All heaven declares

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘All heaven declares the glory of the risen Lord’ by Noel and Tricia Richards. It’s a simple devotional song in two verses that hails Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God, as well as the glorious risen King (the reason why I chose this for Christ the King week).

The second half of the two verses looks identical at first but there’s a subtle difference: in the first, ‘Forever he will be … I worship him alone’, and in the second, ‘Forever you will be … I worship you alone’.  In worship we sometimes start by affirming our faith together and then move on to more devotional songs where it is the individual praising the Lord for what he has done.

Lamb of God, have mercy on us

Stained glass window, St Paul’s Church, Healey, N. Yorkshire
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Maigheach-gheal

Today’s song is a setting by John Bell of the Agnus dei, a standard part of the Communion service in traditional churches. The words are simple, though repeated: “Lamb of God, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, give us your peace”. The Lamb is Jesus as the symbolic sacrifice who reconciles us to God, offering mercy instead of condemnation for our sins and peace instead of the mixture of pride, shame and worry that so often clouds our minds. The Church is often criticised by those outside it for being ‘obsessed with sin’, and it’s true that most gatherings for worship include a form of confession or at least a request for God to have mercy on us.  Is this really needed? 

This seeking and receiving of God’s mercy is often discussed with the analogy of washing – “Was me from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” wrote King David in Psalm 51.  To extend the metaphor, there are different forms or degrees of washing as there are degrees of uncleanness.  It’s good hygiene practice to wash hands frequently and take regular showers, just because in the normal course of life we pick up germs and we sweat. Nothing exceptional about that, it’s just the way life is, and in the same way it’s good to seek God’s mercy regularly for the many small or even unnoticed ways in which we directly or indirectly fail to love our neighbours as ourselves as part of the human condition.  Singing a devotional song like this may be adequate to deal with them.

Then there are the more noticeable sins, deliberate acts or omissions for which we should specifically say sorry both to God and neighbour, just as we particularly need a good wash when we’ve fallen in the mud, then we can walk away feeling clean again.  But there are also the ‘big sins’ which seriously harm our relationships with God and neighbour (for further discussion of this look up any text on the distinction between ‘mortal’ and ‘venial’ sins).  Like someone who has fallen, or for that matter deliberately jumped, into a tank of farmyard slurry. A quick shower won’t do the job, they and their clothes will stink for a long time.  Such was David’s sin over Bathsheba and Uriah and such sins may need formal confession and counselling as we seek to come to a deep repentance. But Jesus promises that mercy can be found even for these – only the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’ cannot be forgiven (and again, a discussion of that us outside the scope of a short blog).

Behold the lamb who bears our sins away

A chalice (shared cup) and paten (plate for the broken bread)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Behold the lamb who bears our sins away” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend. Unlike many of their hymns, this is a straightforward four-verse hymn with no chorus or bridge. The opening words are of course from the traditional communion prayer “Agnus Dei” (O Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us).

The repeated words common across the four verses are ‘remember’ and ‘share’.  This is significant, because firstly in the communion we remember what Jesus has done for us: “we remember the promise made that all who come to faith find forgiveness at the cross … remember the wounds that heal, the death that brings us life … remember he drained death’s cup that all may enter in … remember our call to follow in the steps of Christ as his body here on earth”.

Secondly we share in the broken bread: communion by one person alone is not normally allowed (although in the Catholic church the priest can say mass alone on behalf of others in certain circumstances).  The chorus of the first three verses is “So we share in this bread of life, and we drink of his sacrifice, as a sign of our bonds … around the table of the King”.  But the ellipsis there represents differing phrases: the sharing is as a sign “of our bonds of peace”, “of our bonds of love”, “of our bonds of grace”. The fourth chorus is different, looking to Christ’s coming again.

The communion is a time to remember the past but also to acknowledge our shared life in Christ and to commit ourselves again to following him “until he comes again”.

Holy for ever and ever is God

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Holy forever and ever is God” by John Bell. It is a setting of (or at least inspired by) verses from the book of Revelation. 

The first two verses praise God as creator and overall sovereign of his creation.  The other three are more specifically addressed to Jesus.   In the book the hymn is suggested as suitable for Ascension Day, when Jesus finally left the earth in bodily form and took up his reign in God’s eternal kingdom.  But it is still suitable for this Easter season, not least because in the fourth verse we declare “Worthy the Lamb who was sentenced and slain! Worthy the Lamb in his rising again!”, the Lamb being Jesus as sacrifice. 

In the last verse the Lamb is sitting on the throne (as king, or judge) having proved himself worthy for the position by living a blameless life on earth and being a willing sacrifice for the rest of sinful humanity. I couldn’t find an appropriate image to depict this, as it is such a contradiction (at the same time suffering lamb and all-powerful king) that all the illustrations I found were contrived or twee. Stained glass artists have usually depicted the sacrificial lamb below the enthroned Christ, and left it to the viewer to try and superimpose these images in some way, for neither image makes sense without the other. That is just one pair of images from Revelation, and not the strangest by a long way. No wonder it’s a notoriously difficult book to understand!

The other reason this is a suitable hymn for the Easter season is that each verse ends with an Alleluia! (very much the Easter acclamation). Tomorrow’s hymn also has alleluias, but in a different setting…

Behold the Lamb of God

Today’s choice for a Lenten hymn is actually another very simple song, which as John says in his morning prayer video might be used in various ways such as in between intercessions. The text is a form of the ‘agnus dei’: “Behold the Lamb of God, Behold the Lamb of God, He takes away the sin, the sin of the world”. Those are the words of Jesus’ relative and forerunner, John the Baptiser ,as recorded in John 1:29.

I wrote a blog post on 6 February about an image of the Lamb of God. This title, one of many for Jesus in Christian history, is one that seems to have endured.   The idea of the all-powerful One becoming as weak and helpless as a baby sheep is intriguing to the outsider, and maybe comforting to small children.  From an adult perspective it is one of many apparent contradictions in our faith.  It is perhaps the end of the development of the idea of the Messiah being the ‘servant of God’ in Isaiah: a servant (or more precisely a slave) has no choice in whether or how they serve their master or mistress, as a result of which there is a strong human tendency to treat servants badly. 

The particular scandal of the image of Jesus as a Lamb is the association of lambs with the Temple sacrifices in the older form of Judaism and other religions.  So the idea that Jesus as God’s servant was forced to an excruciating and humiliating death on the cross is taken as evidence that our (Christian) concept of God is of a wrathful father punishing his servant / son as a substitute for everyone who has angered him.   That is of course a simplistic way of putting it, and the idea of atonement is more subtle and complex than that, but it’s how some humanists view Christianity and what puts them off.

There is however a second image at play when we think of the Lamb of God: that of Passover, when the blood of the sacrificed lamb is sprinkled around the doors of the Hebrews’ dwellings, not to punish but to save.  Those households alone were spared the destruction of the firstborn of Egypt, just as Jesus himself was saved from Herod’s massacre of innocent children.  For the sake of balance, and to show that the images of ‘atonement’ and ‘saviour’ are a contrast and not intended to reinforce each other, here’s an interesting view from a Jewish writer.

So taking the two images together, sacrifice for sin and sacrifice for redemption, we come closer to the Christian understanding that Jesus had to die in order that we might live.  His sacrificed body has a purpose: to “preserve our bodies and souls unto everlasting life” to use the words of the old Prayer Book communion.  These two images also frame the Lenten journey from the confession of Shrove Tuesday to the celebration of our salvation at Easter.

The call of the lamb

A brief diversion today from my 2021 “Sing Praise” project. On most Saturdays I haven’t selected a hymn or song although that will change shortly when we get to Lent. But today I took part in an online ‘quiet day’ with a couple of devotional talks, group discussion and times for personal prayer, all focused around the themes of ‘lament’ and ‘praise’ found in Psalm 57, which is believed to have been written by David in a cave while being pursued by his rival Saul.

The idea of being stuck in a cave fearing what’s outside obviously resonates with the Covid-19 lockdown. After the first session on ‘lament’ we were encouraged to take the words and themes of the psalm and come up with something creative – words, music, art or craft. My meditation resulted in the following poem. It was inspired by the photo shown here on the handout for the day. The viewer is looking out from the narrow cave and there is a sheep looking in. Jesus is referred to as both the Shepherd and the Lamb of God, and that is the poem’s starting point…

Look up, look out from your death-dark cave
And see me standing here.
You are not alone when you mourn and moan,
I have come to allay your fear.

Did you think I would stay in those pastures green
On the other side of the dale?
No, with sure-footed skill I have climbed your hill
To hear your woeful tale.

The enemy shall not find you here,
Nor lions enter your cave.
For I suffice as the sacrifice,
It is I who have come to save.

The Most High God comes down to earth
As a gentle, listening lamb.
I heard you bleat, and have come to meet
You where you are.  I Am.

© Stephen Craven 2021
Written on a Scargill virtual quiet day with Revd Mat Ineson, 6 February 2021