Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Sing a New Song – Sing Liberation
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2023
Exodus 15:1-21; Ephesians 5:15-20
We begin our new Follow Theme – Sing a New Song – with an old song of liberation from Exodus 15. Set in the context of the Hebrew slaves being delivered by the hand of God from generations of slavery in Egypt, “The Song of the Sea”, as it has been called, is a battle hymn. This is a hymn extolling what God has done, recounting the wondrous ordeal at the Sea of Reeds, when the Hebrews were delivered across on dry land, and the Egyptian army was destroyed.
First from the mouth of Moses, then from his sister Miriam, great thanksgiving is offered to God in is this salvation story, spilling over into dancing with tambourines. This great song of liberation has connected people of faith across the generations. “Wade in the Water”, that great African American spiritual, was sung with the Exodus story ringing in the ears of escaped slaves as they waded in the water of creeks trying to lose the scent of the hound dogs that pursued them.
The people of Ukraine might be able to relate to this song of liberation, expressing that only through resources beyond their own will they be able to toss the great bear of Russia back across the border.
Hear the Word of God from Exodus 15:1-21
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’ You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them. “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. The peoples heard, they trembled; pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed; trembling seized the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away. Terror and dread fell upon them; by the might of your arm, they became still as a stone until your people, O Lord, passed by, until the people whom you acquired passed by. You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established. The Lord will reign forever and ever.”
When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.
And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Singing songs of fatih, whether songs praise, of liberation, of heartfelt prayer, has always been an important part of corporate Christian worship. In Matthew 26 and in Mark 14, we read about the disciples singing the Passover hymn from the psalms before going out to Gethsemane, not fully knowing what they were about to face.
In Acts 16, we find Paul and Silas in shackles in Philippi, singing their hearts out, and warming the heart of their fellow prisoners, and of the jailer and his family. Early the next morning, after the earthquake, the jailer and his whole family present themselves for baptism by Paul.
In our New Testament text for today, Paul is encouraging the church members of Ephesus to make the most of their days, to sing together and make melody to the Lord, instead of acting foolishly or getting drunk on their dinner wine.
Hear the Word of God from Ephesians 5:15-20
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 wine, for that is 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.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Music is powerful.
Like a picture that is worth a thousand words, so a beautiful organ prelude, or a rousing anthem sung by the choir or a lilting hymn shared in worship are worth so much more than a thousand words.
Shared, sung music can create memories that last a lifetime. I shared an article with Emily and Tully the other day about sealing the memories we are making with our children.
The toddler years are so sweet, and yet they go by so fast. The article was encouraging parents to pause in the midst of a special moment, to take note of one’s emotional response to what is happening, to create a mental image of the event, so that it may become locked in ones’ reservoirs.
This is why so many people take a picture with their phone when they see or experience something special. They want to hang onto it; they want to share the feeling and return to it themselves one day.
Songs are like that.
Just hearing a few bars of a song can transport us to another place and time, another season of life. Hearing that old song may renew in us a strong emotion felt at the time. Songs can help carry us through our joys and sorrows. They become part of the script of our lives.
Being a church kid, a preacher’s kid, no less, hymns of the church became part of the script of my life, and I am eternally grateful. Especially after serving in the church these many years, countless hymns tunes and lyrics are stored up here, ready at a moment’s notice to be sung in the car or in the shower.
Many of them may speak to a present need or current feeling. Many of them can be offered as a prayer of supplication or an offering of praise. Sometime in the summer of 1973 or so, my home church had a hymn sing in the fellowship hall. I was sitting with some other elementary aged kids on the stairs off to the side as the adults were making hymn requests.
For some reason unknown to me, at the next pause in the music, I piped up from the peanut gallery: “Joy to the World”. Catching my dad off guard, who was he said OK. Joy to the World was not originally considered a Christmas hymn. It is appropriate to sing any time of the year. Hymn # 272 (?) everyone.
Hymns have been such an important part of our Christian education, our faith formation. We learn key aspects of our theology from hymns; from our earliest days we learn what to think and feel about God.
Many of you will remember learning “Jesus Loves Me” as a child. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”
In our Wednesday class, someone spoke of the power of those old songs to form our perspectives on ourselves and on God’s world. A few generations of Sunday School children learned the following song, which may or may not be politically correct today in its language, but it sure was effective in teaching a biblical truth.
“Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
In a divided and fearful world, the Church must reclaim its critical role in teaching and forming a biblical faith for the coming generations.
The music of the youth group at my home church in Marietta was important to me. We would sing on some Sunday nights and always on retreats. When I was a freshman, Allison Per-Lee, whom many of you know, would play her guitar and lead us in singing. I will never forget these lyrics:
“Have you seen Jesus, my Lord? He’s here in plain view. Take a look, open your eyes. He’ll show it to you.”
This is part of my life script.
Kristian Bush of Sugarland spoke at a Men’s Breakfast here at DPC some years ago. He spoke to us about the time that his band was really hitting it big, filling up large venues. He spoke about feeling the weight of responsibility when he realized that he was writing songs which would become the musical script for a generation.
We all have music that is part of our life script, part of who we are. In high school, I remember riding around in Charles’ Matthews Chevy Blazer with a group of high school friends, singing at the top of our voices: “More Than a Feeling” by the classic rock band Boston.
When I worked in Yellowstone Park, I remember riding around singing songs of the group Alabama
In the 1980’s, after moving around the dance floor to popular songs from Prince and Michael Jackson, some of us would sit on the back porch of the fraternity house and sing songs like “Brown Eyed Girl”. Sha, la, la, la, la, lala, la, latida…latida
Those songs are part of my life script. I took a course during my college years on classical music, and for years my box of cassette tapes, with contemporary bands like REM and U2, and older bands like Squeeze and James Taylor, was also one special tape labeled “The Best of Bach”.
That beautiful song, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, often played at weddings, will forever remind me of my own wedding day. And every time I sing that old favorite hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, I am back to standing at the front of my home church, in front of my dad and next to Melanie’s dad, with her still holding his arm at the beginning of our wedding service.
We were all so excited and giggly that we couldn’t hardly sing the song!
In my late 20’s, at youth pastor conferences, my friend Jim Morgan would sit at the piano and a group of us would sing songs for what seemed like hours. Jim knew all the words and tunes by heart to almost anything we requested. And we would often end the night with a rousing, a capella version of the one-of-a-kind Eagles song – “Seven Bridges Road”. “There are stars in the southern sky… Southward as you go…There is moonlight and moss in the trees… Down the seven bridges road…”
Songs and hymns become part of our life script, forming our thoughts, energizing our emotions, comforting our hurts, increasing our joys, challenging our assumptions.
And it matters. It matters what we sing and listen to everyday. Singing, it seems has always been a powerful and formative element in the daily lives and the worship of human beings.
Often on Sunday mornings, I’ll tell Alexa to play songs by Lauren Daigle. Jody and Ed Sauls can tell you about Lauren. Their son is one of her band members. She mixes contemporary Christian lyrics into powerful, funky, soft rock ballads, with a bit of southern Louisiana zydeco mixed in. Her song, “I Will Trust, I will trust, I will trust in You”, among others, has become a more recent part of my life script.
There is an “urban legend”, so to speak, that a number of our favorite hymn tunes came from German or English pub songs. While many scholars of church music may discount the urban legend, you may remember the tune Greensleeves, which many of us know better as “What Child Is This”. (HUM Greensleeves slowly and deliberately…) It is not beyond the realm of possibility that one day we will have a new hymn that originated in one of the stadiums English Premier League, or even in one of the Major League Soccer stadiums.
Soccer fans love to sing together in unison. It’s kind of a thing. Thus far, I’m not aware of any of those tunes that would be worthy of Matt’s organ, but hey, it could happen.
The Hebrew word shir, root for sing, song, singer, occurs 180 times in the Old Testament Three of the 150 psalms begin with Sing a New Song. The word Selah found in many psalms most likely refers as a reference to a musical refrain.
Books of the Bible include many songs within their chapters, including the Song of Hannah, The Song of Miriam, The Song of Mary, The Song of Zechariah, as well as the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2.
This new hymn book is great, because it includes most of the old favorites. Several years ago, when we had lost several of our dear members and friends of this church within a few weeks of each other, I was grieving. Our whole congregation was grieving. On one of those Sundays, we sang “Amazing Grace” in worship, and tears came to my eyes as I gazed upon the faces of you beautiful people, remembering the ones we had already lost and noticing their empty places in the pews.
And for those of you who know the story behind Amazing Grace, the conversion story of John Newton, former slave ship captain who became an abolitionist, the hymn becomes all the more meaningful.
Our relatively new hymbook also include many new hymns. John Bell, a contemporary Scottish composer, has 18 of the newer hymns in this hymnbook. When we were in Scotland, I picked up a hymnbook in a chapel in St Andrews and discovered that John Bell had 35 or so hymns in the Scottish hymnbook.
One of my new favorites is his hymn: “Take O take me as I am. Summon up what I shall be. Set your seal upon my heart, and live in me.”
Our favorite hymns and songs will reveal something about who we are, about who we aspire to be, about whom we imagine God to be. Music, like many art forms, will elicit a range of emotions. Songs will express more powerfully what words alone cannot say. And songs have a way of weaving together the complexities and uncertainties of life. Lyrics of songs have a way of raising difficult questions or pointing towards inconsistencies.
Consider the angry anti-war protest songs of the 1960’s or the rap songs of recent decades, full of intense language, that cry out against police violence and the conditions of the poor. There will be a peaceful protest today on the square at 5pm for Tyre Nichols, regarding the recent police violence tragedy in Memphis. The mood of the music chosen to accompany that gathering will be important.
Ultimately, the Exodus 15 hymn is about the power of God, the power of God to deliver the Hebrews, to overthrow the oppressor, to destroy the Egyptian army, drowning the horse and the rider in the raging sea. While the deliverance of Hebrew slaves from Egypt has long been an inspiration to the Church, the drowning of the Egyptian horses and riders has made many uncomfortable.
When we sing our songs of faith, or any songs for that matter, it is important to reflect on the lyrics, to realize what we are singing and how we are forming the life perspectives of all who will sing that song in the future.
Consider some of the songs that have become an important part of your journey of faith. For choir members, a special anthem, or something from The Messiah or a requiem will stick with you all your days. Your homework this week will be to listen to some of those songs that have had an impact on your life.
They may be silly dance songs that make you smile, or a Shostakovich’s symphony that makes you cry, or a favorite hymn that reminds you of some special person or of a certain season in life.
I’ll close today with a little ditty I wrote in the car years ago on the way to visiting in the hospital. In South Carolina. The closest hospital was nearly a half hour away, and so I often had time for music in the car.
This little song I wrote became part of my life script as well. “I love the Lord my God, Christ is my strength forever, From age to age, the Spirit’s the One who loves and adores.”
Christ, my hope, my strength, my shield. Christ is the one to whom I yield – my loves and aims, my hopes and fears, my life, my family, my all. Refrain
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church