Lessons: Psalm 95:1-7, Isaiah 51:9-16, Colossians 1:9-14, Matthew 9:18-26
Hymns: LSB 752, 679, 513, 574, 594
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
As I read Psalm 95 and today’s Scripture readings to a shut-in this past week, my mind was drawn to a time when I visited a small, country church in rural Montana. Less than 30 were present for Church that Sunday morning. The old electric organ didn’t sound very good. But the people? They sang! Boy, did they sing! The men’s voices drowned out the women’s voices. If the roof weren’t attached, you’d think it would go flying off. It was amazing. By the grace of God, the culture in that congregation was to sing. It was a joy to visit. Anyone who visited that church knew that those present really believed what they heard and so they sang. Their joy was contagious.
The opposite can also be found. Many churches that have so-called praise bands tend to leave the singing to a few professionals up front. It becomes a performance by those on the stage and the congregation becomes spectators. The gift of song is taken from the people. Many will say those are still joy-filled churches. But the joy is not expressed by those in attendance; it is based on the liveliness of the music. It’s no different than attending a concert. I suspect some churches become this way because they grow tired of relying on congregational singing. So they turn it into a performance, which is contrary to what true worship is. You see, worship sets its focus first on our Savior who redeemed us. Listen to the words of Isaiah 51:11 from our Old Testament lesson: “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” The ransomed return. Christ has covered our sins by ransoming us through His death on the cross. The response is that we will come to Zion (that is, the Church) with singing with everlasting joy; sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
This depicts a reality often seen in the Scriptures of both a “now” and a “not yet.” As God’s children, we are redeemed by Christ now and stand before God restored and forgiven. As Christians who trust in our Savior, our sins no longer accuse us. But we still live in a fallen world. We keep on transgressing God’s Law. And we still face many hardships and sorrows. Consider the woman with the flow of blood for 12 years or Jairus whose daughter had died. They suffered the effects of sin. And so do we. At the same time, God creates in us clean hearts and restores unto us the joy of salvation. By being recipients of the Gospel, we are members of Christ’s kingdom even now, but we will fully realize that in the future. And while we will enjoy bliss when our souls go to be with the Lord, we will fully realize the joy of Heaven when Christ Jesus returns and raises our bodies from the dead. He will usher in the perfected heavens and earth, and we will dwell with our Lord and all the saints in perfection forever. Our joy will never end.
The hymn we just sang I realize is probably not the most familiar. But it is a wonderful hymn speaking of the trials we face now and the blessings received by those who have gone before us. In verse 2, we sang, “We are still as in a dungeon living, Still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving; Our undertakings Are but toils and troubles and heartbreakings” (LSB 679). This is a result of the corruption our world faces from Adam’s sin. God told him, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:17-19).
Yet, we have hope. Before announcing this curse, God declared Satan’s curse to him, saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). By saying these words to the serpent, God was announcing that His Son born of the woman would defeat the Devil. Jesus will be the victorious sacrificial Lamb. Therefore, our Epistle says, God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). With this glorious standing before our God, our Epistle also comforts us, saying, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:11-12). Here again our challenging lives in this fallen world is connected to joy in Christ, that we are strengthened and comforted for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks. This joy ought to be seen in the worship of our Creator and Redeemer. This is one of the reasons for joyful singing.
The Lutheran Church has long been known as the singing Church. Singing belongs to Christians, and singing is mentioned over 400 times in the Bible. But it has become all too common in Lutheran churches where many sit in the pews without even paying attention to the hymns we sing. This is especially found among men. When did it become fashionable to just sit there, perhaps arms crossed, and not participate? To show the foolishness of it, how many cross their arms and refuse to sing “Happy Birthday” to their children? Then why not also sing to our Heavenly Father who gave us our voices—and even more so, redeemed us from eternal death through His Son?
In today’s Introit, we acknowledge that He is God and we are the people of His pasture, the sheep of His hand. And we come and worship the Lord our Maker. We sing and make joyful noises to the rock of our salvation. Granting us sinners eternal salvation is reason enough to open our mouths and sing loudly. Who cares if it is a joyful noise? Our congregational singing is not a performance, but a joyful response for the blessings we now have in Christ.
I have begun preparing for Christmas services, so Christmas hymns are in my mind. Let me read to you this hymn: “On Christmas night all Christians sing To hear the news the angels bring, On Christmas night all Christians sing To hear the news the angels bring, News of great joy, news of great mirth, News of our merciful King’s birth.” What do all Christians do according to the hymn? They sing! But what do many churches now sound like? Verse 2: “Then why should men on earth be so sad, Since our Redeemer made us glad, Then why should men on earth be so sad, Since our Redeemer made us glad, When from our sin He set us free, All for to gain our liberty?” (LSB 377)
If we want to improve things in our own church, it first involves the commitment of the members we already have. Our own members need to be in church Sunday after Sunday and fully participate by listening intently, speaking clearly, and singing boldly. When our children are in church each Sunday and they see everyone in their family participating, they will do the same. It’s time for us to break the cycle that is plaguing our own congregation. It starts with you. Be cheerful and smile. Greet others. Listen and sing. Make your attendance your Sunday priority.
My prayer for you is the same as what St. Paul prayed for in the Colossian congregation. Recall the words of our Epistle, “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9-10). I want to see our church grow. Not just numerical growth, but also in the growth of each soul. To grow in love. To grow in thanksgiving. To grow in charity. To grow in knowledge. It grieves me to see so many who do not even Commune here four times a year. It grieves me to see so many who attend monthly or less (although I’m glad when they do come). Even Martin Luther acknowledged that he had lots of room for growth. He said, “As for myself, let me say that I, too, am a doctor and a preacher—yes, and as learned and experienced as any of those who act so high and mighty. Yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism. Every morning, and whenever else I have time, I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc. I must still read and study the Catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and I do it gladly” (LC Longer Preface: 7-8). I have found both here and in previous parishes that those who give me the most amount of criticism without charity are those who do not attend Bible Study. Their lack of Biblical wisdom becomes evident. But that is not to say that I cannot grow or improve. I myself echo the words of Luther. I am a child and pupil of the Catechism—of the Scriptures—and am glad to remain so. It’s why I attend two monthly pastors’ conferences, along with several other annual conferences—to grow in Christ. It’s why I keep reading my Bible. If I am still learning, so can you.
Next week is the last Sunday of the Church Year. It is a good time to consider where we’ve been this past year, and how we can grow in faith and charity in the new Church Year. We begin with repentance, acknowledging that we have not done our best. And we continue in the grace of Christ, growing into Him who is our Head. For we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The Lord declared in our reading from Isaiah 51:9, “I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” What a blessing, that we are God’s people! The Creator who made all things cares for each one of you, as you—yes, you—are everything to Him. That is why the Father laid on Jesus the iniquity of your sin. He has ransomed you through the bitter sufferings and death of Christ Jesus on the cross. And Jesus rose from the dead to give you the gift of eternal life.
As the Holy Spirit continues to work saving faith in you through the Word of God and the Sacrament, may you continue to grow in Christ, receiving His forgiveness and salvation—that you may, to use the words of Isaiah 51:11, “return and come to [Christ’s Church] with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon [your] heads; [you] shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen