Speak, O Lord | Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean

Speak, O Lord | Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean

Liturgy Lessons: April 7, 2019 (Fifth Sunday Lent)
Call to Worship: from Hebrews 12 and Psalm 68
Hymn of Invocation: Speak, O Lord
Hymn of Adoration: Our Great God
Confession: ‘Purification’ from Valley of Vision and Trisagion
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 103:8-13
Hymn of Assurance: Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners (#498)
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean; It is Well With My Soul (#691)
Closing Hymn: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah (#598)

Let’s imagine that you receive an official invitation to a party at God’s house this Sunday. Christ is the host. There is a feast prepared in His honor. It is intended to be a grand celebration. The house is cleaned, decorated, and the event is thoughtfully prepared. There will be expensive food and drink, fellowship with loved ones, and beautiful live music. You reserve the time on your calendar and look forward to it all week. There is a sense of eager anticipation and excitement as Sunday approaches. Your Maker and Redeemer has chosen you to come and hang out with Him. You envision a loving embrace with tears, followed by much laughter and joy around the table. There is so much you’d like to tell Him, and you know that He may have something important to say to you.

Sunday arrives. You get dressed in your favorite outfit and show up a bit early. You park your car and walk up to the front of the house. You inhale a smile as you hear music playing from the living room and, through the front window, see several guests that you know. But what really makes you skip faster toward the front door is knowing that Jesus is inside the house. You can’t wait to see Him. Then this happens…

The butler greets you at the door and proceeds to take you on an unrequested tour of the entire house. You reluctantly agree. As he walks you from room to room, you endure his endless monologue, occasionally stealing glances over your shoulder or around corners to see if you can spot Jesus. At the end of the tour you are brought into the parlor where the musicians are giving a concert. You are seated in a surprisingly dark room facing a fireless hearth, over which hangs a huge, glossed and gaudy framed picture of the room you are sitting in. You think you see Jesus hidden over in the corner behind the piano, but aren’t sure. The singer is blocking your view, and he never turns in that direction anyway. In between a few of the music pieces there is tepid applause and brief comments from the band leader. After the music has finished, a “distinguished” guest speaker is introduced. You miss hearing about his credentials because your ears are still ringing from the loud music. The speaker holds a Bible in his hand, but instead of reading from it, he shares humorous anecdotes and engages the audience with endless chatter. When he is done, you look at your watch and realize it has been over an hour since you arrived. You are hungry and frustrated. Still no sign of Jesus. But then the announcement for supper is given and your spirit lifts as you are ushered into the dining room and given a seat at a long table.

You look at the head of table to see if Jesus has taken his rightful place, but you are surprised to see the butler sitting there instead. The wine is poured, and right on cue he gets up, raises his glass and gives the longest toast you have ever heard. During his meandering and meaningless soliloquy, you scan the room for Jesus. Over in a dimly lit corner, you think you see a figure seated in a chair, the light only catching his scarred, bare feet. But the garish chandelier over the table casts a glare and, again, you can’t be sure if it’s really Jesus. By the time the butler is done speaking, the food is cold. Everyone eats quickly, and then some people just get up and leave. Toward the end of the meal there is a moment where you see the figure in the corner stand up and take a step toward the light. His hand extends toward the table, gesturing as one who is about to speak. You lean in, hold your breath, and then…TWANG…the guitar strikes a chord. The band starts singing a song about how great the meal was and how awesome they feel about it. Then the guest speaker stands up and gives a few closing remarks and tells everyone to leave.

As you walk back to your car, you decide that if you get another invitation, you won’t even bother to RSVP.

Speak, O Lord
Words and Music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, 2005

“Biblical faith is…uncompromisingly and unembarrassedly dialogic.”
– Walter Brueggemann

The whole purpose of our liturgy is to enable and encourage a dialogue between you and God. Our prayer for each Sunday is that there would be transformative and loving engagement with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in your heart. Our job as leaders is to get out of the way, and let you converse with Christ through each liturgical action. This is why each liturgy is suffused with scripture. We hear God speak to us through His word, and then we respond with singing. I pray that even the music itself would be infused with the voice of the Lord, saturated with the sound of His spirit. If our worship services are indeed like a banquet feast, then the musicians are nothing more than the wait staff.

Worship is dialogue. God is not some distant deity who demands our liturgical actions. He is not the remote object of our worship. He is the subject of our worship. We worship the Triune One who speaks through His word, reveals himself in His Son, and intimately engages us through the counsel of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is basically a litany of God’s intentional engagement with man. More than that, the Bible is His revealed word, sixty-six books of dictation from the Holy Spirit. Even before the Word was made flesh and began talking in human voice, God was speaking constantly through and to His beloved children. Consider the creation mandate to Adam in the garden, and the blueprints given to Noah. God obliged Abraham’s negotiations for Sodom and later instructed him to offer up his son Isaac. There is Moses at the burning bush and again on Mt. Sinai. Jacob wrestled with the angel, and God answered David and Solomon directly in prayer. God came in a whisper to Elijah, but in storm clouds and fire to Ezekiel. There are the accounts of Joshua, Gideon, Jonah, Daniel, Hosea, Nehemiah, and Zechariah all receiving specific spoken commissions from the Lord. Who can forget the terrifying lecture in the final chapters of Job (38-41) and the comforting words given to Isaiah (Is. 40)? And of course, the entire book of Psalms is conversational.

The Bible itself gives poetic descriptions of God’s voice (II Samuel 22:14, Psalm 68:33, Psalm 29:3-9, Jeremiah 10:13, Ezekiel 43:2). If you are despairing and alone, there is great encouragement in knowing that God is personal, active, and speaking. Psalm 199:25 says this, “my soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word.” God hears us and responds. His word does indeed bring life…literally! Consider the powerful accounts of God speaking life into the wombs of Rebekah, Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, and of course the annunciation to Mary. Last Sunday we sang these words:

He speaks and listening to His voice new life the dead receive,
The mournful broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.

And, so we invite God to speak. We implore Him to be the primary voice in our worship. Without the sweet honey of his word, alive and active in our gatherings, there is no music, just noise. He is the very flame of love. If we don’t seek His presence, and do not listen to His voice, our worship is all gong and clanging cymbals. Going to the Lord’s house and not meeting with the Lord is an exercise in futility. The Gettys would agree, and they have written this hymn as a hopeful anecdote to man-centered ear-plugged worship. I love this testimonial about the song comes from Gettymusic.com:

“One of Christianity’s distinctives is that we worship a God who has spoken—who is not silent. From God the Father, speaking the world into creation, to speaking through His Living word in Christ, to speaking by His Spirit through the written word. Throughout history the word of God has transformed the most proud leaders and the most hopeless victims, the greatest civilizations and the remotest of villages, in every age to every corner of the world—so incredible is its power.

Often today, however, the preaching of the word has been diminished in value—from its prominence in a service to its passion, but most of all in our own expectation each time we sit down and ask God to speak to us. In Isaiah the people were performing many acts in the name of God and the Lord said “This is the one to whom I will turn my face—he who is humble and contrite and trembles at my word”. It is our prayer that through the power of the spirit, this hymn will prepare people to humbly listen to the Bible being taught, and respond to the huge consequences it has on their lives. After “In Christ Alone” and “The Power of the Cross,” this is the most requested Getty/Townend hymn on our website. It is used both to introduce the sermon and to introduce a service.”

Lyrics and recording

Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean
Text: A bunch of guys named William
Tune: Robert Lowry, 1876

The liturgical dialogue laced throughout our services is mostly in the language of the heart, not the head. This is because true worship flows from the heart. The important thing is not that we own right belief, but that God own our hearts. That is the primary role that music plays in worship. To steer the affections of the heart back to Love’s great source, the fountainhead of all beauty, the God who rejoices over us with singing. Considering the depth of God’s love, the title of this hymn is accurate but insufficient. Here is Love, more vast than the Ocean.

In my humble opinion, this hymn’s greatest strength is the simple beauty of its tune. The music was composed by 19th-century Baptist minister, literature professor, and gospel hymnwriter Robert Lowry, who also wrote “Nothing but the Blood” and “Shall We Gather at the River?” The tune is written in a lilting triple meter and is one of the most inviting, soothing, and comforting melodies you will ever sing. Each phrase leans gently forward before sinking back down to rest. It’s like coming home to your couch, and letting out one long sigh. In fact, the melody would probably be a better fit if the title were “Here is Love, Warm as a Whirlpool.” That would also fit well with the text, which is replete with water imagery. The first verse starts with “Here is love, vast as the ocean” and later declares that God is “pouring” out “great love and power.” However, all of the verses don’t exactly flow like water.

The text to this hymn is the collaboration of a trio of Williams: William Rees (stanzas 1 and 2), William Edwards (translator), and William Williams (stanzas 3 and 4). No, I’m not making this up. The original two stanzas were written by Welsh poet William Rees. Born in 1802, Rees was raised as a shepherd boy on a farm in North Wales. He must have adored Psalm 23, because he followed the Good Shepherd into a life of ministry. For many decades he was the beloved leader of several Welsh-speaking chapels in Liverpool. He was a political thinker and an outspoken advocate for the abolition of slavery in America. In Wales he is best remembered as a poet, novelist, and hymn writer. His original two stanzas became the “love song of the Revival” that spread across Wales in 1904–1905. According to a 1904 newspaper clipping, a young singer named Annie Davies, only 18 years old, stood up and sang these two verses at a revival meeting. There was such a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit that everyone was weeping including the reporter who wrote about the event. He said that he lost such control of himself that he “dropped his notebook,” and then later reported at least nine conversions after the singing of the hymn.

The original Welsh verses were translated into English by William Edwards, a theologian and New testament Greek scholar. The final two verses are attributed to William Williams (a.k.a. Billy Bill), a well-known Methodist hymnwriter. Because this hymn’s authorship is cut in two halves, there is a definite shift in tone between verses two and three. It starts out as a poetic meditation on the cross and then shifts to a heartfelt devotional prayer. It feels like it moves from Presbyterian to Pentecostal in a heartbeat. Perhaps that’s why the Presby Police left this one out the Trinity Hymnal. Any sensible, sagacious, and sober-minded member of the CCC (Cerebral Christians Collective) would cringe at romantic phrases like “heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.” They would argue that there are much greater hymns that move seamlessly between verses, and more artfully engage both the head and the heart. And yet, despite its patchwork stitching, I believe this hymn holds together not on the clarity of its theology, but on the sincerity of its heart. There is no heresy here, just honesty. It doesn’t aim for accuracy, but aspires for adoration. This hymn wraps the worshipper like a beloved old quilt with frayed edges and rough spots, bringing a warmth of familiarity and repose. Think of this hymn like a musical rendition of Psalm 131, which says “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have quieted and calmed by soul.” Augustine had it right when he said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in the Lord. May the Lord use transparent beauty such as this to draw our hearts to him, that they might rest once again.

I am including four links below. The first two are the sheet music, with the second being from a 1918 Calvinistic Methodist hymnal. It is set to a different (and inferior) tune, but includes an English versification, which is a more accurate translation of the Welsh. The last two links are recordings of Welsh singers in very different styles. I found them both to be beautiful renditions of the hymn delivered in both the original Welsh and English translation.

Sheet music
Scan from old Methodist hymnal (1918)
Recording #1
Recording #2 (includes congregational singing)