October 23, 2016 – Music and the Psalms Week 1 – Hymns and Psalms

Psalm 8, Psalm 19

        Today we begin a sermon series that will take us right up to the first week of Advent – yes, it is that close!  In this series we will be evaluating different types of Psalms and relating them to various genres of music.  To start us off, I will walk you through some different types of Psalms – it may be a surprise to realize there are different types of Psalms depending on the emphasis of each.  We will also focus on hymns – what is a hymn? How does a song get classified as a hymn? Are they all high church, Elizabethan-style organ tunes?

As some guidelines, this series will seem more like a Bible study. I will encourage you to bring and use your Bibles or to turn to the Psalms in your pew Bibles to read along with me. I will have particular Psalms as focal scriptures, like the ones read for us today. However; I will also use other Psalms during our time together that will not be on the PowerPoint so if you would like to review these as we go along I encourage you to do so.

To start us off, I’d like us to consider the roll of music within a worship service.  Music in general has a tendency to evoke emotion.  Think of your favorite song of all time.  What is it about that song that makes it so special to you?  Is it the words, the beat, the flow, the tune?  Maybe it’s a bit of all-of-the-above.  I often think a special time in my life when I hear a favorite song.  I remember one Christmas night when my uncle Bob showed up unexpectedly.  My nephew Bryan was also there, both extremely talented guitar players. Me, I just keep the beat!  My uncle for some odd reason had never heard the song, “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Suddenly, on Christmas night, the walls were resounding with unbelievable music from these two musicians, while the rest of us were singing at the top of our lungs.  That song takes me back to that particular Christmas night every time I hear it.  It means even more to me because not long after that night my uncle died of cancer.  My children were able to experience his music first-hand and will cherish those memories forever.  That song evokes a bitter sweet set of emotions for me.  Perhaps that is a vital role of music in our lives.

What about music in worship?  Should we be concerned with emotions when considering God?  I think so.  I think we all have logical parts to our brains, but we also have emotive parts that make the difference between statistics concerning someone’s life (birthdate, age, death date, number of years married) and a person who made a difference in our lives.  Emotions play an important part in our lives, and when considering worship, it seems we can best relate to God with our whole selves including our emotions.  Perhaps the emotions of awe and wonder can give us a glimpse of Almighty God.  Perhaps our realization of Jesus’ concern for our fears leaves us with a calm reassurance of a partner journeying through life with us.  Perhaps we can feel free to express joy in worship as we celebrate together all that God has done for us.  Music aids with all of these areas as we glorify God with our voices lifted in song.

Song lyrics tend to be very poetic.  Here is a quote from P.C. Craigie concerning poetry:

“Poetry is, among other things, an attempt to transcend the limitations of normal human language and to give expression to something not easily expressed in words – indeed it may ultimately be inexpressible in human terms. When poetry is accompanied by music, the element of transcendence may be heightened.”

When referring to God, we are clearly trying to explain the unexplainable.  There is a true mystery that our logical side of our brains cannot fully comprehend, but our emotive side can help us appreciate the mystery.  Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.  This mystery cannot be completely explained, but we can sing a song like “Victory in Jesus” and feel the blessings of this promise – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

When we consider scripture, it seems natural to turn to the Psalms which, being poetic in nature, seem to relate well with music.  Many of the Psalms were written with the expressed purpose that they are to be sung.  Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 18.  Does anyone’s Bible have a notation before this Psalm?  What does it say? Mine says ‘For the director of music: Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hands of his enemies and from the hand of Saul.’  David wrote many of the Psalms and proceeded to sing these to God. Some like this one are praise Psalms.  Some evoke different emotions – sorrow, fear, great joy, assurance, hope, comfort.  Let’s first look at this Psalm 18 and read through a few verses (verses 1-3.)  Because God rescued David, David in turn sings praises to God through the Psalms.

However; not all of the Psalms are praise Psalms. Let us turn to Psalm 22. I hope you find these words familiar, as Jesus uttered them from the cross.  Some theologians theorize that Jesus was actually quoting this Psalm when he uttered his famous words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Perhaps we have uttered similar words at times.  Perhaps we feel God has abandoned us. Maybe we feel so distant from God all we can do is sing the Blues.  These Psalms of lament and the musical style of Blues seem to go well together as we have all at some point, simply wanted to step away from everything and embrace our misery.

Yet just one Psalm later, Psalm 23, holds only 6 verses and remains the most beloved Psalm of all. Let’s turn to that one and read:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name sake.”  What blessed words of hope and reassurance.  When I think of spiritual music, this same feeling of hope and reassurance emerges in me.  Spirituals have a way of expressing a very special hope even during times of significant trial – even when walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

At times we need to seek repentance from our wrongdoing. We find David’s most sorrowful Psalm as we review his words in Psalm 51 – “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”   As you turn to this Psalm, does anyone have anything written before the Psalm? Mine says: “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”  David needed to repent, and wrote this Psalm with the intention that it be sung.  Some will turn to folk and country music for a similar relationship.  I have often heard that if you play a country song backwards, it’s quite a happy tune!  We will look at this comparison as well.

I would like us now to turn our focus to Psalm 29. This Psalm was written Antiphon style, with a chant-like rhythm that seems to evoke strength through repetition.  I would like us to recite this one together in a special way – left versus right.  This will be projected so please join me in following the slides to read through this Psalm. [Psalm 29]  Chant-like, repetitive style singing is classic of the Taize community.  We will hear several selections from this community, and sing a couple of the ones noted in our hymnal.

Since our focus for today is hymn music, let us take a look at some popular hymns.  Consider the emotions/feelings evoked as we look at these hymns:

Amazing Grace – UMH 378

It is Well with my Soul – UMH 377

How Great Thou Art – UMH 77

Out of the Depths I Cry to You – UMH 515

O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing – UMH 57

A hymn is a formal song, sung to God in public worship, typically by the entire congregation.  Interestingly enough, what is actually referred to as a hymn includes the words only. The tune is known as the hymn tune.  Hymns are structured by the classical music genre, hence the inclusion of four-part harmonies.  [source: www.songsandhymns.org]     There are some interesting features of a hymn – for instance take a look at the hymn “Amazing Grace” on page 378.  The markings at the bottom refer to the meter of the song. In other words, the words to this song can be sung to different tunes because the hymn is defined as words-only.  As we conclude today, I wanted to share with you this video concerning this most popular hymn.  [share video.]

I encourage you to join us as we explore different genres of music as they relate to different types of Psalms. Next week we will be looking at Praise Psalms as they relate to Contemporary Praise and Worship Music.  I also encourage you to review the Psalms looking for the emotions and feelings each one evokes.  Regardless of whether we come singing praises to God or wondering why God has abandoned us, the ultimate message of reassurance is truly a gift from God. Amen.

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