SERMON Colossians 3 12 17
My worship professor in seminary began one of our classes by saying, “There’s a special circle of hell reserved for music teachers who tell children they can’t sing.”
By this shocking statement, my professor explained that one of the greatest sins we can commit is teaching people that they shouldn’t use the tools God gave them for worship and praise. Psalm 98 urges, “ Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” Notice it says that we should make a joyful noise unto the Lord, it doesn’t say anything at all about making a perfectly in tune melody to the Lord. We human beings were created to worship and praise our creator, along with all of the rest of creation that sings and chirps and barks and clucks and roars praises unto the Lord.
Barring rare medical conditions, almost every person CAN sing! And our scriptures say indeed that since we CAN, we should. You may not be on key, you may not like how you sound, but God loves how you sound. Your praise is music to God’s ear, and your voice is an important part of our collective worship as the Church.
Our scripture today from Colossians 3: 12-17 is one of my favorite chunks of the whole Bible. It is a blueprint for Christian living. How does God will for us to live in community as God’s children? We are to be clothed with compassion, humility, meekness, and patience. We are to bear with one another and forgive one another as God has forgiven us. Above all, we are to clothe ourselves with love –which binds everything together in perfect harmony, and let Christ’s peace rule in our hearts. And we are to be thankful.
As part of this blueprint for Christian living, Paul continues with HOW exactly we’re supposed to learn how to live as God intends. He writes, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
The WORD of Christ is one of the means of grace, it’s one of the ways God showers us with grace and nurtures and grows our faith. Paul says that we are to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Christ himself is the embodied Word of God. And Christ himself comes to us and touches our hearts as we listen to the scripture readings, as we listen to the proclamation of the gospel through the sermon, AND Christ the living WORD of God comes to us as and grows our faith as we listen to and participate in singing the hymns of the Church. The hymns of the Church are not just transition music or for passive entertainment, they are a means of grace, they are one of the ways in which the Word of Christ comes to dwell in us richly.
Paul says, “with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” The music of our worship is a key form of liturgy –it’s our work as the people of God in the worship that’s happening. And our voices are an outward expression of the joy and gratitude that bubbles up from our hearts to God’s ear. Music is our joyful response to the grace of God in our lives, and in worship our individual reasons for singing join together into one collective voice of praise.
As Lutherans, good music is an important part of our theological heritage. Hymns matter, because it was through the singing of hymns that Luther originally taught the reformed faith to the vast majority of people in his pews who could not read at the time. Luther was the original contemporary Christian artist. He took bawdy bar tunes, and set those well known drinking songs to the words of scripturally sound theology. Through the Reformation –which we’ll celebrate next weekend- not only was the Bible translated into German, and the mass was celebrated in German so that people could finally understand what the priest was saying, but the hymns were now jaunty and singable (for the time) and helped the people understand and remember the Word of God and the theology of grace through which Luther and the Reformers sought to transform the Church.
Luther wrote in his preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal, “I am not of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave them and made them.”
Today, we remember the legacy of 3 artists and theologians who are commemorated together as the Fathers of Lutheran hymnody, who served the Church in the generation or two after Martin Luther.
Philipp Nicolai was first and foremost a pastor. He was ordained in 1583, during a time of ongoing Reformation turmoil as the Holy Roman Emperor was still sending Spanish troops to restore the Roman mass to Germany. Nicolai had to flee from his first post as pastor, and then served secretly as a Lutheran pastor while hiding in Cologne, holding worship in members’ homes. In 1596, when it was safe to come out from hiding, he became the pastor at Unna in Westphalia. However, between 1597-1598 the plague struck their town, killing 1500 of his parishioners in just one year’s time. In just one week in August, 170 of his parishioners died. Nicolai’s parsonage looked out onto the graveyard for the town, and he felt overwhelmed, constantly surrounded by the presence of death. To comfort his people and work through his own grief whiling clinging to his hope in Christ, he wrote a series of meditations called Mirror of Joy, and in this volume he included what became the two most famous of all Lutheran chorales “Wake, O Wake, For Night is Flying” which we sing at Advent, and “O Morningstar, How Fair and Bright” –the Epiphany hymn which we sang as our gathering hymn today. Nicolai died in 1608 at the age of 52.
Johann Heermann nearly died in childhood, and as his parents’ only surviving child, was dedicated to serve as a minister. He became a pastor in 1611, but continued to face one physical affliction after another. One sickness rendered him unable to preach for 4 years. Not only was he poor in health, but Heermann and his ministry was caught up in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War. He too had to flee his home over and over again, was nearly killed on numerous occasions, his village was plundered again and again and also suffered from the plague. This life of constant turmoil inspired him to write hymns of confident faith in Christ alone and a tender love for God. These include our two Communion hymns today, as well as the beloved Holy Week hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus.” Heermann died in 1647 at the age of 62.
The last saint we remember today is indeed the most famous and prolific of all Lutheran hymn writers. Paul Gerhardt was ordained as a pastor in 1651, and became famous as a preacher. But he was adamantly involved in the doctrinal debates of the time with fellow Protestants, and he refused to sign a pledge stating that he would not talk about the doctrinal discussions in his preaching, so he was kicked out of his church in Berlin. He was welcomed back the next year, but refused to return. During this same time his wife and son died. Amid both his personal trials and the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War, Gerhardt penned 133 hymns of faith and confidence in God’s grace above all else. He translated dry doctrines into heart moving music, truly helping the Word of God to dwell richly in those who sing his music. Today, we will be singing Gerhard’s most famous hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” after the sermon. Gerhardt died in 1676 at the age of 69, but like Heermann and Nicolai, he is remembered among the saints and honored every time we sing and allow God to deepen our faith in Jesus Christ through his music.
Now, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly… and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Amen.