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  • Writer's pictureRev. Drew Stockstill

Sing A New Song

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

Psalm 98

1 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. 2 The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. 3 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.

4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. 5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. 6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. 8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy 9 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.

Legend has it that Robert Lowry found himself in a car filled with half-drunken lumbermen singing a single gospel song from Harrisburg all the way to Lewisburg. How a Baptist preacher in the mid 1800’s ended up in this particular vehicular situation is not clear. It’s likely simply happenstance Rev. Lowry found himself seated in the same train car as the lumbermen, when they broke out in song, filled with the Spirit and spirits.

They were singing the then new gospel hymn, “Shall we Gather at the River,” and they sang it over and over and over again. When they came to the chorus, “Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river; gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God,” they sang it more wildly than before, collapsing in laughter. The pastor did not find it very funny at all, as, you see, he’s the one who wrote the old gospel song. Lowry said, he didn’t care much for his famous tune at that time, but “I did think that perhaps the spirit of the hymn, the words so flippantly uttered, might somehow survive and be carried forward into the lives of those careless men, and ultimately lift them upward to the realization of the hope expressed in my hymn.”

“Soon we’ll reach the shining river, soon our pilgrimage will cease; soon our happy hearts will quiver with the melody of peace.”

Perhaps the train-riding, hymn-singing, drunken lumbermen found in that melody more peaceful, happy hearts. Perhaps the men were not so flippant and careless, as they were truly living into the spirit and command of Psalm 98, to, “Make a joyful noise, to the Lord, all the earth; break forth in joyous song and sing praises.” The lumbermen were undoubtedly joyful.

In the past few weeks we’ve looked at psalms that express doubt and distress, psalms that comfort, and psalms that encourage unity. Today we read together from Psalm 98, an exuberant expression of thanks to God for doing, “marvelous things,” works which extend to the ends of the earth. God’s marvelous things are wonderful for all creation – the sea and all the sea creatures roar with praise. The rivers clap their hands in thanks. The hills sing together for joy. The Psalmist gives thanks for all that God has done and will do when he comes to judge the earth, with righteousness for the earth, and equity for the people. Psalm 98 is a new song, filled with joy for hope of a new world, a new way of being in the world, hope fueled by imagining what is possible on earth.

What would bring you that kind of joy in life? What could change in our reality that would bring you to your feet, filled with this kind of praise? Imagine it. That is what happens in Psalm 98. Imagine our hopes fulfilled.

But the psalm is not only filled with hope and joy, thanks and praise, it is also filled with commands. Commands are those things God directs us to do in the Bible, things which are not requests, but demands, like the command to love God with all we’ve got. And the Ten Commandments. And the command Jesus gave his disciples in today’s gospel reading, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” These are not optional. In Psalm 98, the Psalmist gives us a series of commands:

Sing a new song, make a joyful, joy-full noise…all the earth, break forth into joyous song, sing praises, sing praises to the lord, make a joyful noise, let the sea roar, let the rivers clap, let the hills sing.

There are nine commandments of joyful praise. Not only are we commanded to joy, we are forbidden from keeping the joy to ourselves. Let others have joy, let the earth have its joy, we are commanded. We must ensure that even the seas and rivers and hills and all the people who live in the world are also allowed, and have reason to express their own joy.

What new reality would cause the seas and rivers to burst forth in praise? Perhaps they are giving thanks that humans are no longer polluting them, filling them with our refuse, no longer wasting their precious resource.

A lawsuit was filed this week by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper against the city of Harrisburg and Capital Region Water because of how much we are polluting the river. In 2020, 584 million gallons of untreated wastewater discharged from our sewers directly into the river. That’s almost half of our waste which goes straight into the Susquehanna untreated. Our waste, into the home of fish and birds; water we drink, and folks downstream, water that ends up in the Chesapeake Bay where it is causing damage, and on into the sea. There has to be a team effort here, because God commanded this beautiful river should be able to clap its hands with joy, and our waste is standing in the way.

What would cause the hills to sing together for joy? Perhaps that they are no longer being drilled, blown up and having their tops removed? Even creation is invited to imagine a new reality. And it’s a reality filled with songs of joy. Our comfort, and our joy, church, cannot come at the expense of the rest of creation, nor can our joy come without making way for the joy of others. Every part of creation in this psalm is imagined as living a new reality where joy, equity, justice, and righteousness are common place. And “mortals join the mighty chorus which the morning stars began…joyful music lifts us sunward.”

Our main purpose in life is to celebrate and enjoy God forever. We shouldn’t need permission to experience joy, but here we have it. We shouldn’t need to be told to make some noise, to have some fun, to let loose in praise of God, but here we have it. We shouldn’t need to be reminded that every human life and every nonhuman life is equally dissevering of joy, but here we are commanded. There is plenty that gets thrown our way that makes joyful praise more difficult than it should be. Sometimes we need somebody to give us permission or write us a prescription for joy. And the medicine is our very own ability to imagine and hope for a new reality, one of healing, restoration, and flourishing at every level.

Beloved, we are in a new season as a church, as a community, as a nation, as a global citizenship. We have been through a great ordeal and even now continue in our struggles. These struggles, the intimate personal ones and the global ones, have the power to overwhelm our hold on the truth: that God has done and continues to do marvelous things. We remember those marvelous things we have known in this life – the love, and people, and places. God was there, and God will be in our future joy. We take hope that God will continue to do new good things in and through us in the future.

In the days when this psalm was first written, Israel was just coming out of a long period of exile. They Israelites had been exiled from their homes, their land, their culture, their community, everything they knew. They witnessed violence and despair. But, in time, they were allowed to go home and try to rebuild. Psalm 98 is a hymn that came out of that experience. They needed commands to get them on their feet, to inspire them to keep going, to dream again, to imagine a future. They had been through a great ordeal, and they needed some new songs, ones that reminded them that even though they had known so much loss, “God has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness,” and, church, God has.

God is not finished with Christ Lutheran Church. It is time for us to imagine and live into a new reality. To start writing new songs, new stories, new experiences, new opportunities to share joy and love with our whole community; to imagine such joy in this place that it gets us to singing wildly and boisterously, tuning the organ and any other instrument we can get our hands on, to fill this place and these streets, rivers, and hills with joyful noise. The church is the place to imagine a new reality that is beyond belief, and then try to put it into practice. Imagine the joy in places where there was sadness. Imagine the music in places that have been long silent.

My colleague David reminded me of a video I saw several years ago of a mother holding her son, not quite a year old, on her lap. The child had been deaf since birth, but he had just received cochlear implants that allowed him to hear. In the video, the doctor is saying, “OK, we’re ready to turn them on.” The first thing the child hears—as it should be – is his mother’s voice. “Hi, Jonathan,” she sings. The boy, who has been compulsively sucking on a pacifier, drops it straight from his mouth. He looks directly into his mother’s eyes, and a smile breaks across his face from ear to ear. As mom sings words of love to the beloved, Jonathan grins and even closes his eyes, as though he’s hearing the most beautiful song in the world.”[1] And he is, in a new reality he could never have even imagined, now his reality, filled with the sounds of joy.

Imagine all creation discovering such a joyful reality, in beauty and love. God is yearning for us to open our ears and hear God singing our name, like Jonathan’s mother, and for that love of God to make us smile from ear to ear, and clap our hands, and overflow with love.

Christ Church, Psalm 98 not only gives us permission to live into joyful realities, it is a command for each of us and all of us together, to create new songs, in a new season, in noisy celebration, even as we will continue to know change, and we will continue to know loss, and we will continue to have reason to gather in grief, and still, still, God is at work and that is reason to sing, all the more reason to double down on joy.

Rev. Robert Lowry was famous for many other hymns, including one of my very favorite gospel songs, which says, “Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing, it finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing? What though my joys and comforts die? I know my savior liveth. What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth. No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging. Since Christ is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

We have seen God’s marvelous things, beloved, how can we keep from singing?

[1] Story as told by Rev. David Lewicki, in, “Between Text and Sermon, Psalm 98,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 2015, 210.

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