Loving God through Music


My sermon for the Third Order Convocation

Sunday 15 September 2013 – The Stigmata

Loving God through music

God takes human art very seriously. This weekend has reminded us of God’s interest in art. Anne has introduced us to icons which lead many to worship and may help us worship God too. Asta and others reminded us of the importance of play in art.  Of course God has chosen as God’s principal means of communication with us a book full of parables, like that of the pearl we just heard, and poetry and insightful novels like Job and Ruth and Joseph and glorious liturgical praise-poems like those in Revelation.

The art form I know best is music. My Grandad was the first to tell me that you can tell how sincere a person’s faith is from the way he sings. I didn’t know then that he was quoting Thomas Hardy who was quoting John Wesley! It’s true that you can tell from a person’s voice something of their emotional state, and it’s true that singing leads many of us to worship.

We can take our lead from Jesus. We know that he sang. In the synagogues of his time – as today – the Scriptures are always sung. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue and took down the scroll of Isaiah and began to read, he chanted. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he sang. In our parish in Busselton, we are learning a new sung version of the Lord’s Prayer, and some people are objecting. I smile because I know that Jesus would have chanted his prayer both to help memorisation and also to convey awe and reverence:  [sing] “Our Father in heaven.”  The disciples sang a hymn on their way to the Mount of Olives.

Broadening our view of Jesus from Jesus the man to Jesus the Christ who was with the Father from the beginning, the Wisdom who was beside the Creator, we know that Wisdom played (Proverbs 8:31). Some scholars believe that Wisdom, the Christ, was playing a musical instrument. In Job, the “morning stars sang together”. Christ is the morning star (Rev. 22:16), so if we conflate Job and Revelation, we can hear the eternal Christ – the morning star – still singing. John Calvin says that Christ is the Precentor, the lead singer in heaven.

Great theologians of the 20th Century like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were accomplished musicians. Music, they said, especially like that of Mozart and Bach, invites us into the Gospel like parables.

But I think the importance of singing and worship is not just hi-falutin’ like that. When we sing in worship, we have to listen to each other and take into account each others’ voices. It’s nice to have a choir or a strong voice to give us a good idea of the pitch and the pace, but it’s the reality of hearing our relationships as the Body of Christ that strikes me as important. We hear each other, we give way to each other in love, we allow the Body to change us and improve us.

Most Sundays as we listen to each other we hear high voices and low voices, adult voices and children’s voices. Occasionally some brave tenor will sing his part. The voices weave together to create something new and striking. We are transformed as individuals and as a community.

Over the last 10 years my attendance at church has been hit and miss because of my health. And I do miss it. I miss receiving the sacrament in company; I miss the people; and I really miss the singing. The music incarnates the Church for me. The Roman Catholics at Vatican II hit on something when they said that “the incarnation brings heaven’s song to earth so that earthly singers can join” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy §83). We sing and we become the Body of Christ here and beyond here.

Singing reveals emotion. How often have we heard people say, “Oh I can’t sing.” Sometimes they might mean they are worried about singing in tune, but more seriously I think they’re worried about what people will think of them. My daughter says to me, “Dad, you sing too loudly and I get embarrassed.” It’s easy to be put off.

But be encouraged to sing. Be encouraged by Jesus for whom singing was important. Be encouraged because of what happens when you allow your voice to come out. Your sisters and brothers will hear the emotions you reveal and will accept you and love you for those emotions. Your voice with its emotions will become part of the rich tapestry of sound. And when we all allow the song to sing in us, when we let go and let the music happen, then we allow Christ to sing through us.

In a few moments we will renew our promises as novices and as professed. We will sing solo for a bit and allow ourselves, our whole lives to be sung by Christ, his instruments, his voice, his song.

Clement of Alexandria said back in the 2nd Century, “Christ plays the instrument of creation (especially the human part of it), Christ sings the true song, and Christ himself is the new song played by the Father.”

It’s a wonderful thought that may have occurred also to Francis playing air violin on two sticks. We are a musical instrument, and if we let go in the music, Christ plays us, Christ sings us, Christ lifts us up to the Father.

Please sing with me:

Father, we adore you,
Lay our lives before you,
How we love you.

Ted Witham
This sermon much inspired by the essays in Jeremy Begbie’s excellent
Resonant Witness on music and theology.

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2 responses

  1. It was a wonderful sermon, Ted!

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