Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted

Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted

Liturgy Lessons: May 6, 2018
Call to Worship: Psalm 96
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven (#76)
Call to Confession: Luke 18:9-14
Hymn of Confession: Not What My Hands Have Done (#461)
Assurance: Ephesians 2:4-10
Hymn of Assurance: Come Thou Fount (#457)
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Luke 5:33-39
Doxology: #731 (DUKE STREET)
Sermon: Rev. Casey Bedell
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted (#257); My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (#521)
Closing Hymn: O God Beyond All Praising (#660)

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

Isaiah 53:4-5

Last Saturday night we had the pleasure of hosting Fernando Ortega for an evening of music to benefit the ministry of Care Net. Fernando is a gifted pianist and songwriter, as well as a winsome storyteller. I thoroughly enjoyed his songs interspersed with a heavy dose of humor. Fernando has quite the arsenal of great songs, but perhaps the best moment of the whole evening was when he led us in a simple arrangement of a hymn he did NOT write (no disrespect, Fern!). We passed around the hymnals and all sang together “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted.” I was familiar with the hymn, but as we were singing it, all of its depth was laid out before me like never before. I was struck by its brilliance and beauty. I knew of it, but I don’t think I truly knew it rightly until I heard the people sing it in our sanctuary. Because of its somber and stark nature, this hymn is normally reserved for Lent or Holy Week. I’d like to break with that tradition and suggest that a hymn of this magnitude should be sung more than once a year. Fernando has included a beautiful arrangement of this hymn on his new album, Crucifixion, and I’m grateful it will get a wider audience. It baffles me why some hymns are so well-known and others languish in obscurity. Millions of Christians can sing “The Old Rugged Cross” by heart. I don’t intend to be dismissive of that classic (I have sung it at many memorial services), but “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” is by far the superior hymn in both text and tune. In my opinion, it is on par with the greatest crucifixion hymns ever written, comparable in strength to old-growth giants like “When I Survey” and “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Perhaps the reason it is not more popular is because of its unyielding excellence. The hymn captures all too well the spirit of Isaiah 53 (the chapter on which it is based), which describes Christ as “despised and rejected by man,” and as “one from whom men hide their faces.” So, perhaps this hymn’s fidelity to the true nature of the cross allows many to render to it the same conclusion as was given to Christ: “we esteemed him not.”

All that to say, I have chosen to include it in this week’s liturgy, as a fitting opening to our time of communion. Though the hymn needs little help from me, below is some info that will hopefully illuminate aspects of it for you. For those of you who came to the concert last Saturday, you’ll be pleased to know that for our service on Sunday we will use Fernando’s arrangement of this hymn.

Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted
Words: Thomas Kelly (1804)
Music: O MEIN JESU, ICH MUSS STERBEN, Geistliche Volkslieder (1850)

Thomas Kelly (1769-1855) grew up as an Irish Catholic. As a young man, he studied law and theology, but later turned to ministry in the Anglican Church. He was incredibly fiery and fervent as a preacher (this spirit exudes from his hymns), and was so popular and controversial that the Anglican bureaucracy prohibited his preaching in official churches. Kelly had a passion for the poor and served tirelessly during the great Irish famine of 1845-49. He was a prodigious and prolific preacher and writer, finding time in a ministry of almost 60 years to write over 750 hymns.
Thomas Kelly has a handful of hymns in the Trinity hymnal, and among them is our Pastor Eric’s favorite hymn, “Look, Ye Saints, the Sight is Glorious.”

But perhaps Kelly’s greatest hymn of them all is “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted.” There are many hymns that proclaim Christian doctrine clearly and explicitly, but not many that do that while maintaining a high poetic standard. This hymn is not pedantic. It is dramatic, but not sentimental. The hymn takes its title from the iconic passage in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah that vividly depicts the suffering Messiah. I imagine that Thomas Kelly found much to resonate with in the writings of Isaiah. Many biblical scholars say that Isaiah’s style of writing reveals a well-educated background. There is great expressive versatility and brilliant use of imagery that makes the entire book of Isaiah an absolute masterpiece. I especially love the use of metaphor and hyperbole. The book of Isaiah is embroidered with such passion, and Thomas Kelly captures this rhetoric with his hymn. In the first three verses, he gives us striking and sobering unveilings of the nature of Christ, the cross, and the nature of sin itself. Then, he offers up this final stanza:

Here we have a firm foundation; here the refuge of the lost;
Christ, the rock of our salvation, His the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded who on Him their hope have built.

In this brief summary of the law and the gospel, we find echoes of two other famous hymns. Do you see them?
It is unlikely that Kelly took the start of his final verse from “How Firm a Foundation” (written in America in 1787), but what is often said about our twin boys could apply here, “the resemblance is uncanny.” There is also the possibility that the end of this verse was the inspiration for another great American hymn, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” which was written 30 years later in 1834. Here we have a hymn that serves as an axis for past and future hymn writers. And the hymn itself commemorates the cross by pondering that holy hinge upon which all history turned from darkness to light, from the grave to glory.

The tune that carries this text is an anonymous German folk tune in revised bar form (AABA), a common song structure for many hymns. It is simple, bowing its head in minor mode for most of the time, but gently lifting at moments for glimmers of hope, particularly in the third phrase that takes us ever so briefly into the relative major key.
This is a musical reminder that all this suffering is laced with great joy. The cross has a purpose: the glory of Christ and the redemption of His bride. He makes all things new and by His stripes we are healed.

Disclaimer: The final paragraph, below, contains thoughts that are less on the content of the hymn and act more as side notes. If you have better things to do, now is the time to stop reading. However, if you are interested in exploring the labyrinth of my musings a bit further, then read on.

This week, our sermon focuses on the seemingly cryptic trio of parables about fasting, wineskins, and a wedding feast (Luke 5:33-39). The traditional explanation of this passage seems to be that Jesus is the new way of life through faith, and that the old way of the law is now dead. It is, therefore, not the least bit ironic that immediately following the sermon we get to sing a hymn by a lawyer turned poet, a man who rejected a life in the law and instead preached publicly about the grace of Jesus Christ. Thomas Kelly stands in a long tradition of former lawyers who became hymn writers. “It is Well With My Soul” was written by a lawyer from Chicago. The great hymn writer William Cowper was a lawyer. And, one of the most ancient hymns we have, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” was written in Latin in the 4th century by a Roman lawyer named Aurelius Prudientius. In fact, George Frederic Handel’s father wanted him to study law. Handel did for two years, and then couldn’t take it, so he left Germany for Italy and there started his career as one of the greatest composers in the history of western music. So, there you have it. A bit of historical trivia, most of which will totally help you worship better. You’re welcome.

Sheet music