Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Psalm 96

1    Oh sing to the Lord a new song;

         sing to the Lord, all the earth!

   Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

         tell of his salvation from day to day.

   Declare his glory among the nations,

         his marvelous works among all the peoples!

   For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;

         he is to be feared above all gods.

   For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,

         but the Lord made the heavens.

   Splendor and majesty are before him;

         strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

The new song described here is not new in the way we associate updated and better today.  It is new in that God is doing something new for us, surprising to us.  It’s the newness in the prophecy of Jeremiah 31: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” (Jer. 31:31)

And it is made known by the Lord on the night in which He was betrayed, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20) It is the song of praise that spring from this new covenant.

It’s a song not just for a select few to know and sing, but all the people of the earth.  This new song is described several times in Scripture, as the song of those who know the Lord’s salvation, as in Psalm 40 by King David, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” (Ps. 40:3, also Isa. 42:10)  It’s also mentioned in Revelation, “The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” (Rev. 14:2-3)

It’s a new song, which is known and beloved by all who know the Lord’s saving work!  But it’s more than just a song we sing to ourselves and for our own enjoyment; it is a song to proclaim His salvation and marvelous works “before the face of all peoples”! (Nunc Dimittis)

This is what Jonah found out when he fled from the presence of the Lord after he was sent to Nineveh.  Though he was trying to hide, the Lord sought him out, even humiliating him publicly.  It was scary for Jonah because he knew that he was fleeing from the Lord’s command to preach judgment to that great city.  We could speculate as to the excuses he gave as to why he didn’t want to go.  But we also have our own excuses why we don’t want to speak of our God. 

Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!  Yes, but what if they don’t believe His works?  If they remain blind and deceived about God’s works, then it makes us look foolish for actually believing in them.  We get discouraged by this social pressure, even if we don’t admit it.  As one professor commented about mask-wearing,[1] we all have a desire to be orthodox.  That is, to go along with the crowd and not stick out too much.

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.  Yes, we would say, “Amen” to this.  But the opponents of God publish books like, “god is not Great” like Christopher Hitchens did, and made a full-frontal attack on God-fearing people.  He lambasts religion based on religious abuses and a critique of manmade strictures.  With arguments like this, we fear the opinions of people who are without understanding of the true God.  It’s easy to mock and scoff while you proudly boast from the heights of your fleeting life.  But not so for the sailors who faced perishing at the hand of Jonah’s God (Jonah 1:4-7)

For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

It’s only when the false religion and faith of man are deflated like the balloon they are, that it’s shown that even the most reasonable and wide-spread arguments are powerless to save.  Their hope is vain.  Yes, some will go down to the grave, insisting that their idols can save them.  They are willing to cut themselves as the prophets of Baal did before Elijah (1 Kings 18:20-40), and willing to publicly accuse us as the silversmiths of Artemis did to Paul (Acts 19:21-41).

Others, who are deeply deceived by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), will reject the splendor and majesty of God.  Instead, they will think that strength and beauty are found on earth, in the ideals of this world and the beauty of human achievement.  It’s of these that St. John warns us: “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:16-17). 

In Jonah-like fashion, we let these rejections combined with the weakness of our faith deter us from saying anything.  The Devil loves it when this happens, because then, the Word of God is silenced, and the scoffers get to remain content that God is not great.  But God is undeterred in His work to proclaim to all people:

7         Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

         ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

8    Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

         bring an offering, and come into his courts!

9    Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;

         tremble before him, all the earth!

10   Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!

         Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

         he will judge the peoples with equity.”

Jonah found out two things on his fleeing to Tarshish: First, he learned that you cannot run or hide from God.  “His will is done even without our prayer,” Luther aptly points out.  The Lord had chosen Jonah to be the one to witness to the Ninevites, and out of love for lost and condemned people, God found Jonah, humbled him, and brought him back to shine the light of the true God into the darkened hearts of the people in Nineveh.

The other lesson Jonah learned—also uncomfortable for us—is that the glory and strength of the Lord, the message, “The Lord reigns!” is a message which He delivers using our lips.  We have been chosen by God to represent Him in our age of darkness.  The way He will reach ‘those outsiders’ is by hearing it from God’s people—from us! 

11   Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

         let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

12      let the field exult, and everything in it!

      Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

13      before the Lord, for he comes,

         for he comes to judge the earth.

      He will judge the world in righteousness,

         and the peoples in his faithfulness.

Hear how the whole creation proclaims the glory of God (e.g. Psalm 19), but in order for people to know the saving glory of God, He sends out His Word.  It is the Word of the Almighty, a Word of judgement, a Word which delivers pardon and new life for the sinners and dead.  It is the Word which endures forever.

On the sea with the disciples, the Word of the Lord was revealed both in powerful might, and with a specific Word to the disciples:  “And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep.”  The sea roared, and the disciples knew they were in deep trouble.  They cried out to their Master to save them, because they were perishing.  But before dealing with the wind and waves, He dealt specifically with the disciples: “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”  He was more concerned with their faith than He was with the tumult of the sea.

Yet both are under His authority.  The creation knows this, but we often doubt or deny it.  No matter how much a person may hold up a protest sign saying, “Not my God,” the Judgement Day still comes for them.  And how will they repent and turn away from this disaster unless we, who know the Judge, deliver that Word to them?

It brings up a question: Why does our congregation exist?  I’m afraid too often and for too long, church has been regarded as a social club.  “I go there” with little more impact than saying, “I drive a Toyota; she drives a Ford.”  But for what, in fact, does God call us together as a congregation?  1 Peter 2:9-10 says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  Christians are those who have been called out of this darkness to know the light of Christ, and to share that light with those who are still in darkness.

Yes, we are the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints.  We encourage one another as we see the Day drawing near, we bear one another’s burdens, we study together at the feet of Jesus so that we may know our Lord better, and we build each other up with Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  But is that all?  Do we simply belong to Bethlehem Lutheran Church, and keep a nice-looking building and pastor on retainer so that he can bury us when we die?  God, forbid it!

In love, God has called us to be His beloved children.  What are we?  A ragtag group of young and old, none of us prominent in the world.  But He has bestowed heavenly riches on us.  These riches and eternal life have been won by the precious blood of Christ, and are not just for us!  They are for every soul in Lebanon, Sweet Home, Albany and beyond.  You look around and see new apartments, new kids in school, more drivers on the road.  Don’t think, “Ugh! Can’t they just stay away and let me have my quiet town back.”  Rather, pray to the Lord who wants them to know Him, and ask how He might shine through you.  How might He shine through our congregation?  And praying for that, trust that, as He loves you and every soul you meet, that He will give you an answer. This is how, in God’s way, we will “Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Dr. Adam Koontz on an early episode of Brief History of Power,