Christ Centered Resources

On Singing a New Song

Rev. Ed Searcy

Acts 10:44-48, Psalms 98:1-9
University Hill United Church : Sun, May 28, 2000
"O sing to Yahweh a new song”. So sings the opening line of the ninety- eighth song in the Bible’s own collection of golden-oldies. Once upon a time even Psalm 98 was, itself, a new song. Not anymore, of course. Now it is one of the ‘classics’, number 98 in the Bible’s top 150. And just as love songs are a dime a dozen on the pop charts of our day so this song of praise, this ode to God’s great love, sounds like plenty of its counterparts. One wonders what can be gained by disciplining ourselves to pay attention to these ancient lyrics. On first blush, this brings back memories of a different age, one in which it was all so much simpler somehow. The song is so confident, so bold, so brash: “Sing to Yahweh a new song, for he has done marvellous things.” Like what, we wonder? Well, like victory and vindication, that’s what. Yahweh has “remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel” and “all the ends of the earth” have seen it. There is good reason to commission a new song and to sing it lustily - Yahweh has saved the people Israel from disaster. So says Psalm 98. Perhaps you are noticing something else about this song. It is not nearly as generic as our hymn books and Bibles make it sound. In Voices United we say “Sing to God a new song”. In our Bibles we read “Sing to the Lord a new song”. But in Hebrew there is no such generic title given. Instead the song is sung to a God with a name: to Yahweh, the God of the people of Israel. We dare not forget that in reading and singing this song we are reading over the shoulders of the Jewish people. This is the music of a tiny people who discover to their great joy and amazement that the God who has called them out of the wilderness is, in truth, the Creator of the ends of the earth. And when this fearsome God acts to save them from death or to liberate them from oppression or to redeem them from addiction they know that the old songs will not suffice. Only a new song can tell of the new thing that Yahweh has done. But listen. The song goes on to invite others to join in singing: “Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth”. In an ancient world of many gods and many ways the people of Israel dare to invite the whole earth to join in their song to Yahweh. Why are they so bold? How can they be so politically incorrect as to suggest that rest of the world ... all the peoples of the earth and more, even the sea and everything in it ... should join in their new song? Suddenly this song seems a bit off-putting. Not one we’d want to sing in an officially tolerant and pluralistic culture such as ours. ‘Each to their own’ seems to be our modern mantra. Evangelism is tarnished by memories of abuse and by images of religious hucksters pitching their wares on television in their own spiritualised version of a home shopping channel. Yet marketers hoping to sell the newest of innovations in the marketplace pay a price for highly skilled ‘product evangelists’. That’s right. Now your degree from UBC can put you in line for a career as a ‘product evangelist’. Just check out the job fair the next time it moves into the Student Union Building. We live in odd times. The church dares not use the language of evangelism for fear of offending. But the market knows that evangelism is exactly what is called for in a contested world where money and truth are both up for grabs. And truth is most definitely up for grabs. Listen to words from the most recent issue of Harper’s Magazine. They are not those of a theologian. Instead, they are the questions of a concerned observer at the turn of the century: “Now and again the parallel world of unspeakable things breaks through. A man walks into a schoolyard with a rifle, a taxi leaps a curb, an entire neighbourhood folds into rubble ... Daily our media drag us to God, force us to inquire after His meaning, then rub our noses in his absence .... (once) we lived in a legible universe, the record of our days - and their meaning - running like a never-ending stream of ticker tape from the mouth of God.” Author Mark Slouka, wondering about the inexplicable tragedies which the media bring into our living rooms day and night, names the sad reality of our age: “Reflexively, we reach for the myth. But we’ve forgotten how to read. And we’ve forgotten how to believe. And the text has gone dark. And the author, whoever he was, if he was, has left.” This is not a world in which people find it easy to sing a joyful new song to the same God who our parents and grandparents once sang to with such fervour. The ‘victories’ and the ‘vindication’ of Yahweh seem hard to detect now. It is more than a little difficult to compose hymns to the ‘steadfast love’ and ‘faithfulness’ of God in a world so daunted by looming environmental tragedies on the horizon. And yet, here we are. Inexplicably singing a new song to Yahweh. We are a little like the company of non-Jews described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles who find themselves so inexplicably overcome by the Holy Spirit that they are speaking in tongues and extolling God. Surely their families, friends and colleagues must wonder what has happened to these seemingly rational people to make them sing such a wildly irrational song. How can they possibly sing of the power of tiny Israel’s God in a world that seems so obviously under the control of more potently diabolical gods? We are like these first converts to Christianity because, largely unbeknownst to the society around us, we are becoming a new and different kind of people. Not so very long ago we were a church which sang the brazen theme song of a culture that was confident of God’s power. Now we are ever so slowly learning a new song. Its words and melody are not yet entirely familiar. We find ourselves struggling to get its verses and refrain right. But it is a new song, nonetheless. It is the new song of a people who are discovering that the death of the church and of our culture as we have known it is not the end of the world because it is not the end of God’s activity in this world and church. Our congregation is but one small voice in a new chorus that is emerging in all manner of Christian congregations. It is a song filled with hope and expectation ... with the conviction that Yahweh, the God of Israel, has not given up on us or on the world. To be sure, we cannot solve the world’s problems. Nor can we begin to explain life’s inconsistencies and ambiguities. Confronted with the inexplicable tragedies that confound even the most profound thinkers of our time we simply sing of what we know - the love that will not let us go. We cannot use the trump card of some grand ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ to convince those who suffer that it is all God’s will. Now we discover once again that we can only tell the truth about what we have witnessed with our own eyes and experienced in our own lives. Namely, the gathering of wounded, broken souls into a gathered congregation of healed and forgiven sinners where we come to realize whose we are. This is good news of great joy. The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead is raising us from the dead, here and now. To our unending surprise we are no longer orphaned in a chaotic, impersonal world. Here we are adopted ... grafted onto the family tree ... named as beloved children of a just and gracious God. Now, to be fair, this is really quite an extraordinary claim to make in a world where everything is coming unglued ... where the grafts no longer seem to be taking hold. But we are ‘product evangelists’ of just such a wild and wonderful love. It is a great product, of course. And the highest of callings. Just ask the people at Wilson Heights United Church on 41st Avenue in Vancouver. The neighbourhood includes numerous recent immigrants from China. Numbers of them have come to the church’s free Wednesday night supper, seeking hospitality. Asked what brings non- Christian, non-English speaking newly arrived Chinese immigrants to a United Church they are quick to reply. Before leaving home, they recount, Christian acquaintances of theirs encouraged them to go to the churches in Canada. Promise their friends: “You are sure to find a warm welcome there”. And are they? When the new Executive Secretary of our Conference, Rev. Deb Bowman, marked her final Sunday at Wilson Heights this Spring, she counted three of these newly landed Chinese immigrants in the choir, there because of their desire to learn English, to make friends and to learn of this newfound God. It was, says Dev, the best farewell gift that a congregation could give. Do you see? Our life together is intended to be God’s living, breathing invitation to all wounded, broken souls and needy strangers to receive God’s healing, forgiveness and hospitality ... and then to join in the new song of praise to the God whose handiwork it is. May it be so. Amen.