Every week when we gather together as a church, we sing songs. Why do we do that? Why do we sing? And does what we sing have any importance to our day-to-day walk with God?
Music is a part of every culture and has, for a long time, been a part of every culture. Music and our ability to sing and hear music are a part of what it means to be human. As long as there have been mothers and babies, there have been lullabies. As long as people have fallen in love, there have been love songs. As long as hearts get filled with joy, you have to sing. When we’re happy, we sing. When we’re desperate, we sing.
It’s because music communicates in a way nothing else can. And that’s why music is always associated with Christmas. Something about Christmas makes the heart want to sing; whether it’s the funny Christmas songs on the radio or the sacred Christmas songs we sing in our church, the music we hear this month uplifts us. Our December will be all about music, so join us as we reflect on the posture we take as we listen to the music around us.
Alright, we’re starting our Christmas series today, looking at the music of Christmas. You will have noticed if you’re part of our church every week when we come together, part of what we do is we just sing songs. Why do we do that? Why do we sing? The most popular song that everyone in the world has sung is the song “Happy Birthday.” It’s a simple song. I don’t know who wrote the lyrics, but a company is still getting paid millions of dollars of royalties just for — Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday, dear (your name), Happy birthday to you! Sometimes we don’t think about songs when we sing them. Maybe the second most popular song in our culture is the song called “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Do you know that song? The ironic thing about that song is — where are people when they sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”? At the ballgame! That’s the only time we ever sing that song, and we’re already at the ballgame. It makes no sense at all. It’s not sung until the seventh inning when people have had enough beer that they’re not thinking about songs anymore, I guess. Some people aren’t willing to sing because they’re not very musical. Ulysses S. Grant was apparently our least musical president. He said of himself that he only knew two tunes. One of them was “Yankee Doodle,” and the other one wasn’t. He was also apparently not one of our funnier presidents. When it comes to music, it’s part of every culture, every civilization. It’s a real deep part of being human. * As long as there have been mothers and babies, there have been lullabies. * As long as people have fallen in love, there have been love songs. * As long as hearts get filled with joy, you have to sing. There’s an old expression. It’s associated with Saint Augustine. — “He who sings prays twice.” Once with your mind and once with your heart. People sing in honest moments sometimes when they need courage, when they’re in horrible circumstances. There are a couple of guys in Scripture, Paul and Silas. They had been arrested for their faith. They were in a terrible spot. They were stripped. They were beaten with rods. Think about this. They were severely flogged. They were put in stocks. About midnight, they were praying and singing hymns to God. Who does that? When we’re happy, we sing. When we’re desperate, we sing. Jesus sang. On the final night of his life, he knew he was going to die. He has the last meal with his disciples. Then before he leaves to be executed, we’re told they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. Music communicates in a way nothing else can. And music is always associated with Christmas. Something about Christmas makes the heart want to sing. When Jesus was born, there was a custom in Israel at that time, again because music expresses wonder that nothing else can. When there was a birth and it was safe (in that day, as still is the case in much of the world, births were a real dangerous thing), there would be music if the baby was born and the baby and the mom were safe and if the baby was the right gender. Do you want to guess what the “right” gender was in that day? A little boy. They would gather musicians, friends, and relatives, and there would be music. If it was a little girl, there was no music. I’m not kidding. The musicians would go home. You see, part of what Jesus came to do is change the way our world would look at little girls. Now with Jesus, because his parents were in Bethlehem, such a long way away from home. They had no relatives or friends. They had no musicians there. So God had to make other arrangements for there to be music on the first Christmas, and he does. There were shepherds out in the fields. God sent an angel to tell them, “A baby has been born. Find him in a manger in swaddling clothes. Good news! Great joy!” When the angel was done talking, he was joined by a huge angelic choir — imagine that — singing God’s praises: “Glory to God in the highest, peace to all men and women on earth who please him.” Now why do they do that? Why do they sing? It’s not a real efficient way to convey information. They do it for a really simple reason. — The universe is not designed for efficiency; it’s designed for wonder. We all know this in our hearts. The universe catches us off guard, and we know worship is the only sane response to this mystery of existence. We did not make any of it happen. The beauty of creation is not the product of human cleverness or technology. And it’s also not an accident. It is a marvel and a wonder — and in sanity we recognize this. Worship restores us to sanity. In worship, I come to see how big God is. In worship, I think about, I dwell on, I delight in, I find ways to express the goodness and wonder and beauty and majesty of the one who is creator. The psalmist says: Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together. Psalm 34:3 It’s about way more than church services. It’s about way more than music. Very often we do this out of our need. * I recognize I need strength, so I praise God for his power. * I recognize I need wisdom, so I praise God for his guidance. * I recognize I need forgiveness, so praise God for his mercy. * I feel alone, so I praise God for his love for me. Do you understand whether your circumstances are good or dire, when you worship, you are swimming with the tide of the universe because the universe was created as an expression of great wonder and joy? In our saner moments, we just know this. Poets write about this, including the Bible. This is from the book of Job. I love the way this is expressed. God says: Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? …who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? Job 38:4-7 I would like to have been there for that — hear the stars singing. When I worship God, when I sing his praise, I see things as they really are. I see life as an unbelievable gift and the possibility for amazing joy and trust in faith — whatever my circumstances happen to be. In worship, I’m reminded again of the reality that there is this great God, and I get to praise him, worship him. It’s not about me. It’s not about my needs. It’s not about my tastes. It’s not about my preferences. Worship is how I see how big God is, how good meaning and joy and hope is. And I also see in worship how small I am. And I have to tell you — it’s a really good thing to see how small you are. I know. We live in a day that doesn’t think so. We live in a day that says human beings are the measure of all things, and we ought to make ourselves feel really big. But if there’s not something bigger than me, God help me. God help us all. There was a fascinating TED Talk by a woman named Amy Cuddy. It’s a great talk turned into a book called Presence. It has been watched by millions of people. She notes that how we carry ourselves — our body language, posture, etc — is very important in our lives. She says basically there are two ways you can carry your body. And you can kind of audit yourself physically right now. Just see which one you’re doing. You can make yourself big or you can make yourself small. Some people are doing this right now. Maybe you’re sitting up really straight, shoulders up, head high. You’re taking up space. You spread your arms out over the seat next to you. You’re kind of announcing to the world, “I’m here. This is my space.” Alpha leaders. The Greek alphabet starts with the word alpha, ends with omega. Alpha males. Alpha dogs. That’s what they do. It’s associated with testosterone, with a sense of dominance. If you’re watching the World Cup, this is Cristiano Ronaldo. Is there any question about who scored a goal when Ronaldo scores? His whole routine after he scores is about expressing, “I am the greatest.” He jumps in the air as high as he can and lands with his feet spread apart and his arms spread apart making himself as big as possible. Now, putting your arms in the air is such a reflexive response to winning, to dominance, that Amy Cuddy says even people who are blind from birth who have never, ever seen this posture do this automatically. It’s associated with elevated levels of testosterone. — “I’m a winner.” Maybe, on the other hand, you’re someone who makes yourself small. You cross your legs. You fold your arms. You hunch your shoulders. You bow your head. That’s associated with increasing amounts of cortisol (the stress hormone). You feel more levels of stress. You just kind of don’t want to be noticed. You feel a sense of weakness or of inadequacy. She says this has an enormous impact on how we go through life. In fact, she says if you’re going through a really important conversation… You have a job interview or you’re going to ask someone out on a date. You want to feel empowered, so get into a room all by yourself and practice power poses for two minutes. It’s a fascinating talk if you haven’t seen it, and it’s very moving. She has a very powerful personal story. The need for people to have power is a great need, but it’s not the only need. And it’s kind of interesting how the Christmas story turns this around, inverts this. The magi, when they come to Bethlehem, are following this star. It’s kind of cool how they’re not from Israel. They don’t know the one, true God. They’re actually practicing astrology, and God uses that to lead them to Bethlehem. They’re quite powerful, quite wealthy men, alpha leaders. Their response was they were overjoyed. And when they saw the child with Mary, they don’t lift their hands in the air. They bow down. They worship him. They make themselves small. Why? Because they have some sense of what it is God is doing — that the God of all creation now is not striking a power pose. He’s not being the alpha God. He’s humbling himself. He’s making himself small. Infinity is cramming itself into a little baby, into a humble little manger, out of love to redeem you and me. This is so staggering that the writers of Scripture say when God brings his son into the world, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” They all bowed down. Now, you don’t have to do that. Another character at Christmastime is a guy named Herod. He didn’t want to bow down. He was into power poses. His nickname was Herod the Great. He wanted to be the only big one. He didn’t want Jesus to come into his world, so he wouldn’t approach him. In Jerusalem, there’s a church historically associated with the birth of Jesus. No one knows for sure if that’s the place, but this tradition goes way back. It’s called the Church of the Nativity. Inside it, there’s a little cave down below. In order to get into it, there’s a door, but it’s really low. You have to kneel down, and there’s something kind of fitting about that — to get in to see Jesus, you have to bow down. Herod doesn’t want to do that. There’s a little Herod inside of me and inside of you. By way of contrast, there’s another character in the Christmas story, and her name is Mary. When God comes to her, God says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” It takes her a while to get her mind wrapped around those words. When she does, she responds like this — My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. Luke 1:46-49 You see, you can magnify yourself, you can magnify your problems, or you can magnify God. To magnify God is to declare his greatness, to ascribe wonder to God’s power, God’s love, God’s joy. That’s what Mary does. She exalts God, and God raises her up. Alright, here’s how I want us to apply this between now and Christmas. Every time you think about Jesus in the next few weeks, magnify Christ in your life. When you see a nativity scene, when you hear a Christmas carol or see a Christmas tree or Christmas lights or hear the Christmas story or you think about Jesus, decide to worship him with your whole self. A lot of times when people hear the word worship, they think of it as a warm feeling. They might think, “Well, I don’t feel like worshiping, so I won’t do it right now because it wouldn’t be authentic.” Or, “I’d be a hypocrite if I were to do it.” Devotion is not that way. Devotion is not reliant on feeling. What do we call husbands who only say, “I love you” to their wives when they feel like saying it? Ex-husbands. The reality is we worship God as an action, and that means it’s available to us always as an act of the will, as a choice. That’s why very often in the Bible when you see worship described, the body is involved. This is true over and over in Scripture, but I want to list just a few for you now. * One man, Manoah, and his wife “…fell on their faces to the ground.” You might try worshiping God that way some time. * David danced before the LORD with all his might. You might want to try that one when you’re all by yourself some time. * The psalmist says, “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.” * Another man went with the disciples to the temple courts, walking and jumping and praising God because God had healed him. People in the Bible used their bodies and their wills and their minds to worship God with their whole selves because God has done this cool thing where he has wired you up so what you do with your body actually affects your mind. This is so powerful. There’s a recent study where they found when people were depressed, if they just put something in their mouth like a pen to remind them to flex their smile muscles, it made them happier. You can try that right now. If you just flex your smile muscles, it will make you happy. If you’re sitting next to a crabby person, you might want to give them a pen to stick in their mouth… and it will make them happier. What we do with our bodies actually affects the way we feel. William James, a famous psychologist about a hundred years ago, said, “I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.” God invites us, “Use your body. Use your will. Focus your thoughts to worship God.” You can do this. In fact, it’s a practice through which our actual sanity for life is regained. And I realize — “I don’t have to just grind life out. I don’t have to live in denial of or oppression under the bad things that happen to me. There is a good God who is going to redeem all things.” So I want talk about three postures we can use in the next few weeks to get ready for Christmas. We’ll talk about that in just a moment. Announcements Alright, in the time we have left, I want to talk about three postures we can use in the next few weeks to get ready for Christmas. I want you to consider practicing these everyday. The first one is: 1. I will worship God with a humble heart And the posture for this one is to just get on your knees. At some point during your day (maybe when you first get up in the morning) just get down on your knees. Mary did this. When I’m on my knees, I’m not running anywhere. I have no power. I’m just saying, “God, I’m your servant. I’m your child.” It’s kind of a funny thing because we think esteem will come when we build ourselves up. When the angel came, the angel said, “Greetings [Mary], you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary’s response was not to say, “Oh, yeah, well, that figures. I’m not surprised. Of course! I’ve been doing so well.” No. “Why me? I don’t deserve the Son of God to come live with me.” I want to say if you’re a Christian, sometimes pride sneaks up on us in the oddest ways. If someone asks you why you’re a Christian, sometimes people will say, “Well, it’s because I was convinced by this idea,” or, “I read this book,” or, “It was a result of this conversation,” or, “I grew up in a Christian home.” Let me tell you something. The only correct answer is — “For reasons I will never understand, when I was prideful and stubborn and willful and rebellious and deceitful and self-centered and egotistical, God had mercy on me and sent his Son Jesus to this world. He died on a cross for me, and no one is more surprised I’m a Christian than I am. For the rest of my life, I’ll just say thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” When I’m sane, I’m just on my knees before God. — “God, I don’t know why you did this for me. I don’t deserve this.” I think God loves to exalt the humble. Spend some time on your knees in worship over the next few weeks as we get ready for Christmas. Just this posture of — “God, it’s me. I’m the one who needs Jesus.” 2. I will worship God with a submitted spirit God loves it when we come to him with a submitted spirit, and we can do this any time. A great posture for this with your body (you can do it right now) is just put your palms up like this. There’s something about doing this with your body that’s so powerful. There’s a lawyer named Bob Goff. He’s a follower of Jesus. He’s written a fabulous book called Love Does. He’s an activist but also a practicing attorney. He says this is so powerful. The way our body affects our mind is so strong that when he has clients who are being deposed, he forces them to sit down at the table, and as long as the deposition is going on (possibly for hours), they have to sit there with their palms up. Bob says (and he has experienced this over the years) when people sit like this, there’s an openness to them. There’s a tenderheartedness to them. They don’t get defensive. They don’t get stiff necked. They don’t get stubborn… just by doing this with their hands. He says he’s so committed to this that if one of his clients doesn’t sit with his palms up, he’ll kick them in the shins under the table. Part of what this communicates is — “God, whatever you have to give me, I will receive it with joy.” Now here’s why it’s important for us to do this for the next few weeks. Christmas is a time of giving gifts. Sometimes you receive a gift you need but you don’t really want because of what it says about you. A couple years ago, I received a nose hair trimmer for Christmas. Do you think I asked for a nose hair trimmer? Has anyone ever asked, “Dear Santa, bring me a nose hair trimmer”? Why would anyone give someone a nose hair trimmer for Christmas? Because you have nose hair. That’s the only reason. I don’t really want to think about what this gift says about me. Do you know what God gives you for Christmas? A Savior — someone to save you from your sin. What does that say about me? It says — “I need someone to pull me out of the pit. I need someone to rescue me from hell and death. I need someone to save me from my own selfishness and pride.” I come before God saying — “Alright, God. I admit it. I confess to you my sin. I want your gift for me. God, I’m not going to go through life clutching. I’m not going to go through life exalting myself. I will make my life an act of worship.” There’s a great statement on worship in the book of Hebrews. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. Hebrews 13:15-16 We don’t worship God just with our lips. When we serve, when we share, when we give, when we listen, when we love, that’s the worship that delights the heart of God. So let’s worship with submitted spirits this Christmas. Then the third posture, and this one is great for Christmas. 3. I will worship God in eager hope Sometimes people think worship is just for when you have good circumstances. — It’s just for people who are happy, not for sick people or impoverished people or jobless people or abandoned people. Of course, it looks different for everyone, but I want to tell you, whatever your circumstances are, worship is for you to think about the fact that there is a good God — a strong God — and he is watching over this world. He is watching over you. You need worship in those moments, maybe more than ever before. I’ll tell you an interesting thing. There was an old, old man in the Bible. His name was John. He was a follower of Jesus. When he was young, he had great promise. Then he got to be with Jesus and got to be with his friends. Then he ended up an old man, and he was isolated. He was all by himself. He was in prison, and he was going to die in that prison. This is what he writes. After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, [Now imagine this. This is what John tells us will happen.] from every nation, tribe, people and language, [Together like brothers and sisters. No more division. No more war.] standing before the throne and before the Lamb. [That’s the posture for great joy. They couldn’t sit anymore.] They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: [Not just singing — they cried out in a loud voice, whether they were good singers or not.] “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne.” [God is reigning now. Everything is just the way God wants it to be.] All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” What just boggles the mind of heaven is our God saves. Our God — who created this world, which is so wonderful, so awful, so lost, and so broken — is going to redeem this world. Our God is going to dry every tear. Our God is going to end all oppression and injustice. Salvation belongs to our God. How can we not worship him? I want you to remember this picture of all of heaven on its feet. When we worship, we anticipate that in our bodies and in our minds. I’ll give you a picture of this. This is a picture of the US Men’s National team winning to advance in the World Cup. This was this amazing moment. The whole team did what people do when they win. They jumped up in the air. They were jumping and singing and dancing and leaping and making fools of themselves. Now, I know, some of you grew up in a baptist church. You don’t do that kind of thing. You thinking — “You can’t compare worship to a US World Cup victory. We don’t jump up and down in worship. We don’t wave our hands in the air. We don’t applaud like crazy.” And I get it. I understand. But since, as a matter of fact, the God of all creation in the person of Jesus Christ has come down to earth and was born in a manger and died on a cross and was raised from the tomb and our sin is forgiven and our guilt is wiped away and the Holy Spirit lives inside of us and we get the church as our family and God as our heavenly Father and Jesus as our friend and brother and Savior and heaven as our eternal home forever, every once in a while we ought to at least do something like that. Don’t you think? Salvation belongs to our God, and we praise him. We worship him. We give him our heart. We give him our love. We just honor our God for being great. Our God is worthy. Then the most amazing thing happens. This Jesus who is God made flesh one time stretches himself out really big. It didn’t look like a power pose. It looked like the end. It was all the alpha dogs in this world who put him there on that cross. What they didn’t know was there was another kind of power that was being released. That God, who was the Creator of all that is, made himself as small as can be, smaller than sin. Then he rose again, bigger than life, greater than death. This is who he says he is. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last.” “I am the Lord of all, and I’m the slave of all.” “I am the crucified servant, and I’m the King of Kings.” He is the Lamb who was slain. He is the Lion of Judah. You see, when you humble yourself, God lifts you up, for that’s how things are in this strange kingdom where the first become last and the weak are made strong and the poor become rich and falling on your knees is the greatest power pose of them all. Would you close your eyes right now and give your worship to this God? If you want to have your palms up, if you want to have your arms up, if you want to be on your knees, whatever you want to do. Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA