Isaiah 42:10-12; Psalm 98:1-3

February 3, 2013


  In 1993 James Hilton wrote about a mythical place in his novel Lost Horizon.  He wrote about Shangri-La where nothing changed in hundreds of years.  Everything stayed the same in Shangri-La, everything was familiar and predictable.

            Does that sound like our kind of place?  Do you think we would like to live there? We would stay the same age and look the same forever.   We would go to the same job and do the same work year after year, century after century.  We would live in the same house, wear the same clothes, keep the same friends and never meet anyone new.  We would think the same thoughts and hear the same news all the time.  Maybe we would even hear the same sermon preached week after week in church!  The past would be the future and the present would last forever.  Welcome to Shangri-La, the land where nothing changes.

            When we think about it in those terms, none of us is opposed to any and all change.  I mean even the most stubborn people can think of some changes in life they don't mind at all.

            For example, no one minds a change in his or her paycheck, if it means getting more money.  We don't mind putting a new addition on our house, or buying a bigger car, if those changes make our lives more comfortable.  And most of us can think of something we wish we could change about our personality or our appearance.

            So, it's not that we're against all change in and of itself.  It's just that we'd like certain areas of life to stay the same, like notably religion.  When it comes to religion and the church, a lot of people long for Shangri-La. 

            Sometimes our resistance to change is almost comical, as in a true story which took place in a church.  It seems there was a group of older women in this church who had been preparing communion in precisely the same way for many years.  Preparing communion was "their thing," and everyone knew they were in charge.

            One night, the pastor received a call from their leader, informing him that they could no longer celebrate communion every month; they would have to cut back. "There aren't enough of us left to do the work," she said.  "We're getting old and tired."

            "Well," the pastor said, "we've had quite a few new and younger people joining the church recently, and several of them have expressed an interest in communion.  Would you like me to find some help for you?"  Her answer was, "If you do that, we'll quit!"

            For the life of him, the pastor of that church couldn't figure it out.  How could someone say they were too tired to do a job, but threaten to quit if he got help for them? Then it dawned on him.  They didn't want the younger folks preparing communion because these new people might not do it exactly as it had been done in the past.

            Protestant or Catholic, young or elderly, new member or old, it's human nature to want to preserve our faith as it was practiced in the past.  It's human nature to say, "I was raised in such-and-such a church, and this is the way we always did things.  That's what I'm used to, and that's the way I want it now."

            The trouble is we've got it all backwards.  We ignore the things we should be fighting to preserve, and we fuss and fight to resist the things we should be changing. We should be fighting to preserve Biblical truth.  We should be fighting to preserve basic Biblical beliefs about God and our salvation in Jesus Christ.  These are under attack today, from a secular society and even from within the church!  We should cling to the foundations of our faith and see that they are never changed.

            But too often, Christians aren't concerned enough about basic issues like that. Instead, what do many churches really get upset about when it comes to change?  They don't want a new color carpet in the sanctuary.  They don't want the communion changed.  They don't want anyone fooling around with the front of the church. And especially they do not want anyone fooling around with their beloved hymnal. Now, don't get nervous.  I'm not proposing we change hymnals.  I've heard from the grapevine you fought that fight once in your history and the wounds have not completely healed, but we do need to deal with what Isaiah has to say here.  "Sing a new song to the Lord." 

            Thus far in our sermon series on the word "new" we have looked at a new creation, a new covenant, a new life and today we turn our attention to a new song.  As we explore this injunction to "sing a new song to The Lord," let's see what it means and what it does not mean.

            First of all, let's keep in mind how singing a new song is a recurrent them in the Bible.  It appears a lot in the Psalms which makes sense since King David, who wrote a number of the psalms was a musician.  As a young shepherd, he played a harp to calm the sheep in the field and as an adult King Saul often called upon him to play the harp in order to calm Saul's beleaguered soul as well.  With that in mind let's quickly run through the number of times singing in a new song appears in the Psalms. Let's being with Psalm 33, verse 3, on page 440 of your pew bible.

            In Psalm 33:3 we read, Sing to him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise.

            Now turn with me to Psalm 40:3.  "He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God."

            Look turn with me to Psalm 96:1 we read, O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.

            Now let's jump to Psalm 98:1, O sing to the Lord a new song; for he has done marvelous things.  His right hand and his holy arm, have gotten him victory.

            Now let's turn to Psalm 144:9,  I will sing a new song to you, O God; upon a ten string harp I will play to you.

            One more from the Psalmist 149:1, Praise the Lord, sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful."

            We have been created to sing.  Nations have national anthems.  Colleges have fight songs.  Almost every organization has a theme song from Rotary to Boy Scouts.  We sing in the shower, we whistle while we work.  At times we even find ourselves pausing along the way to hear the birds chirping in the trees.  We, by our nature, love to sing even when we sound terrible.  Of course, that makes sense since were are created in the image of God and when we come to the bible we find that the God of Creation and Redemption is the God of Song.  When the universe was brought into being God said in the 38th chapter of Job that "The morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy."  Then toward the end of history, in the Book of Revelation, when the Lamb takes the scroll in his hand those gathered before him, "Sang a new song" (Revelation 5:9).

            So, singing a new song is recurrent message in the Bible.  Now let's turn to a second thing to keep in mind.  Singing a new song does not mean we need to get rid of the old songs. 

            As we have just seen, repeatedly in the Scriptures, we are told to Sing a new song unto The Lord" which raises an obvious question.  Does that mean that we should all find a song we dont know in the hymnal and sing it after this message?   No.  But we can sing an old song and make if feel like we are singing a new song, if, if, if we meditate on the words as we sing them.   I think of the third grader in a childrens choir named Megan.  Megan thought about the words of a song as she sang them.  If she did not know what the words meant, she would ask the choir director what do these words mean?  Do we think about the meaning of the words of a song as we sing them?Hymns can touch our hearts in a powerful way, if we allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the words of a song.   As I sit up here during worship, I can tell when individuals are allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to them through the words of a song.  What a blessing it is to witness that type of worship!

            A preacher went to visit an elderly woman from his church who had just had an operation.   As he was sitting there talking with her, he noticed a bowl of peanuts on the stand next to the bed.  Nervously he began to eat them, and soon it was time for him to leave.  When he got up he noticed he had eaten all of her peanuts, and he said, "Im sorry I ate all of your peanuts.  She replied, "Thats okay pastor, I already sucked all of the chocolate off of them."  We can never suck all the chocolate of the old songs if we meditate on them as we sing. 

            Thirdly, it is important to sing new songs.  All the songs that are our favorites were once new songs, and they are important to us today because someone had the courage and the desire to sing them. 

            Unfortunately, this resistance to new songs is part of our DNA as Presbyterians.  In the years immediately after the Reformation, Protestant churches were divided on the question of music for worship.  Lutherans and Moravians immediately began to develop a rich tradition of hymns in the language of the people.  Most of those in the Calvinist tradition, our tradition on the other hand, maintained that God already had provided us with a set of inspired hymns in scripture, chiefly in the book of psalms, and that it was not for us to say it was incomplete or inadequate and set about to write our own. Accordingly, they wrote verse translations of the psalms and sang these instead of hymns.  In fact, even today there are still some churches that will not use any music except that which is derived from the psalms.

            Then there is a recent 2006 study by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music.  Levitin explains that hearing familiar, favorite music stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and addiction, providing the same rush as eating chocolate or that winning does for a compulsive gambler.  Dr. Levitins research also showed that musical tastes formed in the teen years become part of the brains internal wiring, as that is the time when some neural pathways are solidifying and others are being pruned away.  Thats why the music adults tend to be nostalgic for is the music from their teenage years.

            So we have two strikes against us when it comes to embracing new songs: one our presbyterian DNA and two, our internal neurotransmitter.  But, think of where that may lead us.   What happens to people who had their brain musically wired in the 60's or 70's or 80's or 90's?  What happens to those who long for new songs?  Do we make room for them at this table or do we say, sorry, but we don't serve your kind here?

            For the sake of those who come after us are we willing to sing a new song?