Today I’m delivering another sermon in the sermon series, “Polyphony of Grace.” When designing this sermon series and doing a survey of our favorite hymns, I really hoped to have at least one African-American spiritual and one contemporary Christian music among the favorites. And guess what, thankfully enough, it worked out as I wanted! So last Sunday, with our gospel choir, Voices of Praise, we could sing one touching spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” and praise our God of freedom. And today, with our contemporary band, LIFT, we’re going to sing “How Great Is Our God” as our closing song.
I believe it’s truly a great blessing that we can enjoy different kinds of music in our worship services and make the true polyphony of grace in our midst. As you already know, in our church, we worship with various music styles—traditional hymns, classical music, Taizé songs, gospels, African-American spirituals, and contemporary praise songs and so on. Even though each of us has a personal preference when it comes to worship music, we still fully try and accept other forms of praise in our worship services with our open hearts and open ears. And this is a wonderful thing.
You’d hear quite frequently about conflicts regarding music in some churches. There have been tensions and disputes between the people who prefer traditional music and the people who prefer contemporary music. But this conflict is nothing new; it’s actually a centuries-old conflict that, I think, will last as long as the church exists. You’ll find this interesting: there was a time when one of the most traditional hymns to us, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written by Martin Luther, was regarded unholy because he used a folk tune of his days. Also, there was a time when the beautiful hymn of Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” was treated as ungodly and even banned from some churches because of its cheerful mood. And not too long ago, I myself remember the days when people debated on whether to include guitars and drums in worship services.
Yes, because we are humans, we may prefer certain kinds of music over others and feel uncomfortable with particular rhythms, tunes, and instruments. And we can’t change the way we are as individuals. But I believe, as a church, as the people who are called and saved by God’s grace, if we put first the reason that we praise and worship God before anything else, the controversies on styles of music would mean nothing. I believe, it is much more important for all of us to be clear on “why” we should praise God before “how” we should praise God.
So why should we praise God? We praise God because God’s grace for us is ever admirable and praiseworthy. We praise God because God has done the great work of salvation among us as the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. This work of grace is so unfathomable that no single way of praise can fully describe it. It cannot be glorified fully even with a thousand tongues to sing and even with a thousand music to play. The greatness of God shall be acclaimed in many different forms of music and many different tunes from generation to generation. And before this absolute and primary reason for our praise, the way of our praise can become relative and secondary.
“How Great Is Our God,” which is picked as our favorite contemporary song, bountifully reveals our reasons for praise. Inspired by the words of the Psalms (96;104), the first verse sings the greatness of God the Creator, the one who is transcendent and has the power and dominion over all creations: “The splendor of a King, clothed in majesty, let all the earth rejoice…He wraps himself in light and darkness tries to hide and trembles at His voice…How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.” The song goes on to touch upon other reasons for praise like the work of God in the Trinity, especially God’s immanent presence in the person of Jesus Christ. “Age to age He stands and time is in His hands. Beginning and the end. The Godhead Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son. The Lion and the Lamb, the Lion and the Lamb. How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.”
Why should we praise God? The song gives us clear answers. We praise God for God’s transcendence, God’s beyondness, but even more we praise God because God is immanent and present among us walking closely with us. We praise God for God’s splendor and majesty, but even more we praise God because God’s splendor and majesty are clothed with humility and meekness in Jesus Christ. We praise God for God’s dominion over the creation, but even more we praise God because in Jesus Christ, we see how God’s power was humbled and emptied for the sake of our reconciliation with God. We praise God for God’s Son who came to the world as the lion, as the mighty king who builds the kingdom of God on earth, but even more we praise God because this lion became the lamb of salvation obediently sacrificed on the cross to declare God’s everlasting love for us (John 1:29-34). We praise God for these amazing reasons.
So now, how should we praise God? Do we have to choose one type of music over others to express our faith in God? Do we have to argue about a better way to express our heart full of wonder, gratitude, and joy? Again, before the absolute and primary reason for our praise, the way of our praise becomes relative and secondary. And it is rather unnecessary to decide legitimate forms of music as far as a music reveals the unchanging reasons that we praise God and inspires us to keep our faith in God.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, no matter how we praise our God, let us remember that our God, who has the name above all names, is always worthy of our praise. So let us sing and praise the greatness of our God in every way that we can take and continue to make the beautiful polyphony of grace in our gathering. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim