The Power of Sacred Song
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing
hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”
Acts 16:25 NIV
“Come, Christians, join to sing Alleluia! Amen!” ~ the words that will ever be recalled from the memories of all our yesterday by that spirited tune. I want to thank the bell choir for the chance to be inspired by the spirited hymn.
What is it about Christians joining in song that is so different from the more popular melodies of each passing generation? Could it be that the spiritual themes of our songs of Christ are as timeless as the Christ Life they celebrate, and that they never grow old in the joyful heart because they are impervious to the shifting fads of time?
I believe the answer is absolutely yes! …and I say that with confidence at a time when secular society scoffs at such a notion. For today religious practice is ridiculed, sacred truth is scorned, Christian discipleship is being marginalized as the behavior of a cult of the ignorant. But then again, it is precisely in the darkest hours of the night when the music that Christ inspires within us and among us sings its joyful melodies and timeless lyrics.
We need look no further than our scripture lesson which describes what I have come to call The Music of the Night ~ a tribute to Paul and Silas with a nod of appreciation for the music of Phantom of the Opera ~ for it was in the darkest hour of the night, in a dungeon prison, that an anonymous prisoner noted: About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
We do not know the prisoners name, but I have seen him in my mind, and come to know him as kindred spirit. I’d like to introduce him to you now.
He was imprisoned for some heinous crime, condemned to spend his life, what was left of it, in the stench of a prison vault. It was damp and dark, frigid in winter and sweltering in summer, days were lonely and nights? …well, at night the memory of his crime would haunt his very soul. Every day was just like the rest of them, all the nights were more of the same, except… except for the night he heard the sound of two prisoners singing from another cage in the inner prison.
Had he finally gone mad, he thought to himself, hearing sounds in his head no one else could hear? Or was it really happening ~ forsaken souls finding reason to sing in the darkest hour of the night, in the most God-awful place? Or was it …God-awful? For they were singing in praise of God! He sat up in his bunk, just long enough to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, then stepped to the iron bars and listened down the hall. Why, they were singing to God as though God were right there in the cell with them! Their bodies may have been shackled and caged, but their music could not be restrained.
When the last note trailed off into silence, he noticed that even the silence was different. There are no words to describe what his heart was feeling, but the silence after the singing was dramatically different from the silence before the singing! How? Well, it wasn’t quite so heavy with despair. It wasn’t quite so empty as it had been before. It wasn’t quite so lonely as it had been before.
What were they singing? you muse. We do not know, but the great miracle of the moment was that they were singing in the darkest hours of their lives. As followers of the same Risen and Living Lord, however, we know the theme of their song:
Come, Christians, join to sing Alleluia! Amen!
Loud praise to Christ we bring; Alleluia! Amen!
Let all, with heart and voice, before his throne
Rejoice; praise is his gracious choice, Alleluia!
With trembling voice he called out into the darkness, almost afraid to break the silence that seemed so golden: Hey! His voice echoed within the dungeon walls, and somehow it felt good to shout aloud. Hey! Sing another song! The pause that followed seemed long, but then it came ~ the sound of two voices measuring out the sustained sound of joy that knows no fear, of courage that has no weakness, of love that cannot be disheartened.
He was listening with his eyes, this unknown prisoner, but it was his soul that stirred to the sound of praise, music the earth-bound sing to heaven, music that causes heaven to rejoice. Who are you? he shouted down the hall. What makes you sing in the darkest hour of the night? How can you praise God in the midst of hell? ~ We are not alone, came the reply, the Lord who was crucified and rose again is here to set us free, to save us from the madness of it all!
The words were scarcely spoken when the earth began to quake, shackles broke and the foundation of the prison trembled, as if in response to the God who drew nigh. The Jailer, who had been asleep on duty and missed the singing in the night, was awakened suddenly ~ gave his life to Christ without another thought! It was a conversion out of fear. But for one lonely soul who thought his fate was sealed by prison bars, it was not the quaking of the earth that touched his soul with the forgiveness of God, but the sound of singing in the darkest hour of the night!
And the theme that echoed on the prison walls has echoed down through the ages, …until, well, until the followers of Christ is subsequent ages set words to it. Perhaps words such as these:
Come, lift your hearts on high, Alleluia! Amen!
Let praises fill the sky; Alleluia! Amen!
Christ is our guide and friend on whom we can
depend; his love shall never end, Alleluia! Amen!
So it was that church happened in a most unlikely place. The gospel message ~ the good news of Christ’s abiding presence ~ was proclaimed, not in the raised pulpit of a great cathedral, but shouted down the hall of a prison to an undeserving heart. There were no candles to grace an altar, no incense burning to perfume the air, only the spirit of heaven in the stench of hell, and songs of praise to stir the human soul.
It is easy to understand why we build beautiful structures to honor God ~ vaulted ceilings to life the soul toward heaven’s grace, intimate sanctuaries where the infinite and temporal can commune with each other, peaceful settings in which timeless virtues are renewed, hallowed halls where songs of praise resound and earthbound joy slips through the veil of eternity to touch the heart of God.
But this also is true: heaven’s gate is not only lined with gold as some have mused, but is also tarnished with all the heartache and anguish of a lost creation. The poor have found it scrounging for food beneath an overpass where homeless gathered, in a simple act of human kindness; and a glimpse of love for those abandoned reminded them that heaven’s gate was not far away.
Some who learn to face their fears discover more of God than those who bluster on with pride enough to go the distance all alone. Those who go the distance so often conclude that all the need of heaven’s glory is somehow waiting for them at the end of the road, while those who learn to face their fears discover with delight that God is in the journey too. And if the journey is shared, the portals of heaven’s grace are never far away.
Children sometimes see what more seasoned eyes find difficult to imagine ~ kindness in a world of selfishness, joy in the midst of sorrow, hope in times of despair, beauty on the landscape of hardship. It is not that their insight is keener, but that their blindness is yet undeveloped, for it is our obsession with one dimension of reality that often prevents us from seeing another, no matter how visible heaven becomes in all that is commonplace.
In ever age, in every dehumanizing setting, in every tragic set of circumstances, in all the garbage of our lives, among the most oppressive of settings, it is the miraculous power of singing in the darkest hour of the night that sets the Gospel apart from all its rivals. We who follow Christ have no monopoly on truth, as some have chosen to believe, but it is our experience of God-with-us that fills the loneliness with companionship, excites our minds with adventure, opens our passion to new purpose, and liberates the soul regardless of human circumstances.
And the soul begins to sing ~ of joy in the midst of sorrow, of peace in a world at war, of faith at times of great despair, and of love in the depths of hell, of God-with-us even when the whole world is against us. And those songs of praise come as the very music of heaven for a world that has forgotten how to sing!
Therefore, Come, Christians, …let us join in everlasting song!
David Hodgson, May 16, 2021