Sometimes a Light Surprises

Sometimes a Light Surprises

Liturgy Lesson: May 12, 2019
Call to Worship: Psalm 86:1-13 (vs./ 11-13 in bold)
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Praise My Soul the King of Heaven (#76)
Confession: from Zechariah 7:8-12 and prayer
Meditation: Pass Me not, O Gentle Savior
Assurance of Pardon: Lamentations 3:19-26, 31-32
Hymns of Assurance: Sometimes a Light Surprises (#621); Come Thou Fount (#457)
Reading of the Word: Luke 10:25-37 (The Parable of the Good Samaritan)
Eastertide Doxology
Sermon: Rev. Shiv Muthukumar
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Jesus, Lover of My Soul (#508); My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
Closing Hymn: Living Waters (w/ Rev. 22:1-5)

The Dying Swan (stanza III)
Alfred Lord Tennyson

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear;
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is roll’d
Thro’ the open gates of the city afar,
To the shepherd who watcheth the evening star.
And the creeping mosses and clambering weeds,
And the willow-branches hoar and dank,
And the wavy swell of the soughing reeds,
And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with eddying song.

How Can I Keep from Singing?
By Robert Lowry

My Life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet through far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?
What though my joys and comforts die? I know my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his! How can I keep from singing?

Singing can be a powerful affirmation of life and faith in the face of death or despair. When the dark clouds roll in, a song can turn the heart and mind toward the light. When Saul sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him, David composed Psalm 59, a powerful cry of deliverance that ends with these words:

“BUT I will sing of your strength, I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress.
O my Strength, I will sing praises to you!”

– Ps. 59: 15-16a

Singing can also be sonic warfare! It can do miraculous things with actual molecules, wherein the Holy Spirit rides on sound waves, pushing back against the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). After Paul and Silas had been publicly humiliated, stripped, beaten, and imprisoned, we hear this remarkable account of their response:

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.”
– Acts 16:25-26

Singing breaking down walls and barriers. Sound familiar? Think Jericho. I imagine Joshua’s chorus created a different sort of earthquake. However, in both cases, the people of God triumphed, and their weapon was worship. Has the enemy got you surrounded? Are you trapped in a prison of skepticism or self-pity? Take up the power of the Psalms, the might and force of the hymns. Invoke the songs of the saints, and let them break the shackles and open doors of hope in your soul. Here’s a litany of encouragement for you.

Are you sorrowful or low in spirit? Sing!
Mired in a melancholy, miserable, or morose mood? Make melody to your Maker!
Are you dejected, depressed, downcast, discouraged? Defiantly declare your devotion in decibels!
Bearing a broken heart? Be bold and bellow! Belt out what you believe!
Panicked or pressured? Perhaps even powerless or petrified? Proclaim and pipe out those praises!
Having a horrible day? Humiliated, hopeless, helpless? Holler “Hosanna” or “Hallelujah”!
Exhausted or Enraged? Extol and exclaim “Emmanuel”!
Lonely and Listless? Laud and lionize the Love of the Lord!
Feeling weary, worried, wronged, woeful? Warble about His Wonders!
Have cares and concerns left you cold, crestfallen, or crushed? Have courage Christian! Croon, Chant, Cry out a chorus for Christ! Create a Crescendo!

Still sitting there, sighing? Not sure where to start? Well, here’s a suggestion…

Sometimes a Light Surprises
Text: William Cowper, 1779
Tune: BENTLEY, John Hullah, 1867

It is said that misery loves company. If that is true, then William Cowper is the best of companions. His hymns have been a balm for thousands of troubled souls over the past few centuries. His lifelong struggles with depression were the birth-pangs for some of the most encouraging and reassuring hymn texts ever written. Cowper was a man who wrestled his entire life with deep feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and self-loathing. Despite, or perhaps because of, his lifelong struggles, he 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, and 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 Christ, 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 lesser-known hymns from that collection was titled “Peace and Joy in Believing,” and it starts with a profound opening verse about the power of singing in the life of a Christian:

Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.

In that beautiful opening verse, Cowper gives us a poetic distillation of Malachi 4:2:

“But for you who fear my name,
the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

Scripture was the primary salve for Cowper’s soul. For him it was the pool of Bethesda, the balm in Gilead, the Living Waters. He basked in the Bible, swimming from page to page, soaking up the good news. For a man battling against insanity of the mind, this was a desperate and daily need. When the Legion was screaming in his ears, he found sweet music in the Word of God. He was like the man described in Psalm 1, who delighted in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. As such, the fruit of his hymns are saturated with the sweet succor, the juiciness, the flavor of the Bible. Some of the fairer lines in this hymn are inspired by direct references to Scripture. Consider the third verse, which talks about what the “unknown morrow” may bring:

It can bring with it nothing, but He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing will clothe His people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens no creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens will give His children bread.

This is a paraphrase of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27. This reiteration of Christ’s comforting promise then leads into the final verse of the hymn, which is almost a direct quote of Habbakuk 3:17-18. It is a call to rejoice, even when all seems lost.

Cowper Hymn (vs. 4)
Though vine nor fig-tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there,
Yet, God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

Habakkuk 3:17-18
Though the fig tree do not blossom
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.

Habakkuk’s name means “he who wrestles.” Cowper wrestled his entire life with emotional and psychological torment. These two men, separated by about 24 centuries, are both declaring the same theme of defiant hope. Their hymn is a sword to slay the dragon. They are encouraging us to not give in to despair, but to inhale deep, lift our hearts and voices, and find abiding joy in the inextinguishable song of our salvation. We should listen to them and do likewise; after all, “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Heb. 10:39)

Sheet music

Oh, and just for fun, I’ll include this, which sums it up quite well.