We often falsely say that Martin Luther said, “Whoever sings prays twice,” when in fact the one who first said that was St. Augustine of Hippo. It’s no wonder that Luther gets the credit for those words. He was after all an Augustinian monk, but more likely he’s given credit for saying that because he himself loved music. He wrote hymns, both music and lyrics. He is known to have sung a lot as well. And we can be sure that a lot of his singing was in praise of God. Singing is most definitely a kind of prayer. When we sing, our prayer leaves little to no room for pride, and so our prayer is directed not at ourselves, but outwardly—to God or on behalf of creation. What’s more, singing has a way of burrowing into a different part of our minds so that we remember music at times even when we can’t remember other things. The songs we sing lodge themselves in us and become part of us, and so too do these prayers. Prayer is a conversation with God, we remember, and so it’s interesting to ponder what it means that these prayers that we sing embed themselves in us and become part of us, of who we are. What does that mean that our conversations with God are deep within us, shaping who we are, in a way that is different from how we remember other things in our lives? What difference does it make that buried within us this prayer that we carry with us?
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
It’s the evening of July 31, 1750 in Leipzig, Germany. Earlier that day, Johann Sebastian Bach, composer extraordinaire, had been interred in the graveyard of the Johanniskirche. At the age of 65, Bach had died three days prior as a result of an infection from eye surgery. It wasn’t a large burial. His body had been put in an oak coffin and was permitted free use of the horse-drawn hearse. Now that his body had been reverently committed to the ground—earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust—and the sun was going down, people began to hearing strange noises coming from the graveyard. One fellow stumbled into a pub and remarked about the noise as he took a seat beside the one of the town magistrates who was just finishing his drink. “Say, did you hear that strange noise out by the graveyard as you were coming here?” The magistrate shook his head and said, “No, but a few guys mentioned as they came in a while back. I’m just leaving now. Let’s head on over.”
The magistrate left the pub with his new friend and heads toward the graveyard. A small group of curious onlookers start following along, clearly just as befuddled by the strange sound. As they come to the graveyard, the sound grows louder. The magistrate follows the sound until he arrives as Bach’s fresh grave. He closes his eyes, stands there, and listens a moment. “Ah, yes, that’s a bit from the sixth Brandenburg Concerto, only it’s backwards.” He listened a moment longer, and said, “Ah! There’s a bit of the fifth concerto, but it’s backwards, too. Most puzzling.” He listened a bit more, “Hm. If I’m not mistaken, that’s a bit from the fourth concerto, but it’s backwards as well.” And then suddenly the realization of what was happening dawned on the magistrate. He flashed opened his eyes, clapped together his hands, and announced to the crowd that had followed to the graveyard, “My fellow citizens, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s just Bach decomposing.”
I guess you might’ve said, in a backwards sort of way, he’s Bach. In case you were worried, I have a whole Liszt of these musician puns Haydn up my sleeve. I just don’t know if you can Handel them all. Okay. Okay. I thought it was pretty sharp. I’m just glad it didn’t fall completely flat.
All joking aside, music is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. In fact, scientists have found evidence that around 40000 years ago, humans were creating musical instruments. We can safely assume that we were singing before that—perhaps long before that. It’s hard to know how long ago we started singing, but it’s a safe bet that we started not long after we developed rudimentary speech. Just look at babies for proof of that today. Not long after a baby starts babbling nonsense “words,” they string those words together in what can only be called a song—singing. Music is integral to being human. Since time immemorial and even before we can remember in our own lives, we human beings have been composing music.
It’s fascinating when you consider that music followed quickly on the heels of speech, particularly when you think about how God set creation into motion. We all know how in the beginning God spoke and light and life burst forth into existence, how it was God’s Word that first tamed the chaos and ordered creation and everything was very good. We also know that God continues to act in the world through his Word—in particular, through the prophets.
The prophets were special people called by God to proclaim God’s Word to God’s people. We have this image of the prophet standing on the street corner or on a balcony or in something like a pulpit declaring to people whatever it is that’s God’s will. That’s a nice image, but it’s really not quite like that. To be sure, the prophets did proclaim God’s will. That’s the very nature of prophecy. The prophets arose when the God’s people found themselves in difficult straits, having forgotten their special relationship with God and what it means for them. The prophets reminded them what it means to be God’s people, called them back to faithfulness, and once more renewed the promise of God’s faithfulness—that they will be God’s people and he will be their God and that nothing could stand in the way of that. That much is true for what the prophets did, but the way they went about doing just that isn’t quite what people think.
Did you know that the prophets more than likely sang, or chanted their prophecies?
Like many teachers and holy people across cultures, the prophets were people in touch with the spiritual world in ways that ordinary people aren’t. Prophets would often enter trances, and it was in these altered states that the Word of God came to them and they would declare it to people who with them. They would sing it, or they would chant it. In fact, the word in Hebrew for prophesying means can mean to chant or to sing. And so when the prophets prophesied, they sang. They proclaimed the Word of God not through lofty speeches in podiums, but likely around fires or over smoking bowls of incense—and in song, in music. God has spoken to us in many and various ways, and one of those ways is through music.
When God created the heavens and the earth, he called forth something from nothing. He composed something—the song of creation. And he didn’t stop composing. The song he composed was a love song—a song that sings his love for everything he has made, and in particular, with us. That song sings God’s love for us—a love that does marvelous things. Time and time again, God astounds us at what he does, at each new measure of creation, each new note. But the theme is always the same: God’s love knows no bounds and nothing will stand in his way of living in relationship with us. Everything God composes is a variation on that theme, but it’s always recognizable. From the first word at creation, to the promise in the rainbow, to the kings of Israel, to the prophets, all the way up to the cross where Jesus Christ himself declared his faithfulness to us—God’s love song has been recognizable even if it’s been sung in different ways. The same Word who first ordered creation, the same Word who became a human being and lived, died, and rose to life again—that same Word declares to us today and every day that nothing will mute God’s love song for us. This is the song that never ends.
Today we dedicate our new organ. We have a new song to sing, if you will—a song of praise and thanksgiving. We give thanks to God for this amazing blessing. We praise God for his marvelous faithfulness. But we don’t forget how we landed here. Fire destroyed our old, beloved organ, and we were for a time left wondering what would become of our worship in this place. Reduced to a pile of rubble, to a heap of ashes, quite literally, our organ, a centerpiece of our worship here, was gone. As if a pandemic weren’t enough, our sanctuary had been desecrated by the wantonness of fire, and we felt forlorn. All manner of things in our lives seemed to be falling apart—decomposing like a dead body. Many people may have lost hope in the face of all that we faced. Maybe some of you felt hopeless even…
Yet we lived up to our name—Emanuel, God with us. We may have felt abandoned, but we knew weren’t. We believed we weren’t. God remained faithful, and even as life decomposed around us, God was at work re-composing us. We gathered for worship, virtually and again in person, and we worked. We worked tirelessly, diligently, and most of all, faithfully to restore this space, and to restore our organ.
But we must declare the truth about where we are now. We must speak in prophetic words. The song we sing today may be new, but the theme is as old as time. We haven’t arrived at this day on our own or of our own will, ability, understanding, or strength, but God has been faithful to us even when the odds seemed stacked against us. God accompanied us, steeled our trust, and reminded us in hope that all things work together for God for those who love God. God didn’t abandon us because what we’re doing here is part of something far bigger than ourselves. What we are doing here is important work. It’s God work, the work of peace, love, justice, harmony, mercy, reconciliation…and God won’t abandon that.
We may not always know how things will turn out, nor may we necessarily like how things are, but God’s promise is sure: God is with us, no matter what. We like the prophets of old are called, are charged, are obligated to declare what God has done. And we like them join all creation in singing…as is fundamentally part of who we are. This is a marvelous thing, and we with all creation have every reason to join in praising God for what he has done for us. We aren’t going backwards. We aren’t decomposing. Go isn’t done with us yet. God still has many, many more notes to write, chords to play, and keys to transpose. Each new day is a new opportunity for us to be re-composed according to God’s grand love song, and we are blessed that can take a part in the choir of creation and sing, “God has done marvelous things. I too sing praises with a new song.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.