Several years ago, I went to a friend’s ordination where she was ordained to the Christian ministry. I had been to one ordination service before and was excited to witness my friend’s ordination. Ordination is a joyous occasion, especially for a congregation who has raised up a young person who has been called from their congregation to the vocation of ministry. I was very excited and drove 4 hours to be present for the festivities.
The music my friend had chosen for the worship service was upbeat and joyous to match the sentiment of the day. The music was pretty good; then, we got to a song about the Holy Spirit. The song was all about the work of the Spirit. It is usually an upbeat, joyous hymn, but the organist ruined it. He played it as a funeral dirge.
A dirge is a somber song or lament expressing mourning or grief that is appropriate at a funeral. A dirge might also be a funeral march leading the pace of a funeral procession, the burial procession accompanying a casket to the grave.
I asked Vicki to demonstrate what a joyous hymn should sound like and what a funeral dirge sounds like. I’ve asked her to play the same hymn, once joyous and once dirge-like.
Here is how a joyous hymn should sound:
Here is that same hymn played as a funeral dirge:
Same hymn, different interpretation of the music. Joyous hymns have their place in worship for Sunday mornings and joyous occasions and dirges have their place in worship at a funeral service. I think of the hymn In the Garden. We sing it differently at a funeral than on Easter morning. At a funeral, we sing it in remembrance of our loved one, perhaps it was their favorite hymn. But, on Easter morning, we sing it with thanksgiving that Jesus was resurrected and met Mary in the garden.
There are occasions for a joyous hymn and the occasion for a dirge. I think many of the prophets of the Old Testament had the occasion of marching to dirges as they delivered God’s word of judgment and impending doom; at other times, they had the occasion of announcing salvation and could dance with joy.
Our friend, Habakkuk, was a prophet in Judah announcing the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army. Habakkuk was angry and confused and made his complaints known to God that he did not agree with the coming defeat of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Habakkuk’s argument is not that Judah is righteous, just that Judah is more righteous or less wicked than Babylon.
In lodging his complaints to God, Habakkuk was doing so from the Temple. Chapter 1 and 2 of the book of Habakkuk is his conversation with God about how bad things were coming to Jerusalem when not all the people were evil. Habakkuk was concerned that the righteous would suffer with the unrighteous at the hands of the wicked.
Habakkuk’s worship in the Temple expressing his anger was an act of mourning. He was mourning Jerusalem before their demise. Habakkuk was bargaining with God to save his beloved Jerusalem. His worship was to a dirge carrying the casket of Jerusalem in his heart.
I think we know how Habakkuk felt to march to a dirge and carry a casket in our heart. Sometimes, we carry the casket of a loved one in our hearts. Other caskets we carry are that of the pain and suffering of our past, such as abuse, neglect, divorce, heart break, and addiction. Life seems to take a slow pace toward healing when we carry these caskets.
Too often, though, we carry unnecessary caskets. We carry stress, worry, impatience, and doubt as caskets in our hearts. We pick up these caskets when we focus on missed opportunities, financial instability, stress from work and school, worry about things out of our control, hatred, and busyness. These caskets slow us down and make life as like we’re marching through at the pace of a dirge.
Chapter 3 of the book of Habakkuk is his answer to carrying caskets. He says lay them down. Rejoice and proclaim God’s victory. Chapter 3 is Habakkuk’s prayer, a prayer that was meant to be sung in the Temple. Habakkuk prepares himself in prayer for the coming war. He concludes the prayer with the words: “I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance. The Lord God is my strength. He will set my feet like the deer. He will let me walk upon the heights.”
Habakkuk is prepared for Jerusalem’s destruction. He has voiced his complaints to God. He has resolved that Babylon is coming. And, he says, everything can go wrong, but I am going to get through this. Habakkuk trusts that Babylon will not have the final word on Jerusalem. He knows that God plans redemption and he holds out hope for that day. So, Habakkuk rejoices in God who delivers.
There is an Irish proverb that says a man becomes the song he sings. Habakkuk sang in the Temple as he prayed this prayer. He started with lament over Jerusalem and ending with God’s praise. He sang rejoicing in the Lord. Habakkuk shed his anger at God for sending defeat to Jerusalem and became a man who rejoiced in the Lord.
There is archeological evidence that song and dance has been an important part of a community’s bond since the earliest known human groups. Song and dance allow a person to lose him or herself and be gathered into a collective joy that permeates everyone gathered. The Bible tells us a lot about song and dance, beyond Habakkuk’s song.
After the Israelites fled from Egypt and Moses parted the sea, when the people reached dry land, they sang and danced. Chapter 15 of Exodus is the song Moses and the Israelites sang proclaiming God is our strength and salvation. Verse 20 says: ”Miriam, the prophet…took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing.” Salvation is worth a song and dance.
When I first conceptualized this sermon and began writing it, I wanted to end with a call to lay down our caskets, turn off the funeral dirge, and begin singing and dancing to the melody of the Gospel. But, I can’t say that this morning. I had to put my dog, Kravitz, to sleep yesterday. I am carrying his casket in my heart and I’m marching to a funeral dirge. Someday soon, I’ll feel like singing and dancing and rejoicing in the Lord. But, today, I’m giving us permission to carry the caskets that need carrying and mourn what should be mourned, but never forget the Gospel truth of redemption, reconciliation, healing, and resurrection in Jesus Christ.