Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Why We Sing

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 15, 2019, Pentecost 14C

Colossians 3:12-17

Why We Sing

I am compelled to confess, before this sermon even gets started, that the title given to it is not completely honest. This is so because the reasons we sing as a part of our worship are far too numerous and prolific to be covered in one sermon that hopes to land somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. There are probably too many to be covered fully even in a much longer sermon, but the point is that this will not be exhaustive; you may well think of plenty of other reasons we sing in church that I don’t mention, and that’s perfectly fine.

What this particular reading from the letter to the Colossians prompts us to do, though, is to consider some of the reasons we sing in worship that we don’t necessarily think about consistently. The instruction here takes the role of song in the Christian gathering in directions that may not regularly cross our minds these days, accustomed as we are to song and music largely treated in our society as entertainment, something done solely for pleasure. There is plenty of pleasure to be found in the act of singing, to be sure, but that’s not necessarily all that there is to it.

This instruction about singing, for example, comes in a larger context that concerns what, exactly, it looks like (or should look like) to live in Christ. Apparently the Colossians had gotten caught up in more legalistic or rule-bound ideas of what it meant to live as a Christian, as described in Chapter 2’s admonitions against being caught up in “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (2:8); being condemned “in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths” (2:16); or being bound to “submit to regulations, ‘do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’” (2:20-21). As the author says of such rule-bound living,

All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (2:22-23)

The Colossians are being urged not merely to submit to a new set of rules, but to live a new life in Christ. Chapter 3 takes up the task of describing what such a life looks like, beginning with the admonition to “set your minds on things that are above” (3:2). There are emphatically things that simply cannot be part of such a life, and the chapter continues with such traits as cannot be compatible with life in Christ – traits such as greed (which is called out as idolatry), lying, malice, and many others.

Then comes the good stuff – literally, the things that are good to do as part of living in Christ, or more directly that good things that happen when one is living in Christ. First come characteristics such as compassion, kindness, humility and such. The pinnacle seems to be in verse 14: “Above all, clothes yourselves in love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. “ Following upon this is the instruction to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” and “to be thankful.” Then (and only then) comes the instruction about singing that catches our attention today. In other words, all of this forms the context for the instruction that is to come. Therefore this instruction needs to be understood as not merely an extra or frill, but as a major part of the life we live in Christ.

The instruction of 3:16, unfortunately, is one of the most easily mangled verses in all of the Greek New Testament literature. Sorting out what the participles do and how they are directed, or determining which clause is connected to which clause and how they relate to one another, is quite enough to send even the most committed and determined grammarian over the cliffs of despair. Sadly, I have to conclude that the NRSV in our hands and pews today missed the mark, to some degree, and that of all things, the good old-fashioned King James Version comes closer to the intended sense of this verse:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

(Nine out of ten times the NRSV is going to come closer to the sense and meaning of the Greek, but this is time number ten.)

So this really is saying that singing is a significant part of living in Christ, and more precisely living together in Christ. But this isn’t just any old instruction to sing. The singing is instead directed, fulfilling two different purposes at the same time.

First, the singing is directed to us as instruction. When we sing we really are being taught to do so as a part of “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” It’s not a stretch to argue that in the era in which this was written, one in which not everybody could read, “teaching and admonishing” through song had a highly practical aspect to it – as we’ve noted in a previous sermon on music in the church, we’re a lot more likely to remember what we have sung than what somebody has preached at us.

This practical component of singing as instruction continued in the church for quite some time, as long as literacy was not a commonplace phenomenon among the people. A major church figure like Ambrose of Milan, the fourth-century bishop and teacher of Augustine, found the creation of hymns an effective means of teaching doctrine and even of combating heresy. (Indeed, even at a time when hymns were not sung by the congregation in worship they were still being created for people to learn to sing.)

[NOTE: Two of Ambrose’s hymns are in our hymnal even today: #102, “Savior of the nations, come,” an Advent hymn originally translated into German by no less than Martin Luther, and #666, “O splendor of God’s glory bright,” a morning hymn in which the image of Christ as “light of the world” is played out among various images of light.]

Perhaps we don’t take this aspect of our church’s song quite so seriously today. We’ve already noted that we are culturally conditioned to think of song as primarily for pleasure. No matter what style or genre of music is our favorite, first of all we tend to listen to it rather than sing it, and alsw we tend to listen to it primarily as a commodity, whether we bought it as a CD or download or purchased a ticket to hear it live.

And if we are honest with ourselves, we often bring a similar attitude to the music we sing or hear in church. We’re often concerned mostly with the fact that the song was “so beautiful,” or that it was a “favorite” from years gone by (which is really another form of listening for pleasure, isn’t it?). But this instruction to the Colossians challenges the notion of the song we sing being only for pleasure. It quite insists that the songs we sing do more than give pleasure; they give instruction, they give learning both of the positive and negative kind (both teaching and admonishing, remember). Given what we now understand about the psychology of song and singing, we can say that the songs we sing do instruct us, period. We can then ask ourselves whether those songs teach and admonish us for good, or otherwise.

Another factor is that if our songs really do teach us, it does require us to listen to what we sing. It doesn’t do to sing mindlessly. This is a fearfully challenging thing; it pushes us to realize that if something we are singing is no longer instructing us, is no longer something we actually hear when we sing it, we may need to reconsider it.

There is one more clause in that verse that we do need to address; the verse wraps up with the instruction about “singing with grace in your hearts to God.” The business about teaching and admonishing does not rule out or supersede the act of singing to God; rather, the two go together. We teach and admonish one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and we sing to God with grace in our hearts. To do one is to do the other.

For example, we might look to the hymn we will sing after this sermon. The very first words are pretty direct about who is being addressed here: “Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey” (as translated from French in this case). It’s pretty clear we are singing and addressing Christ in this hymn, and Jesus’s name does return in the second and third verses as well, enough to keep Jesus in focus as the one to whom we sing. At the same time, though, we are being taught about how to live in Christ; “I’ll tell everybody about you wherever I go; you alone are our life and our peace and our love.” You could find more throughout the hymn, but maybe the fourth stanza is worth emphasizing: “I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey, but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side.” What a wonderful thing to remember as we sing. We are singing to Jesus, and we are teaching one another as we sing, doing so “with grace in our hearts.”

There is one more part of the verse we haven’t addressed specifically yet. The church at Colossae is being instructed to teach and admonish one another with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” To some degree these terms can be said to have particular meanings. “Psalms” seems an obvious enough reference to that collection of songs found in Hebrew scripture, from which our responsive readings usually come. “Hymns,” on the other hand, seems to refer to the songs not necessarily found in scripture, but which (for example) make up the bulk of our hymnal, what used to be called ‘hymns of human composure’ (as if David and Asaph were somehow not human when they wrote all those psalms).

It’s harder to discern “spiritual songs” as a separate and distinct category from the other two. Nonetheless, what does seem clear from this instruction is that songs of many differing kinds are to make up the repertoire by which we teach one another and sing to God. Next week’s sermon will have more to say about this, but at minimum we might need to consider that when we get trapped or caught up in singing only one particular style or type of song as part of our worship, it might be a danger sign: our singing might be less about singing to God and instructing one another than about, well, something else.

In conclusion, I might need to take back something I said towards the beginning of this sermon. I demurred on the accuracy of the title of this sermon, claiming I could not hope to speak to all of the reasons we are to sing in one short sermon. That might not be completely accurate; maybe, in fact, all of the other good reasons one might argue for singing in worship actually do fall under one of these two reasons for singing in worship – reasons which as we’ve already seen actually go together anyway. A song that takes the form of lament; does it not also sing to God, and does it not also teach us about grief and suffering? A song of testimony certainly can be directed towards God and instruct us on living in Christ.

Even so, there’s still a lot more that could be said. Hopefully this does make the point that is needed here; we sing to God, and we sing to instruct one another, and this is good, and this is what God wants us to look like, as part of life in Christ.

For song to God that teaches us as well, Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #267, Come, Christians, Join to Sing; #17, Sing Praise to God, You Heavens! (Psalm 148); #737, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song; #804, Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart!


Note: I am much indebted to David Detwiler, “Church Music and Colossians 3:16,” in Biblioteca Sacra 158 (July-September 2001), 347-69, for guidance in formulating how to express the ideals that are found in this passage. 

Second note: The featured image is the alternate cover of The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) created for sale to churches or organizations that are not Presbyterian. The current hymnal, Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, is also available with a similar alternate title, Glory to God: Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs. 

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