Sometimes You Gotta Sing
Text: Luke 1:39-50
I want share a secret that only a few people know. I hesitate to reveal this secret, but the time has come for full disclosure. I hope no one will feel awkward when I share such an intimate secret, but today the truth must be told.
The secret is this: I am a great singer. No, seriously! Occasionally, I will miss notes, invent a new pitch, and wreck harmonies to make most of you average singers feel comfortable. It is all a part of the act. Last week, Heather and her singing friends did an outstanding job, but their sound would have soared through the rafters if I had been singing with the group.
Well, since it is almost Christmas and we are in church, maybe I should adjust that claim a bit. I may not be a world class singer or as my family would so impolitely put it, I could not hit a pitch if it were lobbed to me. In fact, the music director in the first church I served was so rude as to suggest that I lip sync during the congregational singing and a sound engineer in a former church would often tell me, ever so indelicately, to turn off my mike for all the hymns. So, in all Christmas honesty, I need to amend my claim. Actually, I am an average singer on my best days. Fortunately, that is not the real secret I want to tell you today.
The real secret is that regardless of the quality of my voice, I love to sing and every so often I need to sing. If you have any idea what I mean, then you know that it does not matter if you have the voice of a nightingale or a voice best left in a bucket. When you need to sing, there is no stopping it or scheduling it for a later date or checking to make sure you do not embarrass yourself or anyone else. Sometimes you just gotta sing!
Mary had to sing. Her song came out of her mouth as naturally as clearing her throat or blowing out a mist of air on a cold winter’s night. She had to sing because there was no other way to respond to the news she had heard. Mary did what you and I do during those rare moments in life when the fog lifts and God is clearly with us, not as a nice or wishful thought, but as a living presence. When Mary knew God as Emmanuel, God-with-us, she sang.
Barbara Lundblad says, “Mary sang of a world turned upside down . . . Even in the midst of evidence to the contrary, Mary sang a song of God’s victory. Even with Rome still in charge, with Caesar Augustus still on the throne, with the census coming up and too little money for travel. Even knowing all that, Mary sang.
“You may think Mary naive to sing such a revolutionary song when little around her was changing. But Mary’s song would not wait until Caesar was removed. For Mary, it was enough to know that she had been blessed – not the emperor’s wife!
“Just, as centuries later, slaves in America heard God’s word and refused to believe God had ordained their masters to rule over them forever. It was not the way things were supposed to be. They began to sing, `Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn’, long before Pharaoh’s army was drowned! They sang, in spite of the evidence, believing in their hearts that God had called them to help bring in a new day.”
Be it Mary, the mother of Jesus, visited by the angel Gabriel or Mary Magdalene standing aghast at the empty tomb, sometimes you just gotta sing! Long before Mary sang, after years of praying for a child, when Hannah heard she would no longer be barren, she burst into song, a song of thanksgiving and dedication.
Sometimes, though, you gotta sing because your heart aches so badly that you have to give voice to the pain. Many of the Psalms and the Lamentations of Jeremiah are wailing songs, echoing the feeling of God-not-with-us, or worse, God against us.
I love Christmas time. I am the first fool to fall for the syrupy sentimentality of seasonal movies. I cannot wait for my grown kids to get to Nellysford from their homes in Atlanta, to finish the decorations, and join in frantic last-minute shopping. I love the smell of fresh bread baking, of evergreens hanging on bannisters, and hot cider simmering on the stove. I love children of all ages whose faces light up at a Christmas surprise. ‘Tis the season to be jolly!’ Sign me up, Mary. I will sing with you.
As I grow older, though, the song does not come to me as naturally as it once did. I marvel each year at the serene creches that neatly decorate our mantles, only to remember how many times I had to turn people away on Christmas Eve in Atlanta, women and men and children who were seeking a bed in our shelter but there was no more room.
An old friend cornered me in a restaurant recently. He said what many of us think or at one time have thought: “Gary, I simply don’t like December any more. My wife’s in the hospital for the third straight December. My first child was born in December. She died three months later. Everyone wants you to feel happy, and I don’t. I can’t.”
Sometimes you just gotta sing, sing of disappointments too great to bear alone, too devastating to forget, too real to dismiss. In those dark times, it seems as though even God cannot find us, not in the most eloquent sermon or astounding act of kindness or spectacular rendition of the Magnificat. Like our Judean kin held hostage in Babylon, in those times, we walk not only in the darkness, but we are “walled about with a wall.” (Micah)
Some years back, I was losing a fight with the depression of standing at the graves of too many people whom I had loved. It seemed as though every call I received was to hear a report of another case of heart disease or cancer or AIDS. To make matters infinitely worse, about that time I got word of the premature death of my brother.
In the midst of that dark time, one late Tuesday afternoon, I sat down at my desk to select the Sunday hymns. The staff had left for the day and no one had yet arrived for evening meetings. I opened the hymnal and sang Christmas carols and Easter tunes and hymns that I had sung since a child and new hymns that I had only recently learned to love. I sang and I wept. I wept and then I sang again until my voice was hoarse. I sang not because it was time to sing, but because I had to sing.
And by the time I had finished singing, somehow the Christmas faith of Emmanuel, of God-with-us, had crept back into my soul. As Luke tells the story, God lives on in us whenever we catch a vision of Mary’s song, a vision of a world in which we worry less about our rights and what we need and worry more about those who rights are almost always ignored and how we can tend to the needs of others, a world in which we spend little time figuring out how to build more walls and spend most of our time figuring out how to tear walls down, a world in which we fret less about what we are going to get on Christmas morning and more about what we are going to give of ourselves in the year ahead.
When Christmas is stripped to the core and casts aside all the nonsense attached to it today, it dares us to stay put and shut our mouths. “For unto you a child is born,” cry the angels in Luke. If that is true, and that is what we stake our claim on every time we gather to worship, then no matter what number of people celebrate Christmas with us on Tuesday, we need to set a place for one more, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. He comes to us when the star shines brilliantly in the northern sky and also when you and I can see no star at all. He comes and he stays and he loves us for all the world.
Know that on your best days and in your darkest hours, know that God is Emmanuel, a God-with-us. When you do, you will also know that sometimes you just gotta sing!