Grace Presbyterian Church
September 22, 2019, Pentecost 15C
Why We Sing What We Sing
A few years ago a friend of mine, knowing my interest in hymns and congregational singing, shared an image of an old hymn he had come across. It might even have been about the time that our denomination was in the final stages of completing Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, which you can find in your pews.
Let’s just say that the hymn in question probably was not a good candidate to be included in the hymnal. The final line of each verse as well as the refrain, and indeed the words used for the title of this hymn, are “If men go to Hell, who cares?”
No, it was not a strong candidate for a modern hymnal, though it was at least somewhat circulated in its own time. It appeared in two collections, including one associated with the family of eventual televangelist Rex Humbard, and was even recorded in the late 1920s by the Dunham Jazz and Jubilee Singers.
Even in its own framework, though, it’s not a very good song, for one very basic reason: it fails to offer the most basic answer to its title question. No matter how much apathy you might perceive in the church about the ultimate fate of all those men’s souls out there, it is ultimately theologically wrong to leave out that in fact God cares what happens to men’s souls. God cares! Jesus cares! The Holy Spirit cares! The whole Trinity cares what happens to men’s souls (and to women’s souls, too, which apparently didn’t concern even the author of this song…hmph). This omission ultimately leaves this old hymn as a distorted and incomplete portrayal of a God who claims each soul and a Jesus who gave up his life for that very purpose.
It’s the same kind of thing that would make “A mighty fortress is our God” one of the worst hymns ever if only the first stanza were ever sung. (It’s at #275 if you want to check.) Remember how that first stanza ends?
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe.
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
It’s only when we keep singing and come to the second stanza’s reassurance that the “right man” is on our side, none other than Christ Jesus, that the first stanza makes any sense. No matter how dark the hymn might go, it does come back to the good news in a way that “If men go to Hell, who cares?” never does.
The pull between two seemingly different ends of singing that was noted in last week’s sermon – the desire and call to praise God and the mandate to instruct ourselves and one another – have very clear influences on the song that makes its way into worship and the song that doesn’t. While not every song manages to balance the two in perfect equilibrium, a good hymn doesn’t leave us in despair, and it doesn’t leave us stupider than we were before we sang it.
The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is generally recognized as containing one of the most notable hymns to be found in the New Testament. While there are a few naysayers, most scholars agree that verses 6-11 do in fact constitute a hymn, one that was likely in use in the early church of Paul’s time. Whether it was a pre-existent hymn that Paul quoted, or one that was original to Paul and took root in the churches to which he ministered, is not a settled question. Still, it seems most likely that in these verses we are seeing a hymn of the New Testament church.
It is known as the “Christ hymn” for obvious reasons. While some scholars suggest Colossians 1:15-20 is also a “Christ hymn,” this one in Philippians is the most widely agreed example of such a hymn found in the epistles. It is clearly instructional; we are taught of Jesus and his coming into human form despite all the divinity that was his. Instead, not counting divinity as something to be “exploited” or grasped or clung to, Jesus “emptied himself” and took on humanity in full, humble and obedient even to “death on a cross.” From here the subject of the hymn changes; now we sing of God’s exaltation of Jesus “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend” in every corner of creation and that “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” We are taught, and we are by the words of this hymn led to exalt Jesus, above every other name.
So in short, this is a pretty strong textbook example of a hymn doing the things we expect of a hymn that both teaches and exalts. It might be a little short on admonition, though. Don’t worry, though; our other scriptural song takes care of that.
At this point in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses has just about completed his work. The Hebrew people are ready to cross over into the promised land, but due to past transgressions Moses knows he cannot cross over; he has been making preparations to hand over the leadership of the people to Joshua for this purpose. The years are overwhelming him, and he knows his life is soon to come to an end. God has one more assignment for him, though.
In the verses we read God instructs Moses to write down a song and to teach it to the people. It is, to say the least, an unusual song. The last time we encountered Moses with a song was in Exodus 15, after the Hebrew people have successfully crossed the sea and been delivered from the pursuit of the Pharaoh’s army. That was a song of triumph and celebration, appropriate to the occasion, full of praise to the God who delivered them, as well as a bit of gloating over their fallen pursuers. This song is different, to say the least. While there are certainly words of praise to God to be found in the song, there’s lots of other stuff too.
The song that God commands Moses to write down and teach makes up most of Deuteronomy 32. It all sounds pretty good for the first fourteen verses or so, as the song sings all about the greatness of God and of God’s provision for the children of Israel. But as God describes in his instructions to Moses, things start to go off the rails at about verse 15. “Jacob” (a reference to the ancestor by that name who was renamed “Israel” by God) is charged with growing “fat, bloated, and gorged!” from overindulgence in the Lord’s provision, and ultimately with forgetting God and taking up foreign idols. The song then goes on to speak of God’s anger against the people for their infidelity, going so far as to call them “a nation void of sense” for their forgetting of the Lord who delivered them out of Egypt and into this land of promise. Eventually, however, the song does come back around to God’s restoring of the people’s well-being and to a concluding song of praise.
It is, at minimum, an unsettling song, with some pretty gruesome imagery and sharp language. It’s not a great candidate for being set to a familiar hymn tune to be sung in worship. But what could such a song possibly say to us about what we sing?
Well, remember that in last week’s scripture the letter to the Colossians speaks both of teaching and admonishing in those psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. This is a bit extreme in that the admonition God is giving Moses to teach to the people is an “advance warning,” if you will; they have not even set foot in the Promised Land yet and already they are being warned about their future infidelity and faithlessness, and specifically in a song for the purpose of making sure they remember. As 31:21 puts it, “And when many terrible troubles come upon them, this song will confront them as a witness, because it will not be lost from the mouths of their descendents.” The whole point of the song is for the people of Israel to remember, all those generations later, that God knew their hearts all along.
Again, notice that the song, for all its seeming condemnation, does end on the high note of God’s faithfulness and of praise to God. The admonishment of whatever song we sing cannot forget that. No matter how bleak, we cannot forsake the most basic part of our faith, the unswerving persistence of God’s faithfulness.
After all of this scripture about our song and our singing, there is still one large point that needs to be drawn out. One of the great slip-ups modern Christians often commit in reading the Bible is all about getting the pronouns wrong, due to the particular ambiguity inherent in the second-person pronoun of the English language.
We are taught from a very early age that “you” can refer to one other person to whom you are speaking, or to a larger number of people to whom you are speaking. Despite the best efforts of southern culture to fix this deficit with the clever invention of the contraction “y’all,” this ambiguity continues to be something we always have to watch out for. Biblical Greek doesn’t have this problem; word forms change to indicate singular or plural audience.
Furthermore, with the exceptions of the letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, the letters of the New Testament are not written to individuals. Each one is at minimum written to a local community of Christians, a group. Furthermore, the letters Paul wrote were frequently shared among the different churches Paul had started or led, meaning that multiple church communities might read any one letter.
Between these two points, we need to be reminded that any of this instruction we receive from these scriptures is not individualized. Paul, for example, isn’t writing to you; he’s writing to y’all. God doesn’t give Moses that song to proclaim to one individual, but to all of the Hebrew people. This singing and teaching and admonishing and praising and learning is for all of us. It’s y’all, or if you want to get all Texan about it, it’s to all y’all.
And even that has an effect on what we sing. We don’t know for sure if the Christ hymn in Philippians was written or quoted by Paul, but he clearly meant for his readers – not just in Philippi, but wherever the letter went – to know it and to take it to heart. That hymn was to go to all the churches if it wasn’t already in all of them.
So it is with the songs we sing. It doesn’t do to cut ourselves off from the church in Ocala or Tampa or Tallahassee with our own little set of favorites that we sing over and over and over and over again. It doesn’t do to cut ourselves off from the church in New York or South Bend or Petaluma either. For that matter it doesn’t do to set ourselves off from the church in Mexico City or Kyoto or New Delhi or Johannesburg either. If we are truly one church, we sing together. We share the song of the church with one another, no matter how far-flung or different it may seem sometimes. We teach and admonish one another, and are taught and admonished by one another, not just here in this sanctuary, but in the whole church, wherever it is planted. That’s uncomfortable at times, but truly necessary if our song is to do the work God gave it to do.
We sing songs that praise God. We sing songs that teach us and remind us of who God is, who Jesus is, what the Holy Spirit does. We sing songs that bind us together. We sing songs, sometimes, that call us out, but never without reminding us and returning us to the goodness of the God we love and serve. That’s a lot of work for song to do.
For the song we sing, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): 821, My Life Flows On (How can I keep from singing?); 800, Sometimes a Light Surprises; 215, What Wondrous Love Is This; 363, Rejoice, the Lord Is King!