The Power of a Song II
Passage: Psalm 22
I had a strange experience a month or so ago. I first need to say that I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. It started as a young impressionable kid when a family friend who was my little league, soccer, and basketball coach (you kinda had to be a friend of the family to watch me be bad at that many sports for multiple seasons) first introduced me to Bruce. But really it was in high school when I became all in. My dad had Born in the USA on record and I found an old record player in our storage room and would play that thing on repeat. Sidebar that was the only time in high school that I thought my dad was cool.
A friend of mine burned me a cd of Bruce’s hits and I listened to it non-stop. I have a couple favorites, one of which is “The River” which is a devastating song about the death of youth and innocence. I don’t know what it was that drew me to Bruce, I grew up in a middle class family in West Springfield so its not like his songs spoke to my experience of the world. But he was a story teller and all of his songs felt real, felt like they were born out of someone’s real life in a way that was beautiful. I can picture running into someone from my high school whom I admired and wanted to be because he was good at baseball only to discover that later in life he views his best days as behind him.
Another sidebar: the only Bruce song that’s much beloved that I really can’t listen to is perhaps his best, “Born to Run.” My college roommate of four years was also a big Bruce fan and had Bruce’s greatest hits cd in his CD player alarm clock. And every morning when he woke up he would wake up to the first 30 seconds or so of Born to Run. Which means I woke up, every morning, to the first 30 seconds or so of Born to Run. Which is probably why I can’t stand the first 30 seconds or so of Born to Run.
Anyways, the other favorite of Bruce’s for me is the song Atlantic City. “Well now, everything dies baby, that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back. Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City.” It’s about someone who is down on his luck but hopes to find success, prosperity, and happiness. It’s about a guy with a dream but who doesn’t see any way to get there. His hope leads him to Atlantic City. At the end of the song he knows that his life is going to a dark place but he keeps his hope and his love for the one to whom he’s singing and maybe those will be enough to pull him through.
I tell you all that about Bruce Springsteen because a month or so ago I was in a restaurant and I heard a version of Atlantic City come on that was clearly not Bruce Springsteen. I pointed the song out to a friend who said it was The Band’s version of the song. Not knowing much about the Band I asked some questions and learned the Band was real big in the late 60s and 70s. So I assumed that Atlantic City was initially written by The Band.
The Band’s version of the song is much faster, much cheerier than Bruce’s. Bruce’s version has some grit to it, it’s stripped down and slowed down. There’s a faint sense of hope that runs through it but you never lose sight of the struggle. When The Band speeds it up, hits some higher notes and some more major chords the sense we get is of more naïve optimism than lived and earned hope. SAY MORE.
After first hearing the Band song I assumed the Band sang it first and Bruce made his version in Bruce fashion. It turns out, Bruce sang it first and the Band covered it nearly a decade later. For my money, give me the Bruce version.
Songs are powerful in how different renditions can change how we view them. Songs are powerful in how they hit us at different times in our lives. Songs are powerful in how the context in which their sung, the manner in which their song, and the context in which we hear them can drastically alter the meaning of the words which the singer is singing.
There’s a song in the musical Hamiltoncalled “Dear Theodosia.” Dear Theodosia is sung by Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton right after America has won the war for Independence. These two founding fathers are singing to their recently born children about the pure, unbridled hope they have for the country they are going to create to leave to their children.
You will come of age with our young nation
We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you
And you’ll blow us all away
The song expressed the love they have for their children, the hope they have for both the world and the next generation, and the reasons they will give their time, their lives, their everything to the creation of the country. The song is so full of hope sung by people who know that greatness and endless possibility lay in front of them and their children. It is a song for idealists who believe that through hard work and good intentions we can create a right, just, fair, and righteous society.
After Hamilton became a smash hit, a number of popular bands and artists got together to cover and, in some cases, reimagine certain songs from the musical. The album was called The Hamilton Mixtape. The final song on the album was a version of “Dear Theodosia” performed by Chance the Rapper. And what Chance does with this is simply beautiful. Chance takes this song which is part victory song and part young men poised to change the world and brings it into 2018. Because by now we know that these men gave the world a wonderful country that would also be subject to the systemic hurts and pains our fallen world brings. Chance is a black man singing a song of founding fathers about the just country they would create when both men died while Africans were still enslaved in this country. So Chance slows the song way down. And he puts it in a minor key. And there are moments when the note progression suggests one thing and then he changes and goes backward. And he takes this song about unbridled optimism and infuses a real sense of not yet into it. There’s a sadness to the song as if the singers know that not only will their task prove imperfect, but that even questions whether their sacrifice was worth it. And yet, that sense of hope still remains. The listener is left with this longing for the vision of our founders to be realized fully. Having know the Hamilton version quite well, when I listened to Chance’s version for the first time I sat at my kitchen table with my mouth wide open at the sheer power and dark beauty of the song.
Why am I talking about this? If you heard Chance’s version of that song you might like it, you might not. You might be confused by it. The power, the beauty, the depth of that song, what had me listen to that song over and over and over and over was how it related to the original.
We are looking this summer at the Psalms and talking about the power that songs have. Songs have power in and of themselves. But sometimes songs have power in the ways that we use them and the ways that they are reimagined and their meanings changed through reimagination. This morning we are going to look at a Psalm that has power in and of itself, but has its meaning completely changed through the way it is reimagined and taken up into the story of Jesus and the grand story of salvation. We are going to look at Psalm 22.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises. In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment. But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen. I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows. The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him— may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!
If you were to read this in your Bible you’ll see that the Psalm has a heading: To the Choirmaster, to the tune of Doe of the Morning, a Psalm of David. I want to start there because there are two observations right from the heading that put this Psalm in a context. The first is that its set to a tune, a reminder if we needed one, that this was a song. This was meant to be sung. This was not just meant to give voice to one person’s pain but rather its meant to resonate with all who suffer. The second is that it was to the choirmaster which means it was meant for worship. It was meant to be sung by God’s people in worship. These two observations will frame our initial discussion.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. That is how an ancient worship song begins. If we would have begun a song this way this morning, many of you I’m sure would have felt maybe that was too strong and didn’t reflect how you felt coming to worship. Many times we come to worship feeling ok or better. I’d say most of the time we don’t come here feeling godforsaken. But I’ll tell you what, there have been some Sundays I came to church feeling godforsaken. There are some Sundays I come to church wanting to cry out why are you so far from me, God?! There are some Sundays I have come to church having found no rest. It’s not a regular thing. But if I’m honest, there have been times in my life when I’ve come to church like that. I imagine you have too.
Or maybe there are periods in your life when you felt that way and didn’t think you could come to church. Maybe you thought you can’t come to church unless you feel God close to you. Maybe you distanced yourself from a faith community because hurts, pains, doubts, sadness, or apathy made it feel like God was far from you. And if God is far from you, you’re not worthy, you’re not welcome in church.
And yet God gives us this Psalm, placed in Holy Scripture, as a worship song to remind us that its not just our happy, not just our joy, not just our praise that we should bring to God. This Psalm tells us precisely that it is our hurts, it is our pains, it is our longings, it is our desperation that we should bring to God. Wherever we are, however we are God seeks to meet us there in prayer, in worship, in song.
This song almost plays out the way things happen when we bring come to church in our lowest moments, in our moments of greatest pain. The speaker says that he feels godforsaken and calls upon God to listen to him and to deliver him. Then the voice of faith comes in and says that God has been faithful in ages past. God was faithful to our ancestors, God delivered them. They trusted you and were not played for fools. But then that hurt voice comes back. The voice of the one in pain comes back almost as if to say, “but you don’t understand what I’m going through.” I feel like a worm. My enemies are always around me and they’re constantly mocking me. Trouble feels nearer to me than you, God. And then we get this vivid imagery that is simply devastating: Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
The first half of this Psalm is brutal and unrelenting. And it speaks to how we can feel sometimes. And its in the context of worship, the context of coming before God. But the second half of the Psalm shows why we should bring our hurts and pains, our wounds and sadness, our godforsakeness to God in worship. And that’s because of what comes next in this Psalm. Because when we come to church with our pains and our hurts, when we bring them to God, we can hear the church speak faith and hope into our lives. We can hear the word of God remind us of who God is, who God has been, and who God will be for us.
The second half of the Psalm is a praise song about God’s faithfulness unto Israel, God’s faithfulness unto the world, and in turn, God’s faithfulness unto those who feel godforsaken. When you come to church feeling like God and the world are against you and hear praise songs it is not meant to troll you in a moment of pain. It’s meant to remind you of the character of the God who is in this world and in your life. This Psalm sees the one in pain declare the goodness of God. And not a trite goodness that ignores the real pain of this world, but a firm belief that the goodness of God can overcome the hardships of this world.
And this is where I want to segue to context. I spent an unseemly amount of time at the beginning of this sermon talking about songs and contexts and how covers and the way songs are performed can change the meaning of the songs. And here’s why I did this. If this Psalm sounds familiar to you, its because the first line, My God my God why have you forsaken me are words that Jesus says from the cross. Jesus utters these lines as he himself is feeling godforsaken. He utters lines from a Psalm that later talks about people mocking, hurting, that talks about people casting lots for clothing as he has been beaten and mocked and having people cast lots for his clothing. And when Jesus recites this Psalm from the cross, its meaning is transformed.
This Psalm opens with pain, opens with brokenness and then proclaims that God will not stand idly by in the face of pain and brokenness. When these words are uttered by Jesus on the cross it not only expresses faith that God will overcome the sufferings of Jesus but it reframes all suffering within the context of what happened to Jesus on the cross and afterward.
When Jesus recites this Psalm from the cross and we read this Psalm in light of Jesus reciting this Psalm from the cross the hope and faith at the end of the Psalm are not simply pie in the sky. They aren’t naivety. They aren’t delusion or denial. Rather the voice of hope, the voice of faith, the lyrics about the faithfulness of God said at the end of the Psalm remind us that Sunday comes even after the darkest Friday. The cross leads to the empty tomb. The God we worship is a God who does his best work in a grave yard. The godforsaken speaker of this Psalm is no longer a worm, no longer a miserable person, no longer one whom time, society, fate forgot. Instead when we say this Psalm, in the moments of our deepest pain and brokenness we say it as people who know that even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. We say it as Easter people. We say it as people who know, not just believe, that our God will turn our suffering into joy.
Many times the power in songs is the context in which they are sung and the way they are sung. Jesus singing this song from the cross reminds us, dare I say preaches to us, that our greatest moments of godforsakeness are preamble to God’s greatest miracles. Let us pray.