“Blessing and Honor and Glory and Might”- The Power of Music
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
July 9, 2017
(VIDEO UNAVAILABLE THIS WEEK DUE TO TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES)
I’m a terrible singer. Always have been. I can barely read music. I can’t really carry a tune. I don’t have a good ear for whether or not I am singing with other people, over other people or under them. I would be terrible in a choir, and a solo would leave most of you running for the hills. This has, in the past, made me pretty self-conscious about singing. I can really belt out songs when I’m alone in my car or at a loud concert, but in a group of people, at church, I tend to hold back. Lots of you know what I mean. A lot of us are self-conscious singers. We have bad voices, or think that we do, and we believe that it is best for everyone involved if we softly mouth the words to most songs. And we are probably right, nothing is worse than hearing somebody butcher a song.
So considering this, that so many people can’t really sing, isn’t it a bit strange that singing is such a big part of Christian worship. Truth be told, I don’t know when congregational singing became pervasive. I can’t imagine the peasants back in the middle ages belting out a bunch of songs in Latin. My guess would be sometime around the Reformation, when the Bible began to be read in the common language, that people started to sing. Luther wrote, “A Mighty Fortress is my God,” and I would imagine that was sung pretty widely, but I don’t know. Still. Today singing is a huge part of worship. Many churches have stripped their liturgies down to a sermon, a prayer and a lot of singing. And I can’t imagine everybody at those churches like singing aloud any better than a lot of us do. Nevertheless, nowadays to sing is to worship.
That’s fitting because when John describes worship in the book of Revelation, listen to what he describes. Singing. As we settle in to Revelation in Chapters 4-5 we get five different songs almost immediately. And listen to how he describes the music. John writes that the singing is “ceaseless.” When the lamb takes the sacred scroll with the seven seals, the heavenly host sing a “new song” in reply. Later, when they sing to the lamb himself, they sing in “full voice.” No self-consciousness there. Finally, the last song is offered not just by the heavenly host but all of creation, even those down in Hades. Everybody and everything join in singing their song to God and to the lamb. It is a powerful image of worship and, more specifically, music.
But John also had an agenda in recording this vision. Let’s not forget, these are troubled times for the early church. Revelation was written during a time of intense persecution. The Roman authorities were cracking down on Christians. Having identified John as a leader, he was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Patmos as a punishment for his crime of being Christian. For his followers back in what is now modern day Turkey, we can imagine that they lived daily with fear of Roman reprisals for their faith. So when they received this document from John, something which, if the Romans read it, would have seemed insane, they must have been overjoyed. They would have been thrilled to know John was still alive, in awe of the vision God had given him, and, hopefully, inspired to continue to sing their songs. They certainly sang songs, and so these songs, collected early in the book would have been inspiring and empowering for them.
By looking to Revelation and its relationship with music, then, we can see two important themes emerge. Unity and Resistance. When we sing as Christians two very important things are happening. The first is we are being drawn together. We don’t all preach at the same time. We don’t all pray together, but by gum we can sing together. I may not be any good at singing, but I can tell you that I like singing with all of you. I do. It means something to me to come here each week and sing with you. And when I travel and worship in other places, it means something to me to be able to sing with them too. As Christians we fight too often. We squabble with one another over doctrine and politics, as if what we believe about baptism or salvation changes the nature of God. But when we sing, it feels as if those differences melt away.
Think again to that last song in our passage today. Who sang that song? Everybody did. Not even just people. John says, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea,” all sang to God and to Jesus. All of them. The music of worship unites us not just to one another, but to all of creation. And surely today, in such a bitterly divided and angry world it means something to sing together.
And this brings us to that second thing. Resistance. One of the most anti-Christian Roman Emperors was Domitian. He was not keen on our faith. One of the biggest rubs between Christianity and Rome was the cult of the Emperor. Everybody in the Roman Empire had to worship the emperor as a god. This was a problem for the Jews and it was a problem for the Christians. Good old Domitian took things a step further. He demanded to be addressed as, “lord and god.” Does that sound familiar? It should. We find it in the 11th verse of Chapter 4. In a song. The 24 elders who fell before the throne and cast their crowns before God, sang a song that began like this, “You are worthy, our Lord and God…” There is only one God, and neither the Emperor nor any other human being is that God. The music of worship was also a powerful act of resistance.
As it can be every time we sing. When we sing our songs we are singing against a world which seeks to pit us against one another; a world which tries to convince us to worship politicians or celebrities or athletes, a world which tells us that our true purpose is to make money. No. Our songs tells us that our purpose is to follow Jesus. Our songs tell us that God is our only king and that his love is our only treasure. And our songs tell us that we are one people, united as children of God. Our music, every song we sing, is an act of resistance.
You know, it used to bug me when people didn’t sing in church, but I have gotten over it. Some of us just can’t do it for whatever reason. But that being said, even if we can’t stand up and belt out the words, we can at least understand what it is that we are participating in each week. We are not singing just to make worship fun or to break up all the talking. We sing because we are the gathered people of God, followers of Jesus, the Body of Christ. We sing because we live in this world but we are not of this world. We sing to remind ourselves that we have different values than the world around us. And we sing because it is in our nature. When John got his first glimpse of heaven he saw lots of strange things, but he heard something familiar. He heard singing. To sing is to worship, and to worship is to be our most perfect selves. So even if you can’t sing this morning, that’s ok. Belt a hymn out in the car on the way home and join in with all the saints who have come before us and those that will come after us. Join in, and sing to your God. Amen.