Liturgy Lesson: June 14, 2020
Call to Worship: Phil. 2:5-11, Rev. 5:12-13
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name (#296)
Confession: 1 Tim. 6:17-19 and prayer
Assurance of Pardon: 2 Cor. 8:9 and Eph. 2:4-9
Hymn of Assurance: Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder (#172)
Reading of the Word: Luke 16:19-31
Sermon: “Lives of Consequence,” Rev. Eric Irwin
Account of the Lord’s Supper: Matt. 26:20-29
Prayer for Communion and Reunion
Hymns of Praise: Jesus, Master Whose I Am; Take My Life
Sung Response: This is My Father’s World (vs. 3)
“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”
– Acts 15:8-9
“Creator of color, Lord of variety, forgive our attempts to make your church fit a bland oneness. Differences frighten us, so we instinctively downplay them—which only reveals our ignorance of the gospel and you. Thank you, triune God, for showing in yourself something so refreshingly different, a unity that is not uniformity but a refreshing diversity of one God and three persons. Amen.”
– Philip F. Reinders, Seeking God’s Face
Seemingly overnight the entire conversation shifted from coronavirus to racism. There are now two pandemics before us. Both enemies we are fighting seem invisible and impossible to defeat. One forces people to hide at home, and the other demands public protest. One calls for retreat, the other for advance. One necessitated three months of quiet isolation. The other has created three weeks of rallying crowds. Media crusaders now argue the moral imperative of both social distancing and group gatherings. This fight-and-flight moment has been the mother of all tug-o-wars. Everyone feels yanked around a bit, even if they aren’t out marching in masks. No doubt, a collective madness has descended upon our land as we seek to atone for our sins. The amount of cathartic rage from the mob is frightening to see. We went from silence to screaming in a heartbeat. The din of all the angry shouting creates a sort of cultural tinnitus—that constant, high-pitched, anxious squeal in the airwaves that makes it hard to think straight. The ugly tritone of fear and frenzy is prominent everywhere. This is the definition of discord. Where is the music in this moment?
I don’t have the answers, nor do I wish to get political. I am not an expert in epidemiology or race relations, and this most certainly is not a blog. What I do know is that there is one needful thing that brings clarity in the midst of confusion and chaos—the cross of Jesus Christ. This is the great cosmic tuning fork. It is the one thing that can take all the discord and dissonance of our fallen universe and transform it into sweet music. The cross turns hate into harmony, cacophony into a symphony. There is one man who knew this more than most —John Newton. He even wrote about the gospel in musical terms. In one of his most well-known poems he said this:
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear.
John Newton is one of the most well-known names in English hymnody. The Anglican clergymen and former slave trader was the author of the most famous hymn ever written: Amazing Grace. This beloved preacher wrote countless other hymns, tracts, and letters; but the most enduring sermon he left behind was the story of his life. Newton’s journey from slave-ship captain to committed abolitionist is an enduring testament to the transformative power of the gospel. The hymns that this great man’s conversion brought forth over time are more relevant now than ever. Here is a bit of his story.
When Newton was 80 years old, the nearly blind preacher wrote in his diary “March 21, 1805. Not well able to write. But I endeavor to observe the return of this day with Humiliation, Prayer and Praise”. For 57 years, Newton had been marking the anniversary of an event that forever changed his life, where God miraculously saved this self-described “African blasphemer.”
It was March 21, 1748, when Newton was on his way back home to England after having been rescued off the coast of West Africa. He had been suffering for a year under an abusive slave trader in Sierra Leone. He was found by a British sea captain and given a place on board his ship. Somewhere in the North Atlantic off the coast of Donegal, Newton awoke in the night to a violent storm. His room was filling with water. As he ran to take up his post on the deck, the captain stopped him and told him to fetch a knife. Another man went up on deck to take Newton’s place. That man was immediately washed overboard. It was then that Newton admitted his first utterance of the need for salvation. “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us.” He and the other men worked the pumps for another nine hours, then Newton took the helm and steered the ship until midnight. At the wheel, he had many desperate hours thinking back over his life and pondering his spiritual condition.
Back in his quarters, Newton took up the Bible and read the words of Luke 11:13, where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to those who ask. He rightly reasoned, “If this book be true, the promise in this passage must be true likewise. I have need of that very Spirit, by which the whole was written, in order to understand it aright. He has engaged here to give that Spirit to those who ask: I must therefore pray for it; and, if it be of God, he will make good on his own word.”
Newton spent many hours during the rest of the voyage reading the Scriptures and praying. By the time they anchored in Ireland on April 8th, Newton was certain he was a changed man. “Thus far I was answered, that before we arrived in Ireland, I had a satisfactory evidence in my own mind of the truth of the Gospel, as considered in itself, and of its exact suitableness to answer all my needs. I stood in need of an Almighty Savior; and such a one I found described in the New Testament. Thus far the Lord had wrought a marvelous thing.”
Despite this conversion, it was not until years later that Newton began to deeply lament his involvement in the slave trade. Between 1750 and 1754 he made further voyages as master of several slave ships. During these years he observed the harsh realities and cruel conditions on board the slave ships (he graphically described these 30 years later in the influential abolitionist tract Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade). In 1754, Newton became ill, which forced him to give up seafaring. In 1757 he applied for the Anglican priesthood, but it would be seven more years before he was accepted. On June 17, 1764 he took the pastorate at Olney in Buckinghamshire. It was here, in Olney, where he collaborated with one of his laymen, the great poet William Cowper, to produce a volume of hymns, among which was Amazing Grace.
In 1779, Newton became Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. His spiritual counsel was sought by many influential figures in society, including a young William Wilberforce, who at the time was contemplating leaving politics for the ministry. Newton dissuaded William, encouraging him instead to stay in Parliament and “serve God where he was.” Newton became an important friend and partner for Wilberforce in his campaign to abolition the Slave Trade in England.
In February 1807, when the act to abolish the Slave Trade finally became law, John Newton, almost blind and very near death, “rejoiced to hear the wonderful news.”
If he were alive today, Newton would have a lot to say to us. I imagine if he could take the pulpit on Sunday, we would be in for an impassioned sermon. Thankfully we can get a clear sense of this man’s heart when we sing his hymns, which are beautifully encapsulated sermons in their own right. One of the prominent themes of Newton’s writing is the joy and freedom that comes from a humble heart. Newton, who famously called himself a “wretch,” was the glad recipient of grace. Gratitude permeates every hymn. Here is Newton describing the absurdity of hate for someone who has deserved justice, but found mercy.
“A company of travelers fall into a pit: one of them gets a passenger to draw him out. Now he should not be angry with the rest for falling in; nor because they are not yet out, as he is. He did not pull himself out: instead, therefore, of reproaching them, he should shew them pity. A man, truly illuminated, will no more despise others, than Bartimaeus, after his own eyes were opened, would take a stick, and beat every blind man he met.”
Do you hear that sound? That is the peace-making music of a heart being tuned to sing God’s grace, and one that understands the deep truth found in 2 Cor. 5:17-21. It exudes the natural timbre of humility, a pleasant and comforting lullaby to every soul that is willing to listen. This is the song of the saints, and the music that the world needs to hear.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder
Text: John Newton, 1774
Tune: ALL SAINTS OLD, Darmstadt Gesangbuch, 1698
This great hymn was written at the height of Newton’s Olney years. It is an exuberant and devotional poem, and one of the finest examples of what I call “basis for praises” hymns. These are the ones that don’t just tell you to sing to God, but they give you all the reasons why you should be praising Him. They essentially do what Psalm 150 commands of us: “Praise God for his mighty acts, praise him for his excellent greatness.” We have abundant reasons to praise our God, and John Newton reminds us of several of these in this wonderful hymn.
The first verse calls us to love and sing and wonder at the work of the Lord Jesus, who has hushed the law’s loud thunder. In other words, He’s quenched the penalty of the Law. This is something that was not a mere abstract doctrine to John Newton. It is deeply concrete and personal. God has quenched the penalty of His Law, which he deserved, through the death of His own Son on the cross. So Newton ends the verse (like many of the others) with the thought that Jesus has brought us near to God.
My favorite part about this hymn is the integrity of its form. The first stanza is an exhortation to do four things: love, sing, wonder, and praise. The next four stanzas each take up one of these imperatives, in order, and expand upon them (the second stanza begins with “Let us love…;” the third stanza, “Let us sing…;” the fourth stanza, “Let us wonder”).
And what follows is the basis for praises. Multiple reasons are given for praising God. We’re never praising God in the abstract or trying to work up an emotional lather of feel-good froth.
The third stanza asks us to sing to the Lord even in the midst of severe trials, and based upon Newton’s life story, we can understand why this is a common theme in his hymns.
The fourth stanza may be the most pertinent and necessary to our current political moment, as it offers a lasting answer to our cries for justice, ultimately pointing us to “mercy’s store.” When contemplating God’s redemptive plan, this verse includes just the right responsive word: “wonder.” Newton is telling us to let our minds reflect upon God and His plan of salvation, to be in utter awe of what He has done. What provokes that awe? The thought that our Lord’s way of redemption includes justice and mercy working side by side to secure our salvation. This is the very heart of the gospel, and in one which Newton summarizes in a transcendently beautiful phrase: “when through grace in Christ our trust is, justice smiles and asks no more.”
The final verse invites us to join the heavenly chorus in the eternal song. Let us not forget that this choir that encircles the throne is from every tribe and tongue (Rev. 7:9). Every skin color clothed in the robes of righteousness and raising palm branches for the Champion. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain! Newton is so caught up in the ecstatic vision that he closes his hymn with a direct address to the Lord. “You are worthy, Lamb of God!”
The tune that we use for this hymn is from an old German songbook, and its origins are unknown. It is a melody full of descending fourths, which always reminds me of the pealing of bells, as when the church steeples ring out at the end of a war. After all, this is a song of celebration, a litany of our great Victor’s accomplishments over the enemy.
Let us love and sing and wonder, let us praise the Savior’s name!
He has hushed the law’s loud thunder, He has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame:
He has washed us with His blood, He has brought us nigh to God.
Let us love the Lord who bought us, pitied us when enemies,
Called us by His grace, and taught us, gave us ears and gave us eyes:
He has washed us with His blood, He presents our souls to God.
Let us sing, though fierce temptation threaten hard to bear us down!
For the Lord, our strong salvation, holds in view the conqu’ror’s crown:
He who washed us with His blood soon will bring us home to God.
Let us wonder; grace and justice join and point to mercy’s store;
When through grace in Christ our trust is, justice smiles and asks no more:
He who washed us with His blood has secured our way to God.
Let us praise, and join the chorus of the saints enthroned on high;
Here they trusted Him before us, now their praises fill the sky:
“You have washed us with Your blood; You are worthy, Lamb of God!”
In his last will and testament, Newton gave this summary statement. May all of our disparate lives share this one unified sentiment. This is a heart won by the Gospel, the hope of the world.
“I commit my soul to my gracious God and Savior, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an apostate, a blasphemer, and an infidel, and delivered me from the state of misery on the coast of Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me; and who has been pleased to admit me (though most unworthy) to preach his glorious gospel.”