A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
14th January 2018
Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth
The majority of people probably like to listen to music in some form or another. Not everyone likes music. but most of us do. Most of us have styles of music that touch us deeply and others that leave us cold. Don’t ask me to take pleasure in rap music, because it doesn’t do anything for me. On the other hand, I don’t expect you to be touched by the sort of atonal contemporary classical music that I find often both challenging and moving. Each of us likes different styles of music.
That’s a good point to move into thinking about the importance of music, because I think one of the most important things we can acknowledge when we think about music is that it is created by God to bring us pleasure. If, as believers do, we accept that music is part of the rich tapestry of creation given to us by God, then the wonderful sense of pleasure music can bring us is right at the heart of its purpose. God has made music to communicate to us and it is the pleasurable side of music that we focus on. Of course, this has its dangers in church life, as we shall see, but let’s remember as the outset that music brings us wonderful experiences of pleasure and enjoyment – and that God has made it that way!
Of course, music can do other things to. Apart from bringing pleasure, the Bible has examples of people expressing love, of issuing challenge, of mediating healing, and of bringing glory to God (as we see in Psalm 96 which was read earlier). Many people will also testify that music has been an important factor in their coming to faith. For me, my experience of singing some of the choruses of the early 1980s, while at the same time being with people for whom these simple songs transported them to a place of wonder and adoration was a key moment in my early Christian journey. That journey came to fulfilment when I became a Christian at Holy Trinity, Norwich at a guest service when we were invited, if we wanted to give our lives to Christ, we were invited to stand and sing “O Jesus I have promised”, a hymn of personal dedication. For many today, especially for many Church musicians, music is a key factor in their coming to faith.
But as well as bringing glory to God music can be abused in churches as well. Any church musician will tell you that it is easy enough to play music in church in such a way that manipulate people’s emotions. It is possible to play or sing music in church in such a way that emotion will never be stirred. Music can be used to express evil (think of the Nazi marching songs). Music can be trivialised as well, providing meaningless background music and so-called muzak, which can cover up the truth with soothing and deceitful mood music, to mask pain and unhappiness.
So while music is God’s gift to us, like everything else in this world (and in the church) it can be used to give glory to God and to take glory from him, it can be used to build up the Body of Christ or it can be used to sow the seeds of disunity and conflict. All of this leads to an important insight: that we must always value, love and pray for those who provide music in church, because they have a great responsibility upon their shoulders. It’s not just that they do what they do to the best of their ability, but that they enable the rest of us to worship God wholeheartedly. Equally, for all those who play music in church, we must always help them to focus on God through the music rather than the music itself. Churches have been damaged by such tensions between performance and worship. We must pray for and value our musicians: we ask them by their ministry, to bring us to the heights of love, adoration and worship of our God.
Music, apart from being a gift of God, has a specific function in worship, particularly when it comes to sung worship – the singing of hymns and worship songs and the performance of anthems and other choral music. This special function of music is to enable us to express truths about God and to God in a deeper way that goes beyond the merely rational.
Words can affect both the mind and the heart – anyone who has read a powerful novel knows that. But when you add music to words, something even more powerful can occur. That’s the meaning behind a quote from St Augustine: “to sing is to pray twice”. The singing of the Gloria is a good example. When simply said, those words can seem two-dimensional and uninspiring. But when sung, especially to a good setting, we can be lifted and transported to greater joy and gladness in worship, to more gratitude to God. Music can amplify the words – that is music’s primary aim in worship.
Without doubt, the words of worship are more important than the music we sing them too, however. It is no use having the most wonderful tune to sing if the words mean nothing or are even untrue. This has become more of an issue in recent years, with the advent of some rather dodgy words in some of the newer worship songs, but it is equally true sometimes about older hymns as well. You won’t find me choosing I vow to thee, my country, for example, because it invites us to do something that Christians should never to – offer the love that asks no questions to our country. Equally, from the modern stable, I struggle with a line in In Christ alone, “Till on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” We should be aware of the dangers of either singing things that are either theologically dubious or make us say things to God that are not honest about ourselves. The words need to be true, even if the tune is nice.
But, and this is very important too, singing is an emotional thing. It enables us to say how we feel about God as well as what we know about him. Think of the difference between singing a hymn about God, such as “Immortal, invisible, God only wise” and a hymn to God, like “When I survey the wondrous cross”. Just as it is vital to sing truths about God, our personal and corporate faith commitment means we need to sing songs to God to. God exists and we can sing truths about him. But God is a personal God as well, so we need to sing songs to him too. This is where the modern worship song sometimes trumps the traditional hymn, because they are often personal in nature. Many people find these personal songs vital to their corporate worship, not to mention the musical style they come clothed in. Some of the Victorian hymns also come in personal terms.
The final point I want to make about the place of music in worship is about the importance of music in bringing the whole congregation, of fostering unity among God’s people. Beyond the church, community singing is recongised as an important way of binding people together. Within the church as well, bound together by God’s Spirit in the community of faith, singing together is a profound expression of unity and a way of deepening that unity. In one parish I’ve worked in this found a particular expression in the sharing of the peace when, having shared the peace with people, the whole church would stand in a circle and sing to each other a song like, “let there be love shared among us” or “we shall overcome”. It was a profound and spiritual unity we were celebrating.
But if music is meant to foster unity, it can so easily do the opposite. This is because of the tendency we have to make our own personal taste in music – as in so many other things – the arbiter of what is crucial in worship. One group likes worship songs, and they complain they don’t get them; another like traditional hymns, and they moan whenever something with a syncopated rhythm comes on the scene. You know the sort of things I mean. There are often massive arguments in church about music. In some churches these arguments are between the musicians and the congregation – one group see worship primarily as about their performance or their standard of performance, the other feel cheated of their opportunities to participate and feel like they are at a concert rather than a service. In other churches there are tensions between the musicians and the clergy, often over choice of musical repertoire. In the same parish where we all lovingly sang the Peace with one another matters came to a head at the offertory hymn one Sunday, when the organist dramatically resigned – by throwing his keys at the Vicar. The musician-clergy relationship can be a minefield. In other churches the tensions exist between different groups of musicians or different factions in the congregation – one lot are stereotyped as diehard traditionalists who have no personal faith, the other lot are stereotyped as those who want to sing trite and manipulative nursery rhymes with no musical value.
Here’s the rub: love is more important than music. If that’s not true for any of us, we are in danger of losing sight of what our faith is truly about. If the way we want music to be is more important than our love for our brothers and sisters who want it different, we are heading for a disaster. We need to have Christian love and respect for those whose musical tastes or abilities take them in a different direction to us. Love does not insist on it’s own way, writes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13
When it comes to any aspect of worship, and especially music, we need to remember that at heart our worship is a sacrifice of praise. This means that from time to time, if not every Sunday, we have to live with the fact that the diversity of church life means that we will have to sing, listen to or experience things that are expressed in musical language that we find hard to relate to. When this happens, love invites us to recall that even if we don’t like something or find it helpful, others in the congregation are likely to be being moved by it or are finding it a means to worship God. Two stories will highlight this: my friend Derek is a church musician schooled in the choir and organ tradition. He found it almost impossible to cope with the new style of music, but over time he realised that, apart from his musical snobbery, he could see that some members of the church were finding that style of music a way of expressing their devotion to God. In a book he has written he says this: “I had no business regarding these songs as ‘inferior’ – there are good and bad examples of this style, but there are in traditional church music too. So I started, unwillingly at first, using my gifts and applying them to this style of music. Over time, this has proved a blessing to me. The Holy Spirit is changing God’s people. Becoming aware of this, and learning to accept it, resulted in being changed myself in unlooked-for ways, which have brought great blessing. To God be the glory” he writes. Derek’s sacrifice brought blessing to others and, in time, to him.
The other story is from the other end. I have a friend who was Vicar of a church where the musical worship is led by a band. This group of musicians and singers have reached such a point of arrogance that they have come to believe that only what they do is true worship. To this end, when the long time of singing ends after about half an hour of the service, instead of sitting to listen to the scriptures and the sermon, they go and have coffee together until they’re needed. They have no sense of what they do as ministry. It is selfish, self-indulgent and a long way from the spirit of the Gospel. You can imagine the difficulty this presents for the church.
Let us give thanks to God for music, let us give thanks to God for our musicians and singers, let us give thanks to God for hymn writers, composers and others, ancient and modern, who use this wonderful gift of the Lord to bring us closer to him. Amen.