For all of you who wish we could gather for our Lenten Vespers Service tonight, here is an “order of worship” that I offer, for personal or family devotions, that you can use this evening, March 18, or any time that is convenient for you.
Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome. Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening, and the day is almost over. Let your light scatter the darkness, and illumine your church.
Hymn – Abide with Me by Henry F. Lyte
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; / the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide. / When other helpers fail and comforts flee, / Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; / earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away. / Change and decay in all around I see. / O thou who changest not, abide with me.
I need thy presence every passing hour. / What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? / Who like thyself my guide and strength can be? / Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.
I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless, / ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness. / Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? / I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes. / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. / Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee; / in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Scripture Reading: Psalm 95
O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.” Therefore in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”
Psalm 95 is the psalm that was appointed for last Sunday’s worship, and so I am going to continue with my intention to reflect on these psalms during our evening worship.
But it is strange, isn’t it, to hear the invitation in this psalm to “come into God’s presence with thanksgiving” when, because of the Coronavirus, we can’t come to church? I would love for us to be together in worship tonight, but the requirements of “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” do not allow it. So, what shall we do?
I am reminded of another psalm, Psalm 137, sung in frustration by the Israelites who were living in exile in Babylon, who wanted nothing more than to be worshiping in the Temple in Jerusalem, but could not. Here are its opening words:
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.Psalm 137
So, how can we sing the Lord’s song while we, in a different sort of way, are living in exile? Unable to be together in worship?
Well, you might say we are doing it right now. Wherever you are, you are reading these words, reflecting on God’s Word, spending a little time in prayer, and isn’t that worship? While we would like to be in the church worshiping, we also believe that God is present wherever and whenever we call upon the Lord. So, let us worship, and let us think a little more about Psalm 95.
Psalm 95 begins with a beautiful invitation to come into God’s presence with thanksgiving, and worship the Lord, our Maker. These are beautiful words that the church often sings at the beginning of its Morning Prayer Service. They are a great way to start the day.
But the Psalm quickly changes mood in verse 7, with the words, “O that today you would listen to his voice!” And then it recounts the time that God’s people hardened their hearts in the wilderness on the way to the promised land. The psalm ends with God’s ominous words, “Therefore in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
There is almost nothing that I want more than to enter into God’s rest, and almost nothing I fear more than not being able to enter into that same rest. Because of that, I can’t think of more frightening words than those that end this Psalm: “Therefore in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
So, the question this leads me to ask is, how do we avoid the fate of those who tested God’s patience in the wilderness? How can we make sure to enter into God’s rest? We, too, find ourselves in a wilderness right now, a place of uncertainty and even unrest. So, how do we enter into God’s rest?
This psalm gives us an answer, when it exclaims: “O that today you would listen to his voice!”
How important this is right now! With so many other anxious voices all around us, including our own! Today it is more important than ever to find times and places to listen to God’s voice, that we might enter into God’s rest.
And this makes me think of one of my favorite passages from scripture, which is also an invitation to find rest. These are Jesus’s own words:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.Matthew 11:28-30
Jesus came to offer us the rest that the people of Israel lost in the wilderness. He came to take our sin to the cross, and by his obedience we are given another chance to enter into God’s rest. How? By coming to Jesus, and taking his yoke upon us, and learning from him.
When I was the Vicar at First Lutheran Church in Parkersburg, WV, my supervisor had a large yoke hanging in his office. It was a reminder to me of a simple point: That a yoke binds two oxen together. That is the point of it. Two are joined together. When Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us, the reason is simple: So that we don’t have to do this alone. He wants to be yoked with us.
But there is another point that Jesus is making here. When he says that his yoke is ‘easy,’ it can also be translated, his yoke is ‘well-fitting.’ In his day, yokes were made of wood, and each yoke was tailor-made to fit the ox. There is even a legend that Jesus was known during his days as a carpenter to have made the best ox-yokes in all of Galilee. His yokes fit well. Whether or not the legend is true, it is a beautiful picture of what Jesus is inviting us to in this passage.
Jesus invites us to come to him and take his yoke upon us. It is a yoke that fits well. He does not invite us to do something that isn’t well-suited for us. He calls us to live a life well-suited for us, tailor-made for us.
And he calls us to do this with him. Not alone, but with him right beside us.
In a well-suited yoke, with Jesus at our side, the work seems more like rest. And that is the invitation that balances the threat of this psalm for me. No longer do we need to fear that God will not allow us to enter into his rest. For His own Son, Jesus, has invited all to come to him and find rest for our souls.
And when we do that, we can’t help but worship and bow down and kneel before the Lord, our Maker. We can’t help but make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. We can’t help but come into his presence with thanksgiving, making a joyful noise to him with songs of praise. All because we have come to the one who promises rest for our weary souls. Thanks be to God. Amen
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
God, our peace and our strength, we pray for our nation and the world as we face new uncertainties around coronavirus. Protect the most vulnerable among us, especially all who are currently sick or in isolation. Grant wisdom, patience, and clarity to health care workers, especially as their work caring for others puts them at great risk. Guide us as we consider how best to prepare and respond in our families, congregations, workplaces, and communities. Give us courage to face these days not with fear but with compassion, concern, and acts of service, trusting that you abide with us always, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
The almighty and merciful Lord, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, bless us and keep us. Amen