Monday, December 19, 2011

The Song That Can't Be Silenced


This month we’ve been considering why millions, many without understanding, have been caught up with Christmas; why we bear silent witness to the Savior’s birth with multi-colored lights and holiday parties and evergreen trees and, yes, with Christmas carols, those songs that can’t be silenced. I was surprised to learn that even Richard Dawkins, the well known atheist and author of The God Delusion, likes to sing Christmas Carols!  In an open letter last week to Prime Minister David Cameron he writes: As a “cultural Anglican I recoil from such secular carols as ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the loathsome ‘Jingle Bells,’ but I’m happy to sing real carols, and in the unlikely event that anyone wants me to read a lesson I’ll gladly oblige — only from the King James Version, of course.”     I assure you, Dawkins is not a convert; but then Jesus did say, "With God all things are possible!" 

Biblical faith has always been a singing faith.  According to Scripture there was music when the world was created (Job 38:7); there was music when God delivered His people from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 15); there was music when the Temple was dedicated to the Lord (II Chron. 5:13); there was music when Jesus was born (Luke 2:13-14); and Revelation says that there will be music when Jesus the Messiah returns & heaven and earth are made new (Rev. 4:10-11). 

A unique feature of Jewish and Christian worship is organized congregational singing.  One of the reasons why you only hear Hanukkah and Christmas songs at "Winter Concerts" is that it is historically Jews and Christians who have written all the sacred choral music. So it should come as no surprise that there is no other time of year that the message of God’s love is more omnipresent than right now, when songs of divine help and Christmas joy are so in evidence.  We hear them wafting through shopping malls; streaming from car radios, or playing on ipods. For 2000 years, we’ve been singing and chanting and humming with the angels who announced the Messiah's’ birth.  What is the power of these songs, even for skeptics, and why do we sing them?

We sing at Christmas because the God of the highest place has come to dwell in the lowest place:
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors" (Luke 2: 8-14)!
This passage contains the first Christmas carol, the song of the angels, “Doxa en uyistoiV Qew” or in Latin, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” ( “Glory in the highest to God”) a phrase that we know was used in worship as far back as 128AD when Pope Telesphorus issued a decree that on the day of the celebration of our Lord’s birth, all churches should have special evening services and that at services and at other appropriate times, the congregation should sing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” 

Glory to God in the highest...the highest heaven, that is.  The angels were speaking not just of the first heaven, of oxygen and birds…or the second heaven, of the moon and stars…but the highest heaven... beyond time and space.  These spiritual beings, who were here before the world began, sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven” because before the first stone was set by the pyramid builders; before brontosaurus walked the earth, before the oceans formed or the galaxies cooled, they knew that the Infinite would become an infant; that the God of the highest place would come to dwell in the lowest place. And when that day finally came, they rejoiced!  

John puts it this way, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  I like Eugene Peterson’s "Message" translation:  “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  What this means is that in Jesus the Messiah and Son of God, the Creator himself came to the lowest place with us; He cried with us, crawled with us, walked with us, ate with us, laughed with us, put his arms around us, listened to us, spoke to us, wept with us, suffered with us, and even died with us.  There is no place we may go that he has not already gone with us.

Listen to Bono of the Irish Rock Band U2 from Cathleen Falsani’s interview with him in The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People: “The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it…But the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in [cow dung] and straw and poverty is genius, and brings me to my knees, literally.  To me, as a poet, I am just in awe of that.  It makes some sort of poetic sense.  It’s the thing that makes me a believer” [and he could have said, it’s the thing that makes me sing ‘Glory to God in the highest’].”

We sing at Christmas because God has loosed His unearthly peace on earth:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace….” Christ has come from the highest place to the lowest place to bring us peaceshalom with God and others.  Now we must understand that this is not a peace that is forced upon human beings with a sword – like the Pax Romana, as impressive as it was. Certainly, if God wanted to force this world to be “peaceful” he could do so at any time he wanted; but his desire was and is that we might freely love him, and each other – which is the only way that true peace is really possible…

A while back I saw an MTV broadcast in which a panel of music “experts” was being asked to name their favorite rebel song.  One song got everyone’s approval.  Why?  "It makes you want to go out and break things!” one judge said.  Here are 4 of my favorite rebel songs from the Bible…songs that make you want to break things too.
        #1 The song of Moses after the exodus from Egyptian slavery (“Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously!” – Ex. 15: 1). Jesus’ disciples heard that song and then broke down the dividing wall between slaves and masters; worshiping together, and eventually working to end the State sponsored slave trade through godly men like John Woolman, William Wilberforce, and Frederick Douglas.  
        #2 The song of the children in Psalm 139:13 (“It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb).  Jesus’ disciples heard that song and then put an end to the practice of infanticide at a time when killing one’s baby was not only legal but encouraged. 
        #3 David’s cry to God in Psalm 22 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”) Jesus’ disciples heard that cry for help, also on Jesus’ lips, and put an end to the callous disregard of the sick, the suffering, and dying in the first century, risking their lives to come to their aid when there was no organized or humane care for them.
        #4 The song of Mary in Luke 2: 46 (“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.) Jesus’ disciples heard that song, and those of the other women who followed Him, and began to shatter the abusive and disrespectful treatment of women…honoring them as full members of society, and spiritual leaders.

My point is that Jesus and his disciples led a true rebellion, a revolution of self-giving love, of reconciliation and forgiveness, of holiness and peace.  That song of peace continues to move people today.  Country music star Travis Tritt spent many years playing out-of-the-way joints before he made it big in the music industry. Many of the bars he played at were dangerous places, with drunk fans starting fights over the smallest matters. But Tritt found a unique way to keep the peace in those situations: 'Silent Night' - "It proved to be my all-time lifesaver," Tritt says. "Just when [bar fights] started getting out of hand, when bikers were reaching for their pool cues and rednecks were heading for the gun rack, I'd start playing 'Silent Night.' It could be the middle of July, I didn't care. Sometimes they'd even start crying, standing there watching me sweat and play Christmas carols" (Twang! The Ultimate Book of Country Music Quotations, R. Obstfeld and S. Burgener).  Now that's the peace of Christ and his message at work…the peace we long for, the peace this world needs, the peace that He came to bring.

We sing at Christmas because God has claimed us as His beloved:   “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”  Why has God descended from the highest place to the lowest place?  Why has He come to restore peace with our God and with our fellow human beings? The answer is, “because he favors us, because he loves us.”  The word favor” translates the word eudokia which in modern Greek means not only favored one, but “beloved.”  We would say today, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he loves.”  This world suffers from a deficit of real love...

As I was researching this message, I came across an article on the web written by John Morris, a modern pagan (beliefnet.com).  He writes: “I was complaining to our High Priestess about the lack of singing in our coven….When I was a kid in the Presbyterian Sunday School, we sang Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  I grew to dislike the words, but they were fun to sing…. I’ve thought of the old songs while I was out running through the snow….chanting the old words of my Quaker ancestors, “How can I keep from singing?”  I was unfamiliar with that hymn and so looked it up.  The last line is this: The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart; A fountain ever springing: All things are mine since I am His — How can I keep from singing?  


Can you believe that a Wiccan was actually singing that song to himself while running through the winter snow?  That is his testimony!  I get the feeling that Morris, despite his unbelief, still longs to hear God’s love song, to know that he belongs to the Creator, not a coven…just like millions of other people around the world today.  


Music continues to be a powerful conveyor of the Gospel today.  When the nihilist, Frederich Neitzche (1844-1900) heard Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew he admitted upon hearing it, "One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel."  In Japan – a country that has suffered much in the aftermath of this year’s massive earthquake -- performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio are always sold out, though tickets cost over $600.  Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki, a Christian, said that “Bach works as a missionary among our people. After each concert, people crowd the podium wishing to talk to me about topics that are normally taboo in our society—death, for example. Then they inevitably ask me what ‘hope’ means to Christians…Bach has already converted tens of thousands of [our people] to the Christian faith.”   Yuko Maruyama, a Japanese organist who was once a devout Buddhist is now a follower of Jesus.  Why?  “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity. When I play a fugue, I can hear Bach talking to God”  

We read in Luke 19:40 (NIV) that as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, his disciples began praising God joyfully with loud voices.  Some religious leaders told Jesus to rebuke them, but Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these keep quiet, the stones will cry out."  It’s the song that can’t be silenced; and like the shepherds, we've been invited to sing along.  The angels’ song was not a solo; but a choral anthem.  It invites us to join in, which is exactly what the shepherds did when they returned from Bethlehem “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen….” (Luke 2: 20). The Christmas music that we hear playing over shopping mall loudspeakers, car radios or ipods, invites you and me to join the worship band, to sing in the symphony of salvation, to kneel at Bethlehem’s manger.  Here is a prayer to get us started...

King Jesus, we've heard the song that can't be silenced today; the angelic song that tells how you came from the highest place to dwell with us in the lowest place; how you came to bring me true peace, peace with God and peace with those around me in a world broken by sin, evil, and death; the song that tells of your love for me.  How can I keep from singing?  I believe that you went to the cross to free me from my guilty past, and that you are risen from the dead and alive today.   Glory to God in the highest!  Now, I receive your Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life, that I may be with you, and serve you in fellowship with your other disciples forever.  Amen!  

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