Jul 25th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | 2 Samuel 22:1-20
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I have taken a bit of homiletic liberty this morning. Knowing that we would be celebrating the silver anniversary of Robert’s ministry with us, I noticed an inherent problem with the text assigned to this Sunday. The lectionary would have had me preach a sermon on David’s dalliance with Bathsheba – which is a ripping good story – but not ideal for the Sunday of a celebration such as this. We will catch up on that story and more next Sunday, by the way, so set your alarm clocks – you won’t want to miss that one!
But, postponing that story for a week left me without a text for the morning. What could I say about David that would line up with our observance of this auspicious occasion? What from David’s life would be appropriate for the day? What word might God have for us in the midst of our merriment?
And then it hit me. Tradition tells us that David was something of a musician. David played the lyre for Saul, which seemed to calm Saul’s troubled mind, so he must have been pretty good because a badly tuned and badly played lyre can drive you right up the wall. Many of the Psalms are rightly – or wrongly – attributed to David, though which ones were actually David’s is impossible to tell. We know that David had a sense of rhythm because he “danced before the Lord.” So, all of that seems to tell us that music was important to David.
Our lesson from 2 Samuel comes on the heels of another telling of David’s exploits in war with the Philistines. David has been rescued from his enemies and from the dangerous and deluded behavior of Saul. Textually, we know that it was the custom of certain writers and editors to put a poem into the prose text of a passage. It elevated the storyline, making it more creative and offering a religious grounding for the work. If you want to see how that might work, I would call to your attention that our passage for the morning is also known as Psalm 18 – with slight editorial changes.
But look at how this song of celebration is told. David is overcome with the moment and rather than simply talk about his excitement, or his gratitude, he offers a song. A speech would not meet the occasion. An oration would seem out of place. A sermon? Not on your nelly.
It had to be a song.
We sometimes forget that the collection of the Psalms was really Israel’s hymnbook. The Psalms were meant to be sung. Though we have long lost the music that would have accompanied them, it is easy to see that these are words that require music. It is for that reason that people of faith – and especially we Presbyterians – have been known as “Psalm singers.”
But there are other songs throughout the scriptures. When the people of Israel passed through the waters of the sea, Miriam “took a tambourine in her hand and . . . sang…: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’” Moses picked up the tune and sang a longer version of Miriam’s song. (You’ll find them both in Exodus 15.)
We’re told that Israel sang a song at the well where God provided water.
Spring up, O well! Sing to it! –
The well that the leaders sank,
that the nobles of the people dug,
with the scepter, with the staff. (Numbers 21:16-18)
The Song of Deborah, recorded in the fifth chapter of Judges, is likely the oldest part of the Hebrew scripture and one of the most obscure. Deborah and Barak sang:
When locks are long in Israel
when the people offer themselves willingly –
bless the Lord!
Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
to the Lord I will sing.
I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel. (Judges 5:1-2)
The song goes on for nearly 30 verses and includes the story of the defeat of Sisera and his death at the hand of Jael, who kills Sisera with a tent peg through the skull. Who says the Bible is dull?
The references go on and on in the pages of Hebrew scripture and the point is clear: there are times when words wouldn’t do. It had to be a song.
In the Christian testament, Matthew tells us that when the supper in the Upper Room was completed, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:30) Paul tells the Corinthian Christians, “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” (1 Cor. 14:15) The author of the Letter to the Ephesians tells them, “sing psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” (Eph. 5:19) James tells his audience, “…Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” (James 5:13b) And by the time we get to the Book of Revelation, it is filled with songs being sung by angels and saints, so much so that Mark Twain wrote:
In man’s heaven everybody sings! Those who did not sing on earth sings there; those who could not sing on earth are able to do so there. The universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays; whereas in the earth the place would be empty in two hours. The singing is of hymns alone. Nay, it is of one hymn alone. The words are always the same, in number they are only about a dozen, there is no rhyme, there is no poetry: “Hosannah, hosannah, hosannah, Lord God of Sabaoth, ‘rah! ‘rah! ‘rah! siss! -- boom! ... a-a-ah!” (Letter from the Earth)
So – and here is the point of the sermon – as people of faith, when all else fails, sing. When words are inadequate, sing. When prayer seem insufficient – or when prayer won’t come at all – sing. When life us more burden than blessing – sing.
Don’t just take my words for it. Martin Luther said:
“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through Music.”
There is another old quote that floats about the church to this day. There is argument over who said it first – Saint Augustine or Martin Luther – but it reminds us, “He (or she) who sings prays twice.”
Even John Calvin, the reformer, and a fellow who looked like his shoes were three sizes to small and had been weaned on persimmon juice, said:
“the result of singing is like a spur to incite us to pray to and to praise God, to meditate on his works, that we may love, fear, honor, and glorify him.”
Calvin encouraged congregations to sing. John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, was in favor of congregational singing as long as the only hymns sung were Psalms and the singing was acapella. Poor John.
So – again, the point of the sermon – when all else fails, sing.
And since we are to sing, it is good that we have someone to help us do that. While I have a rather large catalogue of things I like about Robert Nicholls, at the top of my list is the simple truth that he is not here to perform for us, or to get a choir ready to perform for us. Rob knows that the only performing in worship is what we all do for God. God is the only audience.
But Rob makes us all so much better than we would be on our own. He prompts us to sing – encourages us to sing – inspires us to sing. God gives us the song and Nicholls helps us sing it. We are spoiled beyond our understanding.
So, when all else fails, sing.
Sing to the Lord a new song and sing to the Lord the old chestnuts.
Sing to the Lord!
For now and evermore. Amen.