Harden not your hearts

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Sermon for March 15th, 2020

Readings

 

Sermon begins at 16:00

 


“Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness, at Meribah, and on that day at Massah, when they tempted me. They put me to the test, though they had seen my works.”

 

Those words are from Psalm 95, our Psalm for the day.

 

Now if Psalm 95 sounds familiar to you, then you’ve just made me very proud, because that means you are probably saying Morning Prayer regularly. Psalm 95 is regularly said at the beginning of our Morning Prayer service as a part of the invitation to worship called the Venite, from the Latin word for “Come.” It begins “O Come, let us sing unto the Lord; let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.”

 

Most of the time at Morning Prayer though, the Psalm ends with verse 7: “O that today you would hearken to his voice.” We don’t always read the rest. But right after that verse the Psalmist says:

 

“Harden not your hearts, as your forbears did in the wilderness, at Meribah, and on that day at Massah, when they tempted me. They put me to the test, though they had seen my works.”

 

What happened at Meribah and Massah? What did our forbears or ancestors do that tempted God? Well in our Old Testament reading today we hear the story.

 

Moses and the Children of Israel are traveling in the wilderness. They are in the desert really. They have just been through the most tumultuous journey. They had just been slaves in Egypt. God had seen their misery and heard their cries, and after Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, after Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, God demonstrated his might through one miraculous demonstration of power after another. And Pharaoh relented and set God’s people free.

 

God led them with pillars of cloud and pillars of fire out of Egypt.

 

And when Pharaoh changed his mind, and decided to pursue the Israelites, God demonstrated his power again, by opening the Red Sea and allowing them to pass through on dry land. And when the Children of Israel saw Pharaoh’s army stuck in the mud and drowned in the sea they sang a song of praise. It is the first song recorded in the Bible. We call it the Song of Moses:

 

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise him, my father’s God and I will exalt him.”

 

Everyone sang and celebrated what they had just witnessed. God was powerful and mighty and God had just demonstrated both his power and his will to save his people.

 

But it didn’t take the people long to forget it.

 

They had witnessed God’s saving power, but before the chapter ends, they are complaining to Moses that the water isn’t good to drink. When Moses calls upon the Lord, the Lord shows him what to do to make the water drinkable. And the Lord tells his people: listen to me and trust me. I am the Lord who heals you. I will not bring on you any of the plagues I brought on Egypt. I am the Lord who saves you. Trust in me. And they had good water to drink.

 

Then a little further, a couple months later, the Israelites get a little hungry. Do they turn to God and ask for his saving help again? No. They turn to Moses and Aaron and complain saying: “it would have been better for us to stay in Egypt! You should not have brought us here, you are going to kill us!” But God hears them, and through another miracle, sends them bread and meat to eat. The Lord commands them to gather the bread and meat for six days, but to rest on the seventh. On the sixth day he gives them enough to last for two days, but still some don’t listen. They won’t rest. They can’t trust that God will provide for them.

 

Then a little bit further and we find the Children of Israel in our passage from Exodus today. Still journeying through the desert, when they come to a place where there appears to be no water. They have seen God in pillars of cloud and fire, they have seen God split the sea, they have seen God turn bitter water into sweet, they have seen God provide bread and meat, but instead of turning and leaning on their faith in God, they turn to Moses once again and say: “Give us water! Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us?”

 

So God instructs Moses to strike the rock with his staff and there is water to drink. But Moses names the place Meribah and Massah, words that mean “test” and “quarrel” as a reminder of how the people quarreled and tested God, saying “Is the Lord among us or not?” These people that had witnessed God’s saving power in a way unlike any others, still allowed their hearts to be hardened the moment the next hardship came along. Instead of turning to God for their needs, instead of asking for God’s saving help again, they turned on each other.

 

So when the Psalmist many years later is composing another song about God and is imagining what God’s voice might say, what he writes is this:

 

Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness, at Meribah and on that day its Massah, when they tempted me. They put me to the test, though they had seen my works.

 

They may be hard words to hear, but it they’re true. We do that, don’t we? We witness miraculous things in our lives, we witness God’s love and saving power, and then we quickly forget about them. We forget what God has done for us. We question whether God is truly with us or not. We fear, we quarrel. We allow our hearts to be hardened.

 

It is so easy for us to become jaded and cynical. It is so easy for us to become hardened in our hearts; to give in to anger and fear. It is so easy for us to forget what God has already done for us, it is so easy for us to not see God, even when he is right in front of us. Jesus says to the woman at the well: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would give you living water.”

 

Do we know the gift of God? Do we know the one who is asking us to serve him? We should know him, we have seen his works, but I guess we need to be reminded. We need to be reminded regularly about what God has done for us, and the miracles our forebears witnessed, and the miracles we have witnessed. That is one of the things that worship does; songs of praise like the song sung by the Israelites when they made it across the sea, they pour out praise to God, but they also remind us of what God has done for us. That is why we need prayer and praise in our lives, so that our hearts are not hardened when hard times and adversity show up again.

 

I don’t need to tell you that this week we have entered into a somewhat strange and difficult time in our world. The fact that this service is being broadcast online, without much of a congregation is a testimony to the fact that we are traveling in desert land right now. There are a lot of unknowns and people are worried about their health, their savings, and all that is perfectly natural, but we have been here before. Even something as bizarre as cancelling public gatherings and worship. We have been here before. This week I dug through the old parish register and found the entry from October of 1918 when our church was closed for two weeks due to the influenza epidemic. When have been here before. We have been through depressions and wars, we have been through tough times and we get through them. We get through them by turning back to God. By remembering what God has already done for us, and by remembering that he has promised to be with us through the end. That is why we need worship now more than ever. We may have to do it differently for a while. We may each have to turn to God in our homes, on our beds and sofas, and at our dinner tables. We may need to get our prayer books and bibles off the shelves, we may need to use some new technology for a while, but if in the end we are all individually brought a little closer to this saving God, then surely that is a good thing.

 

This God of ours has triumphed over death, let us never forget that. As Christians we remind ourselves of that every time we gather for prayer. That is the salvation that our forebears witnessed: Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. If that is true then what on earth do we have to worry about….nothing. We will do what is prudent and wise to protect the weakest among us and to limit the spread of this disease, but we will not fear, panic or let our hearts be hardened. We will not forget God’s saving works that our ancestors witnessed, or the miracles that we ourselves have witnessed. We will continually turn to God in prayer and praise and with supplications, because we know the answer to the question the Israelites asked in the desert. We know that the Lord is among us.