In that day you will say:
“I will praise you, Lord.
Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
and you have comforted me.
2 Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.”
3 With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.
4 In that day you will say:
“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done,
and proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
let this be known to all the world.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”
One of the joys of having children is watching them mature and develop socially. This year Hadley started preschool at one of the local United Methodist churches, where she has the opportunity to interact with other 3-year-olds, as well as the other kids at the school as well. This means that she also spends time with the 4 and 5-year-olds.
Now I’m not one of those over-protective fathers. I don’t own a shotgun so I won’t be cleaning it when some boy comes to pick up my daughter for a date in about twenty years. But one day she came home and informed us that she received two marriage proposals on the playground that day. Both of these proposals came from older men…four-year-olds. According to Hadley, both Jed and Marley want to marry her.
Jed’s father teaches at Blue Ridge Community College and his mother is a pastor, so we can assume that Jed is going to be trouble, you know how those pastor’s kids are. And Marley is the only four-year-old I know with dreadlocks, so I assume that he is named after Bob Marley, and not Jacob Marley, the business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge.
I don’t expect a playground proposal made at preschool to be legally binding, and I’m not sure how Hadley responded, but all kidding aside, I can be a little anxious about the future. Not only questions about who or if my children will marry, but what jobs will be out there for them. How will they pay for their education? And even more intimidating to me is the thought of what the future holds for our society. I have some say in how my kids turn out, but what about everyone else’s kids? I’m concerned about what the world look like in another 20 or 30 years because just in the last decade or so we seem to have turned a corner for the worse.
Terrorism, mass shootings, school shootings, church shootings. We are not safe in the places where we should feel safe. The biggest worry I had in elementary school was catching cooties. Now these tragedies are common occurrences, happening nearly every day. We have had 353 mass shootings in the United States this year alone, where a mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot. What is wrong with people?
But perhaps even more unsettling to me is the reaction of my fellow Americans, and worse, my fellow Christians. Just over a week ago a president of a large Christian college declared during a student convocation that he was packing heat. He said, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them…. Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
I really don’t know which concerns me more, the status of the world today, or the response of people who follow the Prince of Peace.
This week I dropped off Hadley at preschool, just like I always do, three days a week. I watched as she greeted her friends, some with verbal greetings, others with hugs. And of course I make sure to keep an eye on Jed and Marley as I drive off. In addition to all of the discouraging things happening in the world, I’ve experienced a few discouraging events recently in my personal life as well. So I was feeling pretty depressed as I went to the office and set up to work on our Sunday morning service. The troubles of the world are many and it seems as if I’m not able to make a difference in any of it. But after seeing those kids and their excitement as they met one another at school, I had Marley on my mind. So I found a playlist of Bob Marley songs online. And the first song was “Three Little Birds.” The lyrics go, “Don’t worry, about a ‘ting. ‘Cause every little ‘ting, is gonna be all right.”
The funny thing is that this song actually made me feel better, and I can’t say why. I could read those words and they wouldn’t have any effect on my whatsoever. I have said those words many times, in sermons and in conversations. I know that in the end every little ‘ting is gonna be all right. That’s a foundational statement of the Christian faith. But when the words are set to music, and sung with a Jamaican accent, I feel different.
We all know that music can affect our mood, even affect our thought patterns. Studies have shown how different parts of our brain come alive when we hear music, and not all music has the same response. Classical music makes you smarter, and Blue Grass has the opposite effect J. Some songs take us back to a certain time and place, reminding us of our youth or a simpler time. Elton John’s song “Candle in the Wind” was written as a tribute to the late Princess Diana. The Beastie Boys “Fight for Your Right [to Party]” takes me back to my rebellious years as a seven-year-old in rural Ohio. Every Nirvana song reminds me of a high school friend who took his own life in the same manner as Kurt Cobain.
I think that there is an untapped resource in Christian music. That seems like a bold and poorly-thought-out statement, I know. There are thousands of Christian hymns and popular-level songs, but I think that we could do more.
When I think about Christian music, one word comes to my mind: worship. That is a good thing, as I believe that worship is one of the main reasons we gather together as a church and that we are called to worship throughout our days, throughout our lives. But music, and in particular Christian music, does a lot more than offer praise to God. It also has the ability to change the way we think.
Our scripture for this morning comes to us in the early parts of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is often broken into two or three sections. The first 39 chapters come before the Babylonian Exile, the last 27 come after the exile. Chapter 40 is the one we know from Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” So from chapter 40 on, you have words of comfort and reassurance. Israel, your time in exile is over. But the earlier chapters are filled with warnings, warnings of foreign invaders who will come and take them away from their land, away from their temple, and away from their families.
A number of the Psalms were also written during the time of the Babylonian Exile. Psalm 137 tells the story of the Israelites being taken by force to settle along a river in Babylon. Look at verses 1-3, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”
The Israelites placed their harps in the trees, hanging them out of reach. But the Babylonians wanted some entertainment, so they demanded that the Israelites sing their songs of joy, the songs of Zion. Let’s pick back up with verse 4 to find the response of the Israelites: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
In the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the fear of foreigners, in the middle of the fear of great loss, the Israelites refuse to sing. How can we sing these songs in this place? This is no place for the songs of Zion.
I wonder if Isaiah’s passage isn’t intended as a response to these Israelites who refuse to sing. Isaiah says, “Sing praises to the Lord.” Sing anyway.
Look at verses 2-3, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
When Isaiah says “God is my salvation,” he isn’t just speaking about the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, he means that, but he also means salvation from exile. He means salvation from the situation in which they find themselves. Isaiah is saying that God will act, and because we know God will act, we must sing today.
Singing isn’t just an act of praise, it is an act of hope.
When I look back on 2015 and do a little “year in review” in my mind, I think of two main struggles in our society: racism and violence. And these two problems came together in one ugly incident in a historical black church when a white supremacist shot and killed nine people, including the pastor, who was also a state senator.
The eulogy for the pastor was delivered by the President of the United States. I didn’t watch the eulogy, in large part because I don’t make a habit of watching funerals of people that I don’t know. But I saw a clip from this eulogy; I saw it many times. There was something about it that kept drawing me back, hitting the rewind button, and watching it again. Because during this eulogy, President Obama sang a song.
In the middle of all of the ugliness that comes at the intersection of racism and mass murder, the President sang Amazing Grace. This is a song that I’ve heard hundreds of times. I’ve read the words before as well and could read them to you right now. But there is something about having the most powerful man in the world break into song. In a time when I felt like the Israelites in Babylon, not liking my immediate surroundings, not wanting to sing a song in a strange land, the President sang. And he invited others to join him.
I don’t always feel like singing, and this Advent is one of those times. I feel as if I’m in a strange land, one where hate and fear dominate our newspaper and website headlines. But now is precisely the time that I need to sing. Not because God needs my songs of praise, but because I need to offer God songs of praise. Music is powerful. It can affect our hearts, it can affect our minds, it can affect our outlook on life. We sing, not because everything is good today, we sing because there is one coming who will set the world right. Born in a manger to poor, unmarried parents, the King of kings, Lord of lords will make all things right again. So we sing because every little ‘ting gonna be all right.