“Freedom’s Song”- The Power of Music
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
July 2, 2017
(VIDEO UNAVAILABLE THIS WEEK DUE TO TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES)
The 80s channel on my radio is a dangerous place. Every once in a while a song will pop up that I had completely forgotten about, and, even more troubling, that song will immediately transport me to a moment from my childhood. I was listening the other day and the song, “Waiting for a Star to Fall,” by Boy Meets Girl came on. If ever there was a completely forgettable song from the 80s, it was that one. Anyway, this song comes on and then I remembered that I loved that song for like a month when I was 12 or something. Then I remembered bowling. Why did I remember bowling, you ask? Well, let me tell you. I was, and remain, a terrible bowler but one day, I have no idea the context, I was bowling and I started singing that song as I was about to bowl, and I rolled a strike. Great, I thought, so I just kept singing “Waiting for a Star to Fall” each time I rolled and I set my all-time high score at that age, which I think was like 112. It was certainly the first time I’d ever scored over 100.
So where did all these lovely memories come from? A song on the radio that I had completely forgotten. Music has the power to do that to us. It can take us through time in an instant. Music can remind us of a long forgotten day, an old friend, a bad breakup, an epic life moment. For those of us who like music, and I think that is most of you, I am sure your life has a soundtrack full of all sorts of random songs that you associate with lots of different experiences. Music is, perhaps, unique in that way. I mean, not many of us see a copy of Moby Dick and then think, oh yeah, I remember reading that with my high school girlfriend. It was awesome. But if a song comes on the radio, everything is different. Music moves around through time in some powerful ways.
That was the purpose of this song in Exodus. It’s an important song. The Hebrews were making their break from slavery in Egypt. They had been fleeing through the desert with the mighty Egyptian army on their heels. The Hebrews ran, but still the Egyptians gained ground. Finally it looked like the game was up. Pharaoh’s army had pinned the Hebrews against the Red Sea. They chase was over. The Hebrews were a broken people. They had gone from the bitterness of slavery to the euphoria of freedom to the misery of having it all taken away in the face of Imperial Power. But we all know what happened. The Bible tells us that the Red Sea parted and the Hebrews raced through to the other side. As the Egyptians pursued, the sea closed, drowning Pharaoh and his army. It was all over. The people were free. Immediately after the story ends, this song is written.
The song retells the story. It talks of horse and rider being cast into the sea. It speaks of all peoples fearing God. And it foreshadows the arrival of the Hebrews in the promised land. It is an important song for the people. It is a song that, every time they heard it, would have taken them back to one of the seminal moments in their history as a people. But let me ask you this question. What, exactly, was the purpose of this song in the lives of the people? What were they trying to remember? That’s easy, you’re thinking, the Exodus! The parting of the sea! I’m not sure.
See this song is not some random piece of music by a forgotten 80s pop band. It was written to be remembered. It was written to be sung by generations of people. It was written to transcend any individual life and speak to a people. So I ask again, what was the purpose of the song?
So the 4th of July is coming up, and that’s a music holiday, right? Everybody has their favorite Fourth of July songs. I’m a sucker for a good Sousa march myself, but everybody is different. Nonetheless the music of America’s Independence Day points back to our past. Specifically it points to the year 1776 when, on the 4th of July, we declared our Independence from Great Britain. We are supposed to think of the great revolutionary heroes, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Revere. We are supposed to think of Philadelphia and the Liberty bell. We are supposed to think of later in 1776 when Washington led his forces in a secret night raid across the Delaware River for one of their first victories of the war. We are supposed to think of those things, and be proud of what we accomplished as a people in creating this nation. But one thing we aren’t supposed to think of is the fog.
Do you remember the fog? Most of us probably don’t. It was August of 1776. We had declared independence and now the Empire was getting ready to strike back. Washington and his army were defending New York, and not particularly well. I am going to skip through the military history and tell you that they had been routed by a superior British force, and they were on the verge of collapse. The rebellion was about to end, right there, in Brooklyn. Washington made the decision to retreat across the East River and withdraw under the cover of darkness. But there was a problem. It was going too slowly and as day broke, hundreds of troops were in the water and hundreds more were still waiting to cross. As the sun came up, the British war ships would have seen our little boats full of soldiers crossing the river and they would have swooped in and opened fire. They would have killed or captured hundreds if not thousands of soldiers and effectively ended things right there. So why didn’t they? Well, that morning on the East River there happened to be thick fog. It rolled in just before dawn and it covered the American retreat. Washington got 9,000 men across the river in a night, saved his army to fight another day and the rest is history. Nobody ever remembers the fog. No songs were written. No stories were told. It was just forgotten. But if it hadn’t been for that fog, history likely would have been very different.
Let me tell you what this song from Exodus is about and why they sing. They sing it because it reminds them that they did not liberate themselves. God liberated the Hebrews. And guess what, all our toil and work in 1776 would have been for naught if not for some fog. Fog. Did God send it, I have no idea, but I’m certainly not going to claim that. But the writers of Exodus knew something. They understood our desire to claim ourselves as the heroes in our stories, as the victors, and the point of the song is that true freedom, real freedom, comes from God. God is my strength and might, God has become my salvation, they sang. That’s the point of that music. It reminded the Hebrews on that day, as on all days, their freedom comes not from their own work but from God.
As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s independence, we can certainly look back on heroes, but we can also remember that for us, as Christians, our freedom transcends any nation, and it is rooted in God. We are the liberated in these stories of freedom. God has set us free. Free from slavery. Free from sin. Free from selfishness. Free. We are free! That’s why we sing, and all our songs that we sing each Sunday, all our songs of faith point us back to that truth and to the story of a God who, over and over, throughout history, has chosen freedom for his people. Happy Independence Day. Amen.