May 11/12, 2019
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Pr. Craig Mueller
These Top Two Easter Songs Might Surprise You
Can you name your top five favorite Easter hymns or songs? Can you even name five? I bet if I asked you to do the same with Christmas carols, you’d come up a long list. How many Easter albums do you know by well-known recording artists? Yet it seems everyone makes a Christmas album. Doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Jewish, agnostic or church-going. Barbara Streisand, Karen Carpenter, Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble—they all sing of “Jesus, Lord at thy birth,” and “Son of God, love’s pure light.”
And yet Easter is the principle Christian feast. It’s the real deal. It may surprise you to learn the two Easter songs I want to talk about today. They’re not “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” or “Thine is the Glory.” They’re both in our readings today, believe it or not. With David Brackley talking about church music in our forum this morning, it seems a great connection!
Back to Christmas for a minute. After all I was jokingly saying “Merry Christmas” when it was snowing on Palm Sunday and the Saturday after Easter! There’s a phrase in “God, Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman” you’ll recognize: “tidings of comfort and joy.” We sing when our hearts are breaking with sorrow and we sing when our hearts are full of gratitude. And that leads us to a shepherd song and a lamb song as my Easter picks for today!
The first Easter song: psalm 23. I bet you didn’t think of that one! Yet psalm 23 always appears on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. It’s the ultimate comfort psalm. Vicar Noah did his first funeral last Monday. The family were not church goers—but had been baptized Lutheran. When Noah read psalm 23 at the grave, he could see that people were moved. I doubt he sang it—but remember: the psalms are the songbook of the Bible and of the Church. And that’s why we sing the psalms each week.
For centuries Christians and Jews have found solace in the words of psalm 23. A shepherding God, holding us close. Leading us to still waters. Anointing our head with oil. Spreading a table before us. And who doesn’t need some comforting today. Some of us today may be mourning the loss of our mothers or holding another grief or disappointment. And the constant news barrage of shootings—another this week— and endless corruption—is unsettling to say the least.
Some newcomers to Chicago from New York tell me how much they welcome the slower more relaxed pace here. Yet others tell me they are glad to be moving to Indianapolis because the neighborhood here is so stressful and intense. Supposedly, many more dogs are treated for anxiety in the big city than in the suburbs or small towns. I get it. The loud sounds of sirens and horns honking is not the pastoral scene of psalm 23. And it can make me on edge. Yet there’s one thing I know: we will always be carrying some kind of hurt or sorrow. We will always be longing for comfort. And psalm 23 is the Easter song we sing in when we walk through dark valleys.
And the second Easter song today is truly the Easter song of the church. “Worthy is Christ the Lamb who was slain. Blessing and glory and honor and power and might be to God and the Lamb.” It’s the “lamb song” we sing during Easter and at other times. We refer to it as “this is the feast.” And Lutherans love it. Some people think Lutherans invented it because in the 1970’s it became an option to “Glory to God in the highest” in our liturgy. And it took off! And other denominations put it in their hymnals.
And the text: it’s right from Revelation. We’ve been hearing these words the past few weeks in our second reading. As much as people are a bit spooked by weird images in Revelation . . . and as much as some Christians use it to stir up fear about who will be raptured up from the earth, many of the best songs in the Bible are in Revelation. An d they’ve been turned into some of our most favorite hymns and music, like Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” for example.
One spouse of a Lutheran pastor, who had grown up Roman Catholic, was a bit mystified by this “lamb song.” After all the music seems so militaristic and Lutherans sing it with such gusto! I hope you’re wondering the same thing now! The music is stirring, but in Revelation the text is meant to be anything but militaristic. It’s the opposite. The Apocalypse—what we call Revelation—uncovers the truth of the Roman empire of that time. One theologian says that these heavenly songs and hymns were meant to move the people to political resistance. Only God is Lord. Today the author might say, to people of any country: don’t salute a flag or pledge allegiance to a state. Power and might belong to God alone. Not to the Roman emperor or any imperial power.
Which leads to the lamb! The word used is the diminutive “little lamb” or “lambkin” in Greek. Jesus is presented in the most vulnerable way possible, as a lamb who was slaughtered. Much of this great work on Revelation comes from Barbara Rossing, who teaches at our Lutheran seminary in Hyde Park. She talks about “lamb power” as the way of nonviolence amid structures of empire and domination. The song of the Lamb could not be more countercultural. Jesus, the crucified and risen One, reaches out to those most vulnerable, most marginalized, most in need of comfort. “My sheep hear my voice,” he assures us, “and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand.”
And more cool things. The Lamb song includes all creation, including nonhuman music makers. What an awesome thing to sing in this week when we heard of the grave risks to earth’s biodiversity and the severity of extinction of growing numbers of plants and animals. Sing with all creation the song of the Lamb!
And then there’s the great multitude singing. People from every nation, tribe, people, and language. It’s the great multi-cultural, multi-ethnic “people of God” that we sing about in “This is the feast.” One Cuban scholar compares this image in Revelation to mestizo literature, addressed to people of mixed cultural heritage.
And finally, the great paradox in Revelation. The lamb of whom we sing—this vulnerable Lamb, this crucified God—is our shepherd, the risen One, our comfort and the joy of our hearts. The One who shelters with his loving presence. This God shares our tears, leads us to the water of life, and now spreads a feast before us. Indeed, this is the feast of victory for our God.