Madison Baptist Church has been gathering for worship since 1834; that means that our congregation has been singing for almost 183 years. While James McDonald was the first pastor, I don’t know if he picked the hymns, if someone else had that duty, or if the gathered congregation simply called out favorites. Over the years, the person selecting music for our church brings their desires, goals, and even personalities into the choices. I’m not sure that music selection is entirely objective; Renae Hester is different from Elsie Monk who was different from Joe Preston who was different from David Shytle who was different from Carey Huddlestun. All of us have our gifts and talents, and all of us are unique. I do not have the same gifts and talents as my predecessor Jim Ross, and his gifts were not identical to his predecessor W. T. Booth. And this thing called church is bigger than all of that. With differing gifts and talents from pastors, music ministers, other staff members, and laity, the ministry of the church continues, and today we celebrate this new chapter of Madison Baptist Church’s storied history as Renae Hester begins as our Minister of Music.
I intentionally chose to preach from the Psalms today. As you probably know, the book of Psalms is actually a compilation of Jewish hymns and songs known as the Psalter. These songs were used in worship.
From our Old Testament Lesson, the Psalmist wrote, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” Kind of interesting given the fact that there were so many songs. Their hymnal contained numerous hymns; there are 150 chapters in our book of Psalms. But the Psalmist wanted them to sing a new song. Why a new one? What’s wrong with the old ones? After all, some of those hymns had been written by their ancestors and spiritual forebears. Some of the songs had been sung for generations.
“If it was good enough for my grand-parents, then it’s good enough for me.” Ever heard that phrase? I’ve never quite understood that mentality; houses without indoor plumbing were good enough for my grand-parents, but that doesn’t mean that I should live like that.
The Psalmist encouraged the singing of new songs for many reasons. The old songs still are good, but we often sing without realizing what we are saying. Routine singing often misses the message.
Mark Twain had a bad habit of spicing his conversation with profanity. Twain’s wife, a delicate, refined woman, often became very upset by his rough language. She tried, in many ways, to cure him of the habit–always unsuccessfully, of course. On one occasion she tried a shock technique. When Twain arrived at home from a trip, he was greeted at the door with a string of profanity from his wife. From the lips of that delicate, refined woman, he heard everything he had ever said, and more. Twain stood quietly, listening, until she had finished. Then he said, “My dear, you have the words, but not the music.” This is what can happen to us in our worship and prayer experience. We may have the words, but not the music when we rotely go through the motions without thinking about what we are singing.
God continues to inspire song writers with words so that the words can be meaningful to others. We have to listen to what we are singing. The new is vibrant, fresh, appealing and attention-catching. Because it is not as familiar, the new demands more of our concentration and focus.
The Psalmist said to sing a new song. But about what? Sing a new song for God has done marvelous things. We owe God our attention. Look around us. God has done a great thing. God’s providence has led Renae to us and us to her. God has done marvelous things. Sure there is crime in our world. Certainly, terrorism and war continue to rock the globe. And closer to home, many families suffer hurt because of what has happened to someone close to them. But we still need to look around us for God has done a great thing. I realize that disease still has the potential to evaporate hope in persons and ultimately can kill. But we still need to look around us for God has done a great thing. I know that few families have never experienced tragedy and that all of us gathered here today hurt for someone. But we still need to look around us for God has done a great thing.
So with all the disease, violence, and hurt in our world, what is the great thing? God has offered salvation. When we can look at the bigger picture and acknowledge that God is ultimately in control, that God will not leave us, that God will ultimately triumph over evil, then we have every reason to sing a new song. Today, some may feel down; many carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. For some, the outlook may be gloomy. Bad news may have visited our ears more than once this week. But the good news is that these are only temporary compared to the eternal perspective of God.
Lest you hear me wrongly, allow me to explain. I have experienced hurt in my life, maybe not to the magnitude of some of you or my experiences may have furnished more hardship than yours. That is not the issue. I am not seeking to minimize anyone’s hurt. What I am saying is that the God who created us has offered us a way out of misery. Our salvation cannot be robbed by the circumstances that affect us daily. Stories of evil, disease, and death, although tragic, are short-lived in the long run. Evil can invade our worlds; there is no mistaking that. We may continue to ask God for the remainder of our lives why bad things happen. We may wonder why some people have it so good and others seem to have more than their share of difficulty. We may even wonder, “Why me Lord?”
But the Psalmist says, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” There are times we may respond, “But God I just don’t feel like singing. I’ve had a horrible day. The situation at work continues to worsen. My family relationships are eroding because of this or that. My health is declining. We’ve got financial trouble again.” And the list continues. For many, the default position becomes looking at a glass that is half-empty. We can certainly find reasons that cause us not to feel like singing, especially a new song.
hen we are down, the familiar can bring us comfort. For that reason, it is no wonder that the twenty-third Psalm is read at most funerals. Those well-known words remind us of what we already know, that God cares deeply for us. In times of sorrow, we listen. But in times of routine, we sometimes are more concerned with what we will eat for lunch or how our favorite sports team did yesterday than with the song being sung during Sunday morning worship.
But if we sing a new song, we will sharpen our focus and concentrate more on what we are singing. I am convinced that creativity is needed for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Our society is enamored with the new. We long to get the latest gadget or the most up-to-date technological tool. Recently, we decided to conclude the broadcast of our services on the local AM radio station and instead provide the services on Facebook Live. The radio was staticky, unreliable, and limited; Facebook Live is free and available to anyone who watches at 10:15, and the services can be viewed anytime. You can go to our Facebook page and see the services from July 2 and July 9. We have this great audio-visual system which is capable of recording all services onto DVD; DVDs of all services are available to anyone who requests them. The story that God has done marvelous things hasn’t changed. The story is the same; the method needs to be cutting-edge. Our outlook should be new and progressive, because God continues to do marvelous things.
God made a promise to Abraham that Israel would be a great nation. King David ascended to the throne of Israel more than 1,000 years later. Under the rule of David, Israel was the greatest nation on earth; it was during that time that the Psalmist wrote that God had been faithful to the promise made long ago. Indeed God had done wonderful things.
This perspective of choosing to look at the bigger picture gave the Psalmist great joy. This excitement was so great that a response was inevitable. And the response was music.
Music is powerful. It has the potential to evoke emotions in the hardest of hearts. Music appeals to the right side of our brain which is also the seat of our emotive reasoning. In church life, music is as vital as the church building itself, more deeply stirring than all the glory of stained-glass or sun-baked bricks. James Cone has written, “It is possible to “have church,” as the people would say, without outstanding preaching, but not without good singing.” (Treasury of Religious and Spiritual Quotations. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association. 1994. p. 348) Music has a way of moving us; expressing ourselves musically can convey joy in a powerful manner. When referring to a concert pianist who performed well, one might say, “She played so passionately; she gave it her all.” When a vocalist sings with intensity, we sometimes say, “He sang his heart out; he really put his heart into it.” That is the kind of music that the Psalmist is referencing.
We may realize that God is our Creator, the One who brought us into the world. That one is fairly easy to grasp. Most will agree that God continues to care for us here. But some may not believe that God will also deliver us from this world. Once we attain that belief, we may find ourselves shouting and singing with joy. No matter our circumstance, God loves us, and God will not leave us. God brought us into the world, and God can provide us with salvation to take us from this world.
And when we cannot provide an adequate response to God’s goodness, then even the created order responds. The praise of humanity is not sufficient for the symphony of exaltation required by the presence of so great a God. The Psalmist noted that greatness and majesty of God are recognized by all of creation. Later this week, Jennifer and I will see the majesty of the ocean at New Smyrna Beach. Rivers were called to clap and mountains to shout. Had the Israelites known about the galaxies and the distant planets, certainly they would have been enlisted to join in praise.
There’s a poignant scene in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus which illustrates our responsibility in recognizing the majesty of God. The setting was Mr. Holland’s classroom. He had just learned the day before that his son was born with a 90% hearing loss, which was a profound blow to Mr. Holland. Mr. Holland told the story of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which was the great composer’s final work produced after he had gone deaf. Mr. Holland told the Music Appreciation Class the story of how Beethoven cut the legs off of his piano, placed it on the floor, and then lay on the floor next to it so that he could feel the vibrations through the floor as he composed his music.
“But Mr. Holland, how did Beethoven know what it sounded like? How did he know, when he wrote a C, that he wanted a C?” one of the students asked.
“Beethoven wasn’t born deaf,” Mr. Holland said, thinking of his son’s profound loss at having been born deaf. Neither are human beings, who have been created in the image of God, born deaf to God’s general revelation. God’s power and God’s majesty become evident when we witness creation.
You and I are called to sing to the Lord a new song. Why? Because God continues to do great things, even when heartaches happen, when skies are gray, and when there is no hope for tomorrow. Renae Hester’s arrival reminds us that God continues to do great things, that God continues to work, that God has plans for Madison Baptist Church.
These are the times when our faith needs to be stronger, knowing that God will continue to uphold us, undergird us, and strengthen us. These are times when we’ve got to allow God to do a great thing; when we may wonder about the future and what is going to happen in our world, we are reminded that God continues to do marvelous things.
Ready to sing a new song? We are to have expectations that God will do something new in our lives. That is a learned perspective and an intentional focus. Ready to sing a new song? Let us look for God in the “big picture,” and try to see our worlds as God does. Ready to sing a new song? I am, for truly God has done and will continue to do marvelous things. Let’s sing a new song. AMEN.