It’s Easter 6, the last Sunday before Ascension and Pentecost. The reading that drew my attention today was Psalm 98, but at first, it wasn’t in a good way. Since I know it to be one of the psalms for Christmas, it seemed liturgically out of place. In addition, the psalm’s opening line provoked in me a bit of a sarcastic response: how am I to “sing to the Lord a new song,” in the midst of the stay-at-home order that just keeps dragging on? The monotony of my existence offers little new to say to the family and friends on the phone, let alone to the Lord in prayer.
And yet, “singing a new song” may be read in more ways than that which provoked my initial reaction. Yes, if I think of it as a song about something new, this seems ironic today. But maybe it’s meant to be a song new to one’s repertoire, or maybe a new composition on an old theme? Which of these interpretations describe your life and prayer, today? Are you looking for something new to inspire gratitude and enthusiasm, adopting some new-to-you ways of relating to God, or have arrived in an entirely new place of worship into which you could invite others?
Psalm 98 belongs to the group of psalms that are sometimes called the royal psalms. Each of them proclaims God as the king of the universe and re-instated, rightful ruler of Israel post-exile. Psalm 89 precedes these psalms, and contains God’s promise to the descendants of David to sustain them even in light of their unfaithfulness. This group of 10 psalms then traces the movement of Israel's return to Zion, the mountain of God’s enthronement. The psalms are bracketed on the other end by Psalm 100 (Jubilate Deo) that invites the people to return to the Temple, and welcomes them back to their spiritual home, where it is “right to offer thanks and praise” in response to God’s faithfulness.
The words that caused my initial troublesome response, “sing to the lord a new song” open two of the psalms in this group - 96 and 98. Yes, both are used at Christmas to offer praise to God for his redemptive work through the Incarnation of Christ. But over the Easter season, we also reflect on this same theme of redemption, this time through the lens of the new life Jesus received after death. In Christmastide, we marvel that the King of the universe became incarnate in the body of an infant; through the readings of Eastertide, the baby has not grown to be a worldly ruler, but a shepherd, winegrower, and in today’s gospel - a friend of ours. All of these speak of the New Creation in Christ.
New things are attractive, aren’t they? I wonder if this opening line is not only a command to praise God in new ways, but an expression of the psalmist’s longing to see the new creation that’s taking place within us, realized in tangible ways; the desire to actually have something new about which we could then compose a song of gratitude. In the stay-at-home time of restlessness and apathy, you and I might relate to this feeling. There are two things we can do with it: look for external sources of renewal and mourn the barrenness of our desert roads (cf. Deacon Philip and Eunuch), or cultivate the discipline to search for that Spirit-given well of inspiration that springs from inside.
Admittedly, after a year, it gets more difficult to find the energy to look for hidden sources of strength and creativity within our souls; but, through the ages, people have found that creativity was what enabled them to survive the tough times, not the other way round. And to call our own situation unprecedented is simply not accurate. Consider the example of a person who lived in a world not too dissimilar to ours, the "Godfather of English Hymnody” Isaac Watts (750 hymns!).
He was born in 1674, about a decade after the last major epidemic of the plague had plunged England into economic uncertainty and grief over the loss of 100,000 lives (1/4th of the population of London in 18 months). In addition, as each person does, Isaac Watts had his own struggles. On the family front, there were his father’s two incarcerations as a nonconformist to the church of England, and on the personal front, Isaac never married, having been described as “only five feet tall, with a shallow face and a hooked nose, prominent cheekbones, small eyes and a deathlike color”. Even his unusual gift for rhyming was merely a source of conflict in the family: his mother did not believe that the poems were his own, and the father was annoyed and prohibited him from writing poetry; that is, until the day that 16-year-old Isaac complained about the hymns they sang at church (who amongst us hasn’t...).
His father’s offhand response, “well write your own then,” has shaped not only the course of Isaac’s life, but the character of our worship to this day. In fact, he literally gave us a new song to sing to God. His rendition of the psalms into English verse has resulted in both the new kind of hymn and novel use of the psalms that contrasted with intoning the text taken straight out of the scripture (which still has its place, of course). And so, Psalm 98 became the well-known “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”. We sing it at Christmas to express the joy we have in God's new creation embodied in baby Jesus, but both the psalmist and subsequently Isaac Watts intended it to describe the joy that stems from the new creation that continually takes place in and around us.
The first lines of Psalm 98 and 96 call us to praise God by becoming creative. I am sure that every creative act is a form of praise, even when motivated by some very human ambition; but to bury our talents out of fear, or complacency, is contrary to our divine purpose. We are all creative beings simply because we are made in the Image of God. I believe that every person is capable of producing and enjoying various art forms; but not all of us may be so inclined, and that’s ok. However, what absolutely all of us are called to become more creative in is love, praise, and relationships; indeed, in the very act of our existence, whereby we join the full orchestra of the universe -- the clapping sea, singing mountains, and the creatures -- in duly praising God’s “marvelous works”. May we continually encourage each other to praise, pray, be creative, and renew each other’s strength. In doing so, we might just become more open to noticing new kinds of beauty all around us; new things about which we might sign a song of gratitude to our divine Creator. Amen.