a sermon on Psalm 96
preached on June 2, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As a musician and music lover, I have long been fascinated by the gift of the psalms. Most of these ancient poems likely began as songs, though the original tunes have been lost for centuries and the lyricism and beauty of the Hebrew poetry doesn’t always translate well into other languages. But beyond this musical history, I’m also quite a fan of what the psalms have to say about music.
There are two wonderful recurring phrases about song in the psalms. First, there’s the great phrase “make a joyful noise to the Lord.” This one shows up in some form or another in four different psalms, but I especially appreciate the character of its exhortation. As I frequently point out to people who say that they can’t sing, the psalms do not say “sing a pretty song with a beautiful voice” to God but rather “make a joyful noise!” While I certainly appreciate beautiful music as much as the next person, when it comes to praising God, the thing that matters is not the beauty of the sound but the attitude that goes into it!
The second great phrase about music in the psalms is the one that opens our psalm for today: “Sing to the Lord a new song!” This one shows up in five different psalms, and commentator Robert Alter (The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary) notes that it is often intended to be the composer’s self-affirmation of his work, for if God is truly so great, God should be praised not with something from the usual repertoire, not with old familiar songs but rather with something fresh and new.
This second phrase is so very critical to our psalm today, as it sets the tone for all the praise that the psalmist wishes to offer God. Strangely enough, though, Robert Alter points out that much of what follows in Psalm 96 has actually been woven together from phrases and lines that appear elsewhere. Yet I think there is still something new amidst this conglomeration of tried and true phrases of praise to God that creates the wonderful and rich harmonies of a new song to give deep and true praise to the Lord.
First, this call to praise is for everyone.
Sing to the Lord, all the earth…
Declare [God’s] glory among the nations
[and God’s] marvelous works among all the peoples.
This praise cannot be limited or restricted by the standards of the world, and everyone should hear this invitation to praise God and raise their voices to proclaim a new song.
Beyond this call to praise for all humanity, the psalmist suggests a deeper meaning of the greatness of God. God is not just great because of some inherent greatness but because “the Lord made the heavens” and all other gods are nothing more than idols.
The psalmist acknowledges that we don’t have an automatic inner sense that there is some sort of divine presence in our world, and God’s greatness cannot be assumed as true for everyone simply because we know it. Instead, we see the depth and breadth of God’s amazing love through the wonders of creation and all the other marks of God’s greatness that the psalm describes. So with our eyes opened to the wonder of God’s glory, we can begin to ascribe glory and strength to God rather than to our own accomplishment.
But ultimately the psalmist makes it clear that this new song requires our own words and acts of praise and thanksgiving. The psalmist gives us some surprising images of what this might look like. The heavens will be glad, and the earth itself will rejoice. The sea will roar, and all that fills it will join in. The field will cry out, and everything in it will rise up with praise. And even all the trees of the forest will sing for joy. Our opening hymn today (“Earth and All Stars”) gave us some more modern images of the things that might sing a new song to the Lord: not just “earth and all stars” but also “steel and machines… limestone and beams,” “classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes,” even “knowledge and truth, loud sounding wisdom” should cry out with a new song.
Joining all the elements of creation, new and old, using these songs as our model, we are called to sing a new song of praise for our own time and place, echoing the rejoicing of the past while offering our own new song that speaks to our own experience of God’s wonder in our world and the real joy that we find from God. It picks up on the voices of the centuries to share a new word for this time and place. It approaches the strangeness and wonder of our changing times with honesty and hope. And it gives others a space to join in and offer their own words of praise.
This call to sing a new song rings more loudly in my ears than usual today. After worship this morning, following some snacks and birthday celebrations, we will hear a report from our congregational consultant Bill Weisenbach. After three months of research into our neighborhood, conversations with us, and prayerful consideration, Bill will tell us a bit about what he has learned. I’ll leave the major points to him, but I will go ahead and tell you that after reading his report and talking about it with Bill and the Session, I am more convinced than ever that we must heed the psalmist’s call to sing a new song in our life together here. Now I’m not at all suggesting that the solution to all our ills will come with a change in the music for our worship—in fact, I’m pretty confident that our music and style of worship is the least of our problems! When I say that we must sing a new song, I mean that I am deeply convinced that we must find a new way to live out and give voice to the life we share in this place that is sustainable for the long term and has meaning in 2013 and beyond. We need a new song for this new time.
Like Psalm 96, the new song for the days ahead will certainly lift up pieces of what we have sung before. We do many things well in our life together, and we can find much inspiration for our new song in the practices that we already share, in our Reformed and Presbyterian heritage, in our broad and deep Christian roots, and in our universal life of faith. Yet our new song also must speak to these new times, to the declining resources in our midst, to our changing and increasingly diverse neighborhood where Protestantism is rare, to our own aging congregation, to all the challenges of life in 2013 that pull all of us in so many different directions, and most of all to the reality that people simply don’t think about religion and faith and spirituality in the same way that they did 142 years ago when this congregation first gathered to sing a new song to the Lord.
This new song will likely not be a single magic solution, a simple song sung in unison—like so much good music, it will have different parts, with some taking the lead and others adding rich harmonies to make it all the more beautiful. But learning a new song is not easy. As I’ve started singing in a choir regularly again over the past year, I’ve been reminded of how much time goes into preparing for a performance—and even into getting ready for the rehearsals! There will be a lot of steps involved in finding and learning this new song, and as you’ll hear later, I’m grateful that Bill and the Session both are committed to the process along the way. There will be some interesting explorations to help us find the right song to sing, some clashing chords and wrong notes as we learn it, and some challenging rehearsals as we work together to make it beautiful and sing it well. Even so, I am confident that this new song for us can be just as faithful if not more as the one that we know so well—and that we can find it and sing it more beautifully than we ever imagined.
So over the coming days I ask you to think about your new song. What new song of praise will you sing in the days ahead? What does our new song for this congregation need to look and sound like? What can you offer to this new song as we prepare to find it and start singing it together?
As we go into the days ahead, may God open our hearts and minds to the new song emerging among us, may God guide us as we learn its words and explore its new harmonies, and may God strengthen our voices for these new ways of praise as we journey through the days ahead until we sing a new song to the Lord forever and ever. Lord, come quickly! Amen.