Sometimes I think the holiday season is a little bit like Mardi Gras right before Lent. We eat a lot of food, sit around a lot, spend more money than we probably should, and fill our schedules with as much merriment as possible. And then on December 31, we feel really guilty about it, and we resolve to exercise more in the new year, be better with our money, stress out a little less often, and eat more vegetables.
We justify unhealthy habits, and then promise to do better in the future. And every year at about this time, it seems like the temptation for pastors is to condemn the materialism, the consumerism, and the greed that can overtake this time of year. I understand why (I’m sure I’ve even done it!), but our Scripture for this morning paints a different picture, a picture of welcome and invitation.
Psalm 95 invites us twice, and reminds us once.
“O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!”
Here we are on the very last Sunday of the church year. We could even say that today is like New Year’s Eve in the church. And, on this Sunday we celebrate Christ as King and Lord. If we are living with regret over how we’ve lived over the past year, we might feel anxious or guilty. But, that’s not where the Psalm begins.
Psalm 95 begins with an invitation to come and sing to the Lord, to make a joyful noise. The word in the Hebrew for “make a joyful noise” means “to shout” or to “make a loud noise.” We are invited to enter God’s presence and shout with loud and exuberant shouts of praise. We are invited to praise God because God is our Savior. The verses that follow list reasons for praising God: the Lord is a great God, a King above all gods. Our God made the depths of the earth and the highest mountains; the seas and the dry land.
Before we’ve had the opportunity to repent, to confess, to make ourselves worthy, God invites us to worship.
God calls out to us here and now on this last Sunday of the church year to worship, to sing loud songs of praise, and to remember God’s mighty acts throughout history. We are invited to give praise to God for the ways God has saved us, and for God’s rule as King. We are invited to celebrate God’s mighty reign, not to wallow in self-loathing for the ways we messed up last year. We are invited to end this year in the church with praise and thanksgiving for the ways God has remained faithful, even when we were anything but. We are invited and called to give praise. We are invited to worship God our Savior and King.
And then, just in case we missed it the first time, we are invited a second time! As my Old Testament professor loves to say, “Once more with feeling!” The first invitation is to worship. The second invitation gets more specific. “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker!” We worship God through loud shouts of praise, and then we worship God by kneeling and bowing down before our King, our Lord, our Maker. We are invited in to give praise, and invited in to humble ourselves.
Just like the first invitation, the second invitation gives reasons why we should kneel and bow down: he is our God, we are God’s people, we are the sheep of God’s hand. Today, as we are on the cusp of a new year, we are invited to come and worship. We are invited to come and humble ourselves before our God and King. And, in so doing, we are invited to be more like the One we worship. We are invited twice before we’ve had the opportunity to do anything else.
God’s love, grace, and mercy come first. Our life change comes as a response in gratitude.
God’s call to us doesn’t begin with a list of dos and don’ts. It doesn’t start with a lengthy list of requirements or things we have to do to get in or make the grade. There isn’t a ranking system from the get-go where we measure ourselves against the faithfulness of our neighbors. It all starts with God’s call to us – a call into worship, a call into a community, a call into a life where we are ever becoming more like the King we serve. We begin with God’s invitation, God’s grace, God’s call to us, and as we worship God, we are transformed. Put more simply, God invites us twice so that we won’t miss it. We are called to worship, called to humility, and called to participate in representing God’s reign to the world.
It is after this double invitation that the people were reminded about their past.
The warning isn’t placed here to make the people feel so guilty that they are paralyzed into inaction. The psalmist includes these verses to remind the people where they came from. On this liturgical New Year’s Eve, as we reflect on our place in the coming reign of God, we look back and are reminded about our faith journey to this point, not so that we are ashamed, but so that we remember and do not repeat the things we need to leave behind.
We look back and see so many examples of God’s faithfulness to us, and we also see times where we slipped and missed out on what God intended for our lives. Unlike December 31 when we sit and feel guilty about the ways we messed up last year’s New Year’s resolutions, Psalm 95 invites us to remember the ways God welcomes us in and includes us in the in-breaking reign of God, even though we don’t get it right all of the time.
So…let’s make some resolutions together. Not like the ones we make every year with no real intention of keeping, but ones that flow out of our thankfulness for who God is and all that God has done. We’ve been invited – twice! – by the King of the universe to come and worship, to be part of a community, and (as J.R. Daniel Kirk once wrote), into “shared participation in representing God’s reign [to] the world.”
And, this invitation is one that is sure to transform us. This is what the Gospel is all about: being invited in by the love and grace of Jesus before we’ve done anything to earn it, and living transformed lives that change the world around us. We are vessels of the kingdom of God as it is ushered into this world that is so loved by God. This is the reality of the Gospel, and it is the reality of the lives we are called to as Christians.
If we believe those things – if we believe that God welcomes us as children of the King – how will we live as a response? Perhaps a better question is: what do we think the reign of God would look like? And what is our role in representing God’s reign on earth? Does it look like sharing what we have with others? Does it look like no one going hungry? Does it look like children receiving love and belonging? Does the reign of God include patience in the long lines at the grocery store, honesty in our business affairs, and forgiveness in our relationships?
Even though it may not always seem like it, and even though it is hard to get our minds around, the kingdom of God – God’s reign – is breaking into this world. It’s not here in fullness, but the kingdom is coming, and in some way it is here. This is what our religion really is – religio – being put back together, being bound together with God. We are being re-membered by God, and we are called to be agents of re-membering here on earth. And all of this is happening because of God’s grace. Or, as the Apostle Paul once wrote, “It is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
Before any of our right actions, God invites us.
We can’t miss that this morning. Our response and our life is our act of gratitude as part of the new family that God has welcomed us into. Or, as Sarah Bessey once wrote so much better than I could ever say, “When our hearts, minds, and souls are deep within the reality of living loved, we discover that most of those ‘rules’ from Sunday School are simply our new characteristics and family traits.” The way we live is not something we do in order to gain God’s favor; the way we live is just part of who we are as we are being transformed by God’s love and mercy.
At the very end of our passage, we get a hint at the reminder: “O that today you would listen to his voice.” After that hint, the psalmist goes on to remind the people of Israel about the way their ancestors behaved in the wilderness. The people had seen God’s provision time and again – in the giving of water when they needed it, the daily manna, the quail when they hungered for meat, the way their clothes did not wear out. And despite seeing God’s provision, despite having daily reminders of God’s compassion and love, they were angry and resentful.
The reminder at the end of Psalm 95 is not included as a threat of judgment if they do not behave properly. God’s is reminding them of where they came from so that they will not go back to that place. God is showing them how far they’ve come, how much love God has for them, and urging them to continue living as ambassadors of the kingdom of God.
As you look back at this past year, and as you think about the way your life reflects the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ, what resolutions might you want to make for the upcoming year? What might God be calling you to do as you shine the light of Christ into this community? If we were to dream big dreams and believe that where God calls God equips, what risks might we take as we live as children of the King?
I am reminded of the last verse of Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling:
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
May God help us to be strong and courageous!