Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean

Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean

Liturgy Lesson: May 24th, 2020
Call to Worship: John 15:7-11 and Psalm 36:5-9
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Confession of Sin: Prayer from Valley of Vision
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 103:8-13, 1 Jn. 3:1a
Hymns of Assurance: Abba Father; Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean
Catechism and Prayers
Reading of the Word: Luke 15:3-32
Doxology: #731
Sermon: “Love Knows No Enemies”, Rev. Eric Irwin
Account of the Lord’s Supper: Matt. 26:20-29
Prayer for Communion and Reunion
Closing Hymn: Church of God, Beloved and Chosen
Sung Response: This is My Father’s World (vs. 3)
Virtual Narthex

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…
– Hebrews 12:18-24

Read that again. Read it out loud. If someone is with you in the room, read it to them. Let it be an encouragement to you. May it be a reminder of the unseen reality that awaits us when we gather around our computers on Sundays. I don’t know about you, but I am weary of doing worship in the waiting room. For ten weeks now (yes, 10!) we have been enacting our liturgies in a sort of virtual halfway wood that is neither England nor Narnia. Even what we call this place that we find ourselves in is mildly deceptive, because livestream doesn’t always guarantee streams of living water. Indeed, the only guarantee we have is in this moment is the Holy Spirit who has been poured out into our hearts. Therefore, when my soul pants for the Lord, when I am feeling parched, I find both hope and encouragement in God’s living and active word.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

– Psalm 63

I have beheld the power and glory of the Lord in the sanctuary, but not for at least two months. Even so, the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting, and it is better than life. This is the reason why all the inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem are singing non-stop around the throne. Those innumerable angels in festal gathering, together with the assembly of the firstborn, and all the spirits of the righteous made perfect are witnesses to the ceaseless cascades that flow from the throne of God. This is the ever-increasing current of Love that brings healing to the nations. And, brothers and sisters, this same stream flows from within you (Jn. 7:38). This means that on Sunday morning each of our living rooms combines to become a temporary encampment halfway up Mt. Zion. We are not quite at the summit yet, but in some mystical sense, this is a heavenly place that we enter when we assemble in worship, even if that gathering is not physically together in the sanctuary. We come separately but together to the Triune God, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.

This means that when we open the browser on Sunday morning we must open our hearts to Him. It may feel like we are tuning in to the latest episode of CPC (Christians Performing for Christians), but this transposed version of our worship service is not a show. It is not broadcast for your viewing pleasure or enjoyment. There may be aspects of the service that are enjoyable to watch, but the primary purpose is not entertainment…it is engagement with a living God. If we are intentional about this, I believe that the glow of our screens can begin to emit some of the warmth of the all-consuming fire that spoke to Moses from the burning bush.

Christianity believes in a personal God who speaks to his people; therefore, Christian worship is essentially dialogue. Our God is not some distant deity who demands our liturgical actions. We may be in a season of remote worship, but God himself is not remote. Oh no, he is ever so near. 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 whole purpose of our liturgy is to enable and encourage this 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 harder than ever now that the camera is on. However, the greatest help for us is that each liturgy is suffused with scripture. We hear God speak directly to us through His word, and then we can respond to him with prayer and singing. I pray that even the music itself would be, in your ears, the voice of the Lord, saturated with the sound of His spirit. May each lyric contain his gentle whispers and each chord be a channel for his loving and secure embrace.
O Lord, we pray that these online liturgies would continue to be formative for us all, not just performative for those on the screen. Holy Spirit, transcend the medium, and have your way with us. Lord Jesus, Master, Redeemer, Savior, come into each home and take entire possession of our hearts; This is your right by purchase. You are the end of all means, for if they lead us not to you, we go away empty.

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)