January 21, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:30 in the audio file.
Or, Making Joyful Noise Because the Days Are Evil
Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to sing when they congregate. This isn’t a sermon about how singing doesn’t matter, but I still love pointing out that observation to us “Bible people.” There are examples of singing and there are discussions about singing, but the closest to an imperative is in James 5 concerning happy Christians. “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (James 5:13). Note, though, that is an individual not a corporate response.
It’s reasonable to believe that singing didn’t require a command because singing was assumed. Men and women and children sing. It seems to be part of our image-bearing disposition. We like music and melody and rhythm. The first believers in the New Testament were Jewish believers, and Jews were singers. They were commanded over and over again in the Psalms to sing and praise and make a joyful noise. A song with a certain tune and learned lyrics allows and moves the whole assembly to worship in gladness. These early church worshippers were tuned to worship in song and would have no reason to stop.
The observation that NT saints regularly sang still isn’t as binding as an imperative for the church to sing; it’s an assumption. But perhaps even more consequential than a command, a culture of singing is an argument of light in a world of darkness. Stated differently, full-hearted, melodious, Spiritual singing is (at least one way of) standing against the schemes of the devil.
We’ve been considering our liturgy for the last few Sundays. Our worship is a service of sacrifices; we offer ourselves in Christ’s offering to the Father. Christ Himself fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices such as the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offering, and our confession, consecration, and communion remind us of what He fulfilled. In a similar way, the pattern of our liturgy reminds us of the pattern of the gospel. God calls men everywhere to worship Him, to repent and receive forgiveness for their sins, to devote their lives in obedience to Him, to share fellowship with Him and each other, and to represent Him in their work. Every Sunday, from start to finish, we are learning again what God wants with us.
God’s Word is an explicit part of all the pieces of our service. Prayer is an explicit part of all the pieces of our service except for the commissioning, though the pronouncement of blessing is a prayerful expectation for God to give His blessing. Another element that is part of all the pieces of our service except for the commissioning is worship in song. I addressed singing as part of our liturgical opportunity in the message “Sing and Shout” in 2012 and it has been on my heart to address it again.
Some people talk as if singing is worship, not recognizing that prayer and preaching and communion are also ways that we worship. Some people choose what church to attend based on the singing, usually with more concern about the style of songs (or the type of instrumentation) and less about the participation (or lack thereof) of the congregation. Some people apparently would rather listen to a (good or entertaining) performance of singing rather than sing themselves. Some people are at the heights of their theological discerning powers during singing, using their eagle-eyes to spot the next heretical line (which powers are not always so vigilantly applied elsewhere in their week). Some sing loudly though they don’t know what they’re doing, some know exactly what they’re doing but wouldn’t ever sing loudly. Some don’t like certain instruments, some don’t like certain beats, some don’t like certain arrangements, some don’t like anything, everyone has preferences.
More than that, everyone has personal responsibility to sing, to sing with their whole hearts, and to sing together. Singing is not only one of the best uses of our time together in corporate worship, it is one of the best uses of our time on earth. Singing is wise, singing is spiritual, singing is the standard in the kingdom of Christ and God.
There is a lot of talk about songs and singing in Ephesians 5:19. All by itself, though, there is no main verb in the verse. All the action in verse 19 is secondary, all the verbs are participles, all of it is a result, albeit a necessary result, of obeying the command in verse 18.
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.
There is a parallel passage in Colossians 3:16 where the results are similar but the command is to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” In Ephesians 5 it is necessary for us to be dominated by the Spirit. Just as wine takes over one’s perspective, the Spirit takes over and the result is not extreme indulgence in bodily pleasures but having a lyrical life.
The first result is how we talk: addressing one another, having conversations (so not just in the shower or in your car all by yourself), where we edify each other with song lyrics. Psalms would have been understood as psalms from the book of Psalms. Hymns and spiritual songs are hard to pin down. Paul couldn’t have had in mind our hymnbooks or song slides. But all are yours, right? If every preacher is yours (1 Corinthians 3:21, 22), then isn’t every praise song? That doesn’t mean they are all equal in every way, but it does mean that our default should be thankfulness and fat songbooks rather than disagreeableness and thin songbooks.
The second result is how we sing: singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. A person who is filled with the Spirit is a singing person. “Making melody” could be translated “psalming” (ψάλλοντες). The Lord is the audience, and out of the abundance of the heart the mouth sings.
The third result of being filled with the Spirit is giving thanks always and for everything (verse 20) and the fourth result is submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (verse 21), which cannot be disconnected from corporate responsibilities, like singing.
All of this is well and fine. Good even. But it is the context of the paragraph, and the frame of the chapter, that makes a Spirit-filled lyrical life so urgent and potent. We can work our way out from verses 18-19.
The will of God is for us to sing as Spirit-filled sons of God. Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (verse 17). What is the Lord’s will? Don’t we (claim to) want to know exactly this? What does the Lord want with me? His will is found in His Word, and in all of His Word, but there is not a wall between verse 17 and verse 18. His will is for us to be so Spirit-filled so that we spill over in song at one another and for the Lord.
This is His will, and this is wisdom. Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (verses 15-16). Here is the lifestyle, the “walk,” for Christians. Redeem the time, be smart with it, because the world is a dark place. These “evil days” are not introduced here, they’ve been the subject for most of the chapter. Sexual immorality and impurity and envious greed are all around (verse 3, and all mentioned again in verse 5). Those who practice these things are sons of disobedience (verse 6) and have “no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (verse 5). This is darkness, not light (verse 8), and it is unfruitful darkness (verse 11). We’re to “take no part” in them.
What are we supposed to do? When we live in a culture of darkness and ignorance and wastefulness, what makes us stand out? We give thanks (verse 4) and sing!
Work through it again. The days are evil, so walk wisely and make the best use of time by doing the Lord’s will which is being filled with His Spirit and singing! We counter the culture of darkness with a culture of singing.
Culture comes from worship. Henry Van Til was a theology professor who stressed that all cultures are externalized religion. Even our word “culture” is connected with the Latin word cultus which refers to the things and systems associated with worship. A Christian culture is a singing culture, and that will annoy the culture of unbelief and rebellion and death, or perhaps be used by God to attract unbelievers to Christ. Grendel and the Grinch hated the happy singing. We’ve got to sing in such a way to make others hate it.
Sometimes we’re the ones who act like we hate it, or we hate certain parts of it, or certain songs, or don’t like the expectation to sing now; “What if my heart isn’t ready?” We have more excuses than there are verses of “Just As I Am.”
We have been laboring very intentionally to cultivate a culture of singing; before we had a “noisy little worshippers training room” we’ve been trying to train noisy big worshippers. This is a deep-rooted desire for the elders in general, it is true for Jonathan in particular, it is true for myself as I think about the entirety of our liturgy. When TEC started I was leading singing a cappella off of lyrics printed on the back of the bulletin for a couple months. When one of the men offered to help lead some musicians to lead us all in singing I was excited. I also said we needed to do some work to figure out how to get the whole assembly better. Through reading and listening to lectures and thinking about the purpose of liturgy to meet with God and not just to get ready for the sermon, it seemed that we needed a lot of work.
The all-church choir practices have been great toward this end. Many of you have gladly struggled to learn parts and learn songs and learn Psalms, and not all of them are easy.
Not everything we sing is each person’s preference either (could it ever be in a Trinitarian world?). And what should we do when that happens? How should we respond when we don’t “like” a particular song, or a line in a song, or how the song is played? Or, drums, ever?
What is the way of the Spirit and what is the way of the world? When reading Ephesians 5 does it sound as if the Spirit-filled person is more fussy or more accommodating? What does “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” have to do with it?
I have not led singing in some time. I occasionally request a particular song to go along with a sermon, and I talk with Jonathan about certain principles and particulars every once in a while. But I do not choose the songs or manage who plays which instrument or that we have instruments or how the sound is equalized. And I do not always prefer how it goes.
And I hope you could never tell when that is the case, not because I’m faking, but because when it’s time to sing it’s time to sing to the Lord with all my heart. The singing is one of the few parts during a Sunday morning service when I have the opportunity to gladly submit myself to the leading of others, not because I don’t have responsibility but because of reverence for Christ. If I don’t “like” something, and if I can remember after the service, I might bring it up. There are songs we don’t sing anymore, and there are other songs we keep singing because Jonathan has made a good case for them.
For most of us, our temptation will be not be drunkenness in the Spirit but dry boredom. We will be lulled to sleep by our theological footnoting rather than singing and making melody to the Lord with our hearts.
Don’t wait to worship until things are right in the world. Make a joyful noise because the days are evil! This is counter cultural, establishing a Christ-honoring lyrical life. How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great, is our God.
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD!
According to one dictionary, harmony in a song is the “combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect.” Though it isn’t defined in the dictionary, harmony in a church is the combination of simultaneously serving members that makes the entire body grow and be built up in love. Sing the note you were given, but not just to show that you know how to forte. Sing the note you were given because the days are evil and for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5–6)