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Be Thou My Vision – Psalm 96

You have all done it before.  Some of you do it every Sunday.  Some of you have done it just this morning.  You know the drill.  The organ starts to play and the same pattern occurs time and time again.  Open Hymnal.  Close Mind.

Now, I don’t mean that you are closed-minded about hymns.  Not necessarily.  Of course, some of us are guilty of that one, too, right?  I don’t like that hymn tune.  Or I don’t like that composer.  Or I don’t like that time period of hymn writing.  Or I don’t know that song so I am not even going to try and sing it.  That is a level of closed mindedness.  But not what I mean.

I mean the dynamic that happens when we open the hymnal and know a song.  Perhaps even love a song.  Perhaps even it is our favorite.  We open the hymnal and start to sing and then we stop thinking about what we are singing.  We know the words and the tune, and so we shut off our brains.  When was the last time you really thought about the words to Amazing Grace?  To Joy to the World?  How often do you start to sing and then you go straight to autopilot?

Am I right?  I see some of those blank stares during the singing of the hymns.  I know for a fact that you are already thinking about what you are going to have for lunch today.  Or what you are going to are going to buy at the grocery store later.  Or whether Andrew Wiggins is going to take KU to the national championship this year.  I can see it all over your face.  Open Hymnal.  Close Mind.

The time when I realize how often I have gone to autopilot is when I am asked to sing a familiar song without the words or the music in front of me.  I think I know the song.  I think I know it by heart.  Then, I start to sing, and realize that I have no idea what it is actually saying.  I feel like I am singing a Credence Clearwater Revival song…”There’s a bathroom on the right…”  “I want to know, have you ever seen Lorainne?”

We realize we don’t know the words because we have never really thought about them.  Never really thought about what they mean.  We have sung these things on autopilot so much that we don’t really know what we are singing.

Which is a tragedy!  Meredith (makes) the point in her children’s sermon today, how much we learn when we sing.  It is the same point that James K.A. Smith makes in the quotation in your bulletin: “To sing the story of God’s gracious acts is not just to recite them.  In the embodied, affective rhythm of song, the Spirit plants the story in the epicenter of our being.”

Absolutely.  How many of us have been moved to faith, moved to hope, moved to serve because of a song?  A hymn?  Words that were not just spoken, but sung?  I have a friend who keeps a hymnal by the bed of his young son.  Every night they sing a hymn together.  He teaches him faith by singing these songs to and with him.  One of my earliest memories was my father singing me to sleep with the hymn Amazing Grace.  And I remember with deep emotion when I did the same with my kids!  We sing our faith!

I have a new challenge for you today.  Open the hymnal.  And open your mind.

It’s what the ancient Hebrews did.

This morning we read Psalm 96.  Let’s be honest.  How many of us, when I read the words to this ancient hymn, closed our minds?  We have heard it before.  “Sing to the Lord a new song.”  “The trees will clap with joy.”  OK.  OK.  Heard it.  Got it.

But the first people who heard those words, who sang those words, saw it as anything but same old, same old.  They were living through the Exile, a time when every category and assumption of their faith and of their God had been challenged and destroyed when the Babylonians came and defeated them.  Their Temple was destroyed.  They were forced to leave their homes and move to Babylon.  They were not allowed to live life in the way they were used to, but instead forced to follow different rules, a different culture, and a different faith.

Psalm 96 gave them a new way to live their faith.  Instead of relying on the structures of faith, the buildings, the assumptions, and the programs, they found a new way to worship God.  In the midst of a culture hostile to Yahweh, they alone recognized the sovereignty of Yahweh.  When they sang, “sing to the Lord a new song,” they were not singing to a new god.  But the same God, who they saw in a new way.  The Psalmist begged them: Sing with a new heart. Sing with a new mind. Sing the same old songs even, but sing them in a new way!

Psalm 96 is about the sovereignty of God.  In that time and place, that was theologically significant.  Because it is easy to sing about the sovereignty of God when everything around us is comfortable and reminds us of the safety of God.  But the Psalmist is saying sing about the sovereignty of God because the opposite is true – our world is upside down, and God is still sovereign in our lives!  “Great is the Lord.” “Honor and Majesty are his”  “Strength and beauty are his!” precisely in spite of the fact that the opposite looks true!  Sing the same old songs that we have always sung, but sing them in a brand new way.  With a brand new passion.  With a brand new understanding.  Sing about the sovereignty of God, and this time, mean it!

That’s what we want to do in the worship series this month.  Invite you to sing the old songs, but sing them in a new way.  Open your mind and your heart when you start to sing them.  Don’t just go to autopilot, but ask what they mean, why they are important, and why their words touch us at the “epicenter of our being.”

The first hymn is a perfect example: Be Thou My Vision.  In many ways, it is a more modern re-telling of Psalm 96 and the sovereignty of God.  I say modern, but not really new.  It is widely thought to be based on an Irish poem from the 8th Century, and translated to English and turned into a hymn more than 100 years ago.  So it is not so new.  But its words are timeless and amazingly theologically profound.

In the same way as Psalm 96 is about the sovereignty of God, so is this hymn!  The first verse sings of “Lord of my heart.”  The third verse says “thou and thou only, first in my heart…high king of heaven, my treasure thou art.”

I could imagine the Exiles singing a song like this.  “You and you only are first in my heart.”  Not the Babylonians.  Not the culture that surrounds us.  But You!

The same thing could be said of us today.  The values of the culture around us are not the values of Christ.  Now, let me explain what I mean when I say that.  I am not one to agree with this line that our culture has a war on Christianity.  Every president in our history has been a Christian of one sort or another.  It is not quite accurate to say that we are oppressed in this country because of our beliefs.  In fact, whenever I hear about the war on Christians, I am embarrassed in front of those in the world-wide Christian community who truly know oppression and religious discrimination in ways that we cannot imagine.

However, I do believe that we have something in common with the Exiles.  I would agree that the values of our culture are not equivalent to the values of Christ.  The values of consumerism and violence and permissiveness and greed and apathy are not the values of love and forgiveness and the sovereignty of God.  When we sing these words – and mean them – we are engaging in a counter-cultural revolution.  When we open our hymnals AND open our minds, we are standing against the culture that surrounds us.

What does it mean to make Jesus the Lord of your heart?  To say, “Thou and Thou only” – God and God only – is first in  your heart?

In one of the richest countries on earth, what does it mean to say Thou and Thou only is first in your heart?

In one of the busiest cultures in history, what does it mean to say Thou and Thou only is first in your heart?

In a culture less and less trusted to teach us the values of Christ, what does it mean to say Thou and Thou only is first in your heart?

On the brink of war, what does it mean to say Thou and Thou only is first in your heart?

In the face of poverty, what does it mean to say Thou and Thou only is first in your heart?

When we open our mouths to sing, do we turn off our minds, or open them up to the profundity of the words that are coming from our mouths?

The hymn is just beginning.  Another of my favorite lines is this: “Be Thou My Wisdom, and Thou my true Word.”  If the song teaches that God is sovereign, it also teaches that God is wisdom!

Another verse says it this way: “Thou my best thought.”  What a concept!  What a line!  God is our best thought.  I like to think that I come up with a bunch of great thoughts during the course of the day.  Snappy one-liners or comebacks.  Profound wisdom that my kids should listen to and obey.  And let’s be honest.  Every preacher has some level of arrogance in them, in order to think that there is anyone that is going to show up on a given Sunday morning to hear anything they have to say.  Deep down, I like to think that I have a bunch of great thoughts on any given week.  But the author of the words of this hymn knocks me down a few notches.  He or she reminds us that week in and week out, middle of the night or middle of the day, the best thought that we can have is God.  “You are my best thought.”  That is praise.  And that is wisdom!

I don’t know squat, next to God.  What a humble, gracious prayer that we sing: “Be my wisdom, God, because I can’t lay claim to any wisdom, compared to you.”  What if cable news pundits began every segment with that phrase?  What if preachers and teachers and public officials started every meeting with that song in their hearts?  What if each of us began every day with that song on our lips?  Be my wisdom.  You are my best thought.  As I bumble through the day, every once and I while, I happen upon a wise and profound thought.  That wisdom and profundity is God.

I could go on all morning, but I won’t.  But I want to talk about one more phrase from this great hymn.  God is sovereign.  God is wisdom.  Listen to one more well-known phrase from the hymn: “Nought be all else to me save that thou art.”  Let’s be honest.  How many of you have sung that song your whole life and not had a clue what that line meant?

It’s not really that complex.  If I were to tweak it, I might say, “God, be nothing to me except what you already are by your nature.”  In other words, we are giving God permission to be…God.

Now, maybe this sounds a little silly, right?  God doesn’t need our permission.  We don’t have to give God permission to do anything, especially not to be who God already is.  How arrogant can we be?  But we are!

This quotation has been attributed to several people, but it is true: “God made us in God’s image, and ever since, we have been returning the favor.”  How often do we make God in our image?  We think God is who we want God to be!  God is jolly Santa Claus, giving us the toys we ask for.  God is a middle class white male who looks like us and acts like us.  God is the defender of our causes and our beliefs.  God is the easy button for all of our prayer requests.  We make God into our image all the time.  “Nought be all else to me save… what I want you to be.”  Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it!?!

The author of the hymn takes a step back and says, “God, in this moment, I want you to be who you are, not who I would make you out to be.”  Nought be all else to me save that thou art.  Who you are, God!  That is praise.  That is worship.  That is hard.  When we sing those words, we are engaging in a counter-cultural revolution of our own minds and hearts.  I dare you to sing those words and mean them.

This morning, we are going to sing those words together.  I want you to open your hymnal and OPEN your mind.  OPEN your heart.  OPEN your soul.  I want you to sing these words like you mean it.  I want you to sing a new song this morning.

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