Singing in A Strange Land by Andre Elliott, MDiv

In Richard J. Foster's book, Celebration of Discipline, he explains the 12 spiritual disciplines that help Christians grow spiritually. Some of the disciplines include prayer, fasting, study (of the Bible), confession, and worship. The twelfth and final discipline he explains is the discipline of celebration. He says that celebration is at the center of spiritual growth. I have to confess that I never considered celebration as a vital part to my spiritual growth such as praying and studying the Word. But as the author says in his book, celebration allows us to reflect on the goodness of God in our lives, which can take on many forms. Celebration may include singing, dancing, laughing, as well as celebrating birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. He goes on to say that true joy and celebration is found in being obedient to the Lord. He says, "There is something sad in people running from church to church trying to get an injection of 'the joy of the Lord.' Joy is not found in singing a particular kind of music or in getting with the right kind of group or even in exercising the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, good as all these may be. Joy is found in obedience. When the power of Jesus reaches into our work and play and redeems them, there will be joy where once there was mourning." It's so easy to find time to celebrate when we seem to be prospering and things are going well with us; when our families are doing good; and our cabinets and refrigerators are stocked with food, and our health is fairly well. But can you celebrate when it seems like there's no reason to celebrate? Well, the author of the text writes in verse 1 of Psalm 137, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." Celebration was such of an important part of Jewish culture. The Jews would sing in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the largest book in the Bible is Psalms. However, when they get to Babylon they find it difficult to sing and celebrate how they used to when they were home in Judah. (As Dorothy says in the Wizard of Oz, "There's no place like home!") Now that they are in Babylon they have been stripped of their identity, and their future seems bleak and uncertain. So here they are--sitting by the rivers of Babylon, weeping, as they remembered their home country and the city of Jerusalem. The depth of their grief and sorrow was so heavy and unbearable that the Psalmist tells us in verse 2: "We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof." These Jews who have been forced and taken away from their home into a wicked country are in so much emotional distress that they hang their harps on the willows by the river. The fascinating thing is that the text doesn't say they hid their harps, instead they hung them up on the trees.

To hide their harps would suggest that they didn't plan on singing again, that they didn't plan on rejoicing and celebrating again.

But instead of hiding them; they just hung them up.

Maybe you're in a "harp hanging" season.

Perhaps some of the devastation from COVID-19 has personally affected you or your family. Maybe it's your job, or health, or your finances... and as much as you want to celebrate life, you find it difficult because you've hung up your harp.

You've tucked it away for a little while.

And it's okay to hang your harp for a little while, just don't hide it or throw it away! In verse 3 of Psalm 137 we find that the Babylonians who took them wanted them to sing " the songs of Zion." These captors wanted to be entertained by these Jews who were weeping and in emotional turmoil. One commentary suggested that it was beyond insulting to ask them to sing while they were in so much pain. The Babylonians had already taken them from their homes and stripped them of their land and identity, and now they wanted them to sing like everything was alright.

Similarly, Satan tries to make us feel like we're less than a Christian if we don't feel like praising God.

Because of the devastation back at home in Judah and coming to grips with the fact that they have been displaced from their homes, the Psalmist asks a question in verse 4 (and all week I haven't been able to get this question out of my mind):

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"

How can we sing the songs that are meant to be sung at the Temple in Jerusalem--and sing them here in a godless place such as Babylon? How can we worship/celebrate God and we're 900 miles away from home? The Jews were so focused on location. They were used to God being in one place--just like His presence was with them in the tabernacle in the wilderness when He delivered them from Egypt, or when His presence would fill Solomon's Temple to the point that the priests couldn't stand to minister. The Jews were focused on God being in Jerusalem, so to be taken away from Judah and the city of Jerusalem was almost like being stripped of their very relationship with God. That's why in verses 5 and 6 the Psalmist says that he will never forget Jerusalem and if he does he would rather die than not to be preoccupied about the city of God. But all of these things in the Old Testament pointed to Christ who would come and save us from our sin--and tell us like He told the woman at the well in John 4 that worshiping God is not based on location, but they who worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth. So in other words, the Jews didn't have to wait until they get back to Jerusalem to play their harps. Because the same God in Jerusalem is the same God in Babylon.

In fact, God was saying, I was here before you got here. I know you're having a moment because you've been displaced, but don't stop singing and don't stop celebrating! I am Jehovah Shammah (The Lord is There...I'm a very present help in the time of trouble!)

Go get your harp... it's time to celebrate!


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Inspired by Andre's sermon delivered on September 23, 2018 entitled "It's Time to Celebrate."


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