A Faith that SingsApril 18, 2004, 12:00 am
Second Sunday in Easter
"Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea." It is no coincidence that this, one of the earliest fragments of scripture, should be a song. The covenant people of God have responded to and worshipped God in song from their beginnings. Song has been central to preserving the faith, and singers and poets have functioned to remember and represent the story of God's activity with their people.
Most of the songs in the Bible we know as psalms. These were sung not only in temple and later synagogue worship, but also in procession as the faithful made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But they were sung in other places as well, at home -- at morning, noon, and evening -- the prescribed times of daily prayer. They were sung in much the same way hymns have been sung in our culture, at the loom, at plow, at lathe. And as they were sung, the faith was absorbed and integrated into the fabric of one's life. Song is the gift God has given us to unite our heads and our hearts as we respond to God.
Jesus grew up this way -- hearing the psalms sung in these ways, singing them himself. It is not a coincidence that Jesus quotes the psalms so freely. He learned his faith, in part, singing them. In fact, he quotes the psalms more than any other source of scripture. Their words became his own. They shaped his life, interpreted it for him - telling him who he was. And, they sustained him in his most trying times. So it was that Jesus' followers should hear his voice in the psalms. As they read and sang them, in synagogue and later in Christian worship, they saw their Lord's life portrayed before them. Consequently the psalms became a primary source, a biblical seed bed for interpreting our Lord's life, and a means through which they continued to hear him speak.
The Book of Colossians speaks of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly as we sing our faith. It is but one of several written to the early church which reflects this understanding of God's power to speak in and through sung praise.1 In such song, the church has continued to experienced the word of Christ speaking to us, dwelling in us richly. I will tell you a secret: there have been as many conversions in choir lofts as in any other place in the church, more faith learned in a children's choir than in many a Sunday School class. It is one of the church's most important programs of evangelism. Singing the faith, the word of Christ is inscribed on our hearts. I will tell you another secret: most of us have learned our theology from the hymnal, not from the sermons we have listened to or preached over the years. Such is the power of a faith that sings. Is it any wonder that singing our faith has remained a central part of Christian worship into this very day?
A faith that sings begins with praise. Whether we respond to the gift and glory of a new day with "This is the day the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it." or Be joyful in God all you lands, sing the glory of God's name, sing God's praise. The mere speaking of the words brings that rush of God's Spirit which fills us with joy like wind filling a sail. It sustains sustains us like the summer thermal sustains the soaring hawk. Was it C.S. Lewis who said it? "Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God." What performing artist has not known it? Choose your favorite singer, instrumental player, dancer, conductor, and then recall that moment when you knew they had become the channel through whom the voice of God was speaking -- joy, the infallible sign of the presence of God. A faith that sings begins with praise.
But the songs of faith encompass failure as well. For the story of the people of God is also a story of failure, and the brokenness which emerges from our having lost contact with God. "Have mercy on me, O Lord, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgression."2 Again and again songs of faith lead us out of our self-inflicted crisis: "While I kept silence my body wasted away, through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer."3 But it is failure in the presence of unrelenting forgiveness. In fact, what better way to describe the story of God with God's people than unrelenting forgiveness in the face of failure, forgiveness determined to renew us with love, fill us with the strength of praise, put a song in our hearts, and set us on the path of life once again.
But what about those moments of failure which are not of our own making, the crisis where evil takes on a human face and conspires against us? What better place to go than to a song of faith in the Psalms. "Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, I have trusted in you without wavering."4 How is that for putting God on the spot? Often, when working with people in such crisis, I suggest they spend twenty to thirty minutes in the morning leafing through the psalms until they find one that catches the eye or touches the heart. Then I tell them to pray it as their own -- morning, noon and night. In the praying they will hear God speak to them, and know that they are responding with words most acceptable to God. Calvin used to say it was talking to God using God's own words. Which is to say, the psalms tell us that it is appropriate for us to tell God that we are feeling let down or betrayed. We can go storming into the throne-room of God saying, "But you promised!" Do so, it will get the conversation started again.
God can handle our frustrations, our disappointments, and especially our anger. One of the greatest lessons a faith that sings has taught me is that we can go to God with our anger. For a number of years in my previous parish, I served as Chaplain for that church's ministry to newly widowed people. Rather than a "self-help" group, we designed the ministry to bring people together who were sharing the same sense of abandon and desperation, but do so in a context of faith. I always opened the meeting with a time of devotion and prayer. In ten years, I never used any other portion of scripture than the Psalms, especially those which put God on notice that we were feeling let down, if not betrayed. And, as I read and commented, tears would well up in the participants' eyes, washing out some of their pain. I never ended those sessions without encouraging them to express their anger and rage at God, just as the psalmist does. "Go ahead," I would urge them, "get angry with God. If the psalmist can, you can. God can take it; God even understands it. After all, we only get angry with those we love." The words were always met with amazement, especially coming from someone wearing a collar. But as the ministry continued, we saw people healed and headed into new life. As they came to that point, invariably, they would come to me and say, "That was the turning point. I had been so angry with God, I had stopped praying, stopped going to church, stopped believing that God cared. But, when I did what you said, I found God was there and still listening." In the expression of anger, we are lead back into conversation with God, where we can experience the healing power of Christ touching us, changing us, and turning us towards new life.
But what about that moment of abandonment? What about Jesus' words in the gospel lesson today? It is one thing to talk about praise, and confession, and even expression of anger. But what about those moments when everything seems to have failed? Scholars have long discussed the meaning of Jesus praying Psalm 22 as his last words on the cross. Indeed, it begins as a cry of abandonment, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?" And as the psalm unfolds, it further describes the passion, almost as though it were a blue-print, complete with the jeering of the chief priests and the scribes as they mock Jesus, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself." Is this simply one more use of the psalms to explain Jesus' life and death, or is there more behind this?
Some have suggested that because the psalm actually ends in a song of deliverance, Jesus is not crying out of a sense of abandonment, but actually expressing his confidence and trust in the presence of God.5 Yet, the abandonment is real. Jesus has been abandoned by his closest friends, mocked and ridiculed by both Jewish and Roman leaders, badly beaten, and even berated by those who hang on either side of him. Jesus himself had said it would be thus.6 Why should he not feel that God has abandoned him as well? There is portrayed here not only the reality experienced by those who know affliction, but more, the word that in such affliction, Jesus did not curse God and die. Rather, he continued to address God, call out to God, all the way into death. Standing this side of Easter, we know how the story ends; God did not abandon him. Yet, the awful interim not only makes us shudder, but causes us to think that he died, if not abandoned, then at least staring at death alone.
But let us not confuse the silence of God with abandonment. God is not absent here. It is simply that there is nothing to say. It was David Read who first made this observation in a Good Friday service four years ago. "All of us as pastors," he said, "have been in situations of crisis and despair where words simply had no meaning, and the only thing we could do, was be there." That is what is going on! The Father is holding the son in an embrace of deepest sorrow, knowing the awful necessity of this death. The Father has not abandoned the Son, but is holding him in deepest grief, leading him through the valley of the shadow of death, just as the psalmist promises. Jesus dies entrusting his life to God. He is raised to fulfill the psalmist's vow:
"I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters...,
For you have not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted
you did not hide your face from me,
but heard me when I cried to you...."7
From deliverance to praise; from confession to reconciliation; from anger to peace; from dereliction to strength; from affliction to victory; from abandonment to faithful embrace ... such are the gifts of a faith that sings.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- cf. Col 3:16, Eph. 5:19, 1 Cor. 14:26, James 5:13.
- Psalm 51:1
- Psalm 32:3-4
- Psalm 26:1
- C.H. Dodd was the first to propose this solution to the problem. Cf. Donald H. Juel, Mark, AUGSBURG COMMENTARY ON THE NEW TESTAMENT, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1990), p. 223. See also James L. Mays, Psalms, INTERPRETATION, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), p. 105f.
- Mark 14:27
- Psalm 22:22, 24, 27 (alt).
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