Sermon: Third Sunday in Lent, 19 March 2017, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 19th March 2017


Rev. Paul Weaver

(Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42)

For many Anglicans over the years, the main Sunday service they attended was Morning Prayer, the first service in the traditional Book of Common Prayer of 1662. Only in the past 40 or 50 years has this service gone out of common use in favour of more modern services.

The Morning Prayer service was carefully designed in three basic sections. It had a penitential opening section where we were reminded from the scriptures of our sinfulness, we were exhorted to repent and to confess our sins, we shared together in words of confession, and we were assured that God forgives all who repent and turn to Christ.

The last part of the service was a time of prayer: some responsive prayers, some short collects of a more personal nature, and intercessions for the church and the world.

In between these was a section which focused on hearing and responding to the word of God. Of course, in addition to this basic plan there were often some hymns and perhaps other items, and at least on Sundays there would be a sermon!

As you may remember, that central section included an Old Testament and a New Testament reading, and some canticles, generally based on sections of the scriptures. At the end of this section the Apostle’s Creed would be said together by everyone, effectively drawing together the words of scripture into a statement of faith.

At the beginning of this section focussing on God’s word was Psalm 95, which was our Psalm for today. And its position directly leading up to the reading of scripture was very thoughtfully chosen.

The Psalm begins with an enthusiastic call to join in praise to God, singing out to the Lord, the rock of our salvation. There is thanksgiving and joy involved in this praise.

This is not a congregation of people mumbling away with their heads buried in their books, being very discrete in case someone else might hear them! This is enthusiastic praise. The Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods. He is the Creator of the world. That’s exciting! He is worthy of our joyful and enthusiastic praise.

Last Tuesday at the Ecumenical Lenten Service, I pointed out that the various churches have their different traditions and styles of worship. I could add that even within Anglicanism, there is a variety of styles: traditional and modern, formal and relaxed, structured and charismatic.

That’s fine. God’s family, and even the Anglican Church, is big enough to provide for that. There are some styles of worship that work better for me than some others. But regardless of our preferences, we all need to take our worship seriously.

But we don’t need to be stuffy and apparently miserable about it. In our praise we acknowledge a great God, and his message for us, which is wonderful news indeed!

Moving to the middle of the Psalm I wonder whether you noticed a slight change of mood. The call is now to worship, bow down and kneel before the Lord.

Our word worship is linked to the word “worth”. The English word indicates that in our worship we acknowledge the worth, the importance or the significance of the one we worship. Hence in the Service of Holy Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer, the husband is able to worship his wife – to express with his body how precious she is to him. He might think that she is divine, but not in the literal sense of the word!

Worship as “worth- ship” is a pretty good understanding of worship, but the scriptural word for worship actually has the idea of bowing down, bowing the knee, kneeling before one who is so much greater than we are. It sees the importance of humility in the way we approach God.

This word reminds us that we do not just blithely bowl into God’s presence. We recognize his infinite greatness and his holiness. And we recognize our ultimate dependence on him and our sinfulness in his presence.

And yet the Psalmist also reminds us that he is not just the Lord, he is our God. Yes, we need to be humble before him, but we are also reminded that He binds himself to his people, he is committed to his people, he cares for us. And so we can look to him in faith, trusting that he hears our prayers and is always working for our good.

But then in the Psalm we have another change to an even more serious mood in those last few verses, indeed some very heavy words of warning. “Today” says the Psalmist, “if only you would hear his voice.” Listening to God’s voice is what really matters. Don’t close your ears and mind and heart to what God is saying.

And to demonstrate his point the Psalmist goes back to that story we heard in our reading from Exodus. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness had started grumbling.

It was not long after they had been led out of slavery in Egypt. Not long after they had crossed the sea and been rescued from the Egyptian armies. Not long after they had first been provided with manna and assured that the Lord would continue to provide for their physical sustenance.

But they were grumbling anyway. “We’re going to die of thirst here in the wilderness,” they complained, failing so quickly to remember how God had continually and wonderfully provided for their needs.

When a new problem came up, they didn’t pray for God to help them: they complained and grumbled, almost as if they were putting God on trial: “Do one more thing and we might believe in you”. In the end, that faithless generation failed to reach the Promised Land. When the opportunity came to enter it, they thought that it might be dangerous, and they refused their opportunity. They died wandering around in the desert, and it was the next generation who actually reached the land of milk and honey.

What is the Psalmist’s point as the Psalm comes to its conclusion in this very serious way? We are not to be like those people who had so much done for them, and yet kept refusing to trust the Lord. We are to remember the good things God has done for us, and learn from them. We are to “listen to his voice”, as the Psalmist puts it. And the word for listening in the Old Testament is essentially the same word as obeying. If we truly listen to the Lord, we shall obey his call.

And that is really what worship is all about. It is indeed about joining in meaningful and enthusiastic hymns of praise. It is about being thankful for God’s love for us, and trusting in his love, and praying for his guidance and help. But it is also about listening to his voice: remembering all that he has done, and being ready to obey him.

This is why the Psalm is so strategically placed in the service of Morning Prayer, leading into the reading of God’s Word. It seeks to prepare us to hear God’s message to us. The message of the scriptures is not just placed there merely to fill a space or continue a tradition. It is there to be heard and taken seriously, and obeyed. If we are not willing to learn from the scriptures or to put into practice what we learn, we miss the whole point of the reading of scripture in our services. We are to hear – and obey.

And if the Psalmist made his call to people of Old Testament times, how much more important is it for us who are followers of Jesus, the giver of the water of life, the one who can take a mixed-up woman of Samaria or a thief dying on a cross or even a resident of Epping, and bring them new life and new purpose!

What then is worship? Paul sums it very helpfully in the twelfth chapter of his Letter to the Romans, where he says: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

For in fact, worship is not just about what we do at church: it is about our lives. Jesus gave his life for us. He calls us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice – in other words to live our lives for him, living as his faithful servants. Trusting in Jesus means seeking to live as followers of Jesus.

As we reflect on our Psalm this morning, let us heed its call not just to sing and speak and pray, but to listen and to obey, putting our faith into action, as those who have become God’s people because of his love for us in Jesus Christ, the giver of the water of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver