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Sermons

The Power of Song

February 5, 2012, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

1 Chronicles 16:8-11, 23-34; Psalm 96; Colossians 3:16-17; Mark 14:22-26;

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“My goodness,” the visitor said to me at the door, “you sing a lot here; more than any church I’ve ever attended. Why is that?” After pleading guilty to the charge, I quoted St. Augustine, the great fifth century Bishop of North Africa, who said, “Those who sing pray twice.” The words of our hymns are prayers, and when we sing them, we add to them a further dimension to our honor and praise. Fifteen times the Old Testament tells us to “Sing to the Lord.”1 Sung praise seems to be God’s favorite form of prayer, for the Bible instructs us to sing to the Lord, come into God’s presence with singing, make melody to the Lord and enter God’s courts in song. There are some 242 such exhortations in the Old Testament alone.2 Add the twelve New Testament citations and you get a pretty good picture of the importance of song to God.3 In fact, the Book of Revelation portrays heaven as continually filled with the songs of praise of the saints. When we sing to the Lord, we add our voices to their continuing song. We sing here because singing is what the people of God do in God’s presence.

Singing is not a spectator sport; it engages the whole self in prayer. Song is the gift God has given us to unite our heads and our hearts in praise. But it not only joins our individual heads and hearts in praise, song also unites us all in one common prayer. John Calvin–the father of the Reformed theological tradition–believed that we should use every part of our body to glorify God, and so he wrote, “the special service to which the tongue should be devoted is that of singing and speaking, inasmuch as it has been expressly created to declare and proclaim the praise of God.”4 It was in Strasburg, while exiled from Geneva, that Calvin first heard a singing congregation giving voice, not only to psalms, but also to the creed and the Lord’s Prayer. He was overwhelmed–quite literally, he wrote, moved to tears over the beauty and power of congregational song in worship. When he later returned to Geneva, Calvin brought with him the tradition that would ever-after identify Reformed worship–a singing congregation. He would later say that beyond listening for God to speak in the scriptures and sermon, singing was the single most important thing worshipers did. He even called the singing of psalms, “speaking to God using God’s own words.” A singing congregation remains one of the hallmarks of Reformed worship. In such worship, we are not spectators who come to be enlightened, inspired, edified or entertained by preacher, organist or choir. Rather, we gather as God’s people who come together to do something for God–sing!–offer God our worship.

“Worship:” it comes from the Old English “worthshipe”–which means what one does to name, acknowledge and enact the worth of another to one’s self. In worship we come before God to do just that–acknowledge, enact and praise God’s worth. And when we do it through song, we find ourselves being engaged by God’s Spirit in an act of life-giving prayer. This is the second reason we sing so much here. Yet, I am always a bit sorry when I look out on the congregation and see some standing silently during the hymns, for I know what you are missing in your silence. Now, I know the excuse: “I don’t sing well, I can’t carry a tune.” Let me remind you, the psalmist did not say, “Sing a glorious aria to the Lord!” The psalmist said, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord,” and did so not once but some seven times!5 It is fine to read the text as the rest of us sing, as some of you do, for at least that engages your mind. But to lift that text in song engages your heart, mind and strength, and nourishes our souls as we experience a power of God at the center of our being. That is the power of song. On those Sundays when I have been struggling with throat problems and unable to sing, lest I not have enough voice left to preach, I have experienced the distress of such deprivation. Those who remain silent during the hymns are like people who order a five-star restaurant’s extraordinary tasting menu, and when the meal arrives, simply look on, enjoying only its presentation.

Praise sung to God lifts the spirits like nothing else. The Psalter is filled with exhortations to sing, not only in times of victory, but also when one’s spirits need strengthening. Interestingly enough, though, as much as the older of our two testaments dwells on the power of song, the word does not appear in the Gospels, only its cognate, “singing.” But look at where it appears: between Jesus’ last meal with his disciples in the Upper Room, and taking them with him to Gethsemane to prepare for the terror and violence he knows is coming. “After singing a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives.”6 When we need assurance and strength, and the revival of hope, nothing fortifies the heart like a song reminding us of God’s presence and eternal faithfulness.

Full throated, open-chested song offered to God is itself a sacrament. Though not one of the official two sacraments of Reformed theology, or the seven of the Church of Rome, nonetheless such song becomes a channel through which you and I encounter, experience and participate in the life-transforming power of God at work in us, which is precisely what sacraments do. Listen to the testimony of one of you who sent this word on to me in an e-mail after worship here not long ago. She wrote: “What an advantage we Presbyterians have, we can sing the most powerful words and make the most daring surrenders of life in hymns. The words come out of my mouth no matter how quietly I sing them. I have [actually] said those words of belief with my own lips, again and again. There’s no academic argument going on. I simply sing ‘Take my life and let it be...,’ or ‘Your breath sustains me, Living God.’ Out of my own mouth come these extravagant words of faith, and there is no turning back! I’ve gotten used to it here. I am a person who can now think of herself as a God-lover, and to whom words of God’s love come, are believed, and can be shared.”

A God lover who knows she is loved. It reminds me of the conviction behind the Christian monastic tradition in which life is devoted to the alternating rhythm of labora et ora–work and prayer. Engraved over the entrance to many a medieval monastery’s chapel were these words: “God respects me when I work, but loves me when I sing.” Leaving the field, the kitchen, the scholar’s study or the scribe’s desk to walk through the door of the oratory, each monk was reminded, not only of the dignity of his work, but more, the glory of his worship: “God loves me when I sing.”

I first became aware of these words from my colleague Don Clapper, the Minister of Music at Pine Street Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They were inscribed on a plaque that was posted above the door to his office. It served as a reminder, both to him and to all who worked with him, of what it was the church had called him to do with his life and musical gifts. God respects me when I work, but loves me when I sing. And when you are a member of that gifted group of blessed people whose work is making music, especially music born of God’s most glorious instrument–the human voice–you are doubly blessed. Ask any singer why he or she does it. Ask instrumentalists what the ultimate standard for the exercise of their musical gifts is and they will tell you it is to make their instrument sing, whether a string, woodwind, or brass, instrument, the piano or organ–yes even the percussion section–their goal is to make their instrument sing. We sing because it is what we were created to do. And when we do, we know we are loved.

And, of course, we know what it means when the organ sings. We know what that means for our own congregational song, and we know what it means for the organ to call us to worship in prelude and send us forth in postlude, as its notes sing forth their own special form of prayer. We here at MAPC have been privileged to be bathed in the very finest of such prayer for almost a century, first by Seth Bingham, then Dorothy Lee, followed by George Markey, John Weaver and now Andrew Henderson. Each has brought a blending of uncommon talent, artistry, faith and devotion wrapped up in a life of faithful service. The ones I have known–and I have known three of them–have also been generous in friendship, wit, humor, and unpretentious in their brilliance.7 They make music because they must, it is what they were created to do, and, in doing so, know the double blessing of being both respected and loved, not only by our Lord, but by all of us who they lead in worship. As we rededicate this organ, we give thanks, not only for this magnificent instrument, but for all of those musical artists who have served here so faithfully. But most of all, we give thanks to God for the gift and power of song.

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!

 

  1. Exodus 15:1; 21; 1 Chronicles 16:23; 2 Chronicles 20:21; Psalm 13:6; 95:1; 96:1; 98:1; 104:33; 147:7; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Jeremiah 20:13
  2. Sing, shuwr 119; singing, shuwr, 29; make melody, nagan, 16; song, mzimrawth 78
  3. Romans 15:9, psallo; 1 Corinthians 14:15, psallo (twice in one verse); Ephesians 5:19, ado; Colossians 3:16, ado; James 5:13, psallo; Revelation 5:9; 14:3; 15:3 (twice), ode
  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, translator, Vol. II, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 181
  5. Psalm 66:1; 81:1; 95:1; 95:2; 98:4; 98:6; 100:1
  6. Mark 14:26; Matthew 26:30
  7. In chronology, not only of their service but also our friendship, they are Dorothy Lee, John Weaver and Andrew Henderson; the first two before I became Pastor of MAPC. Dorothy and her husband Robert (who had been the Director of Music at MAPC during their time here), retired in Harrisburg, and were active members and participants in the life and ministry of that congregation, and now members of the Church Triumphant. John and I worked together on denominational committees and organizations fostering the worship life of the Presbyterian Church for almost ten years before I became Pastor here.

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