What’s your favorite instrument for worship singing? At Christ the Lord (and in Lutheran Worship), very often we hear the organ. Many times here we hear the piano. Last week some guitar. Now and again percussion, reedier sounds, different strings, other things. Pick your instrumental favorite – what makes you nod your head with the hymn or tugs at your heartstrings – and in your head, play what you like with the Sunday service. But in this way: imagine after Pastor Kolander’s opening greeting this morning, the organ, your piano, the guitar, some percussion pumps, plunks, strums, bops in with a rousing rendition of “Roll Out the Barrel”… Or after the sermon, after the offering, we stand to sing and your instrument brings us into a little Taylor Swift, OMI, or Barry Manilow…
Even if you like them (Swift, OMI, Manilow) you would probably say, “That’s not really what we’re about here…” or “That just doesn’t feel right.” And you’d be right. Not because certain instruments, certain sounds are the wrong kind of music… But because, as we think about the spirit God’s Spirit wants us to have regarding music, the question is primarily what we sing and less how we sound. So with the prophet Jeremiah, we remember that the Church’s music sings a song of substance.
Jeremiahs says, “Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations. Make your praises heard, and say…” You wouldn’t catch it from those words, but they called Jeremiah “the weeping prophet”. That’s because his words to God’s people were mostly devastating judgment. Read Jeremiah’s prophecy some time along with chapters from 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles. After they turned away to false gods (sacrificing even their own children) and to methods and means of human security, finally God declared, “This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years.” And they did. Jerusalem was destroyed and Judah went into exile for 70 years. Babylon took their brightest and best and killed most of the rest. As God said, “I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness…”
But now they are to sing? For what? Of what? “[S]ay, ‘O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’” In God’s grace, before destruction has happened yet for God’s people, the prophet also tells God’s people to sing of salvation from God. Jeremiah pictures what God promised to bring for them – bringing them back across the barren wasteland, from the north, pulled from far away places – God would have his remnant brought home. And so, God’s people were to sing – not of their accomplishments, not of the mighty return of Israel – but of the mighty salvation of God – that he would rescue them from exile and bring them home just as he promised.
God’s people still sing today and our song is to be the same substance – the song of salvation from God. We’ve done it so far this morning, say in the Hymn of the Day before the sermon. We glorified God in our music – alleluias of adoration: looking to him with love and wonder and not selfishly at ourselves. We sang a “more profound Alleluia” – not just a random reaction of praise, a hail-Mary touchdown shout – but an exclamation that comes from knowing the truth. We sang of Jesus’ psalm that Maundy Thursday night, the beautiful poetry of how for us he won the fight against the darkness of sin and death and devil. And it makes us want to sing Alleluia!
Isn’t this what we sing as the Church? Just think, from my point of view or from yours, what things political and economical and emotional we might like to say. But instead, what do we read every week? Isn’t it the promises of what God has done, starting in readings from his old testament? And then how we respond as people of God – we hear words that shape our lives of praise from Paul or Peter or the writer to the Hebrews – about what is true for the people of God because of Jesus’ saving service. And then, with Alleluias don’t we rise in joy to hear and see our Savior in action – this week reminding his own and us that God’s work and his kingdom is not about our greatness, but about receiving with deep humility and joy the service of the Son of Man who ransomed us from sin at the great price of his own life? Receiving it so that with great humility we live in joy in our marriages and at work and with our friends – on the basis of the sure promises that in Christ God has saved us?
We proclaim what we have received. That God, through his Son, has led us out of captivity to sin. Just as it was for Israel of old, the substance of our song, is salvation from God no matter the voice or the instrument. You might say God’s Church is concerned most with what she sings and less with how. Though, you might at the same time say how we sing is very important too.
Last week I was trolling Facebook and happened to see a TedX video from 2014. This man, Sydney Pollack, had the stage in the packed Sydney Opera House and he’s showing the audience how to make a clarinet out of a carrot. It’s like 4:30… And after about 3:30 of watching him hone and shape this rather large carrot with an electric drill, finally he plugs one end with a bell (like on a horn) and the other with a saxophone mouthpiece. And then he raises it to his mouth and plays the carrot… Like a clarinet. Like a legit jazzy, bluesy orange, vegetal clarinet. And you can feel/hear the audience sort of thrill… They wonder, they laugh and whistle, and I’m grinning…over a carrot. Not really over a carrot, but because this guy made it sing.
Our singing is like that in a way… It’s all based on our relation to God and what he can do with us. Note how God speaks of Israel in v.9: “I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim [Israel] is my firstborn son.” A father loves his children and does what is best for them so that they can face life. A loving father shapes and instructs his children. He gives them a solid foundation, models a sure path so their life can be a beautiful song. Though once reject exiles, look at how Israel will sing because God is their Father: “Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble…”
Because God is our heavenly Father, we recognize that we come as we are – totally dependent on him, the weak who cannot make him happy on our own, those who struggle with sins. We are people whose walk through life might sometimes seem as tenuous as if a woman near to labor had to make a days-long walk through the dead, dry desert. Whatever good we might birth will surely die, weak as we are in the wasteland of sins. Which we see: we do not only sing for God’s glory. Often we sing for ourselves – in our marriages and our friendships and even our worship – sometimes we sing only what we like, only what will make us feel good, only what will make us look good. Our prospect for making it with that kind of song is as good as the woman in labor about to trek the wilderness. It’s sure death.
But, weak as we are, exiled for sins though we were, God has “loved [us] with an everlasting love; [he has] drawn you with loving-kindness.” God our Father, as Jeremiah’s chapter 31 points out, applies mercy even to us as he talks about Israel. By faith, this is how we are as his children: people in a new covenant/family relationship on the basis of what he will do. He says, “’I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people…they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’”
Do you know what that looks like then? How God’s people sing because they have a Father who loves them though they are weak? It looks like daily “weeping” and “prayer”, from v.9. The lives of the people of God who have been rescued from their sins by his loving action, they look like repentance – daily sorrow over their sins and prayers to God for forgiveness and peace. And to know peace, to have confidence, they sing of the solid path they walk because God’s saved them – no doubt it’s done, no doubt they belong, no doubt they’ll get where he wants them to go – because he has made straight and ready the way. To know peace and have confidence, God’s people drink deeply of the living water, the cool and refreshing, life-sustaining love that flows from the Word of God. We sing like we will at the end – with the might of the one who recreates us to be his instruments, with his Word our speech, his work our joy, his house our rest, his grace our song – and in everything, his praise with the best we can give.
This is what we sing: God’s work that rescues us from sin. This is how we sing: this humble yet joyful song of those who have a loving Father. We sound this song in many ways – and not just here – but no matter how or where, remember that we God’s Church are always singing something substantial – from the joy of our relation the very substance of our salvation – We sing for joy and shout, make our praises heard and say, “God has saved his people.”