O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be revered above all gods. (Psalm 96:1-4)
I am ready for a new song! I am tired of the old songs we have been singing in our United Methodist fellowship for the past few years. Even before the pandemic struck us in early 2020, our songs had not been of praise and jubilation, but of argument and division, injustice and judgment. And the world has heard us singing these songs. Songs of disharmony, disunity, discord, and dissonance – not the glorious music of people praising God.
For Christmas this year, I invite us to change our tune. Music is a powerful medium, and it has incredible potential for bridging and healing and renewal of body, mind, and spirit. Think for a moment of your favorite hymns and the carols and music that fills and thrills you. Are these songs of despair and unhappiness? Even the protest songs that call us to social and interpersonal action cast a positive vision for what might be. The people of God use song to offer gratitude, adoration, thanks, and praise.
When our songs turn sour and negative it is because we have turned from the divine light and wisdom of God (a historically and theologically accurate definition of "sin"). People overwhelmed by and engaged in oppression, people filled with loathing and contempt for others, people doing violence to others, people who do not know or understand compassion, mercy, and grace, cannot sing songs of joy and hope. It is only in returning to God’s divine light (a historically and theologically accurate definition of "repentance") that our hearts are lifted and able to rejoice.
This is why we need Christmas. This is where we are reminded of God’s plan for all creation. This is where we are reunited as one people under God – we all need the light of redemption and peace. Our human brokenness causes us to focus on the things we don’t like, the things we don’t want, and the people we don’t want to love. The redeeming love of God, born in human form in Jesus the Christ, is our wake-up call to care more about other’s needs than our own desires, to stop judging and condemning the people we dislike or disagree with, and to begin to live in alignment with God’s unconditional love and unmerited grace for all people.
I am not talking about cheap grace without accountability; this would not free us to sing a new song. I am talking about bedrock faith and love that has the power to transform lives, families, states, nations, countries, and the world. God so loves this world that Jesus came in human form and dwells with us continuously through the power of the Holy Spirit. When we deny this, we see the terrible results of racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, economic injustice, prejudice, ageism, and violence against those we deem unworthy of dignity and respect. What kind of songs emerge from such blasphemous worldviews and positions?
But we are the people of God the creator, the disciples of Christ the redeemer, and the body of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit the sustainer. There is no place for disunity and discord within this Holy Trinity. So, the songs we will sing will need to be new versions of the old, old music of God. We will sing of joy. We will sing of hope. We will sing of justice. We will sing of healing. We will sing of love. Not solely because these are nice ideas we wish for, but because they are the truest expression of who we really are, who God created us to be.
I close this message with a word of thanks and a blessing. I thank you for your faithful actions during this pandemic year. I celebrate each one of you who faithfully wear masks. I celebrate each one of you who practice social distancing. I praise laity and clergy leaders who have protected God’s precious people by not gathering in-person and creatively using resources and technology to worship, meet, and stay connected. I am grateful for the Christian concern and practice to do no harm, to do good, and to attend to the ordinances of God. It has been hard to be apart, but it has been right and proper and faithful to take these precautions. And now the blessing:
My beloved beautiful Wisconsin people, leave the past behind, forsake all thoughts and actions that cause harm, and clothe yourself in the blessed and divine light of Jesus the Christ. Sing a new song that God’s glory may shine in and through you for all the world to see. Have a glorious Christmas and a bright and beautiful new year.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).