April 20, 2008

Cantate: Ps. 98, Is. 12, James 1, Jn. 16

“Every good and perfect gift is from above.” Why then do you care so much for the gifts that are from below? Why are you so quick to speak, when Holy Scripture says that every person should be “slow to speak”? Is it not because you consider your self most important? Do you not most want your will to be done?

And why are you quick to anger, when Holy Scripture says you should be “slow to anger”? Are you God? Or has God made you judge? Your anger “does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” You talk, gossip, grumble, and boast about the things from below, and you get angry when they do not go your way. But there is a better way - the way of listening. But not just to anything. When St. James says, “My beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear,” he is admonishing us to hear the Word of truth, the “implanted Word, which is able to save your souls.”

That is how the Holy Spirit comes to you; that is how the Holy Spirit works in you – by means of the Word, Holy Scripture. The Spirit declares the things to come: how good the last Age will be, when corpses are revived from the dust, when sorrow and sighing are put to flight, when war and conflict will be forgotten, when bitterness and strife will cease, when we dwell in the Kingdom of God around the Lamb who was slain for us. Looking ahead now to Pentecost, this is the work of the Holy Spirit – taking those things of Jesus and declaring them to us, through the inspired Word, through the liturgy and Sacraments, telling us about the kingdom where our true citizenship is, about what is ours in Christ.

And then the Holy Spirit who tells us to stop all our talking and listen, also tells us to open our mouths and sing: “Sing praises to the LORD, for He has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Where does joy come from? The joy of the Christian comes from God who is in our midst. As we’ve seen in reading Leviticus at Scripture Study, YHWH dwelt among His people in the Divine Service of the tabernacle. Then, in the incarnation-God the Son taking on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary-God dwelt among men, and left this gift to His Church: that where even two or three are gathered in His name, there He is in the midst of them.

Jesus is life. He is the author of life, the giver of life, the slayer of death. How then can His presence not give joy? For this life comes to an end. The life which is to come—and has already now begun in Christ—has no end. So when the Church sings, she proclaims to the world the life that is in Jesus. We also sing to strengthen ourselves in that life, because we are prone in our weakness to falter or even fall away.

The name of this Sunday is Cantate, which means, “Sing!” What do we sing in church? The Bible tells us to sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The Psalms comprise their own book in the Scriptures; the other songs or canticles in the Bible are called “hymns,” - but what are these “spiritual songs”? Rightly understood, “spiritual songs” is not a style of music – a “spiritual song” is a song that conveys the message of the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit, St. Paul says, we call Jesus “Lord.” The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, “Will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” So the truly spiritual song will proclaim the Spirit’s message; it will be a song about Christ, who He is and what He has done for us.

In other words, the content of a spiritual song will be the Gospel. The Gospel is not a theory about God. The Gospel is not an experience for you to have. The Gospel is not a set of rules to live by. The Gospel is not a program to improve society. The Gospel is the good news that Christ’s suffering for us has won us forgiveness of sins and life in the kingdom of God; it is the victory of God over all death, all sin, all sorrow. "Sing to the LORD a new song," because "His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory."

So the "new song" that the Christian Church sings has nothing to do with musical style or instrumentation. It is "new" in contrast to the "old song" of hatred and despair, lust and angst, funeral dirges and anthems of kingdoms that are passing away. The new song is the song of the new kingdom that the LORD has inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So the Church’s liturgy doesn’t need new songs; the Church’s liturgy is the new song. In this liturgy, lots of things change every Sunday - the Bible readings that are read, the hymns that we sing, the Psalms and prayers for the day. But there are some songs that are repeated almost every Sunday, even though the music changes from time to time. What are they, and why are they so important to keep on repeating?

Every Divine Service we sing the Kyrie. “Kyrie” is Greek for “O Lord” – Kyrie eleison, “O Lord, have mercy!” We are broken sinners, slow to hear, quick to speak, quick to anger, not producing the righteousness of God. In our brokenness, we have troubled relationships, troubled emotions, and troubled bodies plunging towards death. But one thing we can know and be confident of is that God in Christ is merciful.

From there, we go on to sing the song the angels taught the shepherds at the first Christmas: Gloria in excelsis Deo“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.” We sing this Christmas song because every Divine Service is Christmas, every Divine Service Christ comes to us in the flesh in the Sacrament, and what we need most is God’s peace and goodwill toward us men. Since He has shown it to us, what else is there for us to say than, “Glory to God in the highest”?

The third song is one we usually speak: the Creed. Here is the Gospel beautifully summarized for us - The Father created us, the Son died for us, the Holy Spirit has joined us together in the one Baptism for the remission of sins, and we look for the resurrection of our dead bodies and life in the world to come.

Then in the Communion liturgy we sing the Sanctus”Holy, holy, holy”—another song of the angels. Isaiah heard it in the temple, when one of the seraphim took a burning coal from the altar and touched it to his lips, saying, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away.” We sing the song Isaiah heard when that happened, knowing that something from the altar is about to touch our lips and take our iniquity away - it is more pleasant than a burning coal and more healing than any earthly food. So we sing the Psalm which the disciples sang to Jesus on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Thus from Christmas to Palm Sunday, we have been taken into the heart of Jerusalem, and from there we are led to sing the hymn of the cross immediately before the gift of Communion: the Agnus Dei, “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, grant us Your peace.” You can see that the songs we sing are not only from Scripture – they are the heart of Scripture, the very center of our faith: We believe in the merciful God, who proclaimed peace on earth in the birth of Jesus, who is Holy, who comes to us with blessing, who hears our prayers and grants us peace.

These unchanging songs are the “new song” of faith. May we never grow tired of them! So stop your talking and listen to the Word of God; stop your anger and see how the LORD, who has every right to be wrathful toward you, has instead turned away His anger that He might comfort you. Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness, for the Holy Spirit has granted you to sing the new song of Christ Jesus the Savior. Shout, and sing for joy, O Christians, for great in Your midst is the Holy One, Jesus your King!

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