The Prepositions of Praise


Colossians 3:16

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach one another (in all wisdom and with gratitude in your hearts), singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

The grammar of the gospel gives first place to the verbs: create, elect, redeem, save, justify, call. These are the locomotives that propel the saving, redeeming purpose of God through the centuries and around the world.

These powerful verbs pull with them, like box cars, the nouns that adorn the doctrines of God: spirit, peace, mercy, promise. In these beautiful words we live and move and have our Christian being.

But today I draw your attention to those small words that connect these wonderful words of life. Often overlooked, ignored, demoted to last place in the grammar of grace, the little preposition.

You know these words, especially if you have ever diagrammed a sentence: of the gospel, in the kingdom, with the Lord, by the Spirit, between heaven and earth, over, under, around, through.  These are prepositions. And in our Word from the Lord today, there are three of these little words, three words with a total of seven letters that come to us today to teach us about singing. 

I summarize our one verse of Scripture in this way: Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God, about Christ, for each other.

TO God. ABOUT Christ. FOR each other.

These three prepositions of praise leap out of this letter into my mind, onto my tongue, and by the grace of God, into your heart.

We have a singing religion, a musical faith. It is one of the most distinguishing marks of Christianity. Our Bible is full of songs. Christian liturgy revolves around songs. Quakers may be an exception. Orthodox also do not give a strong place to congregational singing. But the Bible witness is this: Moses sang. David sang. Jesus sang. Paul and his churches were singing churches. The Bible even asserts that at the creation the morning stars sang together, and the Revelation of John, in its vision of the final victory of God, the dominate exercise of the world to come, is singing. I want to be ready. Don't you?

The Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, command us to sing, and I want to obey that command. I love to sing. In fact, I have joined a church choir. For years I sat with my back to the choir, and now I sit looking at the back of the preacher. A few weeks ago we sang the great call to worship "Sanctus" and the following week the anthem "Majesty and Glory of Your Name."

So when I come to this word from the Lord, this command, this exhortation, from the great lion of God, I receive it gladly. Paul the apostle wrote to the Christians at Colossae two thousand years ago, and he writes to us today: Sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs to God, about Christ, for each other. Many things in the Bible are hard for me: to understand, to obey, to practice. But this expectation, to sing to God about Christ for one another, I embrace with all the enthusiasm I can muster. I suspect you are like that, also.

When we sing, we sing to God. God is the audience: not the congregation but God; not the television audience or the radio audience, but God; not the ministers, but God. When we sing, we praise God. When we sing, we pray to God. When we sing, we consecrate ourselves to God. This is why some people lift their hands to heaven when they sing.

Music is an offering we bring to God. Everything in the worship service is an offering. Yes, when we pass the offering plate; we know that is an offering. We call it that. We bring from what God has provided and we offer it back to God. But the same is true of our prayers; they also are our offering to God, our offering of praise, petition, and intercession. This sermon is my offering to God. It is for God and from God and on behalf of God and in the truest sense of the word to God. God is the primary congregation to whom I preach. In the same way, all our music is to God.

Can I quote the incomparable C. S. Lewis?  He has a wonderful essay on church music. He was dealing then, fifty years ago or more, with what we are dealing with now: high church music or low church music. And he said, among other things, we all should defer to our neighbor. We should say to one another, "I want to sing what you want to sing." But then he writes this, "For all of our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless gift of a child, which a father values but only for their intent."

I intend to praise God when I sing, don't you? We intend to please God when we sing, don't we? And when it is from the heart, from the soul, from the deepest places in our being, God receives it as if it were written by Mozart and sung by angels.

Do you recall what the Book of Hebrews says to us and to all Christians? Chapter 13, verse 15:  "Through Christ, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess his name."

Yes, we sing to God.

And we sing about Christ. What does our text say? Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God, about Christ, for each other.

We can sing about anything: nature and creation, our country, our homeland, love and friendship. But in the circle of Christian faith, we sing about Jesus. Think of the great hymns in the New Testament. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the sanctuary on the eighth day of his life to dedicate him to God, his uncle Zachariah broke into song of the great messiah of God. "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people. He has raised up for us a mighty savior."

The gospel of John opens with an extended hymn to Christ. "In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God." The final stanza of that great hymn to Christ sounds like this: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth."

And when Paul the apostle wanted to coach those early Christians on how to live, he pulled out one of their hymns, and gave it this preface, "Let this attitude which was in Christ Jesus be also in you." And then he quoted the hymn, "Christ was in the form of God but did not think his equality with God was something to be clutched onto, but Christ emptied himself, and took the form of a servant." 

The final stanza is very familiar to all of us, "Therefore, God has highly exalted him and given Jesus a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

The first music we teach our children is "Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong." I should be singing this, you know. Or that other little song that we teach the children, my grandchildren now, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world."

One of my favorite songs is not sung much anymore, but in my childhood it helped shape my understanding of Jesus and mercy and the trials of life, "Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, Jesus is merciful, Jesus can save." As I watch this Christmas season the Syrian refugees in search of hope and healing and--like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus so long ago--a new home, I think of this hymn. I especially like verse number three:

"Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter, feelings lie buried that grace can restore. Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness, cords that are broken will vibrate once more."

We are still in the midst of the greatest singing season of the year. Christmas. I like the advent candles, the nativity scenes, and the delightful giving and receiving of gifts. But it is the music I like best of all. From "The First Noel" to "Mary did you know" to "Angels from the realms of glory."

What is your favorite song about Christ this Christmas season?

Can I tell another story? It is a Christmas story.

As clear in my memory as any experience of my life is the day I arrived at the sanctuary of my church a bit late. It was Sunday afternoon, December 7. Must have been about 1996. The oratorio chorus was singing Handel's "Messiah." The sanctuary was full of people. Musicians filled the loft and the floor and the platform. I climbed up the back stairs and found a place in the balcony hall, not even in the sanctuary; I stood there, just as that magnificent alto solo took flight, taking as its timeless text, the words of Isaiah and Matthew, "And he shall feed his flock like a shepherd." There on the edge of the crowd, at the top of the stairs, hidden to all but God, I was moved to tears. I wept. I worshipped. I stood in wonder at how the old music telling an even older story could touch me so deeply.  

That unnamed alto soloist was obeying this command: Sing to God about Christ for each other.

We sing for each other. You never know what spiritual trauma sits next to you in the pew. What desperate prayers are being lifted up, what defeats are being remembered, what sadness has settled in somebody's soul. You are singing for them. Your words of hope, of love, of assurance, of trust in God, are just the words they need to hear.

Many times I have been too overwhelmed to sing: overwhelmed by joy or grief or fear or indecision or guilt. I have dropped my hymnbook, closed my mouth, and just listened. No, it is not always like the choir or the oratorio, especially when sitting next to my dad or my son. Neither of them got the musical gene. But in halting the heartfelt ways their testimony, sung in the words of a familiar hymn, spoke to me, ministered to me, lifted me.

"I was sinking deep in sin," the old gospel song said,

 "far from the peaceful shore.
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.
But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry,
from the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
Love lifted me. Love lifted me.
When nothing else could help, love lifted me."

In Frankfort Kentucky, the First Baptist Church sits almost adjacent to a bridge over the Kentucky River. It is known as the singing bridge. And the church advertises itself as the church by the singing bridge. I understand that, but I would rather be known as the singing church by the bridge. I love grand and soaring sanctuaries, but I love singing more. I treasure great preaching, but I love and treasure singing more. I value missional churches and multicultural churches and churches that pour themselves out for the sake of the gospel and the kingdom. But the one thing I seek when I ask for a church. Is this a singing church? I long to be a part of a congregation of people who sing to God, about Christ, and for each other. When this gospel practice is central to the life and ministry of the church, much else of importance comes along with it. Sing to God. Sing about Christ. Sing for another. This is the good gospel word for today. Amen.