December 30, 2018/Revelation 4:2-11
When I applied to attend Union Presbyterian Seminary, nearly ten years ago, one of the questions on the application asked to name my favorite book of the Bible and tell why. It’s an interesting question – I wonder which book many of you would choose – but I suspect my answer was a little out of the ordinary. My favorite book was – and still is – the prophet Isaiah.
I got to know the lyrical language of the prophet not from careful Bible study, but through song. First came an upbeat, contemporary piece based on the verse from Isaiah 40: “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” That verse remains my favorite in all of scripture, one that has brought me endless comfort and consolation through the years.
As those years passed, I learned others of the prophet’s words.
“For unto us a Son is born; unto us a child is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
“He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.”
When the dean of the seminary interviewed me, his first comment was, “I read your essay about Isaiah.” Dr. Currie fell in love with me thanks to Handel’s Messiah and my love for the prophet. I fell in love with him after he taught me to read the verses between the libretto and know the prophet intimately.
The Book of Order notes that “we come to know God’s Word more fully when it is both proclaimed and enacted in worship. … singing convey[s] the gracious action of God and communicate[s] our grateful response” (W-1.0303). Music serves as prayer – engaging the whole person and unifying the body of Christ in common worship – and serving as an offering to God (W-2.0202).
Across the centuries, people have heard the Word of God in their heads in poetry and music, words and rhythm. Thanks to their gifts, we find expression for the highest highs and the lowest lows of our lives. And we find scripture translated into tones that we can recall long after the scriptural reference has left us.
German reformer Martin Luther set many of the psalms to music, including his setting of Psalm 46 – perhaps his most famous hymn. The tempo and strong tones of the hymn capture the power of God, who does not crumble, who does not abandon God’s own.
Others have captured their deep faith in the midst of broken heartedness, as did American musician Tommy Dorsey. Dorsey was traveling with his band when he received word that his wife and newborn son had both died. From his deep personal loss sprang “Precious Lord,” which he set to an ancient tune that continues to bring solace to others in their darker moments.
Music also has led the church in her fight against injustice, as with the modern hymn, “They’ll Know We Are Christians.” Priest Peter Scholtes wrote the text and music for this hymn in 1966, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Needing something for his youth choir to sing at ecumenical, interracial events and finding nothing, he wrote this song in a single day.
Music, like poetry, speaks for the heart, and the music of the church speaks for our souls. Our music never ends, for as John of Patmos writes in Revelation, in that heavenly kingdom, we will sing day and night without ceasing. And I think all, with perfect pitch.A