The Church Sings!
John 16:5-15 (w/ Isaiah 12:1-6 & James 1:16-21)
“Sing praises to the LORD,” Isaiah says, “for He has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth.” The Church sings. It’s just what she does because of who she is, and Whose she is. The Church sings. It’s just a glorious fact of life.
Yes, the Church sings, but she does not sing her warm-fuzzy, ooey-gooey emotions. Sure, there are plenty of times when her heart swells with joy and gladness as she sings. But there are plenty of other times – perhaps most times – when her heart feels rather parched and empty. And still she sings. She does not sing just because she feels happy or because life is good. In fact, when we sing with the Church and as the Church, we sing whether we are happy or not. We sing in sadness as well as joy, in grief as well as elation, in disappointment as well as fulfillment. We sing in every emotional state that we human beings experience. The Church sings in and through them all. Why? Because, as Isaiah sings, “the LORD God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.” Yes, “He has done gloriously; let this be made know in all the earth.”
The Church sings. She sings in response to God’s great and mighty acts of salvation. These great and mighty acts of God’s salvation are the content of the Church’s song. The Church sings God’s acts of salvation for us who already know them, so that we won’t forget them. She also sings God’s acts of salvation for those who have not yet heard of them, so that they too may be saved and join with us in songs of thankfulness and praise. To be saved means to join the Church’s song with heart, mind, and voice.
Yes, the LORD has done gloriously. Even though He was angry with us for our sin and rebellion, His anger turned away in His Son, so that He might comfort us with His forgiveness. Believe that, and you’ll sing! It’s just what you do when you realize and trust what great things God has done for you. And if your singing has been a bit half-hearted or lack-luster, you may want to ask yourself, “Have I been focusing on the glorious deeds of the LORD, or have I been focusing on something else – perhaps something as vain and self-absorbed as worrying how I may or may not sound?”
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives us much to sing about. He says that He is “going to Him who sent [Him],” – to His Father. Have you ever thought of Jesus’ suffering and dying as “going to the Father”? Jesus did. “For the joy that was set before Him [He] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). Do you want something to sing about? Try this: our Lord Jesus has transformed our suffering and dying to be like His suffering and dying. We trust that His cross was His “going to the Father” on our behalf and for our benefit. Because of Jesus’ suffering, dying, and rising, our suffering and dying take on new meaning. Our suffering and dying become our going to the Father too. Now that’s something to sing about! And there’s more.
Jesus says that He goes to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit to us. “For if I do not go away,” He told the disciples, “the Helper will not come to you.” So Jesus goes to the cross, weighed down with our sin. He enters into our death to trample it down. He rises from the grave to bring us His life. He ascends to the Father’s right hand to intercede for us. Our Lord gives all these gifts, but He does not stop there. He also pours out upon us the most precious gift of all: the Holy Spirit Himself.
You see, without the Holy Spirit, you and I could never know what sin is, or what righteousness is, or what judgment is. Without the Holy Spirit, we would think, along with most people, that sin is merely about what we do or don’t do, about following rules and regulations. We would think that righteousness is merely a matter of our right outward behavior, or of not doing something mean and nasty, or of doing all the stuff that God tells us to do—as in standing at attention, clicking our heels, saluting, and saying, “Yes, sir, General God, sir!” Without the Holy Spirit, we would swear up and down that judgment is merely a matter of appearing before Judge God on the Last Day to see what goodies He will hand out for those who tried their best with whatever they had, or what punishments He will dish out to those who are clearly more wicked than we are.
But that’s all a big bunch of balderdash…and the Holy Spirit comes to show us it is. The Spirit shows us the true depth of our sin. Sin is not just a matter of what we do or don’t do, of following certain rules or regulations. The Spirit shows us that all sin flows from unbelief, that contagion that infects us all. He shows us that we do not trust God as we should, that we don’t believe and rely on His promises. We wonder if God really hears our prayers, or if chance governs all things in life, or if our sufferings come our way by pure happenstance. The Holy Spirit, though, unveils the evil that dwells in our hearts. We quickly realize how our sin within sullies and soils everything we do, say, and think. Yes, even our best and noblest deeds are stained and soured. As Isaiah said by the same Spirit many centuries ago, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is.64:6). Is that something to sing about? Yes! It inspires us to sing: “Create in me a clean heart, O God!”
Then we get to see that the same Holy Spirit rejoices to convince us about righteousness. You see, righteousness is not first about us, what we do or fail to do. Even the best of our deeds is tarnished and infected by our selfishness and unbelief. Instead, the Spirit tells us that this is righteousness: Our Savior Jesus goes to the Father. In His perfect love He carried our unbelief and our sinful actions in Himself. In His perfect obedience He suffered the unspeakable horrors of our sin and death. But then He burst forth from the darkness of death, and He rose again to bring life and immortality to light. And since He has ascended to God’s Right Hand, He is our Advocate before the Father. Now that’s righteousness! HE is righteousness! HE perfectly fulfills the whole will and law of God on our behalf and for our benefit. HE stands before the Father as the Righteous One. And now that we are joined to Him in our Baptism, we also stand before the Father as righteous ones. In fact, in our Baptism the holiness of Jesus clothes us and begins to transform us, now and all the way to the Resurrection on the Last Day. Now THAT is something to sing about! And there’s still more.
God’s Spirit of holiness also reveals that judgment has come on the ruler of this world. Yes, Satan himself has been judged, condemned, and thrown down. The old, evil accuser has been silenced. He can bring no charge against those who are in Christ Jesus. Sure, he may prowl around the world looking for folks to devour, but he’s like a Rottweiler on a leash. His reach and his time are limited. The Holy Spirit, though, keeps guiding us into the Truth of Jesus. He keeps showing us that all that belongs to Jesus is ours as well, and it’s much more than I can fit into one sermon. That’s why we sing and keep on singing the Church’s song.
In today’s Epistle reading, James rejoices in all the goodies that come down to us from the Father of lights who never changes. He is always our great Giver God! He spoke His Gospel, and we became the first fruits of a new creation. Here’s reason to sing: by the gift of our rebirth in Baptism, we get to live the joys of the Age to come already in this world. We get to practice the life of Christ now as we prepare for eternity. That’s why James calls us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. We know that our getting hot and bothered never produces the righteousness that God requires. That comes by humbly hearing and holding on to Jesus and the new life that He gives in His death and resurrection.
And so we sing. We “sing praises to the LORD, for He has done gloriously.” The Church of Jesus Christ sings. She sings the wondrous things God has done and still does in her midst. “Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Let’s go forth with singing as we meet Him at His Holy Table. Amen.