Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Our Scripture lessons for this Sunday are some of the most comforting passages in Scripture. They focus on our heavenly Father who always loves us and takes care of us. He provides for us, forgives our sins, heals us, and has sent His Son to lead us and atone for us. One of the best hymns I could find to preach this comfort to us and also express our overwhelming thanksgiving is the beloved hymn, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty by Joachim Neander. It really captures the comforting themes that run through our Scripture readings for this week. I plan to give lots of Scripture quotations in this week’s post, so perhaps this is more of a compilation of passages of comfort than a true journal entry; but here go:

Stanza 1:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!

O my soul, praise Him, for He is your health and salvation!

Let all who hear

Now to His temple draw near,

Joining in glad adoration!

 

The Scripture reference given for this hymn is Psalm 103, of which I’ll give you the first fourteen verses:

1 Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
2 Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
3who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

6The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
7He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
8The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
14For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

It also reminds me of Psalm 24:

1 The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
2for he has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.

God is our health and our salvation!  He satisfies us with good and renews our strength. He removes our sins from us. We respond to this great love with our praise and thanksgiving as we join with all of the Christian church in praising Him. All of this takes place in the presence tense when we gather for worship on Sunday. God forgives our sins through the Word and Sacrament. He promises to take care of all our needs, and we get to praise Him! All of this takes place during the week as God richly and daily provides us with all that we need to support this body and life.

 

Stanza 2

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things is wondrously reigning

And, on wings of an eagle, uplifting, sustaining.

Have you not seen

All that is needful has been

Sent by His gracious ordaining?

The image of God holding us up as on wings of an eagle is a common one throughout Scriptures. The language of this stanza, however, reminds me the most of Isaiah 40.

27Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28Have you not known? Have you not heard?The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

I love the phrase in this, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” It’s a rhetorical question. Of course we know!  But how often we forget and doubt! Our God is the Creator of the ends of the earth, who never grows tired. Don’t you know that He is capable of taking care of us?!

Stanza 3

Praise to the Lord, who has fearfully, wondrously, made you,

Health has bestowed and, when heedlessly falling, has stayed you.

What need or grief

Ever has failed of relief?

Wings of His mercy did shade you.

 

This stanza starts by referencing Psalm 139:14

4I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.

It starts with this, but then moves to some strong parental language, “when heedlessly falling, has stayed you.”  We could give a rough paraphrase of this by saying that God has taken care of you and me when even when we are really stupid and get ourselves in trouble. This parental language also brings to mind the Old Testament reading for this Sunday from Isaiah 49, where we hear:

14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;

my Lord has forgotten me.”

15“Can a woman forget her nursing child,

that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?

Even these may forget,

yet I will not forget you.

16Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;

You mother is more likely to stop loving you than is your God. Even when it feels as though God has forgotten you, He has not. Have you not known? Have you not heard? This same God hides us under His wings, as it says in Psalm 91

4He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;

What does it mean that we have refuge in God’s wings? It means that He is the place where we can run and hide and be safe. He is the almighty creator of the universe who loves and cares for us.

Stanza 4

Praise to the Lord, who will prosper your work and defend you;

Surely His goodness and mercy shall daily attend you.

Ponder anew

What the Almighty can do

As with His love He befriends you.

All these passages of comfort help lead us to the Gospel reading for this Sunday from Matthew 6:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

That last verse would be a very helpful motto for all Christians to say to themselves and to each other every single day. Do not worry about tomorrow. Is God’s salvation not enough? Will God forget you? Does God not love you? Is God not powerful enough to help you? We rest in Him, who is our health and salvation.

This leads us into our last stanza, which again connects to our Old Testament Readings from Isaiah 49:

13Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

break forth, O mountains, into singing!

for the Lord has comforted his people

and will have compassion on his afflicted.


We again respond to our God with our praise and thanksgiving.

Stanza 5

Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in my adore Him!

All that has life and breath, come now with praises before Him!

Let the Amen

Sound from His people again;

Gladly forever adore Him!

Amen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church musicians behaving badly

In my reading, I’ve been making my way through The Music of the English Church by Kenneth Long. There’s a very interesting passage about average town churches in second half of the 17th century, during a period called the restoration. Previous to this, organs and choirs across England had been dismantled and disbanded. The average church would have a rowdy group of minstrels hanging out in the balcony (gallery). What resulted was quite interesting and some if it seems as though it could have been written today.  Here are a few amusing excerpts:

Members of the minstrel group were often referred to as ‘musicainers’ or ‘musickers’. They were very proud of themselves; proud too of the group as a whole and they would practice regularly  and work hard to gain the ascendancy over minstrels from neighboring parishes…But this same strong corporate spirit could occasionally bring them into conflict with the clergy or people or both; indeed, in many parishes the minstrels were a force to be reckoned with. They were often autocratic; they were not above putting the parson firmly in his place (during the service if need be) neither did they shrink from going on strike if necessary in order to get their own way. They were jealous of their rights and even a seat in the gallery was a privilege hedged round with protocol and taboos.  They resisted change, even when it did not personally involve them, and their opinion had considerable influence in the parish. In some churches the minstrels looked upon the music as their own special prerogative and woe betide the member of the congregation rash enough to join in!

Most of the minstrels were yokels – ignorant, illiterate and musically self-taught – yet they possessed immense zeal and diligence and often by sheer perseverance the more intelligent players learned to read and write music…Similarly minstrel performances were usually more notable for enthusiasm and vigor than for accuracy and artistry; indeed contemporary accounts are scathing in their criticism and make it plain that both the singing and playing were so appalling as to be either pathetic or frankly ludicrous. Many writers comment on the ‘shrill tone’ and ‘screeching’ or ‘screaming’ of the children and the uncouth voices of the men…

If the music was bad the standard of behavior was worse and there seems to have been a total lack of reverence. Instruments would be tuned during the sermon; loud exhortations, blame and praise from the leader of the minstrels would punctuate the service; raucous arguments in the gallery distracted the worshipper below…Some of the instruments were found useful for chastising boys and the intermittent thwacks and the boys’ yells were merely another irritation for the congregation to endure. All this was made worse because during the singing it was customary for the congregation to turn in their seats and ‘face the music’, so they could not escape seeing as well as hearing all that went on.

 

Lord of Glory, You Have Bought Us

Our sermon hymn for this Sunday is the great hymn Lord of Glory, You Have Bought Us, a great and beloved hymn on Christian love and charity. It was written by Eliza Alderson, one of our few women hymn-writers, whose brother, John Dykes, wrote the famous tune to “Holy, Holy, Holy”.  She was a pastor’s wife and the granddaughter of a pastor, living in England for all of her life. She was a gifted poet and painter and was active in those things for most of her life. This hymn appeared in a collection of 12 hymns by her, simply called Twelve Hymns.

I believe the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, sets the tone for the hymn. It comes from Leviticus 19.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.

11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.

13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

 

Here’s stanza 1:

Lord of glory, You have bought us

With Your life-blood as the price,

Never grudging for the lost ones

That tremendous sacrifice;

And with that have freely given

Blessings countless as the sand

To the unthankful and the evil

With Your own unsparing hand.

Our Lord, Jesus Christ, has bought us by sacrificing himself on the cross for us. We hear this all throughout Scripture, including this from Hebrews 10:

8When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Jesus has given Himself as the sacrifice to take away our sins, and the hymn points out something about that sacrifice that is truly amazing. He doesn’t hold a grudge against us for it! Despite the pain and agony he endured, he holds no grudge, no resentment, no anger towards us. This is an astounding truth that we often overlook, but the hymn-writer wisely picks up on it. Along with the salvation we gain through the sacrifice of Jesus, our loving God and Lord also gives us what Luther calls “everything I need to support this body and life.” He provides for all who believe in Him, but also for all who do not. God provides food, clothing, shelter, family, community, and much else to all people. Jesus points this out in our Gospel reading for this week, from Matthew 5:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

God loves and provides for people who live in darkness, who despise what is good, and who lives as enemies of God. This should serve as a stern reminder to us that we are to love and care for our enemies, for we, left to ourselves, would surely deserve nothing but God’s wrath and punishment.

Stanza 2

Grant us hearts, dear Lord, to give You

Gladly, freely of Your own.

With the sunshine of Your goodness

Melt our thankless hearts of stone

Till our cold and selfish natures,

Warmed by You, at length believe

That more happy and more blessed

‘Tis to give than to receive.

Having dealt with the way that God freely and lovingly gives, we now move on to how we are to give.  First of all, we must understand that everything we have is a gift from God. This is why the second verse (line) says “Gladly, freely of Your own.” This sort of glad, open-hearted giving can only come from God’s love  working in our hearts. How fitting, then, that for decades we in the Lutheran church sang these words from Psalm 51 as we brought the offering forward:

 

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

It is only by the work of the Holy Spirit that we can have believing hearts that will want to give and not receive. We are given the wealth of the world in order to help our neighbor who is in the world. John speaks it this way, in words of intense law, from 1 John 3:

16By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Create in us clean hearts, O God!

Stanza 3

Wondrous honor You have given

To our humblest charity

In Your own mysterious sentence,

“You have done it all to Me.”

Can it be, O gracious Master,

That You deign for alms to sure,

Saying by Your poor and needy,

“Give and I have given to you”?

This “mysterious sentence” comes from the parable of the sheep and the goats, found in Matthew 25:

34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

It is a truly wondrous, profound mystery that we are the body of Christ and that in caring for each other we care for Christ Himself. Because of this, when we see our Christian brothers and sisters in need, it is not them, but Christ Himself, who cries out to us for assistance. How can we say that we love Jesus and neglect His body when He cries out in need? Our example from God in terms of giving is perfect and we are to follow that example. Lord, have mercy upon us! Jesus will tell us again at the end of Matthew 5:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Is the Law of God starting to hit you yet? God doesn’t just want us to love a little more, or try to be nice, or go do one good deed during the week to prove that we listened to the sermon. God wants us to follow His perfect example and love and give perfectly as He has given perfectly to us. This is a good thing! The law of God is good and wise and it sets our sins before our eyes. And so, as we conclude the hymn, we return to the love of God, repeating part of stanza 1, and always trusting in the love of Jesus Christ.

Stanza 4

Lord of glory,

You have bought us

With Your life-blood as the price,

Never grudging for the lost ones,

That tremendous sacrifice.

Give us faith to trust you boldly,

Hope, to stay our souls on You;
But, oh, best of all Your graces,

With Your love our love renew.