How can I keep from singing? + A Sermon Hymn-Sing for the Commemoration of Three Lutheran Hymnwriters

Augustana Lutheran Church
23 October 2016 + Lectionary 30C
Luke 18.9-14

Music permeates our culture. How many times have we caught ourselves singing along (some of us admittedly more poorly than others) to the radio in the car or in the shower? It’s simply hard to imagine life without music.

It’s hard, too, to imagine the church without music. (For starters, our service today would be a heck of a lot shorter.) Indeed, one of the greatest treasures of the Lutheran tradition is our hymnody, but singing has always occupied a central place across denominations. It was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who thought it was so important that he wrote seven rules for congregational singing. You can still find them at the front of the United Methodist Hymnal today.

Among them, Wesley suggests: “Sing Lustily – and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”

But not too lustily, Wesley warns, hence his next rule: “Sing Modestly – do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation that you may not destroy the harmony.”

Sing modestly. Do not bawl. Advice, perhaps, one might give to the Pharisee in our gospel text today, who strives to make his voice, his prayer, his act of worship, stand out above all the rest.

So it makes me wonder: What is the purpose of our worship together, with all its elements, singing included? If Wesley’s recommendations and Jesus’s words are to be taken seriously, it’s certainly not for the sake of showing off our piety, or showing up those next to us in the pews.

This week, on our calendar of saints, we commemorate three great Lutheran hymnwriters—Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt. Names I imagine most of you have never heard before, but whose hymns I bet you do know.

As our liturgical rubrics suggest, the hymn of the day is the assembly’s opportunity to proclaim the word of God in song. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of that, so we’re going practice it and sing not one but three extra hymns of the day.

philipp_nicolaiFirst, singing laments. Lament is not a denial of God’s existence, but quite the contrary: Lament testifies to God’s abiding presence despite all apparent evidence to the contrary. Lament, in the biblical tradition, always ends with a vow to praise God for God’s faithfulness.

When Philipp Nicolai was a pastor in Unna, Germany, at the end of 16th century, the plague struck the region, resulting in the deaths of thirteen hundred people in a mere six months. At one point, Nicolai was presiding at as many as thirty funerals a day. Such were the circumstances out of which  emerged his hymn “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” — a hymn that fully acknowledges the reality of “night,” both literal and figurative, while looking with eager joy toward night’s imminent end.

Wake, awake, for night is flying,
the watchmen on the heights are crying;
awake, Jerusalem, at last.
Midnight hears the welcome voices,
and at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Come forth, you maidens! Night is past.
The bridegroom comes! Awake;
your lamps with gladness take!”
Rise and prepare the feast to share;
go, meet the bridegroom, who draws near.

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #436

johann_heermann2Singing also strives for justice. Liberation theologians have long taught us that God stands in solidarity with the oppressed, so much so that God in Christ becomes one of the oppressed. It’s incarnational, really: God taking on our flesh, our condition, and even all the pain that comes with it. This is what we mean when we confess that Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us.

So when we sing Johann Heermann’s hymn,  “Ah, Holy Jesus,” we might put our contemporary martyrs in the place of Christ: those who have been killed in acts of senseless violence because of the color of their skin or the person they love or the faith they practice. The hymnwriter asks who is at fault for Jesus’s death, answering, “I crucified thee.” Heermann’s hymn, in a new context, might help us confess the ways we maintain systems of injustice.

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #349

paul_gerhardtLast but not least, singing also celebrates. Even in the darkness of injustice that infuses our world and dominates our headlines, we are a people who know, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, that Good Friday must ultimately give way to Easter. Paul Gerhardt’s classic Easter hymn, “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness,” announces Christ’s triumphant victory over death, as we sing of the hope that “no gloom shall ever shake, no foe shall ever take.”

Awake, my heart, with gladness,
see what today is done;
now, after gloom and sadness,
comes forth the glorious sun.
My Savior there was laid
where our bed must be made
when, as on wings in flight,
we soar to realms of light.

This is a sight that gladdens—
what peace it does impart!
Now nothing ever saddens
the joy within my heart.
No gloom shall ever shake,
no foe shall ever take,
the hope which God’s own Son
in love for me has won.

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #378

When we sing the hymns and spiritual songs collected in the pages of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, we proclaim the gospel — the good news that is for all people and especially for those whose voices have historically been silenced and those whose lives society has said don’t matter. In other words, we don’t sing for our own sake, but we sing the humble yet defiant song of the tax collector for the sake of the world.

Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. As we bring our journey through Luke’s gospel to a close over the next few weeks, these words remind me yet again of another song several chapters earlier. It’s a song that speaks of the lowly being lifted up and the hungry being filled with good things. It’s a song sung by a newly pregnant, unwed, Jewish peasant teenager, and it’s a song that reverberates throughout the pages of scripture.


It’s also a song we’re invited to join and proclaim to all the world. A song of a God who so loves us that we are compelled to ask: How can I keep from singing?

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