The past few weeks have been a busy whirlwind for our church. Our Centennial Celebration reached its peak on April 6th with the bishop’s visit…246 people were in church that day to join the celebration. Then came Palm Sunday and 203 people were here to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Last Sunday was Easter and 320 people participated in worship across our three services. Today we find ourselves on what is known as “Low Sunday”…In most churches attendance falls sharply on this first Sunday after Easter. Some of this is due to the departure of visiting family and friends…Some of it is due to the faithful and even some preachers who are simply over-tired from a week of drama, special music, sunrise service, and extra sermons…This is a popular “vacation Sunday.” It is much like the “post-partum” depression we see on the first Sunday after Christmas. “Low Sunday” seems a bit melancholy after the excited high notes of Easter. Nevertheless, the Lectionary texts this morning urge us not to let go of our joy just yet. Easter Sunday was just the beginning.
One of the most important sentences in Scripture comes from this first Letter of Peter…“Although you have not seen him, you love him.” Relatively few people ever saw the Risen Christ…That means that the rest of the converts throughout history have been persuaded by the praise, proclamation, and living example of believers. This passage begins with a Doxology – genuine praise: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Doxology, in fact all forms of public praise, help us experience and express our Christian faith.
In his book, Blue like Jazz, Donald Miller writes: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.”[i]
The early church showed us the way by means of its praise; this is what Peter is writing about to the churches “of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” He greets them with a Doxology; he greets them by praising God. He begins by singing his faith to show them the way to love Jesus. At the end of today’s text we find that important sentence I mentioned earlier: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” To me this sounds like a song of praise, a poetic recitation of what it means to believe in and love this Jesus you have not seen. Peter is like that jazz musician whom we watch loving Jesus so that we can also love Jesus. Our energy may be tapped out because of “Easter fatigue” or our spirits may be deflated by the reality of “Low Sunday”. Peter comes along in this letter to remind us that praise has the first and the last word.
I bring all of this up this morning because of the significant role that music has played during our recent celebrations of worship. At our Centennial Celebration we combined our two services into one and utilized the talents of all our musicians and singers. Contemporary and traditional music blended to lead us in joyful worship and contemplative prayer. We were able to honor our past and celebrate our future by using different styles of music to sing our faith. On Palm Sunday music led us into the church as we were reminded of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the beginning of a week that would end so differently. If you were here for our Good Friday service you heard our choir sing our faith in a moving remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Music was the center of our worship that night in a service that moved many to tears. Then on Easter morning, we began the day singing at sunrise and continued throughout the morning to offer praise and thanksgiving to God through different styles of music that represents our faith and shows how we love God. Faith shown through praise and doxology is at the heart of the way the gospel is passed from generation to generation.
“Singing the faith” has always been a vital part of the church’s testimony to the truth of the resurrection and crucial to its invitation for the unaware to come and join the choir of the “Easter people”. The praises sung by those first believers is a love song to God that is echoed today. It is a love song that rises on the foundations of God’s love for Creation. Doxology and praise bear witness to Good News.
I wonder, though, if for many people the good news is not really “news” at all…We have heard it so much; it is preached every Sunday; how much “news” is really there? And, even though Peter encourages us to “sing our faith,” too many of us are simply not inclined to sing anymore. Singing praise to this God we have never seen can be hard for the over-analytical among us. When we look to ourselves for every solution to our problems our vocal chords get pinched when we try to stand and sing a love song to God.
We don’t seem to have any problem belting out the National Anthem, but that same enthusiasm is not found when we sing to God. Our faces light up when we sing “Happy Birthday” to almost anyone, while we present a deadpan, emotion-less visage to the God who provided “salvation for your soul”. We no longer react to God’s Good News as if it were really “NEWS”. We think that we have heard it all before and so we take it for granted. What if we pretended that we had never heard these stories before? Oh my goodness! – Jesus died on the cross for my sins? – How tragic; it is my fault! Jesus was buried in a tomb and rose from the dead three days later? – Wow! That is amazing! If God loves me so much that he would do these amazing things just for me, then I owe it to God to sing his praises and show my love with every ounce of energy I have! Do you see what I am saying here? These stories are not just dusty bits of ancient history…These stories are “hot-off-the-presses” Good News…Even if you don’t understand them; even if some of them are really hard to believe; these stories are worth singing about!
There is a lot of debate about worship styles, music styles, favorite hymns, and so forth…These conversations have been going on for years in nearly every church in America. The problem with this debate is that we have made worship and church music about US instead of being about GOD. Whenever this subject comes up it is framed in terms of “my favorite hymns,” “that music is too loud,” “that music is too slow,” “I don’t like drums in church,” and so forth. Doxology – genuine praise for God – is not about your favorite hymns or most of the other criteria many people use when selecting music for worship. Praising God and singing our faith is about GOD. Regardless of the musical style, worship music should remind us of who God is and what God has done. When we sing, we should sing with enthusiasm, listening to the words of praise.
The words, “amazing grace” should truly be a sweet sound that amazes us and brings us joy.
“Everything I am…” ought to be filled with awe as we recognize that everything we have is from God.
How can you not smile when you sing, “Into marvelous light I’m running; out of darkness, out of shame”?
Ah, but the news isn’t “news” anymore so the singing feels routine, awkward, almost pointless. We have forgotten…What does the resurrection really mean to us? As the people of God it means that there is still anticipation of the “not yet” in this story. There is still the “Good News” of the fullness of salvation “yet to be”. There is anticipation and joy that gives us plenty of reason to sing. Listen again to the words of verse 8: “…though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy…” Do you? – Do you believe in him? Do you rejoice with indescribable and glorious joy? Then show somebody the way to love God…Sing your love song to God with the same level of enthusiasm as the National Anthem or Happy Birthday…After all, without God none of those other songs would matter. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), ix.