O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing

O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing

Liturgy Lesson: May 23, 2021 (Pentecost)
Call to Worship: Psalm 86:8-10 (Multilingual litany of praise)
Prayer of Invocation
Opening Hymn: O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing (#164)
Prayer of Confession: adapted from Valley of Vision
Assurance of Pardon: Ezekiel 36:24-28 & 2 Corinthians 1:20-22
Hymns of Assurance: O Great God; There is a Redeemer
Reading of the Word: 1 Cor. 2:1-8
Doxology: #731
Sermon: “The Power of the Holy Spirit,” Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Come, Holy Ghost; Born by the Holy Spirit’s Breath

This Sunday is Pentecost. The English word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word pentekostos, which means fifty. Fifty days after Christ’s resurrection the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples. Pentecost was a historic and miraculous day that could be described as the birthday of the church. It was a glorious morning when God interrupted the gathering to perform a spontaneous and spectacular mass Spiritual-baptism. The second chapter of Acts gives record of a Spirit-led impromptu worship service that resulted in the conversion of three-thousand souls. The people had probably all just gotten comfortable in the pews when God performed the ultimate call to worship. The wind picked up and…

“…filled the whole house where they were sitting.
Then they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire
that separated and came to rest on each of them.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

Can you imagine what the opening hymn sounded like after that? Something like liquid lightning had been poured out and it was literally “O for a thousand tongues” in every known dialect. Many foreigners heard and understood, but to some it looked like drunken revelry. Then Peter stood up and delivered an all-time great sermon for the spectators. He drew a line from the prophet Joel to king David and then to Jesus, proclaiming the gospel with such force that the people were “cut to the heart.” Then, in a moment that would make Billy Graham envious, Peter gave this altar call:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you,
in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.
And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off –
For all whom the Lord our God will call.”

That promise extends to us. We who were far off in our sin have been brought near by the blood of Christ. We, like living stones, have been gathered from the north and the south, the east and west to be built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5). In us the Spirit makes His home. Therefore, we are no longer strangers and aliens, but we are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-21). And what is the purpose of this miraculous and metaphysical construction project? It’s worship! The Holy Spirit tabernacles us so that we may “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” This is why we gather on Sunday. It is both a representation and a manifestation of our ultimate identity. It is God who calls us, and it is His Spirit that animates our worship. In this manner, every Sunday is a mini-Pentecost.

This week we open our worship with a multilingual litany of praise. We will hear the same scripture quoted in different languages from various members of our congregation. This is not simply a token gesture to honor minority voices among us, nor is it primarily a response to the racial discord of our cultural moment. Rather, like all things we do in our worship, this creative call to worship is indicative of our identity and purpose. It echoes the beautiful scene of the first Pentecost Sunday, but more importantly it gives us a faint foretaste of the polyglot praise we find in Revelation 7:9-10:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'”

Diversity officers eat your heart out! Only the gospel of Jesus Christ holds this sort of reconciliatory power. The biblical story of salvation achieves that end to which every other Utopian vision aspires. Heaven is not a sanctified Epcot center, some fantasy land of manufactured multiculturalism where we all just get along. And the global church is certainly more than a mere theme park for tolerance. We are a family who, through the blood of Christ, now share the same DNA. Through the accomplished work of Jesus, we have been brought into the Father’s household. The Holy Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16). This means that our ticket to the true paradise has already been purchased, and some day we will enter that throne room of revelry. Until then, the Holy Spirit has been given to us as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, our guarantee of that hope (Heb. 6:19; Eph. 1:14).

O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing
Text: Charles Wesley (1739)
Tune: AZMON, Carl Gläser (1828), arr. By Lowell Mason (1839)

On Pentecost Sunday, May 21, 1738, the Holy Spirit lit a flame in the heart of the greatest English hymnwriter in history. Charles Wesley recalls that while he was awaiting his brother John’s arrival, he found his heart was “strangely warmed.” He wrote of the account in his journal:

“I waked in expectation of His coming. At nine my brother and some friends came and sang a hymn to the Holy Ghost. My comfort and hope were hereby increased. In about half an hour they went. I betook myself to prayer, the substance as follows: O Jesus, thou hast said, I will come unto you; thou hast said, I will send the Comforter unto you. Thou hast said, My Father and I will come unto you, and make our abode with you. Thou art my God, who canst not lie. I wholly rely upon thy most true promise: accomplish it in thy time and manner…Still I felt a violent opposition and reluctance to believe, yet still the Spirit of God strove with my own and the evil spirit till by degrees he chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced, I knew not how or when, and immediately fell to intercession.”

After meditating on Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit into the heart of the believer, Charles Wesley experienced a Jacob-like wrestling match, during which the darkness of doubt was chased away and the gift of faith was given. This beginning spark that was kindled eventually grew into a bonfire. With his eyes opened and his heart illuminated by the gospel, Charles Wesley became the most prolific hymn-writer the world has ever seen. For the rest of his life, verse after ceaseless verse poured from him at every occasion. Imagine Niagara Falls being funneled through a firehose, and you will begin to have an understanding of the gush and rush of poetic inspiration that Wesley experienced every day of his life. Artists often talk about the moment of inspiration. C.S. Lewis spoke of being “pregnant with book,” and other famous writers have described authorship as “taking dictation.” Michelangelo used to say that the image was hidden in the stone, he just had to reveal it. Puccini described musical composition as an “awakening.” Charles Wesley was awakened by the love of Christ, and with the Holy Spirit constantly exhaling into his mind and heart, he had to express or else he would explode! On the first anniversary of his conversion, Charles wrote of this compulsive desire to release all the praise and gratitude in his heart. The following are the first seven stanzas of his original 18-verse hymn, “O for a thousand tongues”:

Glory to God, and praise and love, be ever, ever given;
By saints below and saints above, the Church in earth and heaven.
On this glad day the glorious Sun of righteousness arose,
On my benighted soul he shone, and filled it with repose.
Sudden expired the legal strife; ‘twas then I ceased to grieve.
My second, real, living life, I then began to live.
Then with my heart I first believed, believed with faith divine;
Power with the Holy Ghost received to call the Saviour mine.
I felt my Lord’s atoning blood close to my soul applied;
Me, me he loved – the Son of God, for me, for me he died!
I found and owned his promise true, ascertained of my part,
My pardon passed in heaven I know, when written on my heart.
O For a thousand tongues to sing my dear Redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace!

Pentecost Sunday, 1738, was a powerful and transformative day for Charles Wesley, during which the Lord extravagantly deposited His Spirit into the hymnwriter’s heart. Charles drew from this deep well of inspiration, and for generations the church has been enriched by the abundant treasure of impassioned hymns that poured from his pen.

As we sing this hymn on Sunday (and indeed throughout the entire worship service), I pray that your heart would be “strangely warmed” by the love of God. And may this love not only be expressed in our songs, but may it erupt in a thousand ways in our church and community, that the music of our lives may truly declare “My gracious Master and My God, assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name!”

Sheet music
Organ and congregation recording
Contemporary setting