The Power of Praise
Scriptures: II Chronicles 20:13-23; Revelation 7:9-12
Several years ago I heard author Anne Lamott speak at Whitworth University. She has an amazing life story. At one time she was alcoholic, bulimic, addicted to crack, and having simultaneous affairs with two married men. Her life was a mess. But she says in her book Traveling Mercies that on Sundays she would walk around a flea market in her town of Marin City, CA, and hear gospel music coming from a church across the street. She writes,
It was called St. Andrew Presbyterian, and it looked homely and impoverished, a ramshackle building with a cross on top, sitting on a small parcel of land with a few skinny pine trees. But the music wafting out was so pretty that I would stop and listen. I knew a lot of the hymns from the times I’d gone to church with my grandparents and from the albums we’d had of spirituals. Finally, I began stopping in at St. Andrew from time to time, standing in the doorway to listen to the songs. I couldn’t believe how run-down it was, with terrible linoleum that was brown and overshined, and plastic stained-glass windows. But it had a choir of five black women and one rather Amish-looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth. … I went back to St. Andrew about once a month. No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying. I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I just didn’t want to be preached at about him. …
Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food. Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life (pp. 46-48).
I have never doubted the power of music to shape someone’s heart, but I have to say that our scripture for today from II Chronicles 20 takes this to a whole new level. The nation Judah—from which we get the word Jews—was under attack from a large coalition of armies to the east. Out of fear the people of Judah from across the land gathered in Jerusalem for a day of prayer. Verse 13 says, “Meanwhile all Judah stood before the Lord with their little ones, their wives, and their children.” The mention of little ones and children emphasizes their vulnerability. Verse 14 says, “Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph.”
This little genealogy, this short list of ancestors, is given for a purpose. It connects Jahaziel to his ancestor Asaph. Why is that important? Because Asaph was the original choir director for the people of Israel. Asaph was one of the musicians appointed by King David to lead music in the Jerusalem sanctuary. In fact there are twelve psalms in the book of Psalms written not by David but by Asaph. He was like Edie’s brother—the Duane Funderburk of ancient Jerusalem. And the fact that he was Jahaziel’s ancestor means that Jahaziel was the heir to that same role. The choir director position was hereditary. Jahaziel was the music director of ancient Jerusalem.
At this critical moment with Jerusalem under attack from a large coalition of armies, it is not the king who delivers a message to the people of Judah, nor some prophet or preacher; it’s the choir director. Verse 15:
He [Jahaziel] said, “Listen, all Judah and Jerusalem, and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you: Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.
With that they prepare for battle. But notice how they prepare. They did not collect their weapons. They did not put on their armor. They did not train like Navy Seals for urban fighting and hand to hand combat. They held a worship service. Verses 18-19:
Then Jehoshaphat bowed down with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the Lord, worshiping the Lord. And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.
The next morning they went out to face the enemy, and verse 21 says,
When he [King Jehoshaphat] had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy splendor, as they went before the army, saying, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
When they go out to battle, King Jehoshaphat puts the choir out front, and they sing, not some new song written especially for the occasion but an old familiar worship chorus, a refrain found in numerous psalms: Give thanks to the Lord, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Then comes the biggest surprise of all—verse 23: “For the Ammonites and Moab attacked Mount Seir, destroying them utterly; and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped destroy each other.” The enemies of Judah were consumed by their own animosities and defeated by a choir singing praise to God.
This story may seem to you like a fairy tale, but I think it is profoundly true. Evil feeds off of fear. Terrorism lives off of terror. Oppression and injustice always try to justify themselves with worries about will happen if certain people are not destroyed or at least kept in their place. Every evil in the history of the world has lived and breathed off of fear.
But what better remedy for fear than singing praise to God? The very act of praising God neutralizes the power of fear. The very act of standing in this church singing “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” is a defiant statement to the world that no power on this earth, personal or political, can thwart God’s destiny for us. Our destiny is not in the hands of any politician or military leader or terrorist or missile defense system. It is in the hands of the God who created the universe, whose steadfast love endures forever.
So here is the message in this scripture passage: Don’t mess with the choir. Don’t mess with the worship band. ISIS militants and Russian hackers and North Korean missiles are no match for the people of God singing God’s praise, because when people are singing God’s praise, no malevolent power on earth can make us afraid.
That’s what Anne Lamott experienced in that small Presbyterian Church in Marin City. The singing of God’s praise worked a remarkable change in her life and in the lives of others she met at that church. Here is one more story from her book:
One of our newer members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our eyes. … Shortly [before], his partner died of the disease. A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there ever since. Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. … He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.
There’s a woman in the choir named Ranola who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and as devout as can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken. She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all. … I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease. But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year and won almost everyone over. He finally missed a couple of Sundays when he got too weak, and then a month ago he was back, weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke. Still, during the prayers of the people, he talked joyously of his life and his decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days.
So on this particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which goes, “Every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up. But he sang away sitting down with the hymnal in his lap. And when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen—only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap—and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?” And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent to lift him up—lifted this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me. I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy (pp. 63-65).
Don’t mess with the choir, because when people sing praise to God, the walls come tumbling down.