(Lyrics at the bottom)
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
2nd Sunday in Advent, B
I think most of you know that I love music. I enjoy singing, and playing instruments. It fills me with joy and occasionally other people like it too. I think I’ve told some of you that years ago, when I was in college, I served an evangelical church outside Harrisburg, PA, as a music minister, some time before I ever set foot in an Episcopal Church. Preparing music for worship has been a joy and passion of mine since those days, and it’s one of my favorite parts of being a priest.
What’s tough about serving as a solo parish priest like I do here is that I’m still only one person. But for many months, while we were between church musicians, I have wanted to play music in worship, but of course, I’m usually the presider of Holy Communion. I can’t be behind the altar setting the table and behind a guitar or piano leading an offertory hymn at the same time. It’s too bad we haven’t mastered human cloning yet. But all kidding aside, it’s also not necessary for any one person to wear that many hats in one community.
I’ve been mulling over how best to incorporate my love for music, especially sacred music, into my work here at St. Matthew’s. There have been a handful of opportunities for us to sing and make music together with the guitar, like during Vacation Bible School, at Christmas last year, and occasionally during sermons.
But one of the ways I have been able to exercise those musical muscles more consistently is with the Church of the Epiphany. As many of you already know, the Rev. Kelly Steele, my wife, has been called by our Diocese and the Synod of the Southeast to start a new Episcopal-Lutheran congregation in Savannah. The new community is called the Church of the Epiphany, and it is intentionally an informal, creative Episcopal and Lutheran congregation aiming to introduce Jesus to people who have never been to church or have rejected church because of negative experiences with Christians. One of the more obvious ways it is different from the other Episcopal and Lutheran parishes in town is its music.
Over the past few months, Pastor Kelly has recruited me to help plan and perform the music at worship services. This has given me the opportunity to research lots of different styles and genres of Christian music, outside our hymnals, and see how they fit with Episcopal worship and doctrine. It has been really joyful. Some of the songs are re-imagined or re-mixed hymns, some are songs from K-Love (contemporary Christian music), some are Gospel songs, some are obscure, hipster, folk songs, and some are written by people in Epiphany. It’s an eclectic mix that makes for a fun and dynamic worship space.
Of course, this more experimental style of music in worship isn’t for everyone, and I’m not trying to convince anybody to drop St. Matthew’s in favor of Epiphany. But this work has taught me some things that I hope will grow our ministry here at St. Matthew’s too. Epiphany has helped me learn and relearn how important music is to the spiritual life of Christians and church communities.
St. Augustine famously wrote, “He [or she] who sings prays twice” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1156) Singing Scripture sinks the Word of God more deeply into our minds, hearts, and souls. It is much easier to memorize musical lyrics than spoken words. (That’s half the reason I chant parts of the liturgy at the 10:00 service. It helps me remember these beautiful words of the faith.)
One of my dreams is for more parts of the BCP and the Bible to be set to popular music, so that more people hear our rich prayers and powerful messages of God’s love. Our hymnals do that really well, but not everyone enjoys European and American hymns played on the organ or piano. I believe God can speak to us in any genre of music, and that music is a powerful evangelistic tool.
My work with Epiphany has helped me discover the wealth of beautifully written Christian music that often quotes and paraphrases the Bible in accessible and poetic musical form.
So I’d like for us to take some time to sit with a hear the words of Scripture in a new form, in a song that might be unfamiliar to everyone but me. When we hear the words of the Bible in a song, they can speak to our emotions and our minds in new and profound ways. And they may be there in our memories when we need them the most. There are times when we need the words of Scripture to speak to our current circumstances. The music can help us pray in times of joy, sorrow, and everything in between.
The song I want us to look at today is called “Glory Revealed” by Candi Pearson-Shelton. You should have the lyrics printed in a handout that we passed around. The lyrics are based on Isaiah 40, our Old Testament reading this morning. It paraphrases the words of a few verse very closely, without a lot of extrapolation. The song is designed to highlight this part of the BIble for our benefit and for God’s glory.
So before we sing it, I want us to look more carefully at this passage and understand why it is such a useful Scripture to memorize and sing.
Isaiah 40 is prophecy of comfort to a people in exile. The people of Israel and Judah have been defeated in war by the very powerful Babylonian Empire. Jerusalem was sacked and the temple was destroyed in the year 586 BC. Around that time, the invading army kidnapped many of the best and brightest of Jerusalem’s elites and brought them to Babylon to live in exile. This is the period we hear about in the stories of Daniel and Esther.
So God speaks to these exiles through Isaiah the Prophet. And God promises comfort. The tragedy and sufferings will soon be over. God will rescue the people of Israel. In the famous passage, Isaiah says, “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
In the original context, this was a promise about healing and restoration. God is building a highway from Babylon back to Jerusalem. Babylon was near modern-day Baghdad, so this is a distance of about 700 miles. The path was through the vast deserts of Iraq and Jordan. It was a long and dangerous journey. In those days it was easy for robbers to hide away in valleys or caves, behind rocks and around the corners of mountain paths; then they would spring upon a traveling group, mug and rob them.
So God promises that their journey will be smooth and safe. The valleys will be lifted and the mountains will be lowered; uneven ground will be level and rough places will become plains. God will eliminate obstacles and provide for safe passage. God will protect the people as they return to their homes.
Now, the landscape didn’t literally change. People still had to pass through all the mountains and valleys, but Ezra and Nehemiah tell us that a large group of exiles did make it home to Jerusalem, rebuilding the city and the temple in the process. God’s promises came true!
But the text means more us than simply a neat historical fact. A voice also cried out in the wilderness about 2000 years ago. Along the banks of the Jordan River, John the Baptist prepared the hearts of Israel for the arrival of Jesus, who would save the world from sin and death. Jesus made a straight path for us “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, [and] out of death into life” (BCP, 368).
And even though we may not find ourselves in literal exile today, it’s worth asking the question of how we do experience exile in this culture? What do we need God to do to make a straight path through the wilderness? When we find ourselves at our lowest moments, how has God brought healing and restoration? And in those moments of grace, how do we see God’s glory revealed to us?
Meditate on these questions as you listen to the song.
by Candi Pearson-Shelton
from the album Glory Revealed (2007) by Various Artists
A voice cries in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord
And make straight in the desert,
a highway for our God
And every valley will be raised
And every mountain peak made low
And the ground will be made level
And the rough places smooth
And then we will see, the glory of the Lord
All eyes will see the glory of the Lord revealed
Oh the Glory of our Lord revealed
Go up to a high mountain
Lift up your voice with strength saying,
See your God, behold He comes in power….