This Week’s Sermon – God’s Favorite Hymn

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 98

O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

SERMON
God’s Favorite Hymn
Psalm 98
Nov. 10, 2013

            One of my favorite memories of my daughters when they were young is the profound influence that church music had on their growth. I remember riding in the car with Sydney when she was two and hearing her sing the words to “Sanctuary,” a song I used to sing to her when I would rock her to sleep. And one of the first songs Molly learned was the Gloria Patri, because we sang it every Sunday in church. Of course, her version was a little different: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Homey Boat.”

Chances are, for many of us our earliest memories of worship have a musical soundtrack. The majestic pipe organ, the simple and beautiful piano, the robust choir, the woman sitting behind you who sang off-key. You may not remember any points from any sermons you heard growing up, but you can remember singing “How Great Thou Art” or “The Old Rugged Cross.” And when you sang them, you were moved because you experienced God’s presence in a way that words simply could not capture. Music opens up an expressive part of us that allows us to connect with God on a different level than a sermon or prayer does. When there is absolutely no way to say what we feel, there is usually a song that can.

Back in 1996, as I began to deal with what I felt was a call to the ministry, I struggled to find the words to explain to my friends and family what I was feeling. How do you begin to articulate this strange and wondrous call? Then in church one Sunday we sang “Here I Am, Lord.” I cried as I sang “Here I am Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.” That’s exactly what I was feeling. Those words captured my heart and affirmed for me the call I had been experiencing.

Sally Brown, a professor of preaching, says “Sacred singing is full-bodied prayer, an act of worship that demands head and heart and sinew, a metaphor for discipleship itself.” Music plays a big part of our theological and spiritual formation. We may not be able to articulate our theology of God’s redemption of humanity through the sacrifice of Jesus, but we can sing “Amazing Grace.” We may be at a loss for words when asked to devise an ecological perspective of the creative reign of God, but we can sing “For the Beauty of the Earth.” For many of us, the hymns we sing in worship have as much influence on our beliefs as the words we hear.

This revelation is as old as the Bible. Moses’ sister Miriam sings a song of thanksgiving after Israel crossed the Red Sea. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon all sang in response to the gift of baby Jesus. The book of Revelation is filled with singing at the anticipation of the coming judgment and the new Jerusalem. And one whole book of the Bible, the Psalms, is a collection of 150 hymns and prayers.

Psalm 98 is one of the enthronement psalms, so it was most likely written for the ceremony honoring a new Israelite king. When a new king takes the throne, you don’t want to sing the old king’s song, so you sing a new song to the Lord to celebrate the crowning of the earthly king and the continuing reign of the heavenly king. Psalm 98 is both a celebration of the new ruler and a reminder to everyone of who is really in charge.

This particular psalm uses the metaphor of music to affirm the creative power of God. I love the way this psalm builds: it starts with a lone voice singing to the Lord a new song, then adds the instrumentation of a lyre, a harp, a trumpet, a horn, continuing to elaborate on this swelling melody, until finally all of creation joins in the symphony, like some majestic organ bellowing out praise: the sea roars, the rivers clap their hands, the hills sing together for joy. This psalm builds to this amazingly glorious crescendo, with every fiber of creation lifting its voice in song.

Is that how we sing each Sunday? Do we bust loose and belt it out, our internal amplifier cranked to 11 as we praise God with full voice in song? I’m guessing for most of us that’s a resounding “no.” If singing is supposed to be full-bodied prayer, then most of us are only whispering. I understand that. It’s easy to be self-conscious about our singing. Some of us are a bit embarrassed that we take literally the command to make a joyful noise to the Lord. We don’t want to be that person that everyone around us talks about after church. “Did you hear that poor child getting violently ill in the pew behind us?” “I think that was just Kory’s singing.”

I get it. But here’s the thing. God doesn’t care. Psalm 98 doesn’t say, “Make a harmonious, mellifluous, joyful noise to the Lord, and make sure it’s on key.” It says, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord.” We are all called to sing. You see, it takes at least two people to make harmony. When we sing together, we proclaim something musically about the unifying, collaborative work of God that we cannot say or sing alone. We are each called to sing our own notes, adding them to the overall sound of God’s people.

I wonder if there’s something deeper at work here, though. I wonder if we sometimes hold back on our singing in the same way we hold back on our praise. There’s something almost reckless about this psalm in the way the author just cuts loose on his praise and adoration of God. There’s no holding back here. There’s no self-consciousness or fear of what others might think. But we often measure our praise based on our own personal judgments. I wonder if anyone here has ever looked at a hymn we’re about to sing and said, “Geez, this thing has FIVE verses?” Or grumbled with disgust, “The choir is singing in ANOTHER language?” Or stopped trying to sing a song because it wasn’t a familiar one. Are we guilty of only expressing our praise when it meets our expectations?

Here’s another way to think about this. The psalmist isn’t praising God because God has done something special for him. He’s not saying, “Praise God, because my fridge is full,” or “Sing praises to God for that healthy doctor’s report.” He’s praise God simply because God deserves our praise. In the psalms, we often find that the human involuntary reflex toward God is praise, not asking God for stuff or questioning God. Even the Lord’s Prayer starts with praise before making a request for daily bread.

We start with praise. It’s the reason why we do what we do as believers. We come to church to praise God. We serve each other to praise God. We give to praise God. And we sing to praise God. When the choir does one of their amazing anthems or when Jane plays a moving prelude, they’re not performing for us. This is not a concert hall. This is a sanctuary, and they are praise God with their gift of music. We also have that gift, the gift of singing – notice I didn’t say “singing well” – and we are called to use it to praise God.

That’s true even when the song may not be one we know well, or know at all. Notice Psalm 98 starts this way: “Sing to the Lord a new song.” Not, “sing to the Lord an oldie but goodie.” I read a commentary that said a great way to measure the spiritual growth of a person is to ask them this question: “What is the last song you learned that made an impact on your life?” If your answer is “Amazing Grace,” then your faith may be a bit stagnant.

Sing to the Lord a new song. When we pick the hymns each week, we try to provide a mixture of familiar tunes and new songs. Our hope is that everyone finds at least one song their familiar with, but also we hope they may discover a new way to praise God. Think about your favorite hymn, that song you would sing every week if you could. Now realize, at some point in your life, you sang that song for the first time. Every song we sing was new at some point. And we may sing a new song that will become your favorite one, like “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” or “In the Bulb There Is a Flower,” which we sang last week. God is constantly calling us to new expressions of who we are and what we’re doing. God is constantly calling us to sing new songs in how we live out our faith. I know, I know, it’s easier to sing the songs we already know. It’s more comfortable that way, isn’t it? But I’m not sure “comfortable” is God’s goal for us.

So we are called to praise God with a new song, to sing and clap and roar our hearts out, to let the music of worship fill us to overflowing with joy, so much so that we can’t contain it. It just has to burst forth from us. In other words, we need to be more like Gary. Gary was a member of a congregation I served during seminary. Gary who was in his 50s, was disabled, and had the mental capacity of a six- or seven-year-old. He also had one of the worst singing voices I’ve ever heard. His singing was slurred and he was never anywhere close to the right key. And he didn’t have the social development to recognize his lack of singing ability. So he just sang loud. Very loud. That church loved Gary, but people went out of their way to avoid sitting in the two or three rows in front of Gary and his family on Sunday morning.

One Sunday, without thinking, I sat down in front of Gary. As soon as opening hymn started, I realized my mistake. “Oh great,” I thought. “A whole service of listening to Gary sing.” And then I realized how selfish I was and how I was missing an opportunity to hear Psalm 98 coming alive. I realized what an asset Gary was to our worship, what a gift his voice was to our singing. Because Gary was singing not from his mouth or his vocal chords, but from his heart, and every word he sang was a word of unbridled praise and thanksgiving. In his child-like innocence, Gary didn’t care what he sounded like or what others thought of him. He only cared to let God know of his love and thankfulness in full voice. He was adding his voice to the harmony that was God’s people singing their praise.

So sing! If you still don’t want to sing, that’s OK. I’m not going to convince you. But please make sure you don’t hold back on your other forms of praise: your worship, your serving, your giving. God deserves the best of everything we have, not just what we feel comfortable offering. That includes our best singing, even if it’s not very good compared to others. God doesn’t care what key it’s in or how many beats you skip. Ps. 5:11 says, “Let all who take refuge in God rejoice; let them ever sing for joy.” The joy of music does not come from singing well; it comes from singing sincerely. So what is God’s favorite hymn? It’s the one you are singing.

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