In a piece titled “2020 broke Christmas music. Here’s what I’m listening to instead,” Michael Brodeur, the classical music critic for the Washington Post wrote this last week:
“What if the songs of the season didn’t demand a mass emotional pivot, the obligations of cheer? What if they let in some of the cold? I’ve found myself hunting for music to store away that might resonate more clearly within the peculiar acoustics of a dark, difficult winter.”
Brodeur’s sentiment resonates; December has brought politics, a pandemic, and our own personal struggles, leaving seemingly little room for the songs of the season. What if there were a playlist that “let in some of the cold” but didn’t leave us out in it? What if there were a playlist that acknowledged the dark and difficult but led us to hope? There is.
Frankly, using the term “playlist” causes me to feel a bit like a poser. Am I not too old to use such a word? Young kids have no idea how easy they have it these days. They can go on Spotify and with a few clicks create a playlist from a catalog of basically every song known to man. They know nothing of the time and energy required to make a decent mixed tape for a road trip or that special someone. But whether you call it a mixed tape, burnt CD, or playlist, the principle is the same – choosing a selection of songs for others enjoyment and benefit. Here’s my December 2020 playlist, five tracks for your 2020 Christmas:
A People of Song – Psalm 147
Key Lyrics: vv.1–3
1Praise the Lord!
For it is good to sing praises to our God;
for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.
2 The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3 He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.
In the Bible’s book of songs, the Psalms, we find one, Psalm 147, which makes clear that part of what it means to be God’s people is to be a people of song. Singing and songs are pleasant and fitting. That is, they bring us delight and it is right for us to sing praises to God.
Context helps here. These lyrics were written during dark and difficult days for the people of God. They had returned from exile in a foreign land. Their city, Jerusalem, wasn’t what it used to be. The temple wasn’t what it used to be. Their potential and power weren’t what they used to be. Yet they still had reason to sing. Their song acknowledges broken hearts and wounds, but also the promise of healing. The song goes on to speak of God’s mercy and might.
A Song of Freedom – Exodus 15:1-21
Key Lyrics: vv. 1&2
1Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying,
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
2 The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
Near the beginning of the Bible, after Moses and God’s people have experienced God’s rescue from slavery in the Exodus, after the waters of the Red sea have closed and crashed down on Pharaoh’s army, Moses and his sister don’t turn and lead God’s people in small group Bible studies. Moses’ doesn’t immediately start writing a theological treatise on the significance of the events. No, they break out in song. Obviously small group bible studies and theological treatises have their place, but often throughout scripture and throughout history the response of God’s people to experiencing his redemption is song. In Judges, Deborah sings when God bring victory. There is singing when David defeats Goliath. You get the idea.
A Servants Song – Isaiah 42:1-9
Key Lyrics vv.2 & 3
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
2020 may have left many of us feeling like bruised reeds and faintly burning wicks. The lyrics of this song speak of a servant who is to come, a servant who won’t crush those already under strain or snuff out those lights that barely remain lit. Isaiah’s words point to one who brings justice and mercy. Justice and Mercy – these are the words I need to hear after a year like 2020.
Zechariah’s Song – Luke 1:67-79
Key Lyrics v.79
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
If you still doubt the place of song in the bible, it’s worth noting that the announcement of Christ’s arrival in the opening chapters of Luke involves four songs. One of them sung by an elderly priest named Zechariah. When it comes to the acoustics of the dark and difficult, Zechariah is one who had heard them for much of his life, personally and as one of God’s people. Personally, he and his wife knew the deep agony of infertility. Month after month, year after year, and still no child. And as one of God’s people, he knew it had been hundreds of years since God had sent word to his people through a prophet. These were dark days for Zechariah.
It is the depth of this darkness that makes the light of this newborn king Jesus shine more brightly. Christ did not step out of heaven and into a well-decorated world that was waiting to welcome him. No, the conclusion of Zechariah’s song makes it clear, Christ came to those who were sitting in darkness, the shadow of death.
Revelation Song – Revelation 15:3-4
Key Lyric: v.3
3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
When we arrive at the final book of the Bible and the end of history, we find song. We finish where we started, with the song of Moses. The glory of this song is that it is sung in a setting where there is no more cold, dark, or difficult – and never will be.
Regardless of what church you attend in this advent season, you are not singing like you have in years past. Large lessons and carols services and favorite choir numbers pretty much aren’t happening, at least not inside. Let me suggest a few practices for us in these weeks that aid us in using songs for more than singing.
- Read – Take the time to read each of these songs in their entirety. Consider what they teach us about who God is, what God has done, and what it would mean for our lives if we lived in light of those realities.
- Write – What if you were assigned the task of writing a song about the work of God in your life? Some of us hear that question and immediately dismiss it with the comment “I’m not that creative or artistic.” Fair enough, but what if you set aside meter and verse and simply wrote down the raw materials, the stories, the rescues, the “Red Seas” he has parted for you? Let 2020 be a year where you write.
- Listen – There is one particular song that people have been singing since the 16th century, lyrics that later made their way into a Charles Dickens’ novella. I’ve heard these words and sung them myself countless times since I was a small child. “God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay.” Then 2020 happened and the phrase “Let nothing you dismay” hit me square between the eyes. Really? Nothing? How in the world could I make it through this past year without being dismayed by anything? And I found the answer in the very next word, “Remember.”
“Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.” Songs are one of the most powerful tools we have in our arsenal against forgetfulness. This year, maybe more than any other in our lives, we are positioned to truly listen, and to remember the hope we have is in Christ.