Part of the appeal is nostalgia, there’s no doubt. Renditions of Stille Nacht and Angels We Have Heard on High and recitations of Luke 2 roll through our brains as we remember singing in children’s Christmas Eve services. O Holy Night, Joy to the World, The First Noel give us a chill remembering cold nights singing carols door to door. O Come All Ye Faithful invites us back to Christmas Day festival, all brassy and bright with shiny shoes and pretty satin dresses. Once in Royal David’s City or Little Town of Bethlehem take us softly into the night, candlelight, cocoa, and company around the glowing tree. Part of the appeal, even if you’re not a singer, even if you’re not totally familiar, is in the old songs, the classic Christmas carols and hymns you hear on the radio, those your mother sang as you sat in her lap. We love to sing old songs at Christmas – it’s what we’ve always done maybe – and that gives us some comfort.
I hope it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, but in Psalm 96, King David of old is telling us to sing something new. He’s not talking about tossing out cherished hymns and carols, rather he’s commanding a response to the truth that God is supreme over everyone and everything else. He commands that we sing and praise and proclaim, that we ascribe and bring and say “The Lord reigns”. According to David it’s all very natural because the LORD our King brings incomparable creation that is beautiful, majestic, and strong, and a world that is so stable his people look forward to his coming judgment.
That may put us off a bit, but in a sense it’s a very natural thing David proposes. In our lives, we sing and shout about things that are beautiful and majestic and strong. In fact, that’s how we’d like to feel most often. Life practically rings when there is strength. When we get that year-end bonus check, when we find friends we can rely on and be ourselves with, when our kids and their families are safe and healthy and happy. Life is a song when there’s beauty – a birth, a growing romance, a majestic sunset or a starry night. When we’re making new and majestic things – life just sings.
And then, of course, it doesn’t sometimes. Because life just isn’t always beautiful, isn’t always strong – rather very often it’s weak and ugly. Sometimes everything you put together, everything you make and do is worthless. In fact, we might say that the world does not seem stable at all – often not in our own lives and if there often only when we don’t look at the world around us. And then it can seem unwelcome and strange to hear David’s command – very unnatural to sing as he wants us to.
Rather we like what we like – sort of like old songs at Christmas, nostalgia and all that. That’s close, actually, to the real temptation we meet Psalm 96. It’s not that we don’t sing, but that we find comfort in singing an old, familiar song instead of David’s new one. It’s that song from of old, in Eden, when humanity decided God’s beautiful creativity wasn’t enough – they wanted a beauty and strength all their own and, in order to get it, they left behind what God had commanded. And ever after this is the song that revels in all the beauty and strength of this world. It rings in the world’s concept of Christmas – jingles about peace among men because people are nice and we all give gifts and as the snow flies, time stops so we can escape – a simple fiction. And you sing it when you struggle day by day to assuage your guilt or to just be better so that God will love you – a bargain with him. You hear it when people plan how to remove all the things that keep humanity from being as good as it really is – God included. It’s in our heads when we worship the things we think will make life okay: acceptance of all our friends’ choices, answering all our own desires, closing out difficult things God says – when we disregard his Word. We hum the old, nostalgic song God calls sin any time we prize the beauty and strength of this world over him. And David, in Psalm 96, calls all of those worldly things “idols” – gods we make with make with our own hands and worship. Call them science or love or money or friendship, but the weakness of the song about them is that it always ends in ugly death – and God has promised, as ultimate creator and ruler, to bring destructive judgment for sin.
It’s the same as what we sometimes we say in Bible or catechism class that there really are only two religions (or tonight, if you will, two songs) in the world. There’s the one that sings of the beauty of human work – either by pretending God doesn’t exist at all or by trying to make him happy by what we do. And then there’s singing the beauty of God’s work…the song David wants you to sing. In v.2 he said, “Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.” David’s new song is salvation – rescue from the death of sin by the work of God, given as a free gift. The Lord who made the heavens has beautifully wrapped it up for you at Christmas…
Look how he creatively wraps his gift in strength and glory! He sings salvation in everything we would consider weak and ugly (from Luke 2): a man pledged to be married to a pregnant woman, social stigma from the start; a baby born, not in a palace, but in poor and simple conditions; an announcement not to kings but to dirty shepherds sleeping in the grass who were terrified at the glory… In these, he brings the announcement of good news and great joy – “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” The Lord brings strength: a Savior – a rescuer; not far off but born among us; who is true God himself. And he brings, “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” He brings peace, complete and whole and prepackaged – between God and men. He brings it like a present on Christmas Eve to be freely, lovingly given.
Look at the splendor and majesty of this gift! This Savior is what you heard from John, “the true light that gives light to every man.” We long to know what’s going on in life and where life is going. He tells us how life truly is: that those who live day by day in his saving work need never be in the dark – not of sin, not of shame or guilt, not of loneliness or fear, never of death – because “in him is life”. The beauty and splendor and jaw-dropping majesty of Christmas is that God provides his own Son to be the payment for sin – his whole life will be a perfect song of praise to God, he will be just as we are but better, he will deserve all of God’s love and will give it away to people who couldn’t deserve it. The Lord makes for us a world in which death for sin will not be our end, instead we will have life with him forever. What a majestic idea!
And one that makes life truly stable. When David mentions it in v.10, “The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved,” he’s emphasizing the Lord’s strength and ability to judge. But think of it from our perspective at Christmas… Unlike every other thing in life where men and women try to beautify themselves, the Lord who made the heavens gives this lasting stability to life: believers in Jesus Christ are free from sins; righteous, perfect already, everything God wants to see and therefore ready for when “he comes to judge”. He doesn’t promise that life will be stable, but that nothing can shake the life he gives in his Son. And therefore, even in this unstable life, God’s people confidently sing.
One of the readings a pastor could use on this Christmas Eve comes from Titus 2. It tells well of our song. It rests in “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness.” And rises to this: that he creates “for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” To summarize, you don’t have to create goodness and beauty for yourself – God makes you a new and beautiful creation in his Son. You might say that this is God’s gift: you have only to tell it like it is, “to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name” in everything you do.
Which is maybe a bit like a new song. People waited a long time to hear Adele’s new album; some go weak-kneed for the Bieber – I don’t think this is like that. This is an august moment – and for these, sometimes people will commission someone to compose a beautiful new piece of music, fitting to the occasion – a symphony, a song. In his splendor and majesty, grace and glory, God gifts you with his Savior at Christmas, fills you with his forgiving love, and allows you to create: with your life that’s different than mine or hers or his, with your creations and your conversations, with your families and your gifts – he calls you to receive his love, love his will, and compose a new song that tells the Lord’s glorious love in Jesus Christ and how praiseworthy he is.
So, sing the good and the old, the songs that are too great to put away, that beg to be brought out every Christmas… But sing them because they tell of your comfort and joy in the new song Jesus your Savior brings.
In his beautiful work, his creative love, and by his amazing peace – Merry Christmas!