Sunday, June 30, 2019

Brightest Heaven of Invention: Sermon on Revelation 5:9-10

Not far from the Tower of London, in a room owned by another man, a 32-year-old pastor – short, pale, and thin – prayed, his large head bobbing slightly, over the manuscript pages of his essay. Pastor Isaac led one of the several non-conformist churches that met at Pinners' Hall, rented for them by the man in whose house he'd been living, Thomas Hollis. But Pastor Isaac's attention was on his explosive manuscript and the daring case it made.

All Isaac's life, churches in his country had been embroiled in what we'd call 'worship wars' for the past century. And Isaac, for his part, was sick of it. We think we have it bad today, but Isaac was born into a country where some churches refused to sing in worship at all – a country where some groups of Christians had actually burned the Psalms in protest of singing. Other churches would allow singing, but only songs improvised on the spot – they felt that nothing else could be truly spiritual, certainly nothing read out of a book and shaped by someone other than the singer. Some authors denounced singing any “pre-composed songs,” even biblical ones, as “a corrupting of the pure worship of Jesus Christ” that “will lead us to apostasy.” But, of course, you can imagine how that sounded, when they devised impromptu songs. One critic, hearing it, called it “nothing but a sacrifice of fools and the confusion of Babel.”

Yet there were other pastors in the country who wrote passionately in defense of the right to sing in church – either for a choir to sing, or for the whole congregation to get to sing, like we do. Yet of those pastors and their churches, nearly all of them had a very particular type of singing in mind. They were accepting of only one group of songs: the Psalms themselves. After all, they reasoned, God had himself given us these for singing, so why should we desire any others? Surely God had withdrawn the extraordinary spiritual gift of composing songs worthy of God – these authors condemned “the presumption of a hot brain that he has a gift of composing psalms and songs and hymns for the edification of the church.” So why should we give place to anything else when we could be singing divinely inspired songs? And so, in most churches in the land that did sing, the rule was that only songs taken from the Bible itself were allowed. Some sang them exactly as written, chanting them. Still others conceded that they could be paraphrased to rhyme, but with as little change as possible. And that, for the most part, had been the range of musical worship in the churches of seventeenth-century England.

Isaac didn't like that. He didn't like the narrow-mindedness. He didn't like the restrictiveness. He didn't like the bickering. In the decade when he was born, plenty of churches were being ripped in half by these 'worship wars.' Isaac was born into a family that didn't belong to the Church of England – they were independent, kept their distance from the religious establishment. In fact, at the time of his birth, his dad was in jail for it, and baby Isaac was himself nursed by his mother on the prison steps. When Isaac was sixteen, a year after being born again, he turned down a full college scholarship to go instead to a dissenting academy where he could study under the tutelage of Thomas Rowe. And right then was when the controversy exploded all over again, bitter books flying to and fro on the nation's presses, vigorously debating whether to sing in church, and what.

As a young man of twenty coming home to his parents during the thick of the controversy, Isaac quickly grew bored with the stale music in their old family church. He thought it was dull, boring, ugly. He thought it was lazy, dysfunctional, passionless, and that no one seemed to understand what they were singing. And, as many young men would, he complained to his family (because that's what we do when we're annoyed at our church: we complain in the car on the ride home, right?) – specifically, his father, a deacon of the church. And his dad told him what many dads have told their sons over the generations: 'If you don't like it, then quit whining about it and fix it, kid.' Now, Isaac had long loved language and rhyme. After starting to learn foreign languages at age 4, he'd been a poet since age 7. So Isaac, having formed a conviction that this stale music couldn't be all God wanted from us, set to work writing a song of his own. The church rather took to this new hymn, and they asked him to write another, and before you knew it, he was writing them all the time.

But years later, he'd become pastor in a church of his own – though his chronic poor health led them to appoint an assistant pastor to help him just a year later. That was four years ago. Now it was 1707. And with a century of 'worship wars' firm in his mind, Pastor Isaac prepared to share his hymns with the whole Christian church, not just his own congregation. But he knew he was taking a big risk in publishing this book of Hymns and Spiritual Songs he'd written. It would be controversial. Many would think him arrogant for writing new songs for God's people to sing – as if he were saying he were better than David and all the other psalmists.

But Isaac's convictions burned hot. If it isn't arrogant for churches to pray prayers other than the ones the Bible records Daniel and Ezra praying, and if it isn't arrogant for churches to hear sermons other than the ones Moses and Isaiah preached, then why – Isaac always asked – just why would it be arrogant or scandalous for churches to compose and sing songs other than the ones David and Asaph composed and sang? Besides, Isaac saw the gospel as so big, so expansive, that no definite and limited repertoire of songs could ever be enough to express all its beauty for everyone. Any set of songs would always fall short of everything we need to celebrate about God and offer up to God from all the details of each and every one of our lives. “There is an almost infinite number of different occasions for praise and thanksgivings, as well as prayer, in the life of a Christian; and there is not a set of psalms already prepared that can answer all the varieties of the providence and the grace of God,” he believed. And Isaac thought that was especially true when it came to the Psalms of David, Old Testament songs where the victory of Jesus and the good news of salvation could only be hinted at in advance, instead of being flung open wide in public majesty. So, Isaac thought, what churches need is gospel-worship, centered on Jesus Christ, made for the time and place where we really live.

Knowing that he needed to make his case to defend the legitimacy of the songs he'd written, his hands scrawled the manuscript pages of a preface to raise at the front of the book and a longer essay to tack onto the back, both showing “how lawful and necessary it is to compose spiritual songs of a more evangelic frame for the use of divine worship under the gospel.” As Isaac read the Bible, “new favors received from God were continually the subject of new songs, and the very minute circumstances of the present providence are described in the verse.” It can only be God-honoring if we “make [our] present mercies under the gospel the subject of fresh praises.”

And so Isaac had finished the essay. And now, having read back over it, he sent it and the rest of the book over to John Humphreys' print shop. I'm sure none of you have ever seen a copy of that controversial book of hymns that some called not “hymns” but “whims” – the songbook over which churches did still split, over which pastors were still fired – a book many people loathed and many others loved. You haven't seen the book itself. But the song we heard at the start of this morning's service was taken from pages 69 and 70. And many of you know the words of page 189 pretty well. They begin with the line, “When I survey the wondrous cross.”

They asked him what to put on the title page beneath his name. And Isaac thought of one Bible verse above all else. So Humphreys the printer put there, at Isaac Watts' instruction, the words: “And they sung a new Song, saying, Thou art worthy, &c., for thou wast slain and hast redeemed us, &c. Rev. 5.9.” For that was the passage that had inspired Isaac's very first hymn as a younger man dissatisfied with his dad's church: “Behold the glories of the Lamb / amidst his Father's throne: / Prepare new honours for his name, / and songs before unknown.”

This is our fourth Sunday exploring the heavenly worship scenes in Revelation 4-5, and we've found more than I could sum up. Three weeks ago, we caught a glimpse of God's throne, surrounded by the four living creatures who've seen it all and still worship God simply for his holiness. We also caught sight of twenty-four elders who worshipped God by throwing their crowns at his feet because he's the Creator of all things. But then, two weeks ago, we caught sight of the scroll of God's plan for history, and we watched the fruitless search for someone in heaven or on earth or under the earth who'd be worthy to open it up and set it into motion. But that fruitless search became fruitful when we heard about the Lion of Judah, who turns out to be the Lamb who was slain: Jesus Christ. And he changes everything in how heaven worships, and so he changes everything in our worship. Last week, we saw that the elders held up “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8) – our prayers, if we belong to Jesus. And we learned that heaven worships God by using our prayers, and that our prayers, pleasing to God, will be God's tool for breaking down all that's wrong in this world so that something new and whole can be built.

But now we get to the song the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing, celebrating who the Lamb is and what he's done. “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10). What a vision! Jesus is worthy because he gave up his life. He didn't give up his life just to die. He gave up his life for us – for our redemption, for our ransom. He gave up his life so that in his blood, a new universe could be born, a world where self-sacrifice is victory and where love outweighs every strength. And that's the world we're living for. Jesus wasn't content to just save Jews, or to just save Greeks, or to just save Romans, or to just save Americans (or Englishmen or Chinese or Germans or...). He ransomed people from every nation. He ransomed people of every skin color. He ransomed people who speak all kinds of different languages – English and Hebrew and Spanish and Russian and bunches you've never even heard of. And he brought us together into one kingdom and appointed us all as royal priests, so that we can serve God and rule the world in his name. All that, Jesus did when he surrendered his life and shed his blood. For being slaughtered, for pouring out his life to rebuild the universe and to make us something glorious, all heaven sings the praises of his worthiness. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

But there's that word: 'sings.' Whereas heavenly worship in chapter 4 was spoken, heavenly worship in chapter 5 starts to be sung, now that Jesus is on the scene. And not only that, but John describes it by saying that “they sang a new song (Revelation 5:9). With Jesus in the picture, the worshippers in heaven cannot be content with what they'd known before. No song is ever a stopping place. What this tells us is that heavenly worship is creative worship. Heavenly worship is innovative worship. Over the heads of our souls hang brightest heavens of invention. And in this brightest heaven of invention, worshippers sing a new song.

This is the fountainhead of what Watts called “songs before unknown.” In this scene, Watts sees that “all the assembling saints around / fall worshipping before the Lamb, / and in new songs of gospel-sound / address their honours to his name.” Isaac Watts finds here “mention of a New Song, and that is pure evangelical language suited to the New Testament, the New Covenant, the New and Living Way of access to God, and to the new commandment of him who sits upon the throne, and behold, he makes all things new.” Watts insisted that these verse really is an instruction to “the gospel-church on earth.” By imitating this example, he wrote, “churches should be furnished with matter for psalmody by those who are capable of composing spiritual songs according to the various or special occasions of saints or churches.” Composing new “spiritual songs,” finding “spiritual songs” that are new to us, lets us “sing a new song” like these heavenly worshippers. And we know, from Revelation 14, that the redeemed followers of the Lamb do learn new songs, for they're seen “singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders” (Revelation 14:3). What accompanies them is a sound “like the sound of harpists playing on their harps” (Revelation 14:2).

What Isaac Watts saw, what we should see, is that godly creativity in worship is forever fueled by the refreshing newness of Jesus. Jesus is never old hat. Jesus is never dull. Jesus is always as fresh as the first Easter morn. The good news is always news because the gospel is always new. If we start taking it for granted as something we've heard before and think we know, it's because we're not keeping up. Jesus is too worthy, Jesus is too wonderful, Jesus is too new and fresh and exciting to be nailed down to our past record of achievements in the art of praise and song. The Father chose Jesus, upholds Jesus, put his Spirit on Jesus, sent and commissioned Jesus “as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7). Jesus gives a new covenant, a new light, new sight, new freedom. The Father celebrates over Jesus, “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” (Isaiah 42:9). And how does the Bible tell us we should respond? “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants. Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory to the LORD and declare his praise in the coastlands” (Isaiah 42:10-12). Isaiah would ask us: If you aren't singing a new song, then are you sure you know the new things that God's declared?

And the sweet singers of Israel tell us, “Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! Sing to the LORD, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!” (Psalm 96:1-3). They call on us, “Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. … Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” (Psalm 98:1-4). And so they might ask: If you aren't moved to sing a new song, then could it be your view of salvation is too little? If you aren't learning new songs 'from day to day,' could it be you think God has stopped doing marvelous things?

What does all this mean for us? Well, we know that the 'worship wars' – those tensions in the church that Isaac Watts knew all too well, over the style and nature of church music – haven't left us. The goalposts have merely shifted. I've seen people abandon their home church simply because the music was getting too contemporary. Just like people who left their churches when Isaac Watts' “Joy to the World” was first brought in, they couldn't abide by a new song. They got frustrated, they got resentful, they sneered at a new song, and they quit that church. I've seen other people abandon that exact same church because too many of the old classics – Isaac Watts' hymns, played on that old church organ – were still being sung. And so, unwilling to breathe freshness into the words and tunes and find them new after all, those people also quit that church. Both are tragic. As Isaac Watts said three centuries ago, “Let us have a care, lest we rob our souls and the churches of those divine comforts of evangelical psalmody by a fondness of our old and preconceived opinions!”

See, we all carry these “old and preconceived opinions” about worship music should sound like and where we should rest content on our laurels. But apparently, heavenly worshippers don't share those “old and preconceived opinions.” Because, after thousands of years of worshipping God one way, they're always ready to take up a new song and get to singin' it. It's not the same style as what they used before – and that's okay. It's not the same sound as what they used before – and that's okay. It's not the same tempo as what they used before – and that's okay. Because 'worship music' is not a style. Worship is about Jesus. And if Jesus always has new things to show us, we always have new songs to learn and sing.

Isaac Watts had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should call out to Jesus Christ, knowing him and making him known. Isaac had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should shine with Jesus' unveiled light, not obscure it in shadows. Isaac had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should announce the good news of what Jesus has already done for us. Isaac had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should meet us where we are – that's why he wrote plenty of songs for children and put so much stress on singing songs that “reach my case” and so can “assist the exercise of my graces or raise my devotion” – a song that “expresses my wants, my duties, or my mercies,” all by focusing on who Christ is to us.

And Isaac had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should bring us to new places in the endless halls of the heart of God – that God was so big, Christ was so big, that no exploration of him was ever done, and that our songs of Christian worship should be celebrating everything we keep finding on that journey, and not stopping short. So out of those convictions, Isaac wrote his “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” And out of those convictions, Isaac wrote his “I Sing th' Mighty Power of God.” And out of those convictions, Isaac wrote his “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” And out of those convictions, Isaac wrote his “Joy to the World.” And he wrote many more – but he never would have said that those words or their first musical settings or styles were enough for every generation in every location.

No, the church's worship should emerge “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:10), from every musical style and every musical subculture. The same tunes on the same instruments, written by people from the same country and era are not enough. Heavenly worship celebrates a wide redemption by the blood of the Lamb, and the Lamb's wide redemption is meant to unleash a tsunami of wide innovation by all those appointed a kingdom and priests to our God, to reign and make music on the earth! A wide redemption calls for wide innovation. This doesn't mean scrapping all the good old hymns and good old choruses you've grown up with, the ones we all know and love. Dumping those hymns and choruses, if they're good hymns and good choruses, would be every bit as limiting as sticking to a handful of them and rejecting everything else. (You all know that, if Paul was a 'Hebrew of Hebrews,' then I'm a hymn-lover of hymn-lovers!) But those songs are only a tiny slice of the grand universe of song God's waiting to hear from us. God poured out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17, cf. Joel 2:28) so that we can “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). The whole church – our church – is called to be part of the wide innovation launched by our wide redemption. We're asked to press forward, deeper into the heart of worship, questing and adventuring in uncharted territory – or places we've been but now see a new way.

If we take a cue from heavenly worship, our worship should be fresh. Sometimes that will mean singing the old hymns with renewed gusto and appreciation. Sometimes that will mean taking the old words and tunes and breathing freshness and innovation into them, maybe changing the style, maybe recovering lost verses or bringing back entirely forgotten hymns. Sometimes, yes, 'fresh' will mean singing words we've never put together before. But the psalmist tells us to “sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly; let Israel be glad in his Maker, let the children of Zion rejoice in their king; let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre...; let them sing for joy on their beds” (Psalm 149:1-5). The psalmist tells us to “sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:1-3). To me, that sounds like exciting worship: loud shouts, skilled instruments, dancing or singing from bed, and “songs before unknown.” That sounds like exciting worship, fresh and new. Does ours look like that?

Our worship should draw on all the creativity and innovation we can bring to it, in the service of the glory of Jesus Christ. We need to embrace the freedom to explore new angles, so that we can celebrate the same 'old, old story' and tell it in new ways, the same always-true gospel truths but in tones not so familiar. Our worship in song should take us to places and themes from the Bible where we've never camped out before. Our worship in song should show us new things through the light of Christ. It should expand our horizons with new songs so that we can keep praising God amid tomorrow's unseen troubles and unexpected mercies. It should confront newly uncovered things in our lives with newfound splendors of God. For that, we need to sing a new song.

As a church, if we want to worship God in heavenly ways, we cannot allow ourselves to fall into a rut. We can't afford to let worship become routine – and it will become routine, if we never stretch, if we limit ourselves to a narrow set of songs we already know well, songs that spoke to where we were in decades past but from which we've stopped learning and through which we've stopped offering up the complexities of our growing hearts and growing lives to God. We cannot become bound to musical artifacts from one time and one place, so that we miss out on the church's wide innovation unleashed by the Lamb's wide redemption.

This week, I'd like to challenge you: Change your radio dial. Listen and learn from God-exalting music that's not your cup of tea. Maybe that means listening to the newest Christian rock, or maybe that means going back to a good Gregorian chant! Find some Jesus-exalting songs that are new to you, and hear with new ears, and sing back with new lips. Leaf through the hymnal – read the lyrics to one you don't recognize. Catch a fresh glimpse of the gospel story – that 'old, old story,' always being sung in new songs. Open your heart, open your ears, open your mouth, and let the worthiness of Jesus catch you by surprise this week. I'd like to close by sharing with you Isaac Watts' very first hymn, the one he wrote as a dissatisfied 20-year-old man in his dad's church in Southampton. This is the clarion call he heard from the verses of God's word that reached us today:

Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst his Father's throne:
Prepare new honors for his name,
And songs before unknown.

Let elders worship at his feet,
The church adore around,
With vials full of odors sweet
And harps of sweeter sound.

Those are the prayers of the saints,
And these the hymns they raise:
Jesus is kind to our complaints,
He loves to hear our praise.

Eternal Father, who shall look
Into thy secret will?
Who but the Son should take that book
And open ev'ry seal?

He shall fulfill thy great decrees,
The Son deserves it well;
Lo, in his hand the sovereign keys
Of heaven and death and hell.

Now to the Lamb that once was slain
Be endless blessings paid;
Salvation, glory, joy remain
Forever on thy head.

Thou hast redeemed our souls with blood,
Hast set the prisoners free,
Hast made us kings and priests to God,
And we shall reign with thee.

The worlds of nature and of grace
Are put beneath thy power;
Then shorten these delaying days,
And bring the promised hour.
In Jesus' name, Amen!

No comments:

Post a Comment