting of the hills, the deep wooded valleys and the life which fills them.

This seeing and reflection take time.  More than any other generation, many of us can live our lives separated from the creation.  The call to delight in God and praise him in creation is a call to spend time in the fresh air, walking the hills, standing on the beach, gazing and the stars and simply pondering the greatness of our creator who shaped all of this.  Celebrating the centenary of this diocese means celebrating the beauty of the rivers and the hills, the natural landscape in which we are set.

And as we ponder so we must also reflect, in our generation more than any other, on the call of the fifth mark of mission: to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

This is an important year for Churches and environmental groups to seek to place environmental concerns back on the agenda of the politicians and those who make decisions about the care of the earth.  General Synod is to have a major debate on the environment in a few weeks time.

In this area as in every other, worship and praise draw us into God’s mission and into action.

This post is one of a series of daily reflections on Psalm 95 in January, at the start of the Diocese of Sheffield Centenary Year