Liturgy Lessons: April 15, 2018 (2nd Sunday Eastertide)
Call to Worship: Psalm 24
Hymn of Invocation: Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates (#198)
Confession: (Based on Romans 6)
Assurance: (Based on Romans 6)
Song of Assurance: There is a Fountain Filled with Blood
Reading of the Word: Luke 5:12-16 (Jesus Cleanses the Leper)
Doxology: #731 (sung to DUKE STREET)
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin, “The Entire Mission in Five Verses”
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Jesus Paid it All (#308); Jesus, Master, Whose I Am (Morton)
Closing Hymn: O for a Thousand Tongues (#164)
There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood
Text: William Cowper (1772)
Tune: Lowell Mason (1830)
This hymn is based on Zechariah 13:1, “On that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” It was authored by a man who wrestled his entire life with deep feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and self-loathing. Brilliance and insanity have co-existed in some of history’s greatest minds. William Cowper, despite or perhaps because of his lifelong struggles, was able to produce poetry of startling imagery and profound emotional impact. He is still renowned to this day as one of England’s greatest poets.
William Cowper (pronounced “cooper”) was born in 1731 near London, England. When he was six, his mother died, which was very traumatic for the young boy, so his father sent him to boarding school. He attended private school as an adolescent where he excelled in linguistic studies. He knew French, Latin, and Greek well enough to translate the likes of Madame Guyon and Homer in the later years of his life. As a young man, he fell in love with his cousin, Theodora. After being with her for seven years (a modern-day Jacob), and becoming engaged, Theodora’s father forbade the marriage, probably because of William’s growing emotional and mental instability. Cowper was a lawyer, and in 1759 (aged 28), he was offered the position as the Clerk of Journals in the British Parliament. As part of this job description, he was required to pass an interrogation in front of the House of Lords. The stress and terror of this prospect for Cowper was so intense that he went insane. He tried to commit suicide three times, and he was then committed to a mental asylum. After his third attempt to end his life, he wrote:
“Conviction of sin took place, especially of that just committed; the meanness of it, as well as its atrocity, were exhibited to me in colours so inconceivably strong that I despised myself, with a contempt not to be imagined or expressed…This sense of it secured me from the repetition of a crime which I could not now reflect on without abhorrence…A sense of God’s wrath, and a deep despair of escaping it, instantly succeeded.”
William’s care was overseen at the asylum by Dr. Nathaniel Cotton. Cotton, a believer in Jesus Chris, was instrumental in Cowper’s conversion. For about 18 months, Cowper stayed at St. Alban’s asylum, and often read the Bible, which brought clarity and a comfort that he had seldom known. The scriptures seemed to soothe his soul. He was particularly fond of the passage that told him that God had put Christ forward “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25). After reading this, Cowper wrote:
“Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed, and received the gospel…Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. My eyes filled with tears, and my voice choked with transport; I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder.”
Shortly thereafter, Cowper was released and, at the suggestion of a good family friend, went to live in Olney, England in a small house that backed up to the parish of the famed minister John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”). The companionship of Newton was an anchor for Cowper. Newton, the former slave-ship owner who considered himself a “wretch” entirely undeserving of God’s mercy, shared Cowper’s profound gratitude for the unmerited favor and unearned love of Christ. These two men—who formerly thought their sins unforgivable, who separately were “once lost,” and who now had been “found” together in the mercy of Christ—collaborated on numerous hymns, poems, and religious verse. They compiled them into the famous Olney Hymnbook. I have that book on my shelf, and in almost every verse, mercy is the overriding theme. One of the most famous hymns in this collection is entitled “Praise for the Fountain Opened,” now known as “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Oh, what a formidable hymn! It overflows with the hope of redemption. I am so grateful for poets like Cowper. It is obvious that faith filled every cell in his bloodstream, and reading his verse is like a direct transfusion from his veins to mine.
Ever since by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave,
then in a nobler, sweeter song I’ll sing Thy power to save.
The mental breakdown at his examination gave Cowper a lisp and stutter that he had the rest of his life, but he knew there was a greater song to be sung than any his earthly voice could raise, a song of praise to the dying Lamb.
In 1830, Lowell Mason wrote this tune entitled “Cleansing Fountain” for Cowper’s text, and the hymn was published in 1832 in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship. The tune has a symmetric structure to it, and despite the vocal turns it is quite simple. It is a melody that pumps along steadily, delivering the white-blood-cell truth of Cowper’s verse. Its rhythmic vitality and harmonic simplicity seem directly out the pages of Sacred Harp. It is this straightforward clarity that makes it such a perfect fit for Cowper’s text, the last verse of which is unfortunately often left out of our hymnals:
Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared, unworthy though I be,
For me a blood-bought free reward, a golden harp for me!
’Tis strung and tuned for endless years, and formed by power divine,
To sound in God the Father’s ears no other name but Thine.
It is interesting to note that this hymn has been the unfortunate victim of some modern revisions by those who struggle the notion of a blood fountain. One critic I read was “grossed out” by the text, saying that it was too “medical.” This is unfortunate, for quite a bit of the impact is in the imagery itself. What a profound notion that we can “plunge” ourselves in the blood of Christ, and in so doing, we lose all our stains. What a mystery! What a miracle! What a reason to sing!
Jesus Paid it All
Text: Elvina M. Hall (1865)
Tune: All to Christ, John T. Grape (1868)
The well-known refrain of this revival-era gospel hymn ends by saying “sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.” It is very similar to Cowper’s text (see above). In fact, both of the hymns that are highlighted this week are essentially about being washed clean by Jesus Christ. That focus is purposeful because this week’s sermon text is from Luke 5:12-16, the remarkable story of Jesus healing the leper. This brief account appears in almost identical language in the gospels of Matthew (Matt. 8:2-4) and Mark (Mark 1:40-44). I imagine that it was this same story that was the subject of the sermon by pastor George Schrick at the Monument Street Methodist Church of Baltimore about 150 years ago. It was there, on a Sunday morning in the spring of 1865, that a woman sitting in the choir loft penned these words on a hymnal leaflet during the sermon:
Lord, now indeed I find Thy power and Thine alone
Can change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone.
Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain—He washed it white as snow.
After the service was over, Elvina Hall submitted the text to Pastor George (a bold move considering it was composed during his overly long sermon ramblings), who later paired it with a tune written by his church’s organist, John T. Grape. Grape was a successful coal merchant who “dabbled” in music. While the church was being renovated in 1865, Grape took the organ home with him, and during his “dabbling,” was inspired with this tune. It was the pastor who noticed that Elvina’s text and Grape’s tune were a perfect match. The pairing first appeared in a hymnal three years later, in 1868.
Have you ever doodled on the bulletin during the sermon? Well, be encouraged. This hymn is direct evidence that God can use even our “doodlings” and “dabblings.” I can’t speak for Pastor Eric, but I’m confident he’d love to see any sermon doodles submitted after each service. I’d like to see them as well. Who knows, maybe there’s some real inspiration brewing in our pews.