Singing When You Can’t Sing

Psalm 98
David A. Davis
June 7, 2020
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The title for the sermon this morning is “Singing When You Can’t Sing”. “O sing to the Lord a new song.”  Singing when you can’t sing. When I submitted the title to the staff weeks ago I was thinking about what this virus, this pandemic, this distancing means for singing. You have likely read the same things I have about the significant concerns that will linger for some time about choral and congregational singing. “O sing to the Lord a new song” ….when you can’t sing. But in these days, these last two weeks in our nation, the sermon title has a whole other connotation. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbury. Protests non-violent and violent. Peaceful prayer vigils, vandalism, looting.  City after city after city. Racial tension as high as it has ever been in most of our lifetimes. The bible being held up as the threat of military action in America’s city streets is proclaimed. How can you sing a new song to the Lord? How can you sing a song of praise when a song of lament is all you can muster? When a song of lament is more fitting? Come on preacher, pick a different psalm!

You can certainly take an ala carte approach to the Book of Psalms. The Psalter contains such a rich diversity of prayers and hymns, of complaint and lament, of praise and adoration, of one voice and of many voices.  Psalms for celebrating the royalty of God upon the throne. Psalms to pray on the ascent to Jerusalem for worship. You can pick and choose a psalm as you take the pulse of your day. One of the books on my shelf is a book of pastoral prayers that takes that approach: a prayer for a winter day, or a wedding anniversary, or the morning after a storm, or the day after a funeral, or for New Year’s Eve, or for Palm Sunday So it is with the psalms. We’re at the cemetery; Psalm 23. It’s Thanksgiving Day: Psalm 100. A service of reconciliation; Psalm 133. A prayer for peace; Psalm 122. Good Friday; Psalm 22. A time of lament; Psalm 42. “My tears have been my food day and night while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God.’”

A few weeks ago we told the congregation of the death of Patrick Miller, Old Testament Professor emeritus at Princeton Seminary. In my mind Dr. Miller was the prototype of what the theological tradition refers to as a “doctor of the church.” Professor Miller’s book Interpreting the Psalms ought to be required reading for any pastor who rises to preach from one of the psalms. The binding on my copy is broken and the pages are loose due to overuse. In that book Dr. Miller address the relationship between psalms of lament and psalms of praise. He points out that there is more going on in the book of psalms than simply a pendulum swinging back and forth. Today its lament. Tomorrow its praise. Next week its supplication. One day it will be adoration again. Life in the nation is painful so we lament. Things are going well for the people of God so we sing. No, the prayer life reflected by the psalmist is not an exit poll. Dr. Miller describes the psalter as a steady, slow, persistent “movement toward praise.” Maybe not a simple line where all the dots can be connected but a movement nonetheless. A movement where the ultimate and final word is intended to be praise and adoration of God. To be led in song by the Book of Psalms, is to move ever closer to the lasting word of praise. In Pat Miller’s own words, “praise more than any other act fully expresses utter devotion to God and the loss of self in extravagant exaltation of the transcendent Lord who is the ground of all.” Utter devotion and loss of self.

Finding your voice in what is a steady movement toward praise. Losing your self amid the songs of the people of God. Realizing praise and adoration is less and less about you and more and more about God. Singing a new song. Discovering your desire to yet offer praise to God even after a dark night of the soul. Acknowledging that your heartfelt praise to the Living God is not wholly dependent upon your ability to count your own blessings one by one, or  having to wait until the heavenly scales have tipped again toward justice for all. Singing a new song. Finally understanding that you are more nearly who God created you to be when you are one among the saints and the great cloud of witness in a movement toward praise that resonates with the very purpose of life. Finding your self somewhere along the march of the faithful where the praise and adoration of God is not fulfilled or complete until every child of God, children of every kind, can join the song and creation itself can sing for joy. As the Doctor of the church, now united with all the saints put it, that one day when “all that is God….hears praise from all that is created.”

Psalm 98 begins with “O sing to the Lord a new song , for the Lord has done marvelous things.” Psalm 98 ends with “God will come to judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” Or as the Common English Translation puts it “God will establish justice in the world rightly;    God will establish justice among all people fairly”.  The psalm begins with a new song of praise and ends with God’s establishment of justice, fairness, and righteousness. Embedded in the movement toward praise of the Book of Psalms, Psalm 98 has its own movement as well. Psalm 98 has its own alpha and omega. Praise to God and justice in the world. Singing a new song and a world where people are treated with equity, with fairness. Offering praise and praying for righteousness to flow. Lifting your heart in adoration and yearning for justice to roll down. Making a joyful noise and shouting for what is right. Singing a new song and witnessing to God’s righteousness. It’s not two sides of the same coin. It’s the same side of the gospel coin.

Last Sunday afternoon I participated in a pastor’s prayer service in the parking lot of the Trenton YMCA. It was prayer vigil for the city and for the nation. We were all masked and distanced and we were split into groups of ten or so for prayer. I was in a group with Pastor Lukata from Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and Pastor Matt Ristuccia from Stone Hill Church here in Princeton. A retired African American pastor and 7 or 8 other young African American pastors as well. As we went around the circle you can imagine the different theology and the different styles, language of prayer that were being lifted. The prayers could be heard from the other three circles as well and it was something like a Pentecost-like cacophony. Praying out loud with folks you don’t know can be a very vulnerable thing to do. Of the many things that struck me, of the many things I learned listening to the prayers, especially from the young black pastors, was how every prayer started with powerful, compelling, often lengthy words of praise. Over and over and on and on—and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Quite the opposite. If I were to chart or diagram or put a stopwatch on the prayers, many had more praise than supplication, more adoration than petition.

At one point, one man began his prayer saying something like this: “I am not a pastor but I am a follower of Jesus.” And he launched into his offering of praise. It was difficult to hear each other through our masks and I was having hard time hearing his prayer. It sounded like he was saying something about knees, about our knees. And then he knelt down on one knee, repeated his prayer, and I understood perfectly what he said. “Knees are made for offering our adoration to you O God not for taking life.” Kneeling in praise and adoration to God and kneeling in a prayer for God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s peace to fill the earth.  Until every child of God can join the new song of praise.

You will remember that in Romans 8, the Apostle Paul writes of the promise that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) One translation describes the sighs that are too deep for words as “wordless groans.” I find myself clinging to that promise these days. Not just that the Spirit intercedes for us, prays on our behalf. But that the Spirit prays for us in “wordless groans.” Because words are hard to find right now. Words are had to find in so many ways. For me, at least, that includes prayer. Praying with wordless groans. I understand that language better these days. You, me, and the Spirit together praying with wordless groans. It is the promise that when we can’t sing, God in the power of the Holy Spirit, God sings for us.

When words and songs can’t seem to be found, we still offer our praise to God. Today we offer that praise in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Your participation in this meal that Christ himself prepares is an act of praise. Yes, it is a meal of thanksgiving; giving thanks for our life in Christ and our salvation. Yes, it is a meal of remembrance of all that Christ has done for us. Yes, it is a communion meal that we share together, even when we are not physically present with one another. But sharing in the meal itself, taking, breaking, eating and drinking, it is an act of praise. It is an act of praise that joins each of us with a glorious song that has already started and includes the communion of saints and choirs of angels. Here, at the table, as you take the bread, as you take the cup, you join a divine and steady movement toward praise.

Come to the Table. It is your wordless act of praise.

Come to the Table, and sing to the Lord a new song.