Morgan Park

 Baptist Church

Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor

Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister

11024 S. Bell Avenue 

Chicago, IL 60643


Sermon May 10, 2015

Psalm 98

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.

The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.

He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy

at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

“Sing to the Lord, a new song because he has done wonderful things!” This is, of course, not the only place in Scripture where we are challenged to sing a new song to God. Psalm 96 opens with: “O, sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” Certainly when we step outside on these lush spring days, it’s clear that all the earth is singing a new song to the Lord. Is this not so?

In Psalm 33 we’re challenged to: “Praise the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp … Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.” (Psalm 33:2-3) In Psalm 40, we’re reminded: “The Lord put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” (Psalm 40:3)

The great prophet Isaiah proclaims in chapter 42: “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth! Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants.” (Isaiah 42:10) So what’s this business about a new song? Does God become bored with “old songs”?

No, of course not! I’m sure God is very pleased with well-worn and beloved “oldies but goodies.” But to announce a new song is a way of saying that something significant has changed and this new change can only be proclaimed with a “new song” to the Lord. I’ll return to this in a moment but first a few words about psalms in general.

Sisters and brothers, we know the 150 psalms comprising the Book of Psalms were written over a period of hundreds of years. If we wish to unlock the power of the Psalms, we best understand them as poetry – as poetic prayers. For decades – I daily engaged in choral prayer with fellow friars, reciting and singing the psalms. So the psalms are close to my heart and soul. And the first Biblical book we read together as a congregation was the Book of Psalms.

Let me add some thoughts from the scripture scholar Barbara Bowe: “Praise and petition poured out to God is a universal experience of the human heart. Capturing the sentiments of both the individual and the collective soul of its people, the Hebrew (Book of Psalms) reflects Israel’s faith, her longing for God, her identity as God’s own people.

“The (Book of Psalms) constitutes a whole ‘school of prayer,’ so to speak, not merely in the sense … of a collection of prayers to be said but, rather, as a lesson in how to pray … (the) full spectrum of the human condition (including the highs and the lows) is covered in (the Book of Psalms).”  

Back to the idea of singing a new song! It’s suggested by scripture scholars that Psalm 98 – our preaching text for today – was written after the Jewish exiles returned home from their forced sojourn in Babylon beginning in 586 B.C.

Recall the well-known psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem). On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs … ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (But) How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4)

Only when God leads them back to Jerusalem after almost 60 years of captivity can the Israelites sing a new song to God. And that is what is called for in our preaching text! A new song to proclaim God’s continued goodness and care for the Jewish people even after the terrible destruction wrought by the Babylonians and the crushing shame of exile. A new song to God is rightly called for!

Brothers and sisters, let me say something about song. We know that words often fail us. Words fail us in the face of great tragedy and also in the midst of jubilation and joy. Because words fail us – we have music. I believe human music may well be older than human speech.

Let me ask here an obscure Bible trivia question: who was the first human in the Bible to play music? The answer: Jubal – who is said in Genesis 4:21 to be “the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and flute.” I want to be certain we can take something away from each sermon!

Now – let’s keep looking at music and song! Music is essential to human life. We know from the 1st Book of Samuel that David’s music on the lyre chased away evil, demonic, spirits from King Saul (see 1st Samuel 16:23). And many of us probably know the famous quote from the English playwright William Congreve: “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast; to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.”

Music and song, sisters and brothers, are part and parcel of the creative dynamic that’s been planted deep within each of us. Everyone is called into the great act of creation begun by God and continuing to this moment. At the heart of creation lies the divine energy that leads and guides all creation.

And we’re called to share this creative unfolding of our God. The difficulty we sometimes face is that we fear creativity – we fear doing creative things – because we cannot typically do what the great artists have done. Who among us is Mozart or Beethoven? Who among us is Michelangelo? Who among us is da Vinci or Rembrandt or Van Gogh or any of the great artists that have graced our history?

I fear, sisters and brothers, that many of us may hide our creativity because we don’t want to be judged by what the great artists have produced. But should I stop writing because I cannot attain the heights of Shakespeare or Dante? Should I forgo any return to playing the piano or the accordion or the guitar because I lack much discernible talent?

Yes, there are professionals and there are amateurs. Most of us – in most things – are amateurs. But if we allow this reality to prevent us from creative pursuits – if we allow our expectations of artistic competency to still the creative power within - I believe we thwart the creative power of God Almighty.

Creativity, brothers and sisters, is its own reward. We engage in creativity not for the sake of glory and honor and financial reward. We engage in creativity to enter more deeply into the artistic energy at the heart of God. Creativity is needed to help heal what is broken within us and among us. Let me share a story I came across Friday:  “Shortly after three car bombs tore through Baghdad this week, Iraqi classical musician Karim Wasfi calmly sat in a chair at the center of one of the blast sites, took out his cello, and began playing amid the rubble.

“A crowd of people gathered to listen to his melancholy song. Some of them cried, while others hugged, kissed, smiled, and applauded … Wasfi explained: ‘My message as an artist is that when things are abnormal, we make things normal. We make things worth living for.’”

As the spiritual writer, Ronald Rolheiser, notes: “What every good artist does (whether a singer, a writer, a painter, a musician, a composer, a gardener, a mother, a preacher, a teacher and so on) - is to tap into the deep (godly) energy at the heart of things and draw on that (divine) energy to create something (from) God - for God.” (edited)

If we do not attempt creativity – if we shut off the creativity residing within our deepest selves – we may well fall prey to envy and jealousy. As Rolheiser writes: “If we aren’t creative, we (will) soon become bitter!”

Brothers and sisters, we can all fall prey to jealousy and envy. We can all fall prey to bitterness. But there is an antidote to jealousy, an antidote to envy, and antidote to bitterness. The antidote is creativity. The antidote is to sing a new song to the Lord. The antidote is to make room for newness – for surprise – for a new song.

The 20th Century American poet, William Stafford, used to challenge his students to write a poem every morning before they did anything else. When they complained that it was too hard to do this without the gift of inspiration, Stafford told them: “Lower your standards!”

This is good advice – let’s lower our standards for being creative. We may be pleasantly surprised by what we can do – what we can create in and through the power of God’s creative Spirit. We may also be pleasantly surprised by what we, together with the Holy Spirit, can create in and through our beloved Morgan Park Baptist Church.

 On the morning Stafford died of a heart attack, he wrote a poem containing these words: ‘“You don’t have to prove anything,’ my mother said. ‘Just be ready for what God sends.’” Good words for us! We don’t have to prove anything. All we need do is be ready for what God sends!   

Brothers and sisters, our future in God – our future in Christ Jesus - is forever pregnant with wonderful new possibilities. When we allow these possibilities to percolate within us – what was deemed impossible – becomes possible. Praying and creativity are the two primary channels into the life of the Almighty. Let me say this again: praying and creativity are the two main channels into the life – into the heart – of God.

And as the angel Gabriel proclaimed to Mary at the Annunciation and as the angel Gabriel continues to proclaim to each of us: “For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) So let me end with a quotation from the prophet Zephaniah: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst. He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” (Zephaniah 3:1) Sisters and brothers, when we sing a song to God – a new song or an old song - God responds: God sings back to us! So let us gladly “Sing to the Lord a new song!” today and every day! Amen!