I learned something new this week: I learned that it was customary for the Hebrews to celebrate God’s mighty acts by writing a new song. For example, when God led the children of Israel through the Red Sea and set them free, once and for all, from the mighty Pharaoh, Moses wrote a song to commemorate the occasion. He said,
“I will sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously.
The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
Yah is my strength and song.
He has become my salvation…” (Exodus 15:1-18)
When God answered Hannah’s prayer for a son, she sang,
“My heart exults in Yahweh!
My horn is exalted in Yahweh.
My mouth is enlarged over my enemies,
because I rejoice in your salvation…” (1 Samuel 2:1-8)
And, once David had prevailed over the Gibeonites, the Philistines, and all the other enemies of Israel, he sang,
“Yahweh is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
even mine; God, my rock, in him I will take refuge…
I will call on Yahweh, who is worthy to be praised:
So shall I be saved from my enemies.” (2 Samuel 22:1-4)
Whenever the Hebrews experienced the awesome power of God’s redeeming love, they sang a new song to mark the occasion. This is the backdrop of the Psalter reading for today. It’s a song of praise commemorating the end of the Babylonian exile:
“Sing to Yahweh a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand, and his holy arm, have worked salvation for him…
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” (Psalms 98:1-3)
The Israelites had lived in captivity for seventy years, and now they were free to return to the land of Judea. Can you imagine a greater moment for celebration? No wonder the psalmist went on to say,
“Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth!
Burst out and sing for joy, yes, sing praises! Sing praises to Yahweh…
with the harp, with the harp and the voice of melody.
With trumpets and sound of the ram’s horn,
make a joyful noise before the King, Yahweh.”
And don’t stop there
“Let the sea roar with its fullness;
the world, and those who dwell therein.” (Psalms 98:4-7)
Well, this morning, I’d like to pick up on this theme, “Sing to Yahweh a new song,” with the hope that it’ll enable us to recognize God’s mighty acts in our world today and inspire us to sing a new song to the Lord each and every day.
In some ways, the old Hebrew custom is already familiar to us. We commission a symphony or some other work of art to commemorate special occasions. It more or less comes naturally.
And it doesn’t have to be a national celebration. My son, Patrick, and his fiance, Emily Mitchell, are planning to be married on July 3rd. Unbeknownst to him, Emily wrote a poem expressing her faith and love and gratitude to God and sent it to my youngest son, Christopher, who put it music and plans to sing it at their wedding. This is the spirit of Psalm 98: “Sing to Yahweh a new song.” Sing praise to God for all the many ways God is blessing your life.
I’ve been thinking how nice it’d be if one of you were to write a song or an anthem to mark the completion of our Capital Improvement Plan. Wouldn’t it be great to commemorate this new beginning in the life of our congregation with a song? Anyone willing to volunteer?
Well, it’s easy to see God’s power and might in landmark events such as the Exodus or Armistice Day, the dedication of a building, the inauguration of a new era. Yet, if you closely, God is at work all around us, every day, giving us all the more reason to sing and celebrate.
I wish you could’ve seen the look on Hilda Wurtz’ face the day after she’d given birth to Hannah. As far as she was concerned, this precious child in her arms was nothing less than a miracle of God’s grace and love.
Miracles happen every day. Just go to the graduation exercises at Consolidated or Bryan High School this coming weekend. You’re likely to see a lot of miracles walking across the stage! God is at work all around us, if we only have eyes to see. Scripture says,
“It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed,
because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
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Once you’re aware of what God is doing in the world today reconciling us to himself; once you’re aware of what God is up to in your own life, transforming you into the man or woman God created you to be; once you become aware of the power of God’s redeeming love, you, too, will want to sing,
“I’ll shout it from the mountaintop,
I want my world to know,
the Lord of love has come to me,
I want to pass it on.”
“Sing to Yahweh a new song.” It sounds simple enough, and it is. But, just so we’re clear, let me hasten to make three quick points. The first is this: New songs are not meant to take the place of old songs. The point is not to swap one for the other, but to expand our repertoire and broaden our horizons.
I’ve heard some people say, perhaps you have to, that the best hymns are the hymns of the past, hymns like Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross, Rock of Ages, In the Garden. I grew up singing these hymns, and they’ll always be near and dear to my heart, but I think we all agree they’re not the only hymns we ought to be singing. We do God a disservice when we limit our songs only to those we’re familiar with.
Will Rogers used to say, “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet.” Well, I like to think that a new song or hymn is an old favorite we happen to be singing for the very first time!
God calls us to expand our repertoire, and, God knows, there’s lots of new music in the world today. Not all of it is good, but not all of it is bad, either. One commentator wrote,
“We have to be careful.
Newness is not necessarily a virtue;
new songs may be foolish songs.” (IB, Vol. 4, p. 173)
The question is, are we looking for a new songs to sing, and are we willing to sing them when we find them? If we’re not careful, we may cut ourselves off from considering the possibilities before we ever start.
As most of you know, we’re in the process of creating an “emerging worship task group.” Once we get started, we’ll be looking into the possibility of starting an alternative worship service, probably in Fellowship Hall. We’ll start by studying the Directory for Worship and ask ourselves, “What constitutes worship in a Presbyterian Church? What are the essential components?” Then we’ll look for all the resources we can find for emerging worship. Already, I’ve found catalogues and web sites to browse through. In addition, I’ve collected three new songbooks and a couple of song sheets full of contemporary music. The opening hymn this morning came from a supplement to the hymnal published by the Presbyterian Publishing House.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole world of possibilities out there. The question is, are we willing to sing new songs to the Lord, once we find them?
Now, I can see that some of you are starting to squirm in your seats. Relax. Say over and over to yourself: New songs don’t nullify old songs; they merely give us more choices.
That’s my first point, and the second point is this: Even old songs are new songs to those who are hearing them for the first time.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard – really heard – Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica.” Especially the first movement, and especially the climax, where two totally different chords clash, not once, but nine times in a dramatic display of polytonality. Back at the turn of the 19th Century, when it was first premiered, many left the concert hall in protest. “Blasphemy!” they said. Others heard it and recognized Beethoven’s genius. When I first heard it, I played it over and over and over again. It was so new and exciting to me. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Never mind the fact that it was over 150 years old.
Old songs are new songs to those who are hearing them for the first time. We take for granted that hymns we’ve sung for years are thrilling to those who are new to the Christian faith.
And we’re still learning new “old” hymns ourselves. “Lift High the Cross,” for example, isn’t to be found in our beloved old “red hymnal” of the past. It came out in a Presbyterian hymnal for the first time in 1990. Yet, if you look closely, it was written in the late 1800s.
Old songs are new songs to those who are hearing them for the first time. That’s the second point, and the third is simply, old songs become new songs when we sing them in a new way. I once served a church that sang the Gloria Patri every Sunday morning, but they sang it to an upbeat tune and a syncopated rhythm. They sang,
“Glory be to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
World without end, amen.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
World without end, amen.
Amen, amen; amen, amen; amen, amen.”
It was the Gloria Patri, all right, but with a kick! How many ways are there are to singing praise to God? Probably more than we can imagine.
Well, let’s wrap it up. We’re called to continue the old Hebrew tradition and sing a new song to the Lord. New songs are not meant to take the place of old songs. Old songs are new songs to those who are hearing them for the first time. And old songs become new songs when we sing them in a new way.
And, if you’re willing, just one more: Old songs become new songs when something new happens in the minds and hearts of those who are singing them. One commentator writes,
“Old songs that are genuine
become new to everyone who discovers their truth for himself.
We need singers that are made new,
as well as new hymns.”
And so, we do: When our hearts are filled with a new spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving, then we’re able to sing with a newfound sense of enthusiasm and conviction and joy, whether it’s an old or a new song we happen to sing. And so,
“Sing to Yahweh a new song, for he has done marvelous things!…
Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth!
Burst out and sing for joy, yes, sing praises!…
Let the mountains sing for joy together. Let them sing before Yahweh,
for he comes to judge the earth…
with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.