Sermon notes 05-09-21   Old Songs Newly Sung

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 worked salvation for him.

2  The Lord has made known his salvation;

he has revealed his righteousness in the sight

of the nations.

3  He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness

to the house of Israel.

All the ends of the earth have seen

the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

5  Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,

with the lyre and the sound of melody!

6  With trumpets and the sound of the horn

make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

the world and those who dwell in it!

8  Let the rivers clap their hands;

let the hills sing for joy together

9  before the Lord, for he comes

to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness,

and the peoples with equity.

There is cause for great joy this morning as we are able to gather together for our beach service for the first time in twenty months.  We are able to be back here worshipping together in this beautiful place because all indications are that the pandemic is coming to an end, and we seem surely to be coming out of the long season of fear and sadness and darkness and death and loneliness and isolation.  We are back here together in this beautiful location where we can hear the sea roar and witness the majesty of God’s creation. We see and feel the glorious sunshine and the gentle breeze, and we might find ourselves feeling glad to be alive, and to respond by joyfully praising God for his goodness and steadfast love and faithfulness.   That’s why we began by singing “Joy to the World.”  We sang an old song in a new way.

I am guessing that for more than a few of us, today is the first time we have sung “Joy to the World” outside the season of Christmas.  We sang (are singing) “Joy to the World” today because our Psalm for this week is Psalm 98.  Joy to the World was written by Isaac Watts in 1719, and the background and inspiration for Isaac Watts’ famous carol is Psalm 98.  You might think it’s weird to sing a Christmas carol in May, but you may also notice that there is no mention in Joy to the World of the nativity of our Lord: no manger, no shepherds, no wise men, no Mary or Joseph or baby Jesus.  Many people believe that Isaac Watts wrote “Joy to the World” about not the first advent of Jesus at his nativity, but about his second advent when our Lord will come to judge the earth and establish his righteous kingdom.

I’ll come back to Psalm 98 and its connection to Joy to the World in a moment, but first I want to say a word about the Psalms in general. The Psalms are a collection of 150 writings located right in the middle of the Bible that can be called poems or prayers or praise songs.   For Christians and for Jews, the Psalms contain some of the best-loved passages in all of Scripture.  They express a wide variety of emotions and feelings, including love and adoration for God, sorrow for sin, desperate crying out to God, devotion to God’s word and commands, thankfulness for God’s care, and confidence in the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes for the world.  The word “psalm” actually means song, and the Hebrew name for the book of Psalms is Tehillim, which means “praise.”

Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!

Those are the opening lines of Psalm 98, a psalm that celebrates God’s kingship over all creation, his work of salvation that he has made known to all the nations, and his steadfast love and faithfulness toward everything that he created.  The psalm calls for all of the material creation to join all of humanity in jubilant celebration of the establishment of God’s righteous kingdom.

In verse 4 of Psalm 98 we read the words, Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

That description of all the earth breaking out into joyful singing is where the title for “Joy to the World!” comes from.   But did you ever wonder about that bit in Joy to the World about “heaven and nature” singing?  That’s also derived directly from Psalm 98.  In the last three verses, Psalm 98 declares:

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

the world and those who dwell in it!

8  Let the rivers clap their hands;

let the hills sing for joy together

9  before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.

The psalm writer calls for the sea, along with all the creatures that inhabit it; the world, along with all of its inhabitants; and even the rivers and mountains, to sing a joyful song in response to the coming of the Lord.  Isaac Watts interpreted that imagery with his words, Fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.

It may seem strange to think of inanimate objects praising God, but Psalm 98 is not the only place in the Bible that describes the natural world praising its Creator.  The Scriptures contain numerous references to all of creation engaging in praising God.

Revelation 5:13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

Psalm 148: 7 Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!
9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!

11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and maidens together, old men and children!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.

Then we have the words of Jesus himself, who responded to the Pharisees demands that he silence the praises of his disciples by saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

And of course, there are the words from Isaiah 55:12 that it is our tradition at Faith Harbor to sing at the close of all of our worship services:

“For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

We may not understand how, or even accept that it is true, but The Bible affirms repeatedly that nature does, in fact, offer praise to its Maker.

The Bible also repeatedly invites all of creation to join together in singing a new song.  Again we have the words in the first verse of Psalm 98,

Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!

We also have:

Ps. 33:3 – Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to him a new song.

Ps. 40:3 – He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

Ps. 96:1 – Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Ps 144:9 – I will sing a new song to you, O God.

Ps. 149:1 – Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song.

Isa. 42:10 – Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth.

Rev. 5:9 – The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints, and they sang a new song.

Rev. 14:3 – And they were singing a new song before the throne.

What are we to make of these repeated invitations to sing a new song?

In every case the new songs are songs of praise to the Lord.  And it seems to me that these songs praise God for the attributes that God has always had: his steadfast love, his faithfulness, his majesty, his glory, his justice, his righteousness, his goodness.  These are not new attributes of God; they describe who God has always been.  So in a sense when the Bible says we are to sing new songs of praise to God, they are actually old songs sung in new ways, in new circumstances and situations, or perhaps with a renewed or reawakened awareness of who God is and what God has done.

Friends, as we think and speak about joyfully praising God, it is important for us to acknowledge that not everyone is feeling joyful this morning.  For some of us, today is a hard day, a sad day.  For some of us, including myself, this is the first Mother’s Day without our mothers.  Others find Mother’s Day to be sad for other reasons, perhaps because they have not been able to be a mother themselves, or because their relationship with their mother was or is less than fulfilling.

And of course, there are many other reasons why some of us might not be feeling joyful today.  We might be facing illness, financial setbacks, depression, addiction, marital difficulties, troubled children, legal problems, grief, loneliness: these are just a few examples of the trials and tribulations that can make life feel devoid of joy.   We live in a fallen world.  Even the very creation that the Bible calls to sing praises to God, is fallen.  This beautiful ocean is full of danger, there are things out there that can hurt or kill us.  The natural world is rife with violence and death and decay.  These are hardly things that make us want to sing songs of joy.

But here is the good news: Even though appearances might lead us to think otherwise, we know that in the end, God wins.  Evil will be defeated.  Everything wrong will be made right.  Everything sad will come untrue.  Everything bad thing that has happened will unhappen, will be undone, will be made good.  All of creation will be redeemed.  All of creation will rejoice and praise God together.

Isaiah 11:6-9

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

It is those words of hope that enable us to sing.  Singing under trying circumstances is not easy.    We are in the sixth Sunday of the season of Easter, and the story of Easter is a reminder that things are never over with God.  No matter how dismal and bleak things appear, we are invited to remember God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  And we can sing not because everything is going well, but because we know how the story ends.  The song we sing is not a new song, but each new situation gives the old songs new meaning.

We can sing the old songs of God’s love and faithfulness in new ways.  We sing to keep alive our hope that God reigns on His throne.  We sing not because we are necessarily happy, but because we have a God who loves us, who cares about our circumstances and who acts on our behalf.   Friends, no matter what changes we go through in life, we can trust that God’s grace, mercy and faithfulness never change.  No matter what circumstances and situations we might find ourselves in, our God continues to do marvelous things.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.