Fourth Sunday after Easter
April 24, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom, teaching and instructing each other in psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit, singing to God with grace in your hearts. And whatever you do in word or in work, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Colossians 3:16-17).
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of + Jesus.
The only places where corporate singing still takes place these days is in church and at baseball games. Outside of church, people just don’t get together to sing anymore, unless it’s in the middle of the 7th at a major league ball park. We have an illusion of singing—we watch people sing all the time. We love to do that. Shows like American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent capitalize on the fact that we love to watch people sing. And we sing along under our breath, or we sing in the shower, or in the car. We sing to be silly or we sing to perform (if we have to, every so often). But we don’t sing together, we don’t sing to each other unless it’s, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Except in church. Here corporate singing is still preserved. Kind of. But even in the church, corporate singing is in a downward spiral. In most churches you walk into, you’re very likely to see a row of microphones and a piano or praise band that will lead the music. This is true of contemporary protestant churches as it is of contemporary Roman Catholic churches. The singing is left to the trained professional and the worshipper is bombarded with song from the speakers. She may sing along, but in reality, she’s singing to herself. Singing has become privatized, even in public. Music is alive and well, but singing is not.
And we’re poorer for it. Why is song so important that St. Paul would exhort Christians to sing? Not just once, but twice (he writes the same thing to the Ephesians). Well, we take for granted that we have easy access to the Bible. We have them in our homes, on our phones, they’re in the nightstand drawer at just about every hotel you go into. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the greater part of the history of the Church has been without a Bible in every home. But did that mean that Christians didn’t have the Word of God? Absolutely not. It was here (in their heads) and here (in their hearts) and here (in their mouths). And song is one of the ways to make things more memorable. I’m willing to bet that every one of you here learned the alphabet by singing A, B, C, D, E, F, G… And if you do a lot of filing, you may still sing it to yourself.
But then Johannes Gutenberg invented a machine that would change it all. The printing press made it quicker, easier, and cheaper to print many things, including the Bible. It revolutionized literacy, and also aided in extending the Lutheran Reformation beyond Wittenberg. But like every good thing in this fallen world, it has had some detrimental side effects. Now, instead of the Word of Christ dwelling in us, it dwells on a shelf. The Bible is something we reference, not something that occupies our minds and hearts. The problem is exacerbated by the invention of chapter and verse divisions and indices and concordances, which allow us to jump over the parts of the Bible we’d rather not read in order to get to the parts we do. We’ve turned the Bible into a set of disjointed texts we use to prove our spiritual thoughts, and in the process, we’ve removed the context, the flow, the rhythm of the Scriptures. In short, we’ve removed the song from the Bible.
This is not insignificant. I read two verses at the beginning of this sermon, but the context shows why singing is so important. Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful (Col 3:12-15 NKJV). Singing is sanctification. It’s how the Word of Christ worms its way into your head and heart. Take a look around you. How many of these qualities do you see in the world? How many of them are evident in the Church at large? In our own church? Perhaps the world is the way that it is today because we’ve lost our song.
Oh sing unto the Lord a new song, for He hath done marvelous things (Ps 98:1). That’s why the name for this Sunday of the Church year is Cantate. Sing! The Lord has done marvelous things. His right hand and His holy arm hath gotten Him the victory (Ps 98:2). The new song is a song of victory—victory over sin, death, and the grave. It’s a new song of resurrection. And this Word, this song, has the power to give you new life. So
Sing, and Let the Word of Christ Dwell in You Richly
Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom, teaching and instructing each other in psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit, singing to God with grace in your hearts. The Word of Christ is put into song in three ways: psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit. And by singing these, you are teaching and instructing each other in heavenly wisdom.
First, the Psalms. The Psalms are the hymn book of the Bible. They were composed over number of years, some as early as Moses and the Exodus, many by David, and some are anonymous compositions by godly men. Some are long, some are short, but they all share one thing in common—they speak of Christ, His suffering and resurrection. That’s why Jesus used the Psalms to explain His passion and resurrection to the disciples (Lk 24:44). Perhaps He even sang with them!
We still use the Psalms in the Church for worship. The Introits and Graduals are all portions of the Psalms (sometimes with other Scripture or verses of praise). Many of the Psalms are printed also in our hymn book, some of them even set to music. Because Hebrew poetry is different than the Western poetry that we’re used to, the music for singing a Psalm is different than singing a hymn. Psalms and other Hebrew poetry don’t have uniform length from verse to verse, so we use something known as a recitation tone. Part of the verse is sung on one note, while the beginning or end of lines are set to moving notes. Example: Psalm 98, TLH 667.
Hymns are mentioned next. In the Greek language, a hymn was a song to a god or hero. An outside observer in the early Church noted that when Christians gathered to worship, they sang hymns to Jesus as if He were a God. Surprising, isn’t it? The hymn grows out of the basic confession, Jesus is Lord. In fact, that confession is found in a hymn in the New Testament in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Other hymns are in Colossians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.
And of course, hymns are the larger part of our hymn book. The Reformation doctrine was preserved and extended by hymns. There are, however, good hymns and bad hymns. Many more contemporary songs and hymns are more about the believer than about Christ. The best hymns are those that speak of Christ and His Word and His work. They tell the story of salvation in verse.
Finally, songs of the Spirit. In most English translations you’ll read, “spiritual songs.” But in my mind, this phrase conjures up a particular genre of music. What Paul is talking about here are songs inspired by the Holy Spirit. Not in the sense that a songwriter gets some ethereal inspiration to write his lyrics, but that the Third Person of the Holy Trinity has moved certain people to sing, and their songs are preserved for us in Holy Scripture. The songs of Moses, Hannah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zecharaiah, Mary, Simeon, Anna and the songs of Revelation are a few examples. You can find some on pp. 120-122 of our hymnal (The Lutheran Hymnal). These songs need to be sung like the Psalms.
Some of these songs of the Spirit we sing every week. For example, complete this line: Glory be to God on high: And on earth peace, goodwill toward men. That’s the song of the angels at Jesus’ birth, and you will always remember it, even when you’re old and your memory begins to fade. I see it happen every week when I’m across the parking lot at the care center.
The Spirit’s job, Jesus says in today’s Gospel, is to take what belongs to Jesus and deliver it to you and bring it to your remembrance. One of His best tools is song. He causes the Word of Christ to dwell in you richly. Pay attention to how the words you sing fill your whole self the rest of this service.
Singing is not an option for the Christian. St. Paul commands it. But many of you may not claim to have the greatest voice. There’s something amazing that happens, however, when people sing together. 35,000 mostly untrained singers come together at a ball game, and when they sing, their combined voices will always sing the song correctly. And even on key! Corporate singing is more than the sum of its parts.
Singing together, with each other and to each other, builds us together into the body of Christ. And the new song of His resurrection will give us new life, sanctified life. Life together.
In the name of + Jesus.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Jacob W Ehrhard
Featured image courtesy of flickr user laurentius87