January 31, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 19:20 in the audio file.
Or, When Hearts Overflow with Thanksgiving
Series: Our Worship #5
I get the impression that most professing Christians in the United States make their decision about which church they prefer based on the style of songs sung during corporate services. The number of things we could pick at in such a practice would be like picking a long road rash scab; where do you want to start?
We probably ought to sympathize a bit more with our Christian brothers, and sisters, in such a mindset. Remember that most worship services offer very few ways for Christians to participate, and feel like or be convinced that it’s true, other than singing. Even in those churches where worship isn’t defined as the singing compared to any other part of the service, singing still bears most of the burden for an attendees active contribution. So it makes sense that in light of the longing to worship, if worship means singing, then the singing parts are the more crucial parts for a Christian deciding where to worship.
This certainly can include a more consumer-like attitude more than intent for consecration. There is also a heavy performance, concert-like mentality which in some ways makes style even more significant. This also may allow an attendee to hide a bit, and not just because the lights are low, but because the volume through the speakers is so high. His neighbor in the pew might have a hard time knowing whether his heart is engaged or not. There are also churches with minimal liturgy for the assembly that emphasize preaching so much that, even without explicitly saying so, the Really Mature (RM) in the congregation know that singing is just for the weak who can’t get their minds into fifth-learning gear without at least some strumming on a guitar.
As usual, there are about as many ways to mess up worship in song as there are chorus repeats in a Chris Tomlin song, which means, a lot.
What is really a reason to praise the Lord at TEC is that you need very little rebuke. In fact, by God’s grace, you are to be commended for your interest and eagerness and understanding and skillfulness in our worship in song. As a church we have matured in our grasp of the battering ram of corporate singing, and we have strengthened our affections for singing and by singing together.
Nine years ago I preached a message titled “Sing and Shout” to a different group of people. Some of the people have the same names and faces, but not the same hearts and minds, and ears. At that time we had begun to expand our arsenal of songs by trying to recover some of the older volumes in the library, and I mean older than early 90’s music from the Maranatha catalog. I mean psalms and hymns, as in actual and full Psalms from the inspired 150 as well as various hymns produced in church history, especially during and since the 16th century Reformation.
We moved, on purpose, away from the more sentimental, away from the more folksy, away from the more effeminate, away from only unison, toward more of the militantly celebratory, masculine, melody with harmony. We maintained an interest lyrical orthodoxy, but we attempted to develop an interest in lyrical history and musicality.
Nine years ago we lost a few families who were not impressed with the direction. Here we are nine years later and, if we listened to the loudest minority today, we might hear that we’ve still not made it far enough down the road since we’ve not yet decided to sing nothing but Psalms.
Still and overall, we have much thanks to give to God. And because our songs are part of a Christ-honoring liturgy that belongs with a Christ-honoring culture, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what we’re aiming for when it comes to our worship in song.
You know, right, that there is no command to sing in the New Testament. There is no command to sing as a disciple, there is no command to sing as an assembly. The music ‘lovahs’ usually get sharp about this assertion, but their actual arguments from the NT text fall flat.
There are, though, examples of singing, and there is a condition that, if met, should be followed by singing, and we certainly see singing as an inescapable consequence of obedience to two commands. So, in terms of the NT, failure to sing is a failure to obey, but not because singing itself is an explicit command.
As for examples, Jesus and His disciples sang (Matthew 26:30). The apostles, especially when imprisoned, sang (Acts 16:25). The angels in heaven never cease their singing (Revelation 4:8). These are descriptive realities that demonstrate singing as typical behavior of those who believe that God is worthy to be trusted and praised.
The one condition is found in a group of three conditions in James 5.
> Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him. (James 5:13-14)
“Pray” and “sing praise” and “call” the elders are all imperatives, but they are third person imperatives, unlike our typical second person commands: “(You) pray.” These instructions from James are a sequence: if this then that. The command “let him sing praise” is one Greek word, psalleto, which while connected to the word “psalm” is used enough times that it can’t be limited to one from the one-hundred fifty. But, are you in good spirits? Then sing.
The singing consequences of obedience to other commands are most interesting, and the context of each does really set an expected tone. The passages are both written by the apostle Paul, and they are clearly parallel in his mind, coming at a similar point in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians.
> 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, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:18-20)
> Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16-17)
There is singing in both, and the -ing ending is important.
The command in Ephesians is be (being filled) with the Spirit. That is the only grammatical command in these verses, the remaining verbs are participles, and the participles show what will be the inevitable result of obeying the command, here, being Spirit-filled. When the Spirit controls a person, it isn’t banal barroom songs (from a drunkard), but it’s still singing.
The command in Colossians is let the word of Christ dwell richly, and likewise, it is the only grammatical command in the two verses. The ESV translation for verse 17 seems like “do everything” is a command, but that is a translation decision because the “do” is not in the Greek; it could better be understood (though more clunky) as “and everything which any should do, doing in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Regardless, verse 16 has one imperative and three participles of consequence, including singing.
In both passages the individual’s obedience, to be filled and indwelt, results in one-another edification, and that is a lyrical edification. Of course this could be in a text message, or a private conversation, but there is a corporate context.
The part about singing in Colossians comes in a paragraph full of assembled behavior. Bear with one another, forgive each other, put on love which brings harmony, let peace be the sovereign of the one body. We’re talking about the body’s behavior, not merely a believer’s. And especially note the tone of thankfulness. Verse 15 ends with the command: “Be thankful.” Verse 16 says that our singing should be “with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Verse 17 has “giving thanks to God the Father through [Christ].”
From my perspective as a churchman, and as one of many under-shepherds, there is bitter irony in how often Christian singing is the most individually considered, externally concerned, creator of complaint and judgment and division, among all the liturgical elements. Our singing, which belongs with edifying our fellow members, becomes a self-fulfilling, strife-causing fracas. Our singing, which ought to express a melody of heart gladness (Ephesians 5:19), becomes a source of heart grumpiness. Our singing, which ought to unite an assembly with one voice to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (see Romans 15:5), becomes a measuring stick of strong and weak against one another and a platform for the “spiritual” to refuse to participate.
If we are called, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, to bear with one another and forgive those who are sinning against us, shouldn’t we also bear with others who are singing differently than us?
Let there be thanks in the content of our songs and let there be thankfulness in our hearts and in our singing.
> Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; > make melody to our God on the lyre! > (Psalm 147:7)
Thankfulness overflows into singing. Being Spirit-filled overflows into singing. Being Word-indwelt overflows into singing. No singing, or weak singing, is a sign of hard or half hearts.
So if we’ve got all this singing to do, what sorts of weapons do we have to choose from?
Different types of songs. In both Ephesians and Colossians Paul lists three sorts: “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” There is apparently an argument that these three categories of songs are actually three categories of Psalms proper. As in, you can find all three of these kinds of songs in the OT book of Psalms, and usually those who embrace that understanding say that a church should only sing Psalms.
That has going for it that the Psalms are inspired, as in, God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). It also has going for it that many are explicitly identified for Israel’s choirmaster to arrange and lead for group singing.
What that position does not have going for it is that, if binding, then no Christian could ever sing a song on the Lord’s Day about Jesus, by name, or about His incarnation, or about His death on a cross, or about His resurrection from the grave. Christians could get close, but not explicit. This means Christians could always and only sing about the shadows that pointed toward the gospel, even if they read back into the shadows what they’ve come to learn from the NT. Such a position still requires more effort to argue for the right translation, and the right arrangement, since we don’t know Hebrew or how quickly the tambourine should be shaken or what dance moves went with it (see Psalm 150:4), I mean, if we’re being “biblical.”
This position also doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that when John heard the angels singing in heaven, none of them were singing Psalms. It also really begs the question about why the word “psalms” is used in Psalms, but the words “hymns and spiritual songs” are not, and it seems like an awful lot liturgical pressure without exegetical proof. Did Paul have “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in mind when he wrote? Of course he did, sort of. And someday, when you’re in prison for Christ’s name, you’re not not going to get a crown because you sang “In Christ Alone.”
Different persons of songs. In too much contemporary Christian music there is a sense of “Jesus is my boyfriend” misty-eyed sentimentality, the kind of song where you can’t really tell if it’s a vertical or horizontal love song. There is a lot of focus on the first person singular, “I,” the “me,” the “my.” “I love you Lord, and I lift my voice.”
And that is a real concern. But it’s more than the grammatical person. “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord” is all about Him, except for how it isn’t. Also, it takes all the way until Psalm 3 for the “my” and the “I” and the “me” to be used. Be careful to not be more mature than the Psalms.
I remember thinking a Chris Tomlin song started with the wrong reference point. “Not to us, but to Your name, give glory.” I mean, was giving glory to us really an option? And then one day I read Psalm 115:1,
> Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to Your name, give glory.
> Whom have I in heaven but you? > And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. > My flesh and my heart may fail, > but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. > (Psalm 73:25–26)
> Bless the LORD, O my soul, > and all that is within me, > bless his holy name! > (Psalm 103:1)
Different instruments for songs. I mentioned the tambourine earlier from Psalm 150. It was preceded by the trumpet, lute, and harp, and followed with “sounding cymbals.” Then, “praise him with loud clashing symbols!” (verse 5). If you can’t imagine someone walking away after that saying “The drummer was way too loud today,” then you probably are someone who leaves too fast after the service.
There are numerous things we learn in the Psalms that seem to allow for a measure of freedom and opportunity to praise the Lord with thankful hearts.
One of the main problems that moved Paul to write 1 Corinthians was the division among them, especially as they divided over their preferred preacher of the scandalous word of the cross. Paul basically responded in three ways. One, he said it was wrong. Two, he said what really matters is how powerful God is in the word of the cross that isn’t about exalting the wisdom of men.
Three, he said “all are yours.” The only qualifiers he gave were the opposite of limitations. “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-22).
Paul was not promoting unity by abandonment of standard. He did not include false teachers or woman teachers; he had a context. But still he promoted unity by broadening of thankfulness.
Our appetites for singing have increased and have matured. It is a great temptation of the mature to be cynical, to be picky, to be proud. What our singing should promote is faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and His triumph over all His enemies, it should promote a peace that seeks the building up of one another in the body, and it should promote a fire of heart-thanks that cannot keep quiet but overflows in the assembly’s worship in song.
Drunkenness has tells. Some of you know the tells from experience, seeing a relative or friend under its control from close up. Solomon wrote, “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine” (Proverbs 23:29-30).
Just as there are tells of being consumed by alcohol, there are tells of being quickened by and controlled by God’s Spirit. Go out with song, go out with thanks.
> And 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, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18–21, ESV)