The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 11/19/2000
Text: Psalm 100
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Music, music, music. In the words of Carlyle, "Music is well said to be the speech of angels."(1) Or Longfellow, "Music is the universal language of mankind."(2) Shakespeare: "If music be the food of love, play on."(3) Music.

Sometime back public school music teachers compiled some answers that youngsters gave to test questions:(4)

  • Refrain means don't do it. A refrain in music is the part you better not try to sing.

  • A virtuoso is a musician with real high morals.

  • Handel was half German, half Italian, and half English. He was rather large.

  • Beethoven wrote music even though he was deaf. He was so deaf he wrote loud music...Beethoven expired in 1827 and later died from this.

  • Music sung by two people at the same time is called a duel. I know what a sextet is but I had rather not say.

  • When electric currents go through them, guitars start making sounds. So would anybody.

One time, a farmer who was a deacon in his country church was summoned to serve on a federal grand jury in a city. He was gone two weeks. First thing when he got back home, his wife asked him if he had attended church services while away. Of course he had. "Did you know any of the songs they sang?" his wife wanted to know.

"No, I didn't," the farmer replied. "They didn't sing songs. All they sung was anthems."

"Anthems?" she asked. "What on earth is anthems?"

"Well, it's like this," the deacon answered. "Now, if I was to say to you,'Ma, the cows is in the corn,' that would not be any anthem."

"Of course it wouldn't," Ma put in.

"Wait a minute," the deacon went on. "If I'd say in a long, quavering-out, dying up-and-down voice, 'Ma, Ma, Ma, the cows, the cows - the Holstein cow, the muley cow, the Jersey cow, the old brindle cow, and old Spec, too - all them cows - the co-o-o-w-s--is in--Is in--the cow-ow-ows is in--is in--the corn, the corn, the co-oo-rr-n, ah men, men, men,' that would be an anthem."(5)

Some unknown author has said of music:(6)

Servant and master am I; servant of those dead, and master of those living. Through me spirits immortal speak the message that makes the world weep, and laugh, and wonder, and worship.

I tell the story of love, and the story of hate; the story that saves, and the story that damns. I am the incense upon which prayers float to Heaven. I am the smoke which palls over the field of battle where men lie dying with me on their lips.

I am close to the marriage altar, and when the grave opens, I stand nearby. I call the wanderer home, I rescue the soul from the depths, I open the lips of lovers, and through me the dead whisper to the living.

One I serve as I serve all; and the king I make my slave as easily as I subject his slave. I speak through the birds of the air, the insects of the field, the crash of waters on rock-ribbed shores, the sighing of wind in the trees, and I am even heard by the soul that knows me in the clatter of wheels on city streets.

I know no brother, yet all men are my brothers; I am the father of the best that is in them, and they are fathers of the best that is in me; I am of them, and they are of me; for I am the instrument of God. I Am Music.

Indeed. Of course, worship has involved music from the beginning. The book of Psalms we have in our Old Testament have been called the Hymnal of the Second Temple. Psalm 100, of all the songs of praise, is probably the most familiar: "Make a joyful noise unto the LORD (literally "shout in triumph" or "make a racket" or even "applaud" - not easy for Presbyterians)...Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing." And we do.

To be sure, for a while we were not sure WHAT to sing. In the years immediately after the Reformation, Protestant churches were divided on the question of music for worship. Lutherans and Moravians immediately began to develop a rich tradition of hymns in the language of the people. Most of those in the Calvinist tradition, on the other hand, maintained that God already had provided us with a set of inspired hymns in scripture, chiefly in the Psalms, and that it was not for us to say that was incomplete or inadequate and set about to write our own. Accordingly, they wrote verse translations of the Psalms and sang these instead of hymns. In fact, even today there are still some churches which will not use any music except that which is derived from the psalms.

Admittedly, we do what we do (however we do it) with varying levels of skill. C. S. Lewis recounts that when he first started going to church he disliked the hymns, which he considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as he continued, he said, "I realized that the hymns were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit."(7)

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky: "The Church knew what the psalmist knew: Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise [God] than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church's greatest ornament."(8)

Music is the language beyond words. It is the language of the heart. In the American church we hear it most vividly voiced in the songs of slaves in the South. The spirituals reflected an unconquerable faith even in the midst of a horrible life. They grew out of a deep yearning to pass beyond the harshness of today to reach a better tomorrow. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, comin' for to carry me home..." That faith in the ultimate triumph of justice is with us still: "We shall overcome, We shall overcome, We shall overcome someday." The language of the heart.

As most of you know, for a number of years my wife has been very involved in the world-wide ministries of the Presbyterian Church as leader of annual mission trips around the globe. The past two years have involved trips to the city of Villahermosa, Mexico to help with construction of a badly-needed new Presbyterian seminary there which, as of two months ago, is open and serving a very fast-growing church in a region desperately in need of trained pastoral leadership. In addition to her tasks as worker recruiter, travel organizer, equipment arranger, language translator, and mother to each and all, Christie was also involved with trips to the countryside for ministry and worship with Christian brothers and sisters in more isolated areas. Last summer she again spent time with the Chol Indians, a remote tribe descended from the ancient Mayans.

Had we been with her for Sunday worship, we would have heard the same music in Mexico as we would have heard at Chautauqua: "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. All the earth shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea!" But with Christie, we would have heard three different languages - English, Spanish, and Chol. Actually FOUR languages: English, Spanish, Chol, and MUSIC...the language of the heart. Despite the fact that the worshipers did not SPEAK the same language, they did communicate wonderfully and deep spoke to deep. Christie says it was incredibly moving to see, at the end of the service, big burly men and little tiny women, all with tears streaming down their cheeks, reaching out with hugs all around. Despite all the other differences, they did share that language of the heart.

Listen again to the Apostle Paul: "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."(9)

In 1722, the Town Council of Leipzig was looking for a new cantor in the School of Saint Thomas and organist for the church of St. Thomas. The Council searched for this new person, and selected one who, three weeks later, turned them down. They then contacted their second pick, and he too turned them down. They decided, as one member of the council subsequently wrote, that "since the best man could not be obtained, a mediocre one would have to be accepted." This third choice they hired, the "mediocre" candidate, was Johann Sebastian Bach.(10) Bach, whose music has come to be called "the Fifth Gospel," would later say, "All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul's refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hubbub." He headed his compositions with the letters, "J.J." "Jesu Juva" which means "Jesus help me." He ended them, "S.D.G." "Soli Dei gratia" which means "To God alone be the glory."

As we come to another day of national thanksgiving this week, we say thanks be to God for the gift of music, the language of the heart. Not many years ago, Fred Pratt Green, one of the church's most prolific composers, was commissioned to write a new hymn for a Festival of Praise. We find it today in our Presbyterian hymnal:

When in our music God is glorified,
And adoration leaves no room for pride,
It is as though the whole creation cried:

How often, making music, we have found
A new dimension in the world of sound,
As worship moved us to a more profound

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always:
Alleluia! Amen.(11)

1. Essays, quoted by Lewis Henry, Five Thousand Quotations for all Occasions, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1945), p. 184

2. From Outre-Mer, ibid.

3. Twelfth Night, 1, i, 1

4. "Missouri School Music Newsletter," collected by Harold Dunn

5. Kemp P. Battle, Great American Folklore, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986), p. 281

6. Quoted by Cynthia Pearl Maus, Christ and the Fine Arts, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938), pp. 19-20

7. Paul Brand, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made quoted by James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 295

8. Quoted by Robert Craft, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, American Biography Service, 59

9. Ephesians 5:19-20


11. Text by Fred Pratt Green Copyright © 1972 by Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail