Resurrection Lutheran Church, St Catharines
Singing about Fearful Things
Rev. Kurt Lantz Easter 5 Psalm 66:1-8
May 07, 2023 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Cathareins, ON
Dear people of the earth,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the aspects of the one-year series of readings that we are now following is the Latin naming of some of the Sundays based on the opening words of their Introits. I included some of them in brackets in the service inserts, but I didn’t remember all of them. We had a few in the Advent Season: The First Sunday in Advent was Ad Te Levavi (I lift up to You); and the Third Sunday Gaudete (Rejoice). These names appeared again during Lent: Invocabit (He calls) for the First Sunday in Lent; Reminiscere (Remember) for the Second; Oculi (My eyes) for the Third, and so on. But I missed my favourite Latin title on the Second Sunday of Easter: Quasimodo Geniti (Like newborn infants), made famous in the Book and movie as the name of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” orphaned on the steps of the cathedral on the Second Sunday of Easter. Last Sunday was Jubilate (Shout for joy) and this Sunday is Cantate (Sing).
In the congregation where I grew up we would summon all of the musicians and singers, even those who didn’t regularly play in the church band or sing in the church choirs, to produce a Cantata to be performed around this Sunday. A cantata is like a symphony for a choir. There are several different musical movements joined together into one extended composition. Where I grew up we took several weeks to rehearse and put together a pre-written cantata to perform at this time of year. Somehow, the 17th century Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, was able to write, rehearse, and have the choir perform a cantata every Sunday of the year.
In some corners, the Lutheran Church has been known as the singing church. Not only do we sing hymns and special choral compositions, we sing almost everything on Sunday mornings. Some of it comes easy and other parts are more difficult. Today’s Psalm calls upon all the earth to shout for joy, sing, and praise the glorious name of God. It is a way of elevating our words to reflect the glory of something out of this world. In the Book of Revelation John tells us about all of the singing going on in the presence of God.
This does not come easy to people on earth. We live in a generation where there isn’t all that much singing. It is kind of left to the professionals. Even the national anthem is not universally sung by the entire assembly at sporing events or at civic ceremonies. A lot of people don’t join in. And it is not because they don’t know the words, old or new, French or English. For even the good old “Happy Birthday” song is mostly mumbled in an awkward manner when we force it to be sung in what is supposed to be a joyful party atmosphere.
The Psalms are filled with exhortations to sing and today’s opening verses tell us three times: “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of His name; give to Him glorious praise” (Psalm 66:1-2). And just a few verses later, three times again, “All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to Your name” (v. 4). And although we are using less than half of the entire Psalm today, we ended with: “Bless our God, O peoples; let the sound of His praise be heard” (v. 8).
You may find it a little bit awkward to sing. Perhaps you don’t have confidence in your voice. Perhaps you are not very skilled, or just kind of a quiet person. That is okay. Lutherans are not known for being boisterous in the Divine Service, and yet we “sing with all the people of God, and join in the hymn of all creation.” “This Is the Feast” (LSB 155) is taken from the song that the Apostle John heard angels and elders and living creatures and saints singing in the Revelation of the heavenly throne room (Revelation 3). It is best to get used to singing now before we get there.
But we sing some awfully strange songs, some with ten stanzas and some with fearful topics. Even that song we sing every week in Easter about the Lamb that was slain. At other times we sing with Simeon “Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace” (Nunc Dimittis, LSB 165), thanking God that he can now die. The Canadian singer, Gordon Lightfoot, died last week whose most famous song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is about the sinking of a ship and the death of all who aboard. “And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters... In a rustic old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral. The church bell chimed ‘til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976).
In church we sing about fearful things on the waters, too. Many of the Psalms reference the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea, when Pharoah’s army was drowned and the dead bodies washed up on the shore (more than 29 dead, I am sure). We sing about these fearful doings of God whereby He brings utter destruction and decimation upon the enemies of His people. We sing about the fearful facts of our own deliverance from bondage to sin in a hymn exhorting “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (LSB 556): “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay; Death brooded darkly o’er me. Sin was my torment night and day; In sin my mother bore me. But daily deeper still I fell; My life became a living hell, So firmly sin possessed me... My fears increased till sheer despair Left only death to be my share; The pangs of hell I suffered” (sts. 2, 3).
During Easter we sing about the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead and it, too, was a fearful thing. The women who went to the tomb early returned so afraid that at first they didn’t say anything to anyone (Mark 16:8). The guards who were to watch the tomb so that no one would steal the body of Jesus “trembled and became like dead men” (Matthew 28:4). When Jesus Himself came to the disciples in the upper room “they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:37). The way that supernatural events are depicted in television and movies these days, I think we have lost sight of how fearful a resurrection actually is even in the glorious resurrection of Jesus in His uncorrupted body. It is fearful and glorious and worthy of singing praise to Him.
Jesus knew that His death and resurrection would be a fearful thing that would fill His disciples with sorrow. He knew that sorrow and fear would come upon them again when He would ascend into heaven. So He promised them that He would send them a Helper, someone to comfort them in their sorrow and fear (John 16:7). He promised to send His Holy Spirit who would continue to speak to His disciples about the victory that was theirs in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
It is understandable that these mighty and awesome acts of God are fearful to His enemies. All of the nations were affected by the news that God had drowned Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. For the most part, they didn’t interfere with the hundreds of thousands of the children of Israel making their way through the wilderness. Forty years later there were some who tried to resist their progress but God again acted in awesome ways that struck fear into Israel’s enemies. Again the people of God passed through water as they crossed the Jordan River on foot (Joshua 3) and defeated the mighty walled city of Jericho (Joshua 6) and any other that resisted their settlement into the land God had promised to them. Some, like the inhabitants of Gibeon, came cringing and gave their oath to be loyal servants of God’s people if they would be spared (Joshua 9).
The Good News of Jesus and His resurrection is still a fearful thing that we sing about, because it continues not only to promise us victory over sin, death and the grave; it also promises the utter defeat, destruction, and decimation of God’s enemies, of the enemies of His people, our enemies. And so the Holy Spirit who comes to comfort us in our sorrow and fear also comes to convict our enemies. His coming convicts the world of its guilt. “He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).
The Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin because they do not believe they have sins and certainly they do not believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection as the payment for their sins. Although the Holy Spirit has convicted us also, so that we acknowledge that we are sinners, He has also brought us to believe that God forgives our sins because of the death and resurrection of His Son, and with sins forgiven we are not convicted for them.
The Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning righteousness because they believe that they are righteous on their own merit. But the fact that Jesus Christ is the only one who has risen from the dead and been exalted to the right hand of God the Father shows that He only is righteous and no one else is apart from Him. Since we are united to Him through our Baptism, the Holy Spirit testifies to us that we are covered by the righteousness of Christ and we do not depend on a false righteousness that the world tries to cling to so desperately.
The Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning judgment because the devil has been judged and they have thrown their lot in with him. Through our Baptism we have renounced the devil and been released from his clutches. Like the children of Israel who passed through the Red Sea and crossed the Jordan River on foot, we have passed through the waters of our Baptism to be released from captivity under the devil to live a new life in Christ. We will be where He is; and they shall be where their judged master is destined to go.
It is the Helper, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit who gives voice to our songs. He was promised to the disciples on the night when Jesus was betrayed. He was given to them to replace their sorrow with joy and to give them a voice to proclaim the glorious resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This same Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us in our Baptism, not just to point us to joy in our times of sorrow, but also that we might believe, confess, and sing the mighty, fearful, awesome acts that God has done for us.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.