“Voices from Above”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 31, 2015
University Baptist Church
I love to sing. And I’m glad I’m among a congregation that loves to sing. It proclaims who we are. When we sing these hymns familiar and not so familiar, we are proclaiming a different reality. More on that in a minute. As a congregation, we sing better than most. And often, it is the hymn singing that carries the day, especially when the sermon is mediocre at best.
Hear what the great hymn writer and revival leader John Wesley had to say about hymn singing in the intro to a songbook published in 1761:
1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
4. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sing the songs of Satan.
5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Actually, we sing together, we perform in ensembles for many reasons, but at church there are very important reasons. Wesley had his seven, so here are my six.
1. It’s fun. We not only get to use our voices and our bodies to make music, but we laugh at ourselves and with each other. The levity helps.
2. We get to praise God in a unique way. We also get to challenge ourselves to work on repertoire that makes us better musicians and by extension, better people, because we can’t all be soloists. We need to work together. We need to blend. We need to hear each other. It’s a practice in patience and community.
3. We are participating in worship, not listening to a band. This is true of hymn singing, too. We seldom get a chance to sing for the fun of it. Singing in a resonant room like this beats singing to a car radio any day.
4. We are constantly surprised by what another among us can do, play, sing. Laura is fond of saying that each week she learns of another UBCer who can play an instrument. And how lucky we are to have a music director who will help us to find ways to rediscover our abilities and our passions.
5. Passion. We cannot sing dispassionately. We certainly cannot play a bell dispassionately. Music takes us beyond ourselves and toward something that we long to be.
6. Music reminds us of what we want and that for which we long—that peace, that serenity, that unleashing of passion that can transform us. It’s what the angel chorus is about in Revelation. It’s that repetitive reminder that God is in control. When all hell is breaking loose on earth, listen for the angel chorus singing of a different reality. Hallelujah.
The book of Revelation is not one that many of us like to look at let alone read in church. It’s true that Revelation tells an apocalyptic story of hell on earth. There are battles and plagues and death and destruction. The world is imploding in its violence. The merchants are in cahoots with the beast as are the religious leaders. Overflowing in their orgy of violence that they call religion. They say “who is like the beast?” The beast or the emperor talks like the lamb but is a deceiver. And the people are drunk by the wine of the beast. The faithful people who are followers of the Lamb have been slaughtered and everything is hopeless. Even the seven tiny churches are insignificant and seem poised to be squashed like bugs. Just when you think the destruction will end, another monster comes on the scene, another plague infects the people, and the body count rises.
Revelation’s world in a word is imploding in an apocalyptic nightmare. It would be all too much to bear if it were not for the angel choir. Like voices from above the angel choir breaks the death and destruction and sings away. “Hallelujah, the kingdom of our lord and of his Christ and he shall reign for ever and ever.”
“Worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things.” A few chapters pass and then a multitude robed in white sing, “Salvation belongs to God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” And the angels sitting around the throne sang “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to God for ever and ever! Amen.”(7:10-12)
When the doomed world worships the beast and prays for the welfare of Babylon, the voices from above praise the Lamb and point us toward the New Jerusalem.
The angel choir sings of a different reality. The battle has already been won in heaven and those who are followers of the Lamb will receive the great reward, the New Jerusalem—not in heaven, but here on earth. I can imagine the readers of Revelation, the persecuted church, holed up and in fear for their lives singing the angelic Hallelujah hymns. It was an act of resistance. It was a showing that they would not cooperate with empire. Imagine if that was what was behind our music. Every time we sing Hallelujah, we are proclaiming where our allegiance lies. It’s like saying, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”
Hallelujah means “God be praised.” It’s made up of two words, Hallel in Hebrew means “praise”. Jah is short for JHWH. Together they make “Hallelujah”.
When we get to today’s scripture, the destruction is all but complete. The merchants and the shipmasters and the kings of the earth have seen the destruction of Babylon and they don’t know what to do as they see their lives fall apart. The answer comes from the angel chorus up in heaven: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to God” meaning not to the beast or the economy of the world that oppresses people. God has judged the people who have had illicit affairs with empire and punished them as fitting for their crimes.
But then comes another thing. It’s the promise of a marriage feast this time with the Lamb and the remnant church. Those who have kept the faithful witness. And we are invited to be guests of honor. That’s what the angel band sings to us.
So when we sing in church, we are harkening back to that angel chorus. We are connecting with a power greater than ourselves that can restore us to sanity.
In Revelation and in our worship, hymns are a break in the action. They come as a way to give us all a bit of relief in the horror of the apocalypse. When all hell is breaking loose, sing a hymn that points you in a different direction. Proclaim that God is in control, not the beast, not our enemies, not the economy, not the board of directors, certainly not the congress or the governor or the president. The Lamb is worthy and deserves praise. Beware of praising an earthly ruler. There is a new heaven and a new earth coming. We can face tomorrow if we bear the faithful witness and have active resistance to the ways of this sin-sick world. When we sing Hallelujah, we are putting our trust in God, proclaiming allegiance to a worldview empowered by voices from above who see the big picture.
There is a Sacred Harp song that I would love to have sung at my funeral. It’s number 146 and it’s called “Hallelujah.” Words by Charles Wesley, imagery taken from Revelation. Here’s how it goes:
And let this feeble body fail,
And let it faint or die;
My soul shall quit this mournful vale,
And soar to worlds on high,
Chorus: And I’ll sing hallelujah,
And you’ll sing hallelujah,
And we’ll all sing hallelujah,
When we arrive at home.
Oh what are all my suff’rings here,
If, Lord, Thou count me meet
With that enraptured host t’appear,
And worship at Thy feet. (Chorus)
Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,
But let me find them all again,
In that eternal day. (Chorus)
What are the songs you sing when the going gets tough?
What music do you listen to to get you through the roughest times?
What cathartic strumming do you do on an instrument? What keyboard longs to be played instead of collecting dust in the corner?
My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation
I hear the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear that music ringing
It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?
Last night, Kim and Becca went to a concert by The Singers. They sang songs of longing based on the poetry of Walt Whitman written to reflect the horror of the Civil War. Then they sang hopeful songs of America, which longs to be a City of a Hill. Each one was proclaiming a different, more hopeful vision. From the contemplative “Shenandoah” to William Billings’ rousing “Rose of Sharon” they elicited hope. The show-stopper, though was “Angel Band”, the hymn that we will sing to close today’s service. It brings us face to face with the angel choir and beckons us to sing along with the voices from above that will instill in us hope, passion, and resilience for the living of these days.
So, when the going gets tough or you are on your last nerve, listen for those voices from above. That angel chorus is singing of a different vision. Or maybe the good old vision. And they are beckoning you along. Inviting you to sing along. Play along. And as you do, you just might find yourself transported, however briefly, to a place where you can see the big picture. So join those voices from above. They want you to sing along.