“The Doxology: Songs that Unite Us” – Hymn 805
Introduction: Songs that everyone sings
It seems to me that our world, our communities, our families don’t sing together as much as we used to in the past. I think that the little beeps and noises of video games have replaced that wholesome entertainment of singing together around a piano or with a guitar. People play those games individually rather than socially. We just don’t sing, and that’s a sad thing.
Maybe the one exception is if you go to a concert. Tell me… who has been to a concert of a famous band or group. Tell me what group it was. Tell me what was one of their famous songs.
Most of the time, when they sing those songs they are famous for, everyone in the auditorium or stadium sings along. They don’t need the words; they know them all by heart. Again, that just doesn’t happen in a lot of contexts these days. But let me tell you about some of those contexts.
You’re gathered for a house party on New Year’s Eve, you watch the count-down on TV, and then someone breaks into “Auld Lang Syne”… and everyone sings. Everyone knows the words. Everyone knows the melody.
Or maybe you’re at a hockey game and the Canucks are winning handily. There’s a minute or two left in the game and the entire crowd starts serenading the other team, “We Will, We Will Rock You!!” Everybody is in a taunting mood, and everyone sings along, boisterously.
Or the B.C. Lions football game is about to start. The announcer asks everyone to remove their hats, and an individual or small group begins to sing “O Canada” – and lots of people proudly sing along, maybe even with the French words.
Or maybe you’re at a baseball game, and the sing-along songs there are either “Sweet Caroline” or “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” You just expect that they are going to be sung, and you join in.
A cake with some burning candles comes around the corner to surprise someone, and everybody sings “Happy Birthday!”
What about the wedding that we read about in the Gospel reading from John 2? Would the gathered guests have broken out into a spontaneous “For they are jolly good fellows.”
Yes, there are songs that unite us, because everyone knows and loves the words, and everyone knows the melody. There is some kind of community and oneness expressed by singing them together – you’re cheering for the same team, you’re wishing a blessing on someone, you’re joining in a common attitude toward life.
1. Songs/hymns that Christians sing
The songs and hymns we sing in our worship service are like that. There are hymns that we find in our hymnal, and those hymns are sung by English-speaking Lutherans around the world, and a lot of them are sung by Christians in other denominations, too. That’s something that unites us as Christians. You can go to a church in Hawaii on vacation or in Calgary on business, and you sing the same hymns. The contemporary songs are similar. We may not have collated them into a song book, but the songs that we sing here are sung in thousands of churches around the world, and they unite us in a similar way as we lift our voices to God.
Today, I am starting a seven-week long series of sermons that are based on hymns and songs. The ones I have chosen are generally songs/hymns that are known and sung in both our traditional and contemporary services. I will unpack some of the theology in those songs, pull out some of the Bible verse background, and develop the application to our lives. I think Martin Luther, himself, would approve of preaching on hymn texts. One of his students recorded Luther as saying, “I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise.”
2. The Doxology
The hymn that I want to start the series with – and I recognize that we probably haven’t sung this much or at all in our normal contemporary service, but I hope you are all still familiar with it – the hymn that I want to start with is, “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.”
Now, speaking of groups that spontaneously break out in song, a couple of times a year, I join the Saturday morning men’s breakfast Bible Study at the local restaurant. After some time spent in God’s Word and just before eating the breakfast the men all break out in “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” Now, depending on what church tradition you grew up in, the melody or timing may be slightly different. The words – just one verse – were actually the last verse of two different hymns written by Thomas Ken in the late 1600’s. Ken encouraged his schoolboys to sing those hymns – one a morning hymn, the other an evening hymn – every day. The last verse came to be known simply as the Doxology – literally ‘words of praise’ – and it is most famously sung to a tune known as Old Hundredth – which itself is most famously connected to Psalm 100.
Let’s stand as we sing this Doxology… two times. Saturday Bible Study men… I’ll be listening for you to lead!!
So, my favourite memory of this hymn was from my days as a teenager attending youth gatherings at a camp an hour outside Regina. Pastor Warren Steckelberg from Regina was quite the character, with his handle-bar moustache. Usually at least once a day, in the dining room, before or after a meal, he would stand up on one of the tables and, like a professional choir director, would conduct a slow and moving a Capella four-part harmony rendition of the Doxology. With arms waving, and bringing in the various voices and parts at the appropriate times, he taught us – youth and leaders alike – to truly love that hymn. We often referred to our singing as the Lutheran Tabernacle Choir. So, let’s dig in.
3. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
The words are pretty uncomplicated. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
Praise – That’s a verb calling for celebration and appreciation. When we praise someone – a child who aced a test at school, a co-worker who completed a project on time and on budget, a friend or stranger whose prompt actions saved a life – when we praise someone, we give them the honour and recognition that they are due.
Praise God – In this hymn, we are not praising any person; we are praising God, the Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe. We are acknowledging Him to be holy, and wholly other – completely different from us mere human beings. We are saying that He is divine, a spirit without beginning and without end. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present. He is faithful, merciful, and He embodies pure love. That’s who we praise!
Praise God from whom all blessings flow. In this line of the hymn, we are acknowledging the source of every blessing – it is God. If we read between the lines, we also recognize here that we don’t deserve God’s blessings! Whereas God is holy, sin stains our lives. Not with our thoughts, not with our words, not with our deeds do we deserve God’s favour and kindness. On the contrary, we deserve only God’s wrath and eternal punishment for our sins, which are many. Author Thomas Ken skips over what we deserve and lands squarely on what we get – blessings! In Ephesians 2, St. Paul doesn’t skip over our sin-stained lives. He writes about the passions of our flesh, the desires of the body and mind, and refers to us as being dead in our trespasses. Paul doesn’t end there. He gets to the same destination as Thomas Ken did: “But God, rich in mercy… made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.” That’s from where God’s blessings flow – His mercy, His grace!
You know, when one of the Canucks scores a goal, it’s likely that the entire arena will stand in applause – a standing ovation… for one goal. God has done much more than score a goal. Thomas Ken wrote “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” ALL blessings! That includes material blessings – things like the world in which we live with mountains, trees, rivers, animals, crops, gardens, orchards. It also and especially includes spiritual blessings – things that Paul wrote about in Ephesians 1. Paul even calls it “every spiritual blessing” and he lists the things that God has lavished on us – being chosen, being adopted, being made holy and blameless, being redeemed through Jesus’ blood, being forgiven, receiving an inheritance of salvation, being sealed with the Holy Spirit. Indeed, praise God from whom ALL blessings flow! A standing ovation for God… all through our life, and for all eternity.
4. “Praise Him, all creatures here below.”
The second phrase of the Doxology expands the praise: Praise Him, all creatures here below. The first phrase was about why we praise God – because all blessings come from Him. The second phrase is about who praises God – all creatures. In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus was teaching people to not be anxious, He pointed to how God provided blessings – food to the birds of the air, and “clothes” to the flowers of the field. Jesus, doesn’t specifically say that with their songs and with their beauty they were praising God, but sometimes we might talk about birds chirping praise to God. (I just wish they wouldn’t do it at 5:00 in the morning in the summer time when we have our bedroom window open!!)
Psalm 148 is pretty explicit in calling “all creatures here below” to praise the Lord. Here are the “creatures here below” that the psalmist invites to praise God: great sea creatures, beasts, livestock, creeping things, flying birds. Among human beings called to praise God, the psalmist includes: kings, princes, rulers, old men, young men, maidens, children, and all people. Then there are the inanimate objects: sun, moon, stars, fire, hail, snow, mist, wind, mountains, hills, fruit trees, cedars. On Palm Sunday, when the people of Jerusalem were laying down their palm branches and cloaks and praising Jesus as the coming King, the religious leaders asked Jesus to call for that, in-their-opinion, inappropriate praise to be silenced. Jesus said that if the people stopped praising Him, the inanimate stones would take up the praise. All creatures indeed!!
5. “Praise Him, above, ye heav’nly host.”
The third phrase of the hymn verse further expands the call to praise. “Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host.” That’s talking about spiritual beings, and that’s where Psalm 148 starts: “Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise Him in the heights! Praise Him, all His angels; praise him, all His hosts!” Psalm 8 says that God made human beings “a little lower than the heavenly beings.” But Thomas Ken’s hymn calls on those in the heights – the angels – and the creatures here below – us – to join in praising God.
6. “Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
Finally, the last phrase of the hymn identifies the God who is to be praised – “Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” This is the Triune God of the Bible – the Father who made us, the Son who redeemed us by His death on the cross and by His victorious resurrection from the dead, the Holy Ghost who calls us to faith and who fills us with His gifts. Any god other than that true God is not to be celebrated, appreciated, praised. Any god other than that true God has not poured out blessings upon us. But the true God who has blessed us is certainly the one who is deserving of our praises – both now and eternally.
7. Psalm 150 – The Doxology of the Book of Psalms
On Saturday, we had a Confirmation Course retreat at Faith Lutheran Church in Surrey. We are leading the students through the content of the Bible this year, and our topic on Saturday was the last session on the Old Testament – the Prophets, the Wisdom Literature, and the Psalms. I was teaching the material on the Psalms. I introduced the kids to the various kinds of psalms, including psalms of praise. In groups of about 6 or 7, I asked the students to look at four psalms, to identify what kind of psalm it was, to summarize the content, and to pick out a key verse. One group had to read through Psalm 150. It’s kind of like a doxology completing the entire book of Psalms, just like Thomas Ken’s verse was a doxology completing both his morning and evening hymns. Let’s wrap up today with a quick look at this doxology psalm.
The psalm begins with where to praise God, and by implication who should praise God. “Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in His mighty heavens!” That’s the where: praise Him here on earth, in the holy place of worship – the sanctuary – presumably by human beings; praise Him also in heaven – presumably that is what Ken referred to as “ye heavenly host” – the angels.
The psalm continues with why we are to praise God. “Praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to His excellent greatness!” That is, praise God for who He is – some of those attributes that I mentioned before – holy, divine, without beginning, without end, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere present, faithful, merciful, and embodying pure love. Also, praise God for what He has done – His mighty deeds. For the Israelites, that would be His great Old Testament act of deliverance – being freed from slavery in Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea. For us, that would be praising God for His great New Testament act of deliverance – sending Jesus to free us from slavery to sin, from death, from the power of the devil, accomplished in His death and resurrection.
Next, the psalm talks about with what we should praise God – with trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, strings, pipe, and loud clashing cymbals. It seems we’re missing a few of those instruments today. Our praise of God is to be exuberant, joyous, extravagant, and heartfelt. Oh… and dance… we’re called on to praise God with dance. So, even if you’re older than 3 or 4 years old, feel free to praise God with some rhythmic movement of your body in time to the music, and with gratitude for who God is and what He has done.
The last phrase in psalm 150 points out who is to praise God – “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” That matches Thomas Ken’s call for “all creatures here below” to praise the “God from whom all blessings flow!” It’s a hymn that unites us – all Christ-followers here below. It’s a hymn that connects us with the heavenly host. It’s a hymn that praises Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Let’s sing it one more time (twice!)