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Bait and Switch

March 22, 2017

“Bait and Switch” Psalm 95 © 3.21.17 by Tom Cheatham for Amory Ministerial Association Lenten Lunch. All rights reserved.

Bait and switch is an old, illegal, and unethical sales scheme in which customers are lured into a showroom or store by the promise of an item at an attractively low price, only to be encouraged to buy a similar product at a higher cost. “We’re all out of that,” the shopper is told, “but we have this vacuum, car, sofa for a bit more.” The fact is that there was never but one of the advertised low-cost good, if it ever existed at all.

The term refers specifically to a practice in commerce, but it can be more widely applied, I think, to relationships, to politics, to any context in which promises are explicitly or implicitly made. We expect one thing, but get another, sometimes without warning or recourse. We trust someone to treat us decently, to keep promises, only to find that they intend to do nothing of the sort. We’re asked our preference, say for how we like our steak cooked, then the chef goes ahead and does it the way he or she wants it anyway, not for a moment taking us seriously, when we were looking forward to a tasty meal. It’s like petting a dog who is loving and making all kinds of yummy noises as you scratch behind her ears, then suddenly turns vicious and clamps down on your arm.

When I read Psalm 95, I feel as if I’ve been baited and switched. Who isn’t drawn in by the lovely words of the poet, which we used two days ago at my church as a call to worship? What a picture of security and stability, hope and strength! Yahweh, the covenant-making God, is a rock of salvation, the Creator who holds the depths and the heights in his hands, the great King above all who purport to rule as deities. Wow! We want to be in the presence of such a One, praising his goodness, willingly bowing before the God who made us, who cares for his own like a shepherd the sheep. We’re bound to him, joyful heart, bowing body, praising soul.

But then suddenly we get the second part of verse 7, and it gets worse from there. This God speaks, as if in a prophetic oracle, and he’s mad. He loathes his people. He refuses to let them enter his rest, because they tested him, didn’t trust him to provide. He swears in his anger that they won’t find respite, won’t get to the Promised Land.

The sudden change in mood is shocking. It’s the switch that goes with the bait of the uplifting call to praise. The poet has drawn us in, then when he’s got us hooked and feeling fine, lowers the boom and reveals his real purpose, which is to warn us that God is going to get us and renege on promises if we don’t shape up. We better listen to the voice of this God we’re praising or there will literally be Hell to pay.

One answer to why we get this abrupt turnaround might be that the editors of the psalms stuck on a part of some other poem where it didn’t belong. There are other instances of such a thing happening. Psalm 51, for example. Good Lenten psalm. The psalmist says “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” But then somebody else, uncomfortable with this rejection of ritual and tradition, added the last two verses: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”

I like those kinds of explanations, but the fact is we have to somehow make sense of the way we have Psalm 95 in the canon now. And it turns out that’s not really so hard. The poem is not as disjointed as I’ve suggested. It actually follows an ancient pattern of an audience with a king. The people process into the throne room, they bow in obeisance to the sovereign, and then they hear his declarations.

God is the King in this psalm, including when he’s called “shepherd.” That was a designation for monarchs in the ancient Middle East. Kings were supposed to provide for and protect their people. So, here the worshippers move into the Temple, they kneel before the Lord, their Maker, and then a priest or prophet delivers a sermon based on an infamous incident in Israelite history. In essence, the preacher says: “This isn’t about the past; this is about you. Today. Now. In this place.”

We come to worship and give praise to God, delighting him with our devotion. He’s saying to himself: “Finally, folks who trust and love me and will follow my direction.” Worship that is authentic and faithful softens our hearts and opens our ears, so that we hear the voice of God in the cries of the lonely, lost, and left-out. We see obedience to God’s commands, yielding to his leading, not as servitude and a cause for complaining, but as joy and help and freedom. Worship is not entertainment, and it’s not about getting something for ourselves. It moves us to service.

But what if we worship and bow down, listen to the sermon, even one that’s a little edgy, full of cautions and admonitions, then we go out and instead of loving our neighbor, we bend the knee to the modern idols of money, power, and prestige, pursue profit and pleasure with no regard for anything or anyone than what we want and what will benefit our egos and bank accounts? What if we look the other way while the vulnerable are misused and preyed upon, the aged are not respected, the poor are ground into the dirt? One of the statements of faith in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions says: “A church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God” (Confession of 1967).

On Sunday, pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz wrote: “Worship is a life lived changed by faith in God and burdened to reflect the character of that God to others. If the songs and the words and the stories and the prayers today don’t move you out of the building and into the paths of hurting people in a way that alters those paths—it’s all been wasted time” (http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/03/19/today-outside-the-church/).

Or I would say, it’s a bait and switch. And the sucker, the mark, the victim of the scam, the fraud, is God.

The fact that the Presbyterian statement 50 years ago and John Pavlovitz two days past had to remind us what worship is reveals how deep-seated and serious the problem of hard hearts and closed ears has been and is among those who claim to be God’s people in our nation. I feel confident, though, that given the number and scope of ministries done directly and supported by the churches represented in this room, that the poet of Psalm 95 would be pleased with our worship today.

And it always is today, isn’t it? May our adoration of our Sovereign always issue in our service to our neighbor, as we listen to the voice of Jesus in their cries and respond with softened hearts of love.

Today.

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