Music has the power to stir our souls and enliven our hearts and minds. Whenever Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus is played or sung, nearly everyone stands. They may even join in singing the chorus. It happened just the other day, when Pat concluded his recital with this very piece.
Why do we do this? Is it just habit or expectation? Or is it because this piece of music is so inspiring that we cannot take it in sitting down? What is important to point out is that the Hallelujah Chorus, like Psalm 96, calls forth from us, a declaration that God is sovereign, not just over our personal lives, but as the Psalmist declares, over “all the earth.” And so we sing:
“Hallelujah For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, hallelujah”
And then, we proclaim:
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord,And of His Christ, and of His Christ;And He shall reign for ever and ever . . .“Hallelujah For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, hallelujah”
In this song of praise, we hear echoes of the biblical declarations of God’s reign, declarations like the one found in another ancient hymn, one that Paul included in his letter to the Philippians. This hymn declares that the one who emptied himself of glory has been raised up by God,
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
I don’t know what instrumentation Paul imagined for his hymn, but I expect it carried a sense similar to that of the Hallelujah Chorus and the 96th Psalm. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if our songs are accompanied by mighty organs, simple guitars, or even no accompaniment at all. What matters is what comes forth from the heart as a declaration of allegiance, thanksgiving, and praise.
The 96th Psalm calls for us to sing to God a new song. The Psalmist invites us to join with the whole of creation in singing the praises of God, who is our creator. It is by classification an enthronement psalm, which acknowledges the reign of God, and in this case also declares the good news that God is at work bringing salvation, healing, wholeness, and hope to a world that is fragmented and broken. It evokes from us visions of God’s splendor, which is reflected in the beauty of God’s creation. And then, it closes by offering us promises of stability and justice.
1. Affirming God’s Glory and Greatness
And so, at the invitation of the Psalmist, we come before the throne of God, singing a new song that declares before all the creation God’s glory and greatness. In doing this we affirm that God transcends our boundaries and our lives. God is present with us and among us and even within us through the Spirit, but we are not God. Karl Barth speaks of God as being “wholly Other.” That may or may not be sufficient definition of God’s being, but it is a reminder that when approach God, we stand upon holy ground.
When Moses went to the mountain to receive instructions for God’s people, God reminded him that he stood on sacred ground and that he should take off his shoes. Here in this Psalm, we’re directed to:
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;bring an offering, and come into his courts. (Vs. 7-8).
Come into God’s presence, bringing with you both words of praise that affirm God’s greatness, and bring signs of your devotion, offerings that affirm your allegiance to the one who sitteth on the throne of heaven.
2. Enjoying God’s Beauty and Splendor
Even as the Psalmist invites us to kneel before the Lord our Maker, the writer declares that “honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary,” and then invites us to worship God “in holy splendor.” This is an invitation to enjoy the beauty and splendor that is reflected in God’s creation.
Consider the wondrous beauty of God’s creation, whether it’s the dunes along Lake Michigan, the deep blue waters of Crater Lake, or the majesty that is Mount Shasta. Each of us can name a place that is so beautiful that we can’t do anything except stand or kneel in awe. There are other expressions of God’s splendor that come from within us, as we are invited to co-create with God things of beauty and grace. This invitation is written into our very being, for as Genesis reminds us, we have been created in the image of God. And so, it is our calling to bring forth beauty and splendor in the world. It might be music, such as we see displayed by the choir or the organ. It might be a piece of art or a poem.
N.T. Wright speaks of humankind being the reflection of God’s “wise, creative, loving presence and power.” God is enlisting us, in our very creation, “to act as his stewards in the project of creation.” Therefore, Wright states that:
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in this world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. (Surprised by Hope, Harper One, 2008, pp. 207-208).
We speak of ourselves as being a missional church. Therefore, as we create beauty we express God’s mission by helping create a better world, a world in which God’s name is honored and praised because there is joy and there is hope.
3. Experiencing Stability and Judgment
As we reach the closing stanzas of this great Psalm, a Psalm that directs us to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation, we hear words about judgment and stability. As we’ve been learning in the Wednesday studies, salvation isn’t about being whisked away from this world by God. Instead, God’s work of salvation is about making the world whole, and as we experience this wholeness – not perfectly of course – we have the opportunity to participate in God’s work of healing that which is broken. It is, to quote Paul, our participation as ambassadors of reconciliation, even as God, in Christ, is reconciling us to God’s self, so that we might experience the new creation (2 Cor. 5:16-21). Salvation has a partner, and that partner is judgment. Now, in our study, we’ve also been learning that God’s judgment and justice aren’t about punishment and condemnation. Although, God separates that which is good and honorable from that which is evil and dishonorable, God is not doing this in order to punish or condemn. God’s judgment is designed to make things right so that there might be peace and good will on earth as in heaven. The Psalmist declares that God will come to judge the earth in righteousness and truth. If we trust that God is not just fair, but gracious and merciful and loving, then we need not fear God’s justice. Instead, we can find in this message a word of hope, for God is not abandoning us or this world, but God instead is seeking to make things new.
Even as God promises to come and judge with righteousness and truth, we also hear a promise of stability. The Psalmist declares that the “World is firmly established and shall never be moved.” Now, that doesn’t mean that the earth won’t experience quakes or other cataclysms. I suppose it’s even possible that California could break off and fall into the sea, making Las Vegas a beach town. Rather than hearing this in a geological sense, perhaps we should hear it in the context of living in a mobile culture. It is an invitation to put our roots down into God’s presence and entrusting our lives to the care of God. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes of “the wisdom of stability,” and speaks of stability as being “a commitment to trust God not in an ideal world, but in the battered and bruised world we know. If real life with God can happen anywhere at all, then it can happen here among the people whose troubles are already evident to us.” (The Wisdom of Stability, Paraclete, 2010, p. 24).
With this promise of stability as our anchor in this world, may we join together with the seas and the fields and the forests, and sing for joy before the Lord, declaring that God is glorious and great. Yes, let us sing: “To God be the glory, great things he hath done!”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 30, 2010