(Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4:4-7)
(watch here: http://youtu.be/mrD9uc8EX64)
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
As I was reflecting on this week’s readings, I couldn’t help but think of the old joke about a “prison quartet.” One Sunday, the pastor announced that the church’s “prison quartet” would be singing during service. The people wondered if the pastor had gathered a group of prisoners to come and sing for them during service. When four regular service attendees approached the pulpit, the pastor introduced the group and said, “This is our prison quartet. They’re behind bars and always looking for the key.” I know, I know, these are the kind of jokes I have to work with! But perhaps some of us have had the privilege of sitting next to a “prison quartet” during service once or twice in our lives. We’ve wondered how it is possible that the singers can’t quite keep up with the congregation. We might ask ourselves, “Can’t they read sheet music?” and “Are they aware of how they sound?” Perhaps the singers can read sheet music and are aware of how they sound. Perhaps they’re offering a unique interpretation of the songs! Besides, they might be asking the same questions about our singing so it might just be better to reserve judgment altogether.
Not that we, as Lutherans, have a particularly hard time with our singing. We have a rich tradition of musical excellence that goes all the way back to Martin Luther himself. Luther was a music lover having been born into a musical family. He joined a boys’ choir at an early age and became quite proficient in playing the flute. He believed that music was of God, not of man, and was determined to restore congregational singing in the German language to the church. Before this restoration, congregants were expected to sit or stand silently while the priests performed all the singing during worship services. Luther was quoted as saying, “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds and spirits. A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of donkeys and the grunting of hogs!” Luther’s deep passion led him to write words and music for several hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” He eventually published a hymnal that contained eight hymns, four of which were his. Luther’s passion for music spurred on several musicians throughout the years, including one of his early followers, Johann Sebastian Bach.
So why did Luther have such a love for music and its place in worship services? Why should we have such a love for music? Because of Scripture readings like the ones assigned for today. This is the first Sunday of Christmas and we are still very much celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Christmas is more than a one-day event. Christmas is a twelve-day event as the magi come to Jesus bringing their gifts. It is the time between Christmas and Epiphany. Because we are still celebrating Christmas, we should still be celebratory. What better way is there for being celebratory than through song?! You see, all of our readings are encouraging us to open our mouths and sing out. Isaiah sings out, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” God had clothed Isaiah with the garments of salvation and covered him with the robe of righteousness and this was cause for great rejoicing. He cries out, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.” With the birth of Jesus, we, too, are clothed with garments of salvation and covered with the robe of righteousness. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection save us from sin and death and give us eternal life. We heard this on Christmas morning from the wisdom of John 3:16 and 17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In Jesus, we are reclaimed as God’s beloved children. We are placed back into right relationship with God and become heirs of God’s kingdom again. Garments of salvations and the robe of righteousness were once lost but are found in Jesus! We, like Isaiah, lift up our songs and refuse to keep silent.
Likewise, David offers up an extended song of praise in his psalm. In the psalm’s 14 verses, we hear David cry out, “Praise the Lord” or “Praise him” or “Praise the name of the Lord” a total of 12 times! All of creation should be singing out to the Lord during our Christmas celebration: all his angels, all his host, sun and moon, all the shining stars, the highest heavens, the waters above heaven, sea monsters and all the deep, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things, flying birds, kings of the earth, all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth, young men and women, old and young together…we are ALL to be singing out songs of praise and thanksgiving. Why? Verse 14 explains, because God “has raised up a horn for his people.” God has given everything the ability, “a horn,” to lift up a joyous noise of celebration. Not only an ability but also a reason—His most beloved Son! We’ve been given the Son, a garment of salvation and robe of righteousness!
Paul explains how God sent the Son to us who are “born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” We might ask ourselves, “Why is it good news that we have been adopted as children?” It is good news because as children, we will INHERIT all that God has to offer. We will INHERIT the kingdom of God. The thing about inheritances is that one can’t work for it. They are gifts. They are bestowed simply because of shared genetics. One doesn’t work for genes; one is GIVEN genes. When we are saved, we are adopted as children of God. We share the same privileges as the Son shares with the Father. This is good news, perhaps the BEST news! We can’t help but sing out in praise to such a loving God!
We hear of the songs of Simeon and Anna in our gospel reading. Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that he wouldn’t die before seeing the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon was an old man who had been haunting the temple for several years. Like many old people, he had likely become tired and frail. He was finished with life and the only thing that kept him clinging to it was the Spirit’s words. His faith and devotion enabled him to haunt the temple year after year. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple for purification, Simeon let out a thankful song of praise to God: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon had cause for singing out in joy: he was being released from his earthly duty. No more haunting the temple; Jesus frees Simeon, as he frees us with his life, death and resurrection. Jesus freed another person that had haunted the temple for years: Anna. Like Simeon, she sees Jesus for who he is, the redeemer of Jerusalem. She was elated and praised God for Jesus. Anna’s devotion to fasting and prayer, night and day, was rewarded and she sang out to God.
It’s no wonder that Luther placed such a high value on song in worship service. Scripture witnesses many people who engaged in song for one reason or another. Isaiah sang out for being given garments of salvation and a robe of righteousness. David sang out for all of creation to sing out in praise of our awesome God. Paul sang out for the Son redeeming us and enabling us to be adopted as children of God. Simeon and Anna sang out for being freed from their devoted searches. Scriptures is encouraging us to sing out in praise and thanksgiving for this great gift we have received in Jesus. Jesus saves us from our sin and fears of death. Jesus saves us from a broken relationship with the Father. For everything we’ve been given in the past year, for everything we will be given in the year ahead, and for the gift of Jesus to walk side-by-side with us throughout it all, we are called to faithfully and fervently…sing songs of praise.
Now then, I should end my message there but I can’t help but leave you with another joke. This one is about good ole Charlie. Well, Charlie thought he sounded great in the shower when he sang. He decided to join the church choir—uninvited—but he never went to rehearsals. He’d show up late for the Sunday morning services and never knew when to start nor to stop when the choir sang. Several choir members went to the pastor to complain about the problem and asked the pastor to talk to Charlie. The pastor quickly confronted Charlie, saying “Five or six people in the choir have told me that you can’t sing.” “That’s nothing,” Charlie replied. “I’ve heard at least forty or fifty people tell me that you can’t preach.”
In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.