Scripture Readings: Colossians 3.12-17
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
When we go to war, we have marching songs. When we find romance, we have love songs. When we love to dance to music- whether it’s Scottish country dance music, or the heavy beat at a night club, or the various forms of ballroom. Our entertainment is full of music- not just concerts, but it’s in the background to our films and television dramas. Who can forget the zither music of The Third Man or the double based terror of Jaws? I saw a play recently where the on-stage players were an absolutely vital part of the action: Amadeus (which has also been a film) – the story of Mozart and his rival, Salieri, a story which could hardly be told without music. Sometimes our music is sublime, sometimes it’s trashy- but we humans are musical animals, and it’s hard to imagine life without music.
Today, in connection with the laying up of the Standard of the Inverness and Highlands Branch of Parachute Regimental Association, I was asked if we could sing a hymn which is a favourite of many people: the Battle Hymn of the Republic: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. The tune, one of the most famous of all hymn tunes, developed, like many hymn tunes, from folk tunes. It was a soldier’s song originally: ‘John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave… his soul goes marching on’. John Brown had been an abolitionist who was hanged for attempting to start a slave rebellion in Virginia.
In 1862, Julia Ward Howe heard the song at a review of troops in outside Washington DC. She was a remarkable lady- a social reformer, campaigner for the abolition of slavery, and for women’s suffrage, a scholar who had met Charles Dickens, and, of course, a writer and poet. A minister friend who accompanied her to the military review suggested she write more formal words for the song. She wrote the most popular song of the Civil War era: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; a hymn which rightly transcended its time to become a favourite across the world.
It’s such a good tune, that it’s regularly parodied. I remember as a child we had a version which began: ‘Glory, glory hallelujiah/ The teacher hit me with a ruler’. Alastair Milne tells me that, as is often the case in the military, he and his Parachute Regiment colleagues had words which are probably not suitable for me to quote in this time and place. But all that reminds us of the importance of music.
Music can make us laugh, it can inspire us, it can entertain, it can make us think. When we sing or make music together, we are united. At the suggestion of Robin, our Old High organist, our congregation recently became a member of the Royal School of Church Music, and organisation which supports music-making in churches through training and resource material. This Sunday they suggest could be a ‘music Sunday’ in churches, and today our hymns and readings reflect that.
Music is also central to Christian worship. The sheer range of Christian music is incredible- Gregorian Chants, Victorian hymns, modern praise songs- all stemming from many, many Biblical instances where we hear of music being used in worship. The Book of Psalms, is, of course, central to all this. Right at the beginning of our worship today, we sang
‘O come, and let us to the Lord, in songs our voices raise’
– words from Psalm 95. ‘Praise the Lord’ is a phrase which occurs again and again in the Psalms.
There are many reference to musical instruments, musicians and musi-making in the Bible: flutes, trumpets and bagpipes, percussion instruments like drums, tambourines and rattles. The most frequently mentioned instrument in the Bible is the ram’s horn, the only instrument which is still sometimes used in synagogues today. Israel’s greatest king, David, began his career at the royal court as a lyre player to King Saul, and was renowned as a writer of songs. We know that music was central to worship in the Temple in Israel, and we hear of music used for military purposes, at court, and among ordinary people.
In today’s Gospel reading, we a lovely picture of children at play, singing and making music. Jesus is talking about how people have reacted to John the Baptist. Some people thought that John, with his camel hair, living in the desert, calling people to repentance, was taking religion much too strictly. Put when Jesus came along, it seems the same people thought he didn’t take religion seriously enough- for he mixed with dodgy people like tax collectors and prostitutes, and was quite happy to enjoy a nice meal and good company. To be honest, this is something we still encounter today. For every person who rejects the Christian message on the grounds that Christians are killjoys, there is someone else who says that because we sometimes enjoy ourselves, all Christians are hypocrites. Often, indeed, the same person will say the both things at different times- any excuse to reject the Christian faith will do!
What are these people like, says Jesus: the folk who are always finding reasons to criticise religion? He says,
They are like children sitting in the marketplace. One group shouts to the other, ‘We played wedding music for you, but you wouldn’t dance! We sang funeral songs, but you wouldn’t cry!’
It would have been common to see children playing in the village marketplace back then. And when a funeral or a wedding would involve the entire village, no doubt children did play at wedding and funerals. So Jesus gives us a lovely picture of the children of the marketplace, perhaps playing toy flutes or drums- and contrasts that picture of innocent children with the grown-ups who are always looking for a reason to avoid the call of God on their lives.
A few years later, St Paul writes to the small group of Christians in the city of Colossae, in modern Turkey. Paul wrote letters usually because there was a problem of some kind in a local church. In Colossae, there were people preaching what Paul felt was false teaching, which threatened to lead the people away from a genuine faith in Christ. And so Paul emphasises what it is important to the Colossians:
You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own.
And just as God has shown his love for us in coming to us in Christ, so love is to be at the heart of the life of Christians. It is, he writes:
…love, which binds all things together in perfect unity. [And:] The peace that Christ gives is to guide you in the decisions you make; for it is to this peace that God has called you together in the one body.
In any group of people, there is always the threat that as we try to work together, there will be different points of view, conflicts, personality clashes, problems in working together. That’s true whether it’s your local bowling club, or a regimental association, a community organisation… or a Church. And just as a flag reminds us of something we have in common- a nation or a regiment- so, too, the church sometimes has to be reminded of what we have in common. It is Christ which is the basis of unity. As he loved us, so we are to love one another.
And so Paul appeals to the Christians of Colossae in words which we do well to hear as if they were directed to us, to the Christians of today in this congregation of Old High St Stephen’s- or, indeed, in any Christian congregation:
You must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you.
These words about being tolerant and forgiving of one another’s failings. None of us is ever perfect. We are often let down by other people- but we know we also let other people down. ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’, to use words which Christ taught we should always pray. We are to be compassionate, and patient, and tolerant of other people’s failings- because each of us needs the compassion, patience and tolerance of other people to forgive us our failings.
And then Paul continues:
[T]o all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity.
Another early Christian writer, St John, wrote
‘We love, because God first loved us’.
Christians are people who have known the incredible, costly, love of God in Jesus Christ. So of course, we have to show love in our lives, including when we discuss and debate among ourselves questions about the life the Church.
We live in a world of conflict, war, terrorism and hatred. If there is any point at all to the Church, it must be that we seek to live together in such a way that we point to another alternative. Can people live together in love and peace, and so show the world another way to live? It may be difficult, but Paul told the Colossians that, in Christ, they could know a peace which would be at work among them:
The peace that Christ gives is to guide you in the decisions you make; for it is to this peace that God has called you together in the one body.
And that so whether the people of God are singing wedding songs, or funeral dirges, whether we are celebrating or mourning, whether we are laughing together or crying together, whether we are arguing, or whether we are agreeing- at all times, Christian people are to live in the peace of Christ, and show the love of Christ.
Very often, music brings people together. Folk from different nations can find something in common when they enjoy or make music together. Music, in all its variety and genres, can bring people together, and create a common bond between people who may be very different.
That’s why music has always been at the centre of religious life. The Psalms of the Old Testament brought Israel together in praise of their amazing God. And down through the centuries, Christians have sung hymns of praise, whether they were celebrating or mourning. And that is why St Paul says that the work of the Church should always end in praise. As we work together in the Church, even when we disagree or argue, still, the love of Christ holds us together, for we are truly the people of God. And so Paul can tell the Colossians, as he tells us:
Sing psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing to God with thanksgiving in your hearts.
We are Christians, and that is why we sing. We are different people with different personalities and different ways of looking at things. We do not always agree with one another, even in the Church. But when we sing together, we are reminded that we are united in the love of Christ. For we are truly the people of God, chosen, loved and cherished by our Father- what better way to express our thanksgiving than music and songs of praise?
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
 ‘Music’ in Harper’s Bible Dictionary (1985), p669
 1 John 4.19