Joy of the Redeemed
35 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I think I would be safe in saying that all of us love the music of Christmas. But having said that, let me also be quick to add that not all of us are musicians. Some of us are like the man who was browsing in a crafts store with his wife one day when he noticed a display of country-style musical instruments. After looking over the flutes, dulcimers, and recorders, he picked up a shiny, one-stringed instrument he took to be what’s known as a mouth harp. He put it to his lips and, much to the amusement of the other shoppers, twanged a few notes on it. After watching from a distance, his wife came up to him and whispered in his ear, “I hate to tell you this, honey, but you’re trying to play a cheese slicer.”
Like I said, not all of us are musicians. And…not all of us are singers. Some of you might be able to relate to one woman who was talking to one of her friends about her parents who had recently retired. Her mom had always wanted to learn to play the piano, so her dad bought her one for her birthday. A few weeks later, the daughter asked her dad how her mom was doing with it. “Oh, we returned the piano,” he said. “I persuaded her to switch to a clarinet instead.” “How come?” the daughter asked. “Well,” he answered, “because with a clarinet, she can’t sing while she plays.”
Again, we’re not all great musicians and we’re not all great singers. But that’s OK because if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times over the course of my ministry. And that is that the Bible never calls us to make a melodious noise to the Lord. It simply tells us to make a joyful noise to him. And there is no other time of the year when even the most musically challenged among us attempts to do that than this time of the year. Wouldn’t you hate to think what Advent and Christmas would be like without those great hymns and carols that we enjoy singing and hearing so much at this time each year?
Well, last week I started what’s going to turn out to be a 3-part series of messages that I’ve entitled “When Messiah Comes,” based upon passages out of the book of Isaiah. In that first sermon we learned that when Messiah comes, there will be light. Today we’re going to learn that when Messiah comes, there will be singing. And on the 23rd we’ll discover that when Messiah comes, a baby will be born.
Now it would be difficult to paint a verbal picture in which the joy of the Lord is portrayed more vividly than in the words of Isaiah that serve as our text for today. Just try to envision countless throngs of the saints of God walking that Holy Highway, no longer touched by sin or suffering, sickness or sorrow. And what are they doing? They’re singing, singing the songs of everlasting joy. There’s no doubt about it. Music has always been very important to God’s people and it always will be. Now why is that? Well, I can think of several reasons.
First, because music gives us an avenue whereby we can express our joy and thanksgiving. It helps us to put into words what we’re feeling in our heart. Though I’m certainly not the greatest of singers by any stretch of the imagination, I can recall a time in my life when I could not sing at all. Like the old saying goes, I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. I was tone deaf. So I sang in a monotone. And my brother and sister, both of whom could sing, always took a great deal of delight in pointing out my less-than-stellar singing ability. And I’ll never forget when things changed for me. I was in the 5th grade and we were practicing a song that we were going to sing in the children’s Christmas program at our church. I don’t recall the name of the song, but I know it had something to do with the inn at Bethlehem, that’s how vividly I remember this moment. And as we were practicing, I noticed something. I noticed that I was no longer singing in a monotone voice, but rather I was hearing the notes and the different pitches and for the first time in my life I was actually singing them.
What brought about this change in my abilities? The only answer I have is that I had started band that year and I was playing the trumpet. Apparently, learning the notes and playing that musical instrument kind of woke up my tone deaf ear. And it was like a whole new world opened up to me. And I loved it! I love to sing. In fact, on those rare occasions when I’m sitting by my wife in a worship service, she’ll lean over and say, “You’re singing so loud.” And I know I sing loud, but I really believe the reason I do is because I know what it’s like to not be able to sing at all.
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once told of an old Methodist man he knew who was always singing. He sang when he got up in the morning. He sang in his little workshop. He sang when he walked the streets. When Spurgeon asked him one time why he sang so much, the man replied, “Because I always have something to sing about.”
That makes me think of the Promise Keepers gatherings many of our men and I attended years ago when they would have a group of local men serve as back-up singers for the praise band that led the times of worship. All those men wore T-shirts that said “Real men sing real loud.” Well, real men sing real loud not to show off, not to draw attention to themselves, but to draw attention to God and to praise him because like that man told Charles Spurgeon, we always have something to sing about.
And this especially comes out in our text for today where Isaiah promises that the people of God will one day return to Zion. Zion is another name for Jerusalem. Isaiah was writing during tough times, times when the nation of Israel had become a divided kingdom and many of its citizens from the northern kingdom had been carried off into captivity by the ruthless and powerful Assyrian army. And those in the southern kingdom were being told that the same was going to happen to them, only they would be carried into exile by the Babylonians. But Isaiah also spoke of a time when many of them would be allowed to return home again, a time that would be marked by great joy and singing.
For Christians, Zion stands for the city of God that we will inhabit in what the Bible calls the new heavens and the new earth that will serve as our eternal dwelling place when Jesus returns to this earth in all his glory. In the Book of Revelation that city is called the New Jerusalem. And you’d better believe that when we finally enter that city, there will be singing like we’ve never heard before, singing that will erupt from the mouths of those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus and who are lifting their voices in praise and thanksgiving to that great God and Savior who made it all possible for us.
I read a great story recently about Charles Duke, a former astronaut, who became a believer in Christ some years after he had walked on the moon. After his time with NASA he found that his life seemed to be lacking meaning and purpose. And I think that’s pretty understandable, for what on this earth can possibly compare to walking on the moon? His wife, Dottie, felt the same way and found herself spiraling into a deep depression that led her to the brink of suicide. But then she started attending a church where she came to know Jesus as her Savior and Lord. Sometime later at one of his wife’s Bible studies, Charles Duke did the same. And all of a sudden he found a new and compelling purpose for his life. Today when he’s asked about it, he says: “Walking on the moon cannot compare to walking on earth with Jesus.” Isn’t that great? When you feel like that, you want to sing. And like I said before, music allows us to put into words what we’re feeling in our hearts.
But there’s a second thing music does for us: it draws us closer together as the family of Christ. I’ve seen this whenever I’ve done services at a nursing home or the Manor at Salem Woods. Though I may not know what denomination most of those residents belong to or what their beliefs are about things like Baptism or Communion or the end times, things that typically divide Christians, we quickly find a common denominator in the songs we sing. In fact, it’s through those types of services that I first came to know some of the most beloved hymns of the church that have never found a place in our Lutheran hymnal – hymns like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Because He Lives” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
And it’s amazing how once we learn those hymns, they stay with us for the rest of our lives. I’ve seen this so many times in nursing home services where residents may appear to be completely disconnected or even oblivious to what we’re doing there, but when we start singing “The Church in the Wildwood” or “In the Garden” or “Amazing Grace,” all of a sudden you’ll see the lips of those people start to move as they join the rest of us in singing those precious and popular hymns. I especially saw this in my mom when she was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s. She reached a point where she didn’t make much sense anymore when she talked. Most of the time she didn’t even use actual words. She just strung syllables together into a type of meaningless gibberish, so I would have no idea what she was talking about. Add to that the fact that she couldn’t remember anything from 5 seconds ago and you can imagine how difficult it was to communicate with her. But if I wanted to get my mom back for just a few minutes, all I had to do was say, “How about we sing a hymn, Mom?” And she would sing every word of “Abide with Me” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” or any number of other hymns that were just etched on her mind. That’s why I say that music definitely draws us closer together as the family of Christ.
And then the last thing that music does is it speaks to us about God. It teaches us about God. I know one criticism that people sometimes have of some of our Lutheran hymns is that they’re just so wordy. Unlike many of the praise songs of today that often repeat the same line or chorus over and over again, many Lutheran hymns are like a mini-Bible lesson. Well, there’s a good reason for that. And that is because those hymns were often used in churches and homes and parochial schools to teach children the main doctrines of the Christian faith. Which is really no different than what the Jews did in the Old Testament through their hymnbook which was the Book of Psalms. When they sang those Psalms, they were learning all kinds of things about God. In Ps. 23, for example, they learned how the Lord was their shepherd who provides for them and protects them. In Ps. 19 they learned how the fingerprints of God are over everything he made for the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. In Ps. 139 they learned that they were fearfully and wonderfully made, woven together by God in their mother’s womb. In Ps. 51 they learned the doctrine of original sin, that they were sinful at birth, sinful from the time their mother conceived them. In Ps. 61 and 62 they learned that God was their rock and their fortress, their refuge and their salvation, their strong tower against the foe. In Ps. 105 they learned in a condensed form the history of some of their ancestors from Abraham all the way up to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under the direction of Moses. And it just goes on and on.
So on those Sundays when we find ourselves singing one of those rather wordy Lutheran hymns, don’t tune out what’s being sung. Rather tune in to the words. Focus upon them as you sing them. And who knows what awesome and wonderful things you just might learn about our awesome and wonderful God.
So as we find ourselves a little more than 2 weeks removed from the annual celebration of our Savior’s birth, let us continue to prepare ourselves with songs of joy and thanksgiving. Let us sing together as God’s people with one unified voice. And let us especially look forward to that day when we will join with all of his faithful children in actually participating in what Isaiah describes for us in our text for today when he says: “They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” That’s the promise that the Messiah brought to our world 2000 years ago. And that’s a promise that is definitely worth singing about. Amen.