Looking for Redemption Mal 3:1-4; Heb 2:14-18; Lk 2:22-40
As a whole, Lutherans tend to be considered a musical bunch. We claim Bach as one of our own, and we often memorize Scriptures by singing them. How many of us heard Handel’s Messiah as we heard that first lesson about being purified by a refiner’s fire? And how many of us knew before that we could quote from the book of Malachi? See? How many of us heard at least one version of what is known in church circles as the Nunc Dimittus (“Now, Lord, You Let Your Servant Go in Peace”) when we heard Simeon’s words in the Gospel lesson? Ours is a singing faith.
But of course, we can’t claim this expression of faith as our own. In both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus and the disciples leave what we call the Last Supper to pray at the Mount of Olives, they initiate the Passion story with this line, “When they had sung the hymn, they went out.” Likewise, in Acts 16, when Paul and Silas are imprisoned for preaching the Gospel, and before the earthquake that opened up the jail had occurred, the author notes, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the rest of the prisoners were listening to them.” Don’t you just wonder which hymns? Knowing his arrest and execution were imminent, Jesus sang a hymn. Paul and Silas, who’d already been arrested and incarcerated, sang hymns. In such circumstances, what hymn would you sing? What hymn is so deep in your bones, your soul, that it would come to you in such dire circumstances?
Our Gospel lesson doesn’t say that Simeon burst into song when he first held the baby Jesus, but his words are so poetic that we can’t hear them without music. And it might strike some people as odd that Simeon, who knew he would not die before seeing the Messiah, chooses to sing when he realizes that his death must now be approaching. But for many of us, it’s not weird that music is part of such a realization. If you knew you were facing jail time or a terminal illness, what song would you sing? (And by the way, we’re all terminal.)
I’ll admit, when Mari and I were hiding in the work room last week, fearing that a woman with mental illness and a baseball bat might do us harm, I did not sing a hymn. I didn’t even think about singing a hymn. But I will tell you, truthfully, that many hymns have come to me since then, as I’ve been processing that event. “Blessed Assurance” and our Gathering Hymn for today “Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song as I Journey” were quick to surface for me. Both of them profess trust in a faithful God, no matter how dire circumstances might be. This is my story. This is my song. I’ll tell everybody about you wherever I go. “Jesus Loves Me”—as childlike and simple as it is—also resonates deep in my bones. “Little ones to Him belong. They are weak but he is strong.” The hymn that was most insistent on being heard was “Abide with Me.” It’s an evening hymn, and the first verse of it was one of my bedtime prayers as a child: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.” It is always relevant when darkness deepens. If I were heading to the Mount of Olives with Jesus, it would be one of the hymns I would choose to sing.
These hymns are all personal testimonies, witnesses of a an intimate connection with God, and all became prayers when I couldn’t formulate the words myself. I want to believe that if I were in jail with Paul and Silas, I’d sing those songs to encourage myself and my fellow-prisoners to hold onto hope, however futile it might seem.
When I’m not facing immediate danger, and have time to ponder what hymns speak more clearly and truthfully about what I believe and know and trust about God, there is no group of hymns I hold more dearly than our Advent and Christmas hymns. I treasure deeply the Incarnational theology they express—the sense of God Almighty’s radical choice to be among us, so close to us that God would know what human experience was like from the inside out. From the exultant celebrations that this is how God has loved us (“Joy to the World!”) to the yearning for Christ’s return to bring peace to earth forevermore (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”!), these hymns are the best creeds the church has, in my opinion.
Which hymns best encapsulate what you believe? When Simeon held the baby Jesus in his arms, a song flowed through his ancient bones and out of his mouth. When Jesus saw death looming, he sang with his friends. In this time in our collective experience, when the specter of doom hovers over our environment, when justice is perverted, and we can’t help acknowledging that we are mortal, what melody stirs in your hearts? What songs give you goosebumps because you feel for heart getting stronger and your courage rising when the opening chords begin?
I know it’s a little unconventional, but I’d like us to be Simeons today, to acknowledge and announce our faith in songs. I invite you to turn to those sitting near you, and talk about which hymns are those that touch you most profoundly. PAUSE for this mutual ministry
I hope you all heard the word of God spoken just now, as you shared hymns and hope. When Simeon held Jesus in his arms, when the prophet Anna saw the Christ child, they talked about what they believed. And that’s what you just did. Sometimes Lutherans get a bad rap for not being able to witness to their faith, but you just did it. And it wasn’t so bad, was it? Maybe we’ll do it again sometime!
Shortly, the body of Christ will be presented to each of us in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We will see and touch and taste God’s presence in this place. Someone will offer the cup of salvation and we will drink it in, side by side. And we will sing. We will sing songs of hope and confidence, no matter how scary and threatening the world can be, songs of trust and beauty and persistence in the midst of a despair. We will proclaim truth in the midst of lies, and life in the face of death, because God has met us here this morning, and we cannot help ourselves. Our own eyes have seen the salvation which God has prepared. How can we keep from singing?
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