We Are The Songs We Sing

Revelation 5.11-14

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every living creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

“Were you crying during the first hymn?”

She asked me with a raised eyebrow out on the front lawn two weeks ago.

We worshiped the Lord with glory and splendor. The lilies surrounded the altar, the pews were packed, Easter! And then a stranger walked up and wanted to know whether or not I cried.

The truth? I did cry. In fact, I cried a lot. So much so I had to take my glasses off for fear that the tears would smudge my lenses and I wouldn’t be able to read the sermon.

But I couldn’t tell from her tone what she was trying to get at with her question. Had I been too emotional for her liking? Was she embarrassed to see such a handsome pastor blubbering up at the front?

I smiled and considered how I might respond. And then she interjected with a whisper, “It’s okay, I did too.”

John the Revelator sees a vision, and what a vision it is. Myriads of thousands, singing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb!” 

John shares his sights with a dispirited and anxiety ridden church. Easter has come and gone. The tomb is empty, the Lord is risen, but what happens next? The people called church run afoul of the powers and the principalities because they now know where real power can be found. They are persecuted, forsaken, punished.

And what does God have to say and show to the people called church?

A song.

A song that spreads wider and wider until the entirety of the cosmos sings praise to the One who is, who was, and who is to come.

Most of Revelation is music. As a book it is quoted among our hymnody and liturgy more than any other part of scripture. And for good reason. It is filled with such wild and wondrous images, it literally talks of music and singing over and over again. 

And, if you spend enough time among the people called Methodist, you start to think in hymns/music.

Listen to this: My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought. My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

That’s the faith we sing, in one verse.

And so it has been since the beginning. The earliest disciples devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, the singing of songs, and the sharing of scripture.

We are the songs we sing.

The Gospel lection for today, the one that is meant to be paired with our text from Revelation, finds Jesus broiling up some fish along the sea with Peter. The infamous tripartite questioning, “Do you love me?”

Peter is questioned three times, just as Peter denied Jesus three times. Do you love me?

In some sense, it doesn’t matter how Peter answers because Jesus loves Peter whether or not the love is returned. Its grace, all of it. Jesus will remain steadfast whether Peter does or not. Whether we do or not.

Love, in the Christian context, means to be possessed by something else. We love only in the sense that we are beckoned, compelled, drawn to the Lamb who was slaughtered and is therefore the one worthy to receiving power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.

It is a strange love. 

Like the cross, the love of God is both a reminder of what God does and what we do to God.

That is, the cross is our salvation and is also a proclamation of our complicity in the death of Christ.

Love, therefore, is our freedom, and also a declaration about our unworthiness of that very freedom.

And yet God loves us anyway.

To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, doing exactly what we’re doing right now – gathering week after week with people we love, people who drive us crazy, and even people we hate because God in Christ calls us his friends.

To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, even when we’ve sung these songs ten thousand times and feasted on the bread and cup ten thousand more, that we are still overwhelmed by the God who is love and loves us.

Revelation, and in particular this bit in chapter 5, is all about worship. We come to the altar of God to be met by the One who makes a way where there is no way. We worship the only way we know how – we sing, we read, we preach, we offer, we receive. This is worship and it is who we are.

We come to this place in this way with the conviction that we are in the presence of God. Every week there is an air of excitement, or at least there should be, in which we gather here thinking to ourselves, “I wonder what God is going to do next?”

And yet, to those outside, what we do here is indeed very strange.

They see people singing unpopular songs, someone who reads from an old dusty book, someone else making remarks about the book that may or may not interest those listening, and then everyone stands up to eat and drink really small portions of bread and juice.

Worship IS strange and worship changes things. And sometimes the thing that worship changes is us.

A prayer is offered that strikes us to the center of our hearts and we know that we can never be what we once were. A sermon is delivered and we receive it as if it was written for me and me alone. And still yet other times its less clear what it is that happens, but we leave not the same as we arrived.

And sometimes we are changed in spite of worship.

C.S. came up with the idea for his remarkable book The Screwtape Letters during what he described as “one very boring sermon.”

I myself learned of the beauty of the Bible because I grew disinterested in parts of worship when I was a child, and I reached for the old book attached to the pew ahead of me to pass the time.

More than a few of you have shared stories about sermons you heard that brought you not to the throne of God, but to the realization that you needed to join a different church!

At its best, and I mean at its very best, worship reminds us, and begs us to realize, that we, even us, we are included in the myriads of the thousands in John’s vision. Worship tells us over and over again that there is nothing we can do for good or ill that can stop God from getting what God wants. 

Worship gives us Jesus.

There’s a story of an old seminary professor who used to interview candidates for the ministry, and in all the interviews he did over the years he would always as the same question, “Why should I join your church?”

Candidates would wax lyrical about the value of community, and the professor would say, “I’m in AA and I have all the community support I need.”

Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. And the professor would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”

And then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. And the professor would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

For years and years he recruited for the seminary and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything specially about Jesus

The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all the musical prodigies. We may have some of those gifts, to be sure, but if we’re serious about really being the church then we only have one thing to offer at all: The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

We don’t have to have impeccable fellowship gatherings, or world transforming service opportunities, or even perfectly pitched singers because what we do here is already the difference that makes all the difference in the world. And that difference has a name: Jesus.

Here’s the shortest version of the longest story: Jesus the one whom we tried to push out of our world by hanging him on a cross, shall reign, and shall gather every living creature in, the last, least, lost, little, and dead, and even we ourselves will rejoice with the myriads. We will sup at the meal that goes on without end and we shall worship with song and voice.

Singing is who we are and what we do. And we’ve been doing it since the beginning. Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, the Angels, Jesus, Paul, all of them sing in the strange new world of the Bible. 

John Wesley was transfigured by the singing chorus of a group of Moravians. His brother Charles wrote the songs that we, and a whole bunch of other churches, sing all the time. 

And that is why we sing even now. We sing when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. We sing.

The last word in worship is “Amen.”  Every living creature in heaven and earth sings, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And we all say, “Amen!”

Amen means “Yes.” It is our decisive declaration about who we are, what we are doing, and what is being done to us.

We respond to God’s great Amen with our own.

A few years ago I was in Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip with a group of youth from the church I was serving. We were tasked with helping out at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help in the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and generally enjoy one another’s company. And yet, when we arrived, we discovered that the Activity Center was, perhaps, misnamed. 

The residents sat in abject silence day after day.

We pulled out the bingo cards, but we didn’t get any takers. The youth put together a workout routine to a Michael Jackson song, that receive not even a toe tap. No matter what we did, it was as if we weren’t even there.

I remember one of the employees saying, “Don’t worry about it. The residents are always like this.”

And then, one morning, one of the girls found a dusty hymnal in the corner, she flipped to a familiar hymn, and started humming the melody.

It was Amazing Grace.

Without giving it much thought, all of our youth surrounded her and started singing together:

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.

All the eyes in the room, previously locked onto the walls and the floor, turned toward the center where the youth stood surrounding the hymnal.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

The residents started perking up in their wheel chairs, and some of them started mouthing the words.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

Aides and employees started gathering in the doorways, witnessing this strange and wondrous sight, and more than a few of them joined in:

The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.

Everyone in the room was now singing or humming along, even residents who were labeled as non-communicative were making a joyful noise:

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.

With tears streaming and voices ringing, we all joined for the final verse:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright singing as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.

We are the songs we sing. Amen. 

Overwhelmed By Joy

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 10.44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including pastoral pandemic pandering, vacation, disco and disc golf, the serendipity of the Spirit, songs meant for singing, virtuous obedience, conquered faith, unadulterated joy, and divine apprehension. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Overwhelmed By Joy

Fruit Of The Womb

Luke 1.39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

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Mary was the first to carry the gospel. 

Our choir was singing those words with a particular gusto because the truth of that statement is a profound one. In Protestant circles Mary tends to be overlooked and is relegated to the side of the Advent/Christmas stories. Sure, she is the Theotokos, the God-bearer, but she was just a vessel right?

Wrong.

No. Mary is much much much more than a vessel and her role in the salvation of the world is one worthy of our time and attention.

She is a young and engaged version with the angel Gabriel shows up with supposedly good news. Imagine having to tell your fiancé that you were now pregnant with the Son of God!

And yet her faithfulness in the midst of something that appears terrible is bewildering. 

Let it be with me according to thy will…

Harmonizing with God’s purposes in the world is no easy endeavor, and in Mary’s case it sends her to relatives’ house, Elizabeth and Zechariah. 

Now, remember, this is a time before Facebook and viral pregnancy announcements, there was no gender reveal party or even an opportunity for a baby shower. Mary merely enters the house, and John the soon-to-be Baptist leaps inside his mother, Elizabeth’s, womb.

I’ve been playing the drums for a very long time and I’ve taken as many opportunities as I could to play with a variety of groups in a variety of places. I’ve played in jazz combos at bars, I’ve classical music in benefit concerts, and I’ve played jam-band music in more garages than I can count.

But my first love of drums came in worship music. I played for a contemporary Christian worship band nearly every Sunday from the time I was 16 until I was 25. And I loved it.

I loved practicing with a group during the week, I loved bonding over music, and I loved providing the rhythm for the praising of God during worship. And the people I’ve played with other the years are some of my very favorite people.

While I was living in North Carolina I practiced with a group every Tuesday night, and we would play for a worship service every Sunday evening. We would always wait until everyone arrived for practice and then we would circle up to pray before we did anything else. It became an important habit that shaped how we practiced such that we always remember for whom we were playing.

On one such night, we went around the circle sharing our concerns, when our leader, the pregnant pianist, suddenly departed for the bathroom and left us standing there holding hands.

We patiently waited for her to return until we heard her scream in the bathroom, and the girls from the band immediately ran to check on her.

Later, we found out that she was spotting and assumed that she lost the baby. The terror in her voice has haunted me ever since.

She went to the doctor the following day and, miraculously, she learned that the baby was okay. But she didn’t feel him kicking or moving around.

The doctor, the trained professional, had told her everything she could’ve possibly hoped to hear, but because of her experience, it didn’t feel real. She had to make it through day after day in that horrible tension of being told something that didn’t seem true.

Until Sunday, when she had to sit at the piano and sing to the Lord.

I can remember that Sunday evening, sitting behind the drums, playing away, and looking over at her as she stared off into the distance. She was there, but not really there. She was playing all the right notes, and singing all the right words, but her heart wasn’t into it.

But we kept playing anyway.

And then, in a way that is difficult to describe, it felt like the Holy Spirit blew through the room as I looked over at her in the middle of a song, and she was crying with a giant smile on her face. The tears were falling on the keys and she was singing in a way that none of us had ever experienced – it felt like the heavenly hosts were lifting her voice up to praise.

As soon as the song ended she looked back over her shoulder at the band and she said, “The baby started kicking along to the song, he was leaping in my womb.”

The jumping of John in his mother’s womb was enough to get Mary singing a song that Christians like us have been proclaiming and declaring for centuries. “My soul magnifies the Lord!” The Spirit moved in and through her to sing from the depth of her being that God was doing a new thing. That God refused to leave God’s people. That God would do whatever it took to rectify this world.

And so, what else can we do, but magnify the Lord with our songs? 

Devotional – Psalm 104.33

Devotional:

Psalm 104.33

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

Weekly Devotional Image

Our service yesterday was filled with music: We began with the wonderful hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” as we praised God for the many blessings of life. Our Preschoolers offered wonderful renditions of “This Is My Commandment” and “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” all with corresponding hand gestures. Our Youth Choir faithfully proclaimed the words to “You Are My All In All.” And as a congregation we all joined together for “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Out of the numerous responsibilities that come with being a pastor, selecting the hymns for Sunday morning is one of my favorite privileges. I love spending time deep in God’s Word to begin crafting a sermon, but spending time in the hymnal and choosing songs to complement the thrust of worship is incredible. I grew up learning to sing my faith out of the hymnal and I believe hymns are vitally important for us to continually learn what it means to be faithful today.

After worship, while we were celebrating our preschoolers with a reception, I had a couple come up to me to thank me for worship. We talked about how cute the children were and how wonderful it was to see them in church. We exchanged stories about what we remember from our days in Preschool (not a lot). But before I was going to thank them for their words and pick up some more food from the table they had one more thing to say: “We heard God in the songs today.”

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Have you ever been in the middle of a hymn during worship when you started to really understand it for the first time? You might’ve known all the words to something like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” but one Sunday it finally clicked? Or you’ve heard children sing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” but when you saw them pointing at you during the service you realized, for the first time, that God has you in his hands?

“I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” Singing our faith is at the heart of what it means to be faithful because our words, and the music, help us to grasp who we are and whose we are.

This week, let us all reflect on the meaning of the hymns we sing.

What is your favorite hymn? What has it taught you about faith and discipleship?