THE WORD Psalm 98:4-9
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
MESSAGE “God Has Remembered” Rev. James Renfrew
“O sing to the Lord a New Song”, the words that begin Psalm 98. While preparing our Stewardship letter a few weeks ago, Eric told me that he found four instances of this phrase, in three psalms, and in a reading from the prophet Isaiah. “O Sing to the Lord a New Song”. So this simple phrase, thanks to Eric, is a theme for stewardship, but of course – and I’m talking about Eric here – it’s not about stewardship at all, it’s about living. Living in the intimacy of God’s love and care and responding to it with joyful thanksgiving and happy songs.
On Friday as I began to think through this morning’s message, I was eager to get to the new songs that tell the story of God’s love and intimate care for us, how God remembers us through thick and thin, but then I thought it might be better to talk about old songs, first.
So “old songs”. What can we say about them? They are familiar, we’ve heard them before. We know the words and we know the tunes. Your toes start to tap, your fingers begin to drum, and sometimes your body begins to sway. There are radio stations that specialize in playing oldies, golden oldies, oldies but goodies. When you tune in this station not one song is unfamiliar, and you can sing along with it as you are driving along in the car. Old songs take you back to your high school or college years, remind you of first loves, give you fond memories of driving your first car, and become the sound track of the movie of your life. In the big screen movie about your life what would be the theme song that would tell us all about you? You probably know it by heart!
Now, “new songs”. They are unfamiliar, the words, the notes, the chords, the timing all have to be learned from scratch. When we sing new songs from our hymnal, we all hesitate and stumble a bit trying to find our way through them. It’s almost like learning to walk. My Cousin Bill, a professional musician in Nashville, loved rock and roll as he grew up, but his father, my Uncle Jim, would cover his ears as if the new songs were hurting his ears and causing great pain. It’s true that some of us dig in our heals and won’t listen to anything new. But I loved hearing some great wisdom from this pulpit a few years ago. Audrey was encouraging contributions to purchase our new hymnals. She began by saying, “I looked at the contents of the new hymnal and my favorite song was not included.” “Uh-oh”, I thought. But then Audrey shared her hope that she would find a new favorite hymn in the new book. Amen to that!
So, I’ll demonstrate. Here’s an old song that I’ve played for years on the violin. I don’t even need to look at the sheet music. I just know it. But here’s a song I’ve never played before, and watch how I stumble through it. Ouch! But, who knows, this might become my favorite song. We’ll see! Give it some time.
My favorite radio station these days in CJRT, 91.1 out of Toronto. It plays jazz and it’s all new to me. I didn’t listen to much jazz as I grew up, so these are all new songs to me, even though some of them go back more than 50 years or more.
So why do we need new songs? Aren’t the old ones plenty good enough? What can you add to songs that are already perfect?
I served a church in Rochester that was happily using a Presbyterian hymnal first published in 1933. I suggested that maybe after 60 years it was time to get a new hymnal, but it was like trying to move a brick wall. Then I suggested that the church members now in their 80’s take a look at the faces of children in the church as we sang their beloved old songs. And it was clear, the younger children we pinned our hopes on to be the next generation of our church felt not a single spark from the old songs. The old songs written in King James English gave no inspiration, no understanding, no excitement, no toe-tapping. In a way the hearts of the older generation broke to see their old songs no longer touch new hearts. But I give those folks a lot of credit, they relented and allowed me to find newer songs to sing.
It makes sense that new songs are always needed, our faith is dynamic, our lives are always in flux, with new people, new circumstances, new opportunities, new needs, and new stories to tell about how God has remembered us.
Of course, I am not saying that all of the old songs need to be tossed out. We need to know who we are and where we have come from, so I like a blend of old and new. In that way the soundtrack of your life intersects the soundtrack of someone else’s life and we are all enriched.
I used to serve as the pastor of Stone Church in Bergen. It was generally an older congregation. One Sunday a young family came to church and because the church was friendly they kept coming back. Most of the men at Stone Church wore ties and jackets, but one Sunday Louie came up to me after the service and told me he wasn’t wearing a tie any more. Why? He noticed the young father who was attending never wore a tie, and though it was a lifetime of habit for Louie, he decided he’s leave his tie at home so the new father would feel more welcome. I’m not here for myself, I’m here for those who come next, must have been Louie’s thinking. It’s a story about men’s ties, not a story about music, but it’s a new song just the same, and Louie was learning to sing it.
The need for a new song can grow on you over time, but it can also hit you like a splash of ice water. This happened to me when I started singing with the choir. It took Larry about 3 seconds to declare to me “you’re a bass”. What? Basses are people with low voices! That’s not me, but well maybe he’s right. In fact I have had trouble for a long time reaching the higher notes in our hymns, and some Sunday mornings I can barely reach a B.
A new song is not just singing lower, it’s having to learn a new language, the bass clef, all of those notes under the words, instead of the notes above them. But Larry is a great coach; he has us exercise before we practice, stretch, bend, extend, breathe, and voila! a new song comes to life. But of course, it may be deeper and loftier than that because changing the songs we sing, changing the ways we sing them, becomes more than the music changing, it is us showing that our lives are changing, too.
My message is entitled “God Has Remembered”, because isn’t that at the heart of all music? In the vast Universe God knows where you are and God knows what you need. Every song that we love, old song or new song, is an intimate expression of God’s love for you and as we sing it, whistle it, whisper it, shout it, hum it, clap it it’s also an intimate expression of our love for God!