EPHESIANS 5: 15-20

June 13, 2010


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             I did not want to do it, but I didn’t want to appear wimpy, so I answered, “No problem!” when asked to take a cab from La Guardia Airport to my accommodations in downtown Manhattan.  Granted, I had grown up in a large city, Los Angeles, but I had never taken a cab.  Cabs were few and far between in LaLa Land.  Everyone had his or her vehicle.  The only times I had been in a cab had been with my father, who had grown up in nearby New Jersey.  While preparing for my trip, all sorts of “cab” questions popped into my mind.  Where do I pick up the cab?  What if the cabbie senses fear in my eyes?  What if he takes me to the hotel via Albany?  What if the driver does not speak English?  What do I if the cab ride costs more money than I have on me?

            As you may have surmised, I am not the most positive person in the world.  As a result I often read “positive thinking” material, things by Norman Vincent Peale, and Robert Schuller, and Zig Zieglar, hoping to become a more optimistic and positive person.  It has not happened yet, but I’ve only been working on it for thirty years!  Well, I did not have to worry.  I easily found a cab.  The trip into the city was quick and uneventful, the fare was reasonable, and to my delight the cabbie spoke English.  I only had one regret.  I did not experience one of those colorful, New York cab drivers that Norman Vincent Peale had written about in one of his “power of positive thinking” books.

            One doesn’t think of New York cabbies as being particularly pious, but scarcely after picking up Peale, and the cabbie did not know Peale’s identity, the cabbie began talking about his church and how much it meant to him and how he loved to sing in the choir on Sunday mornings.  To Peale’s astonishment, the cab driver then broke out into song, singing a familiar hymn as they rolled down Fifth Avenue.  After finishing the hymn, the cabbie said, “My minister got me into the taxi business.  ‘Bill,’ he said, ‘running a taxi is the same as anything else.  Give good service, be friendly, treat people right, trust in God, and you’ll get along and have a good time doing it.’”   The cabbie told Peale, “My minister told me that every morning when I went over to the garage to get my cab, before I started, I was to bow my head over the wheel and pray.  That may sound pious, but I want to tell you that I’ve made a good living.  What’s more, I’ve had a wonderful time, and I’m happy, happier than I’ve ever been before.”

            I started with this today because the Apostle Paul expects us to act similarly to Peale’s cab driver. That is to say Paul wants us to break into song when we get together.  Paul’s directive comes on the heels of his instructing us to be “filled with the Spirit.”  Consider his words to the Ephesians:


            Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.  So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.  Do not get drunk with debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.


            Note the recommended alternative: “Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit,” and in that regard have you ever noticed how intoxicated people often break out into song when they get together?  Why is that?  A number of reasons come to mind, but primarily alcohol breaks down inhibitions.  A quiet, shy person, given enough alcohol, may end up donning a lampshade at a get-together.  They may become the life of the party.  Of course, they also will likely be deeply embarrassed by their behavior the next day, but at the moment of being filled with wine, they have confidence to do things they would have never imagined themselves capable of doing before, including singing in public.  That’s why we have karaoke bars and not karaoke malls or karaoke offices or karaoke department stores.  Get a few drinks in a person, get them drunk with wine, and they suddenly think they are Celine Dion or Bruce Springsteen. 

            And let me tell you, the folks in Ephesus, not necessarily the folks in the church, but folks in the city of Ephesus were big on getting drunk with wine.  They had feasts dedicated to Dionysus the Greek god of wine which concluded with excessive drunkenness.  Moreover, in these drunken feasts they sang drunken hymns.  They sang hymns to their drunken deity,  Dionysus.  Incidentally, in addition to drinking wine, the followers of Dionysus also ate the bloody flesh of a newly slaughtered bull in order to partake of the life of their god.  Then they participated in a wild ecstatic dance during which they were supposedly possessed by the spirit of the god.  So, go to a Dionysus worship service or festival and you had exciting music, dancing, singing and all the wine you wanted. 

            It’s within this environment in Ephesus that the Apostle Paul recommends an alternative:  “Do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”   I love what Aldous Huxley wanted to do if he were a millionaire, or in today’s dollars a billionaire.  He said if had the financial resources he would form a company of researchers to look for a substitute for alcohol.  He wrote,


            If we could sniff or swallow something that would abolish inferiority, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exultation of affection, and make life in all its aspects divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transforming drug were of such a kind that we could wake up the next morning with a clear head and undamaged constitution, then it seems to me that all our problems would be solved and our earth would be a paradise.


            The Apostle Paul found that “world-transforming drug” in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  For Paul it is the Spirit who makes us more affectionate toward others.  It is the

Spirit who puts our problems into perspective.  It is the Spirit who puts a melody in our heart.  It is the Spirit who drives us to sing.   

            Of course, let me tell you what initially popped into my mind when Paul said, “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”  What popped into my minds was an old Elvis movie, or the TV show Glee or Disney’s High School Musical where you are talking to someone and then you just burst out into song.  And as you sing, a bird drops down on your shoulder and tweets melodically along with you, but that’s not what he’s getting at here.  What he’s getting at is that one of the marks of being filled with the Spirit is a desire to sing, and when we get together as God’s people to worship, that’s what we are to do.  We are to sing.   We are to let out in song what God placed in our hearts.  When we drink in the Spirit we break out into song.

            Let me ask a couple of questions, a couple of multiple choice questions.  First question: What did Jesus and the apostles do prior to going to the Mount of Olives?  A) They took a nap B) They checked their e-mail C) They sang a hymn.  Here’s another.  While Paul and Silas were in jail in Philippi they A) They tried to break out B) They prayed and sang C) They used their one phone call to contact their attorney.  Here’s the point.  Spirit filled people sing.  They do other things as well, but they definitely sing.  One of the signs that the Holy Spirit lives within us is we sing.

            Let me share a poem I came across the other day.  It goes like this:


            He listened as the Pastor spoke,

            He bowed his head in prayer;

            And when the offering plate was passed,

            He gladly gave his share.

            But when a hymn was wont to sing,

            He tightly sealed his tongue,

            'Till songs of praise that cried for strength

            were weak and feebly sung.


            What was this guy’s problem?  According to the Bible, he was not filled with the Spirit.  Spirit-filled people sing.  And note the lack of exclusions in Paul’s words here.  Paul didn’t say, “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, only if you have a good singing voice.”  He did not say, “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, unless you are tone deaf.”  He didn’t say that, and I’m so glad I don’t wear a mike during worship services here.  I did in my former congregation and I was instructed to leave the mike on and the person running the sound board would turn it up when it was my time to speak and the guy on the sound board would turn my mike down when it was not my time to speak, and I always lived in fear that he would forget and I would be singing a hymn and the congregation would hear my singing over them, because I cannot sing all that well, but whether I can carry a tune or not, I’m to sing.  It’s a sign of the Spirit’s presence residing in me.

            Also, note the lack of another exclusion.  Paul didn’t say, “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, if you like the hymn or the song.  If not, go ahead and just stand there.”  He didn’t say that.  Whether we like the song or know the song, we are to sing from our heart.

            In light of Paul’s one another directive this morning, let me share with you a head scratching time in church history.  From 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. the church in general did not sing.  From shortly after New Testament times until the Reformation, what music the church had was usually performed by professional musicians.  During those thousand years congregants only sat and listened, unable to participate.  Then, during the Reformation, the Bible came back in the church, including Paul’s words here this morning, and singing came with it.  Martin Luther and some of the other Reformation leaders were among the greatest hymn writers of church history.  Where the gospel is known and believed, music is loved and sung.  God’s Spirit in the heart puts music in the heart. 

            In his great allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan pictured the pilgrim, Christian, falling into the slough of despondency, straying into doubting castle, and enduring many other hardships, frustrations, and failures.  And though the expression “filled with the Spirit is not used in the story, each time Christian was delivered he goes on his way singing.  Every time he came back under the Spirits control he had a song in his heart.

            Let me close with John Wesley’s interesting "Instructions in Singing.”  Here’s what Wesley encouraged his followers to do when it came to psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

            First, he wrote: SING ALL - See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.  Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you.  If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find a blessing.

            Second, he said: SING LUSTILY AND WITH A GOOD COURAGE - Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.  Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being, heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

            Third, he said: SING MODESTLY - Do not bawl, so as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

            Fourth, he said: SING IN TIME - Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can.  And take care you sing not too slow.  This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

            Then, fifth and finally, he said:  ABOVE ALL, SING SPIRITUALLY - Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing; and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

            Ready to put those five instructions into practice?  OK.  Let’s stand and sing.