August 24, 2014
Scripture: Ps 10:17-18; Rev 7:15-17
The Lord reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. 8 He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity. 9 The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. 10 Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. Ps 9:7-10
You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, 18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror Psalm 10:17-18
Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me; Lord, be my help.11 You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever. Ps 30:10-12
“they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water. ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’[c]” Rev 7:15-17
We Christians are a singing people. Our singing goes back for centuries, to the early church, to the desert fathers, to the chants of the monks, to the hymns of the reformation, to the songs we call praise music. And it doesn’t take a lot of effort to imagine the moods washing over the composers when they wrote hymns like How Great Thou Art, or Spirit of God, Descend Upon my Heart. But our habit of singing goes back much further than the beginning of the Church.
It can be traced back to the early Israelite community. Their songs were a way of remembering the history before things were written down. After the Exodus the experience of Moses and Miriam was put to music: I will sing to the Lord for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, he has become my salvation.
In the time of the Judges Deborah and Barak raised an army and confronted the soldiers of Sisera, who fled the battle and sought refuge in the tent of Jael.
Deborah sang a song of victory after Jael’s encounter with Sisera out there in the desert: Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women. He asked for water, and she gave him milk, in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk. Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. History can be violent stuff.
Battles were recalled in song; victories and losses were put to music; it was a way to both praise God and keep history alive. This was before the advent of Wikepedia.
But the music didn’t always match the situation. Picture for a moment images of 911 or injured children, or explosions in Syria or Palestine, with victims lying in the streets.
What music would accompany the pictures? There is a Balm in Gilead might fit. But what about O Day of Radiant Gladness? “O Day of radiant gladness, O day of joy and light, O balm of care and sadness, most beautiful most bright.” It would seem contradictory, a mismatch.
But the words to songs have often been a mismatch with life’s pictures. It was true of the Psalms. Lots of times reality intruded in people’s lives, and reality could be harsh. Worlds could be turned upside down for no adequate reason.
Life no longer made sense. And in the face of that the Psalmist sang. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Religious teaching said that faith should be a shield against the intruder, the disease, the betrayal, the death, the defeat. But God could seem to be absent in the middle of all the pain. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe you’ve felt that sort of abandonment, and wondered where God had gotten off to in a time of need.
But in the midst of that despair come hymns of assurance: “The Lord is the refuge of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Even though an army encamps against me my heart shall not fear. Even though war rises up against me, in spite of this, I am confident. (Ps 27)
We can see the soldier standing watch on the wall, seeing the enemy gather in staggering numbers. “And yet, the Lord is the refuge of my life.” It’s an ironic juxtaposition: battles waged and smoke rising; God seems to be absent, and yet, and yet – “Truly to you, Lord, my eyes are directed. In you I seek refuge.”
Our Christian hymns echo that juxtaposition. We find the same counterbalance in the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul”:
The words to that hymn were written by a Chicago lawyer by the name of Horatio Spafford. When Spafford wrote the hymn, all things were not going well in his life. In fact, his world was akimbo, and Spafford’s words were thanksgiving and praise to God in the midst of deep grief and loss. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8_EfDqF7YI
- And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll; The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, Even so, it is well with my soul.
The Book of Revelation is one not many people seem to be able to get together on. It’s either despised or embraced, not much in between. But think for a moment about John, the author, He knew the brutality of the world as well as Horatio Spafford. The Roman authorities had exiled him to the Isle of Patmos because of his Christian witness .So here he sits, not on board a ship but on a rocky shore, 37 miles from his home and his community and his fellow worshipers. He might see the Roman ships going past, their decks crowded with chariots and soldiers, propelled by oars pushed by galley slaves chained to their benches.
In his imagination he could see the plight of his fellow believers, Christians needing shelter from persecution, needing food and water, needing safety when they were running from the authorities, needing comfort as they grieved for family members and friends who had been put to death.
The picture he saw might have been very similar to the pictures we’ve seen of Isis fighters chasing Christians and Yazidis up to that barren mountaintop, killing those who were too slow, trying to starve the rest to death. A brutal picture.
But John’s mind flies from the reality of pain and destruction to the memory of a hymn – or maybe he composed it. He sees an alternative world, another reality, a different way of being. So he looks at one reality and hears the refrain of another. He sees one picture and hears a different song. He invites us to see and hear with him.
See the realities I see, O God. Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me; Lord, be my help.”
We’re reminded that Jesus was a singer. We don’t have the notes to his music, but we have his words and actions. He sang songs of reassurance, and challenge, and healing. So today we turn on the news, or maybe we see what happens in our own homes, where there are battered women and children, and hear the words of John’s hymn:
God sits upon his throne and will shelter them with God’s own presence. Because we live out the songs Jesus sang in his ministry, we will shelter them too.
We see the hollow eyes of men and women and children who need a meal, and hear the words, “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more.” Because we live out the songs Jesus sang in his ministry, we will feed them too.
We see those whose lives are being consumed by drugs, or defined by mental illness, and we hear the words, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water.” Because we live out the songs Jesus sang in his ministry, we will guide them too.
We hear the cries of those who are mourning and grieving. Maybe you are one of them, grieving over the loss of a parent, or a spouse, or a child, or a friend, or a pastor. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Because we live out the songs Jesus sang in his ministry, we will comfort them too.
What songs do we sing? Surely we don’t let our worship be reduced to petty arguments over the differences between traditional or contemporary music. Surely our songs reflect disappointment and celebration, discouragement and hope, defeat and victory, some at the same time.
But they all end with praise. The Psalmists and the hymn writers and John of Patmos and Jesus invite us to sing with them: You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever. Ps 30:10-12
They invite us to sing,
“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen!