Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

On Singing a New Song

Psalms 98
Acts 10:44-48
Sun, May 28, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
"O sing to Yahweh a new song”. So sings the opening line of the ninety-
eighth song in the Bible’s own collection of golden-oldies. Once upon a
time even Psalm 98 was, itself, a new song. Not anymore, of course. Now
it is one of the ‘classics’, number 98 in the Bible’s top 150. And just as love
songs are a dime a dozen on the pop charts of our day so this song of
praise, this ode to God’s great love, sounds like plenty of its counterparts.
One wonders what can be gained by disciplining ourselves to pay
attention to these ancient lyrics.

On first blush, this brings back memories of a different age, one in which
it was all so much simpler somehow. The song is so confident, so bold, so
brash: “Sing to Yahweh a new song, for he has done marvellous things.”
Like what, we wonder? Well, like victory and vindication, that’s what.
Yahweh has “remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house
of Israel” and “all the ends of the earth” have seen it. There is good
reason to commission a new song and to sing it lustily - Yahweh has
saved the people Israel from disaster. So says Psalm 98.

Perhaps you are noticing something else about this song. It is not nearly
as generic as our hymn books and Bibles make it sound. In Voices United
we say “Sing to God a new song”. In our Bibles we read “Sing to the Lord
a new song”. But in Hebrew there is no such generic title given. Instead
the song is sung to a God with a name: to Yahweh, the God of the people
of Israel. We dare not forget that in reading and singing this song we are
reading over the shoulders of the Jewish people. This is the music of a
tiny people who discover to their great joy and amazement that the God
who has called them out of the wilderness is, in truth, the Creator of the
ends of the earth. And when this fearsome God acts to save them from
death or to liberate them from oppression or to redeem them from
addiction they know that the old songs will not suffice. Only a new song
can tell of the new thing that Yahweh has done.

But listen. The song goes on to invite others to join in singing: “Make a
joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth”. In an ancient world of many gods
and many ways the people of Israel dare to invite the whole earth to join
in their song to Yahweh. Why are they so bold? How can they be so
politically incorrect as to suggest that rest of the world ... all the peoples
of the earth and more, even the sea and everything in it ... should join in
their new song?

Suddenly this song seems a bit off-putting. Not one we’d want to sing in
an officially tolerant and pluralistic culture such as ours. ‘Each to their
own’ seems to be our modern mantra. Evangelism is tarnished by
memories of abuse and by images of religious hucksters pitching their
wares on television in their own spiritualised version of a home shopping
channel. Yet marketers hoping to sell the newest of innovations in the
marketplace pay a price for highly skilled ‘product evangelists’. That’s
right. Now your degree from UBC can put you in line for a career as a
‘product evangelist’. Just check out the job fair the next time it moves into
the Student Union Building. We live in odd times. The church dares not
use the language of evangelism for fear of offending. But the market
knows that evangelism is exactly what is called for in a contested world
where money and truth are both up for grabs.

And truth is most definitely up for grabs. Listen to words from the most
recent issue of Harper’s Magazine. They are not those of a theologian.
Instead, they are the questions of a concerned observer at the turn of the
century: “Now and again the parallel world of unspeakable things breaks
through. A man walks into a schoolyard with a rifle, a taxi leaps a curb,
an entire neighbourhood folds into rubble ... Daily our media drag us to
God, force us to inquire after His meaning, then rub our noses in his
absence .... (once) we lived in a legible universe, the record of our days -
and their meaning - running like a never-ending stream of ticker tape
from the mouth of God.” Author Mark Slouka, wondering about the
inexplicable tragedies which the media bring into our living rooms day
and night, names the sad reality of our age: “Reflexively, we reach for the
myth. But we’ve forgotten how to read. And we’ve forgotten how to
believe. And the text has gone dark. And the author, whoever he was, if
he was, has left.”

This is not a world in which people find it easy to sing a joyful new song
to the same God who our parents and grandparents once sang to with
such fervour. The ‘victories’ and the ‘vindication’ of Yahweh seem hard
to detect now. It is more than a little difficult to compose hymns to the
‘steadfast love’ and ‘faithfulness’ of God in a world so daunted by
looming environmental tragedies on the horizon.

And yet, here we are. Inexplicably singing a new song to Yahweh. We are
a little like the company of non-Jews described in the book of the Acts of
the Apostles who find themselves so inexplicably overcome by the Holy
Spirit that they are speaking in tongues and extolling God. Surely their
families, friends and colleagues must wonder what has happened to these
seemingly rational people to make them sing such a wildly irrational
song. How can they possibly sing of the power of tiny Israel’s God in a
world that seems so obviously under the control of more potently
diabolical gods?

We are like these first converts to Christianity because, largely
unbeknownst to the society around us, we are becoming a new and
different kind of people. Not so very long ago we were a church which
sang the brazen theme song of a culture that was confident of God’s
power. Now we are ever so slowly learning a new song. Its words and
melody are not yet entirely familiar. We find ourselves struggling to get
its verses and refrain right. But it is a new song, nonetheless. It is the new
song of a people who are discovering that the death of the church and of
our culture as we have known it is not the end of the world because it is
not the end of God’s activity in this world and church. Our congregation
is but one small voice in a new chorus that is emerging in all manner of
Christian congregations. It is a song filled with hope and expectation ...
with the conviction that Yahweh, the God of Israel, has not given up on
us or on the world.

To be sure, we cannot solve the world’s problems. Nor can we begin to
explain life’s inconsistencies and ambiguities. Confronted with the
inexplicable tragedies that confound even the most profound thinkers of
our time we simply sing of what we know - the love that will not let us
go. We cannot use the trump card of some grand ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’
to convince those who suffer that it is all God’s will. Now we discover
once again that we can only tell the truth about what we have witnessed
with our own eyes and experienced in our own lives. Namely, the
gathering of wounded, broken souls into a gathered congregation of
healed and forgiven sinners where we come to realize whose we are. This
is good news of great joy. The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead
is raising us from the dead, here and now. To our unending surprise we
are no longer orphaned in a chaotic, impersonal world. Here we are
adopted ... grafted onto the family tree ... named as beloved children of a
just and gracious God.

Now, to be fair, this is really quite an extraordinary claim to make in a
world where everything is coming unglued ... where the grafts no longer
seem to be taking hold. But we are ‘product evangelists’ of just such a
wild and wonderful love. It is a great product, of course. And the highest
of callings. Just ask the people at Wilson Heights United Church on 41st
Avenue in Vancouver. The neighbourhood includes numerous recent
immigrants from China. Numbers of them have come to the church’s free
Wednesday night supper, seeking hospitality. Asked what brings non-
Christian, non-English speaking newly arrived Chinese immigrants to a
United Church they are quick to reply.
Before leaving home, they recount, Christian acquaintances of theirs
encouraged them to go to the churches in Canada. Promise their friends:
“You are sure to find a warm welcome there”. And are they? When the
new Executive Secretary of our Conference, Rev. Deb Bowman, marked
her final Sunday at Wilson Heights this Spring, she counted three of these
newly landed Chinese immigrants in the choir, there because of their
desire to learn English, to make friends and to learn of this newfound
God. It was, says Dev, the best farewell gift that a congregation could
give.

Do you see? Our life together is intended to be God’s living, breathing
invitation to all wounded, broken souls and needy strangers to receive
God’s healing, forgiveness and hospitality ... and then to join in the new
song of praise to the God whose handiwork it is. May it be so. Amen.