Liturgy Lesson: January 12, 2020
Call to Worship: Psalm 67
Prayer of Invocation
Hymns of Adoration: From All That Dwell Below The Skies (#7); King of the Ages
Confession: Matt. 5:14-16 and Prayer
Assurance of Pardon: from Isaiah 42:5-7 and Gal. 3:13-14
Hymn of Assurance: Across the Lands
Reading of the Word: Genesis 12:1-3
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place (#469); There is a Higher Throne
Closing Hymn: The Day You Gave Us, Lord, Is Ended (#407)
As we continue in the season of Epiphany, I have been reflecting more on the journey of the Magi. I continue to be inspired by this display of wonder, wealth, and worship for the Christ child. By humbling themselves and bringing gifts, these men were enacting a simple and beautiful liturgy in Bethlehem. Here is what we might call a “Creche course” in early Christian worship. So, I’d like to share a few thoughts about this before we get to our hymns. I will start with a poem that my boys memorized last year in school.
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In antiquity, Ozymandias (Let’s call him “Oz”) was the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, also known as Ramses the Great. Oz was the third king of the 19th dynasty of Egypt and is widely considered to be the most powerful pharaoh of ancient Egypt. His rule, which lasted almost 70 years, was the second longest in Egyptian history. He is primarily remembered for his legacy of extensive building projects, most of which were colossal statues of himself. A god in his own time, Oz eventually suffered the fate of the vast kingdom over which he ruled. Defeated by time and the elements, his colossus lay dismembered in pieces, and was lost to history until an Italian archeologist uncovered fragments of him in 1820. For seven decades his reign had reached the horizon, but for the nearly three millennia following his death, his dominion was reduced to a few acres of windswept sand dunes. Now he sits enthroned in an exhibit at the Grand Egyptian Museum. His 80-ton, 30-foot high torso is a symbol of hubris carved in stone. There he sits, silent, unable to command even the security guard that stands beneath him. His kingdom is, quite literally, a bust.
No earthly empire that has ever been forged is permanent. Even the most powerful men are fated to decay into oblivion. Perhaps this is why they rage. Could this be the reason that Herod was so threatened by the birth of a baby in an obscure village?
“Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.”
– Psalm 2
Herod, like Ramses before him (and indeed, all rulers), would do well to follow in the path of the truly wise men, those ancient astrologers who knew the true meaning of nobility. They believed the prophecy of Christ and sought him out for one purpose, “to worship him.” These are the humble kings who bent the knee and paid homage to the Lord of all. They had studied the heavens, taking in the vastness of creation; they knew their own smallness and where they fit in the order of things. So, following the star, they were led by faith and by sight to seek out the Light of the world. In Bethlehem, far away from their own kingdoms, they came closer to the Sun than they ever imagined, and they basked in the very flame of Love itself. As they knelt in awe, perhaps one of them whispered the words of Daniel, who, like them, had also felt the heat of the fire.
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings.”
– Daniel 2:20-21
The earth revolves around the sun, and the kings surround the manger. This is the way it should be. This is the beginning of true wisdom: the fear of the Lord. In the Bible there is a constellation of verses that outline this central theme of Christianity.
“Though the Lord is on high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.” (Ps. 138:6).
“Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” (James 4:10)
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12, Lk. 14:11)
Trace these (and more) and you begin to see the a shining outline of the Bright Morning Star, Christ himself, who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:6-11).
Every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess him Lord. That is what the Magi did, and that is what we seek to do in our gathered worship. That is why we sing. So many of our songs and hymns steer us through the cold and dark toward that supernova in the night sky. They steady our compass, pointing it true north as we follow the way of the wise who have gone before. These hymns invite us to kneel beside these fellow seekers to worship our Creator and Redeemer. They remind us of the true nature of Christ, the benevolent and unfailing purposes of our Sovereign God, and the finished and accomplished work of Him who is “the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:13-16).
How incomprehensibly majestic is our God, for whom “a thousand years is but as yesterday” (Ps. 90:4). According to this empyrean math, the magi were kneeling before Jesus just a few days ago. What a Myrrhacle! What a reason to be encouraged and sing! Our hope is not in anything temporal. Our hope shall endure the shifting sands of culture. Our hope is not dependent on who holds economic or political power. Our hope is in the eternal, unchanging, imperishable, everlasting Word of God. This Word was made flesh and now dwells among us. He can mend and make all things new. To those who bow down before him, who receive his coming, and who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God. These children are co-heirs with Christ, who is the King of kings. They shall reign with him forever, and their song will never end. Hallelujah…
Across the Lands
Text: Stuart Townend (2002)
Music: Keith Getty (2002)
Peter Leithart says that “Epiphany means ‘manifestation,’ and the season commemorates the appearance of Jesus to the magi, the firstfruits of the gathering of the Gentiles. Epiphany reminds us that Jesus came as the Light of the world, and that we are sent to call the nations to that Light. It reminds us that mission is not a program of the church, but the very essence of the church.”
According to that criteria, this exuberant song could rightly be called an Epiphany hymn. It is a celebration of the covenant-keeping God who continues to call sinners home from “every tribe and tongue and nation.” It is written in an ebullient six-eight meter (think mug-swinging bar songs or a Straussian waltz) by the prolific and popular contemporary hymn-writing duo of Stuart Townend and Keith Getty (“In Christ Alone,” “The Power of the Cross,” “My Heart is Filled with Thankfulness,” and many others). The three verses focus on the work of Christ in creation, salvation, and re-creation, and the refrain is a beautifully simple encapsulation of all of those aspects.
“You’re the author of creation, You’re the Lord of every man,
and Your cry of love rings out across the lands.”
There are two things that I appreciate about the Getty/Townend hymns. First, the lyrics are accessible, palatable, and fit for everyman. They are sort of like theological Tylenol. Medicinal truth packaged in easy-to-swallow conversational capsules. It takes poetic skill to render such lofty notions in simple ways without dumbing them down. Second, the melodies are memorable and easily sing-able. They are ones you can go home humming. The spirit of the music seems to marry well with the content of the lyrics. Keith Getty is Irish, and he is part of a culture and tradition that is steeped in beautifully crafted folk songs. I’m so glad that these hymns from the UK have found their way to us across the lands.
The Day Thou Gave Us, Lord, Is Ended
Text: John Ellerton, 1870
Tune: ST. CLEMENT, Clement Scholefield (1839-1904)
“From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!”
– Psalm 113:3
This hymn is typically thought of as eventide hymn, but it is really about missions. The first verse (which gives us the title) sets the context in the evening, but the other four verses unfold a poetic description of the ever-growing and worldwide fellowship of the Church. It celebrates the ceaseless offering of prayer and praise offered to God as the earth rolls onward into light. The reference to evening and morning is simply the backdrop to the ceaseless praise offered in every time zone from east to west.
This hymn is a perennial favorite in Britain, and it dates from the height of the Victorian empire. Queen Victoria chose the hymn for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, ensuring its popularity for future generations. It was also chosen to be sung, a century later, when Britain handed control of Hong Kong to China, one of the final chapters in Britain’s imperial history.
The author was John Ellerton, an Anglican priest who was born in Middlesex in 1826. After completing his education at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was ordained in 1850. He served as a curate and Vicar in Sussex, Cheshire, Shropshire, and London. Ellerton is remembered for his work as a hymnologist and writer. He wrote and translated over 80 hymns, which were very popular in his day, and he was one of the editors of Hymns Ancient & Modern, the most popular Anglican Hymnbook of the time. “The Day Thou Gavest” was written during his time at Cheshire. It is said that it came to him as he made his nightly walk to teach at a local Mechanic’s Institute. He actually penned it for use at missionary meetings. Ellerton refused to register a copyright on any of his hymns, claiming that if they “counted worthy to contribute to Christ’s praise in the congregation, one ought to feel very thankful and humble.” To hear them offered in worship was reward enough for him. John Ellerton was a skilled writer and poet, and many consider this hymn to be some of his finest work. Toward the end of his life, John Ellerton was made a Canon of St. Alban’s Cathedral. It is said that as he lay dying, hymns flowed from his lips in unceasing praise to God.
Part of the hymn’s appeal is because of the tune. It was composed by the Reverend Clement Scholefield (1839-1904), under the watchful eye of Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). It is sung in triple time, as a waltz, and has an infectious, sweetly comforting lilt. Oh, and this is one of our pastor’s favorite hymns! We are singing it this Sunday at his request.
Armin Haeussler, in The Story of Our Hymns, gives a description of this song that combines all our Epiphany themes. It is a fitting end to this long-winded lesson.
“Since there are few churches today with regular evening services, this great hymn is seldom sung, which is a pity, for the hymn stresses the worldwide outreach of the Church as few others do. The church universal concept is in the foreground. If British imperialists have proudly pointed out that ‘the sun never sets on the Union Jack,’ Christians all over the world gain a greater thrill from the thought that the sun will never set on the cross of Christ. The Christian faith is not provincial or national. The Church is a world-wide fellowship as no other organization can ever hope to be…A marked difference between earthly empires and the heavenly kingdom is, of course, the difference between the transitory and the abiding, the temporal and the eternal. The last stanza enshrines a vision of the Lord’s complete reign throughout the coming ages.”
Every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess. And on the manger these words appear: “My name is Jesus Christ, King of kings! Look on my works, ye people, and rejoice! Nothing beside matters. Round the cradle of that incarnate Lord, blinding and bare, the light for the nations stretches far away.”