Sunday, April 03, 2005

Hidden Songs In Scripture: How Can We Keep from Singing?

Here is my sermon for this morning. Hidden Songs In Scripture: How Can We Keep from Singing? by David D. M. King. It's on the occasion of Music Appreciation Sunday at Calvary Baptist Church of Denver.

For the sermon this morning, you're going to need the hymnal found in your pew racks. Now, before you go looking too hard, let me tell you, it looks something like this. [Hold up pew bible]. We don't notice or appreciate it very often, but this book, the Bible, is not only a library of the stories of faith, it is also a hymnal of the songs of faith. As long as humans have been around, we have sung songs to the divine: songs of triumph, songs of bitter weeping, songs of awe, songs of praise… Throughout history, people of faith can hardly keep from singing.

And so, this morning we are going to take a look quickly at some of the songs found in the scripture – a sort-of whirlwind tour of Bible hymns.

You might have heard that the Book of Psalms is the songbook of the church. It is, but in truth, there are songs and hymns scattered throughout the Bible, and the first one we're going to look at is from Exodus 15: the Canticle of Moses and Miriam. "Canticle," by the way, comes from the Latin word canticum and simply means "song." This particular canticle comes just after the Israelites have passed through the Red Sea on dry ground. [The great armies of Egypt are pursuing them, trying to keep them in slavery, when the waters come crashing down, devouring Pharaoh's army.]

If you're following along in your Bible, you'll notice that I'm beginning and ending each canticle with a traditional response that's not found in this part of scripture.

Hear now this Word from the Book of Exodus:
CANTICLE OF MOSES AND MIRIAM (Cantemus Domino); Exodus 15, UMH 135, Tone 2 in c)

Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying,
I will sing to the Lord, who has triumphed glor-ious-ly;
The horse and its rider
The Lord has thrown in-to the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
And has become my sal-vation;
This is my God whom I will praise.
I will exalt my fa-ther's God
Who is a mi-ghty warrior,
Whose name is the Lord.

Who is like you, O Lord, a-mong the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness
Terrible in glorious deeds, do-ing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand,
The earth swal-lowed them.
In your steadfast love,
You have led the people whom you have re-deemed;
You have guided them by your strength to your ho-ly a-bode.

Then Miriam, the prophet, the sis-ter of Aaron,
Took a tambourine in her hand;
And all the women went out after her with tambour-ines and dancing,
And Miriam sang to them:
Sing to the Lord, who has triumphed glor-ious-ly;
The horse and its rider the Lord has thrown in-to the sea.
The Israelites were running for their lives. They had spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt, and after enduring terrible persecution and plagues, had finally won their freedom and were now escaping. They thought they were safe, when the whole army of Egypt came out after them with horses and chariots, chasing them right to the edge of the sea. This would be the end. There was no way out. They would either be killed or brought back into slavery.

But something miraculous happened. Just as all hope seemed lost for these oppressed people, these refugees – just as they were about to be devoured by forces of war, power, economics – God stretched out the hand of liberation and gave them a way out. God rescued the weak from the hands of the mighty and brought them safely to new ground. God put down the forces of militarism and war in favor of those who were most needy and downtrodden.

And what else could they do, after being saved from such imminent destruction, but sing a song to the LORD, their God, who had stepped in as a champion for the powerless. "Sing to the LORD who has triumphed gloriously; the horse and its rider God has thrown into the sea." Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is so thrilled at their newfound freedom that she picks up a tambourine and leads all of the women of Israel in dancing and song. God has acted as their liberator, and they can do nothing else but sing for joy at God's saving power.

But not all of the songs in the Bible are songs of joy. Some are quite the opposite. The next stop on our tour of Scriptural songs is Psalm 13, a song of deep lament and suffering. Like all of the Psalms, this is a song, meant to be sung as a prayer in worship. Even though the Psalms contain some musical instructions, we have long since forgotten what most of them mean, and we don't know how they were sung, only that they were meant for singing. Over the years, the Church has developed its own ways for singing the Psalms and canticles. The method that I'm using today is that of The Order of Saint Luke of the United Methodist Church. Lest you accuse me of being too Methodist, though, let me tell you that we hardly ever chant the Psalms, and in fact, we even stole our chanting method from the Lutherans.

So, now that you know a little bit more about the method of chanting, hear this lament Psalm:

PSALM 13 (); UMH 135, Tone 2 in d)

Transpose to D minor (Dm/F – Dm | Am/C – D(no 3))

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
And have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted o-ver me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
Lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed o-ver him";
Lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I trust in your stead-fast love;
My heart shall rejoice in your sal-vation.
I will sing to the Lord,
For the Lord has dealt boutiful-ly with me.

That's quite a contrast to the joyous celebration of freed slaves. "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?" This is a song of deep agony and suffering. The Psalmist, in fact, is in so much distress that he is questioning God. In fact, there is a feeling of accusation toward God. Why have you abandoned me? If I die, it will be on your head, God!

This song teaches us a valuable lesson. So often we worry that ours prayers have to be just right, that we have to use the appropriate words and show proper respect for God. Psalm 13 reminds us that it is okay to be honest with God. It's all right to get upset and frustrated and angry with God. We can sing a song of worry, a song of despair, a song of hopelessness. God hears us, and God responds with loving-kindness.

So, be angry with God. Yell at God if you have to. Cry to God. Sing a wailing song of lament to God. The scripture tells you that you can. And when you reveal your true heart and feelings to God, you might just be brought, like the Psalmist, even in the midst of despair, to sing praise to God. "But I trust in your steadfast love. My heart shall rejoice in your salvation." We know that God understands our suffering, and stands with us in our despair. We serve a God whose strength is made perfect only in weakness.

In fact, the next canticle on our tour is about just that subject: the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ. It's called the Kenosis Hymn, from the Greek word kenovw which means to empty or to drain out completely. That is what Jesus did in taking on human form: he completely emptied himself. Listen to this song from Philippians:
CANTICLE OF CHRIST'S OBEDIENCE (The Kenosis Hymn); Philippians 2:5-11, UMH 167, Tone 5 in d)

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in our likeness.
And being found in hu-man form
he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly ex-alt-ed him
and bestowed on him the name which is above ev-ery name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
in heaven and on earth and un-der the earth
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This is an awesome message. It turns on their heads many of the ideas that we have about who God is. Moses and Miriam described God as a mighty warrior. But this hymn describes Jesus as a slave. This is a God who was willing to give up divinity, to drain it out, and become humble and lowly, obedient all the way to death. This is not a mighty, overpowering God, but a God who's strength comes only out of weakness and humility.

That means not only that God understands our weakness, but in fact, God is on the side of those who are weak. We are reminded in Christ's example, that only those who are humble will be exalted, and that the true leaders are the ones who serve.

That news is somewhat shocking, even 2000 years later. It's definitely something worth singing about. The steadfast love of God follows us even to death, and we are in awe of its magnitude.

And we are not the only ones who are in awe. Even Mary the mother of Jesus, known in the Eastern Church as the qeotoko", the God-bearer, is amazed at the awesome love of God. Listen to the song Mary sings to Elizabeth while they are both still pregnant, from the Gospel of Luke, the Magnificat:

Transpose Chant to F Major (Am – Em | Am/C – F)

My soul proclaims your great-ness, Lord;
my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior;
For you have looked with favor on your low-ly servant,
from this day all generations will call me blessed.
You the Almighty have done great things for me,
and Holy is your Name.
Your have mercy on those who fear you
in every gen-er-ation.
You have shown the strength of your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their con-ceit.
You have cast the mighty from their thrones;
you have lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich have been sent a-way empty.
You have come to the help of your ser-vant Israel,
for you have remembered your promise of mercy,
the promise you made to our forebears,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Jesus is not the only one who is a slave. Mary thanks God for favoring her even though she is lowly. She would have been of no consequence to the world, but she was of supreme consequence to God.

But Mary doesn't just sing of her own situation, she is so overcome with joy that she breaks into song about the amazing liberating action of God for all oppressed people. "God pulls down the mighty from their thrones, and raises up the humble. The Lord fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry." These are hard words for those of us who identify with the rich and powerful, as most of us do. But they are wonderful words of salvation for those who are on the underside of society, for those in the Third World, for those who are marginalized and oppressed for any reason. God is the champion of the poor and needy, the benefactor of those who suffer, the healer of those who are diseased, the comforter of those who weep. Of what greater love can we sing than that of an almighty God who is self-humbling, and cares most for those who have the least.

We have so many reasons to sing to God. And people of faith have always sung their songs to the Lord. Songs of triumph, songs of despair, songs of amazement, songs of great thanksgiving – songs for every emotion and occasion. And when we sing we join together with people from all times and places – past, present, and future – North, South, East, and West. We come together in one great chorus of faith that transcends time and space. In all occasions, good times and bad, we must sing our prayers. In the words of today's Hymn of Praise:

So has the church in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue, Alleluia!

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always Alleluia!

With so great a God, how can we keep from singing?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, nice!

Mary Ann

5:05 AM  
Blogger Papa Smurf said...

I still can't find that hymnil book thing, where was it??

9:07 PM  
Blogger david said...

I'm not sure I understand your question, Papa Smurf. The resources that I used for the chanting are The United Methodist Hymnal 1989, along with the hymnal supplement Vol.1, and The Daily Office from The Order of Saint Luke. I made brief reference to the Lutheran Book of Worship because the Methodist hymnal borrows the chant tunes from there.

Let me know if I didn't answer your question.

10:01 PM  
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