A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on April 11, 2010.
Be careful, then, how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time because the days are evil. So do not be foolish but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine for that is debauchery; but be filled with the spirit, as you sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the father at all times for everything. In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
I think it was around the third or fourth grade when I was taught a song in music that was entitled, Honesty. In the song, Honesty, there were several stanzas in which people were presented with difficult situations that required whether or not they would tell the truth. The chorus was, “Honesty, no matter what the consequences be, is the very best policy.” While I cannot remember the teacher’s name who taught me that, I remember Honesty. I remember it because I sang it.
A few years ago, there was an organization developed called “The Virtue Project.” They have developed curriculum that is available for school systems, for families, and for congregations on virtue education. The belief is that citizens need certain virtues if the society is to be strong. They have different strategies for how you can do this, and one of the strategies is singing. There are songs that you can teach your families, school children, or church members that instill certain virtues like honesty, loyalty, and gratitude. That comes as no surprise to me because the first real lesson that I can remember about honesty I learned from the song.
Singing has a way of re-enforcing, expressing, and turning up the volume. On all of those experiences in life that are most important, music and song seem to engrain them in us in a way that merely speaking does not do.
If we fall in love, chances are that the couple will say that they have, “our song.” If your school scores a touchdown, the band breaks into the school song. If things are not going very well, we say we “sing the blues.” If we are very happy, sometimes without even realizing it, we find ourselves singing because singing expresses the joy of life.
When Paul is giving advice to the early church, it is interesting that the opposite of don’t do any of these bad things is singing—singing to reinforce the joys of the spirit. It is very easy to miss, but there are actually hymns quoted in the New Testament. Students of the Bible believe that in Philippians when Paul says, “Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, our Lord,” that he is actually quoting a hymn that had been used in the early church.
In the beginning of the Gospel of John, we find these words: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” In Greek in which this was written, there is perfect meter and we could pick out a tune from the hymnal and we could actually sing it if we knew the words. Since the beginning of the church, music has been a way that Christians express their love for God and gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ in a more powerful, more potent, and sometimes actually more memorable, way. Isn’t it amazing how the hymns bring back our faith?
I overheard one of the Sunday school classes today playing I’ll Fly Away. That is an old gospel number that we have not used in church here in a while. But it is amazing how when you hear it that something stirs within your heart that we had forgotten and that reinforces our faith in a way that merely saying words does not always do.
Because music has been important to us, Baptists in the South for a number of years have collected hymns into hymnals. The oldest among you might remember the 1940 Broadman Hymnal. Holy, Holy, Holy was No. 6 and Amazing Grace was No. 161. There are a number of responsive readings in the back that are named and one of them is named “Abstinence.” I found that interesting.
The next hymnal was published in 1956. These hymnals were great because they came with these wonderful vinyl covers that you could slip over the binding. Holy, Holy, Holy had come to be No. 1 in this hymnal. It is like the old Billboard Charts. Amazing Grace was No. 188. In the responsive readings in the back, they are still named but there is no responsive reading on abstinence.
The next hymnal was published in 1975. That is how we name the hymnals is by the dates. This was a very interesting hymnal. Holy, Holy, Holy was still No. 1 and Amazing Grace was No. 165. One of the things that was most interesting about the 1975 hymnal was that they began to change words. All of sudden in 1975, hymns that we had sung the same way all of our lives had different phrases than the 1956 hymnal. One of the most notable was from the old hymn, At the Cross. It had always said, “Alas, and did my Savior bleed and did my sovereign die, would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I.” When the editors in the 1975 hymn got together, they decided that did not communicate God’s grace the way they wanted it to so they changed it to “for sinners such as I.” That was a problem early on because we could not make ourselves quit singing the way we had always sung it. But we found that came to be an important part of the way that we expressed our faith.
There were new hymns in the 1975 hymnal and there were hymns that had been left out, but it expressed better the way we were worshipping.
Then there was the 1991 hymnal which has been in our hymnal rack for almost 20 years. They really messed up the 1991 hymnal. Holy, Holy, Holy went to No. 2. Amazing Grace was No. 330. It is fully how we can remember some of these numbers. If you grew up Baptist and you used these hymnals, you can remember the Sunday nights when the pastor was not prepared and he would say, “We are going to have favorite hymn singing tonight, and just call out your favorite hymn.” You were always safe if you did that. I confess I did that a time or two. Everybody knew the number of their favorite hymn. We would sing with our hymnal open to the hymn we were singing, but you could see people around the sanctuary with their hands in the hymnal so that as soon as we had finished singing one, they could flip the pages over and say, “I want to sing this one.”
The hymnals change and the way we worship changes. I am amazed by the new Celebrating Grace Hymnal. Some of the hymns have very new words and the tunes are very old tunes. There are a lot of new hymns in the hymnal, and new hymns are always very interesting. People say, “Why don’t we sing the old hymns?” I listened to the hymn, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us. Here are some of the words. “I will not boast in anything, no gifts, no power, no wisdom, but I will boast in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. Why should I gain from his reward, I cannot give an answer. But this I know with all my heart his wounds have paid my ransom.” I had never sung that until this morning, but I am glad that hymn is in the new hymnal.
I think about the times when I will probably sing old words to hymns that I learned a long time ago, but I am looking forward to learning the new expressions of some of the new hymns. I am looking forward to when I can sing all three stanzas of How Deep the Father’s Love For Us. That is a beautiful hymn.
Who knows how long this hymnal will guide our worship? It will be the way that we come to reinforce and engrain the faith in us. It will be the expression of many of these hymns that our children will know all their lives. Just as we learned the expression from one of the older hymnals, our children will learn it from the new hymnal. What an asset, not only for the hour of worship in which we are gathered, but for the encouragement of our faith! What a blessing in following Jesus Christ to know that this will help build my faith! It will help me to express the joy of salvation in Christ. It will help me express my need for prayer. It will help me express the conviction about the things that I believe most fervently and it will do that as long as these hymnals are here.
Someday a hymn that you have never sung before but that you now find in this hymnal will be your favorite hymn. Of course, there will be the old favorites, Holy, Holy, Holy and Amazing Grace, and many others that have been a part of Christian worship for centuries and will be a part of ours for years to come.
May God bless the singing of our faith and use it both as witness and assurance in our lives.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.