Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
February 28, 2016
I’ve been working on puzzles a lot lately. When living in Michigan, we put a lot of puzzles together. This was generally a winter activity and they were often assembled on a table in front of the fireplace. There is something about puzzles that suck you in. Once you get the border completed, you start off slow, a piece here and there. Then, soon a section comes together quickly, but then the hunting for pieces slows down a bit. After a long periods where things go fast then slow, you finally get down to the last 50 or so pieces. Then it goes very fast, as if it’s a race till completion.
Perhaps we could understand our life with God as a puzzle. At times, we struggle to find the next piece. But we’re in God’s hand. We trust all the pieces are there. We keep plugging along, knowing that the best ahead of us. Actually when things look overwhelming, such as when there are a 1000 pieces dumped out on a table, that’s when God does his best work. And maybe, instead of us seeing ourselves as the one putting the puzzle together with God’s help, we are the puzzles and God is wonderfully putting us together. Just a thought…
Today, we’re going to dig into the book of Isaiah. The middle section of Isaiah, which begins with Chapter 39 and often called “Second Isaiah” deals with punishment and pardon. This is the sweet and sour section of Isaiah. The Hebrew people are punished by Babylon, yet even as the walls of Jerusalem are breached and the people led off into captivity, they’re reminded of God’s faithfulness. God won’t forget them. A remnant will return to Zion. God is still with them and their sons and their daughters will experience God’s grace. Today, I’ll read from Isaiah 42. It begins with a hymn. You can almost hear the people singing this ancient psalm. Then, beginning in verse 13, the hymn is followed by a poem that reflects what God is doing. Read Isaiah 42:10-17.
I’ve heard it said that rock and roll is the “sound track of our lives,” (or maybe it’s just my generation’s life). But there may be a point to this. Many songs take me immediately back to a particular time or place. Although it isn’t rock and roll, I seldom sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” without thinking about being beside my granddaddy at Culdee Presbyterian Church. Like me, he couldn’t sing a lick, but boy did he belt it out. When I hear the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction,” come on the radio, its 1966 and I am back in my Uncle Larry’s bedroom and he’s dancing around like Keith Richards, using a broom as a guitar. When Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” comes on the radio, I’m riding in the backseat of my parent’s car as we head to Atlanta for the first time, in 1970. We’re excited about Six Flags and a Braves game. Barbara Streisand singing “The Way We Were” takes me back to high school. The Pretender’s “Back on the Chain Gang” takes me to a rural highway in Bladen County and I’m on a way to meet a group of Scout leaders. And if I listen to Enya, the Irish singing with a haunting voice, I’m driving over a pass in the Sierras where I first heard her music. How about you? Does music have a power to take you to a place you’ve been? Sometimes it’s a good place, with good memories. Other tunes might take us to a place we’d rather not recall. Then we need a new song!
Sing to the Lord a new song. Even though I’m not known for my musical talent, I love this call. Sing to the Lord a new song. It’s a call we find not just in Isaiah, but also in the Book of Psalms. By the way, this particular genre used here by Isaiah is a psalm or a hymn (the psalms were Israel’s hymns). The call is for a new excitement for God and what God is doing in the world. Our God is a God of creation and his on-going effort to create a people who are devoted to his mission in the world calls for a new song. There’s excitement in the air.
But is there really excitement? After all, things haven’t looked this bad for the Hebrew people since they were slaves in Egypt. The northern kingdoms had fallen a century or so beforehand, and now the southern kingdoms along with the cherished city of Jerusalem have been destroyed. Like today, many people weren’t up for new music. Believe me, it’s an age-old problem. Whenever we have a new song in worship, I’m likely to get a comment or two. Why can’t we sing the old hymns? The music wars are nothing new.
We like to hold on to the past, but at this time in Israel’s history, there are some who aren’t even open to singing. “How could we sing a new song in a foreign land?” they ask in Psalm 137. There was little excitement for singing, yet Isaiah comes on the scene encouraging everyone to “Sing!” Music is to fill the world—from the coastlands to the deserts to the mountains—as everyone is called to praise God.
At this low point in the history of God’s people, there is a call for singing. So much of our faith is counter-culture. Paul, in chains, writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” And to the church in Thessalonica, he says, “pray without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances.” But, let’s face it, we don’t always have such excitement, especially not when our lives are in turmoil.
“The Gospel is bad news before it is good news,” writes Frederick Beuchner. “It is the news that [we’re] sinners… That’s tragedy! But it is also the news that [we] are loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for…
Today, when many question the church’s relevance and whether or not we will have a future, singing a new song may sound to some as a crazy idea. Let’s stick with the old tried and true songs, but they don’t seem to be working, either… Yet, as bad as things may seem now, it was worse in Isaiah’s time. Israel was not only defeated, but many of citizens were dragged off in exile. Without a temple and without a homeland, they had no hope. They could have just as easily been erased from human history, yet it is at such a dark period that the call goes out, “Sing a new song to the Lord, his praise from the end of the earth!”
And then there was that dark day after the crucifixion, when no one was singing. But the next morning, the birds were up before dawn and before long the disciples were giving God thanks. God seems to relish in surprising us. That’s the message of the cross. The temple leadership and the Romans in Jerusalem, along with the disciples and his followers, were certain on Friday evening that Jesus had been done in. He was buried; that was the end of it. But it wasn’t. Nor was exile the end of Israel. In fact, the Jewish faith grew stronger in exile and after they returned, they became even more devout. They no longer were tempted as they had been to worship idols of their neighbors. They’d learned their lesson.
When we remember God’s work in ages past, we are reminded of what God can do in the present and future. Singing God’s praise reminds us of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, and how his death and resurrection is just one example of God turning things around, of taking what appeared to be lost and creating a victory to be savored. Singing is counter-cultural, but we need to do it because we have hope not in what we can do, but in what God is doing. We need to be calling all earth to praise God and realize that we’re not in this all alone.
Yesterday morning, the elders and members of the mission committee and some of the Saturday Men’s Bible Study, had the opportunity to meet Hunter Farrell, the director of World Missions for the Presbyterian Church. Hunter, who started his mission work as a 22 year old in the Congo, told about how Christian Congolese families (and there are a couple of million Presbyterians in that country) gather in the evening and talk about how they have experience God throughout the day. Then they say their prayers and go to bed.
We don’t do things like that, which is a shame, for we have lost some of our ability to perceive what God might be up to in our lives. You know, we might not see God’s work in our own lives, but someone else might. That’s why such sharing is important. This is a hymn of praise from a people who, despite the suffering, still believes that God is active in their lives. They actively look for signs of God’s work. Remember how I said last week, “what’s important is not my mission or even the church’s mission but God’s mission?” They want to see what God is doing so they can participate and experience God firsthand.
Our passage transitions from a hymn of praise to a poem about God’s work in the world. “The Lord goes forth like a soldier,” it begins in verse 13. Throughout scripture, God is often depicted as a warrior. In verse 14, the text slips from a hymn about God to God speaking. God is no longer holding his peace, but cries out like a woman in labor. This contrasts with the previous image of God as a warrior. We think of warriors bringing death, as with the Babylonian army. But here God gives life. God appears to battle nature, making the mountains and hill level and the waters that have hinder transportation become manageable and easy to cross. Then, in verse 16, we have an image of God leading the blind down a road they do not know. But God guides and turns the darkness into light, the rough places into level ground. Those who have gone out into exile and think they have no hope will learn otherwise, when God leads them home on an easier path.
However, where there is redemption, there is also judgment. Not all of God’s people have remained faithful. Some have succumb to the gods of Babylon and others gods, whom they believed were more powerful. They will not experience redemption, they will be put to shame when they realize the impotence of the stone or metal in which they have trusted.
I started out talking about music as the soundtrack of our lives. But we’re not called by God into the past but the future. Maybe that is why we’re called to sing a new song in our praise of God. Furthermore, many songs have the ability to make us smile, to change our attitude. Think about Paul McCarthy’s “Silly Love Song.” It was a new song in the mid-70s, making a shift from his past with the Beatles.
You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, but I look around me and I see it isn’t so. Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs. And what’s wrong with that?
Doesn’t that make you smile… that’s what the new song we’re to be singing should do. We’re to look forward to a future with God. Even when we are burdened down with troubles and grief, we’re to have hope that love might one day reign, that one day we might, as the old gospel favorite goes, “exchange our cross for a crown.” A new song that lifts up with God is doing in our lives and in our world is what we need. For only God can bring us out of the darkness and into the light of Jesus. Let’s be open to new songs of what God is doing. Amen.
 See Psalms 96 & 98.
 Philippians 4:4.
 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18.
 Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale (HarpersSanFrancisco, 1977), 7.
 I was referring to a comment by Alan Hirsch, as quoted by Stephen M. Franklin in a blog post titled, “The Mission has a Church” at the Pittsburgh Seminary Blog: http://www.pts.edu/blog/pittsburgh-mission-conference/
 Deuteronomy 10:17, Zephaniah 3:17, Psalm 24:8, 78:65, Exodus 15:3
 The line is from “The Old Rugged Cross”