Here is love, vast as the ocean

Lon Swan Independent Chapel, Denbigh
William Rees)was minister here from 1837 to 1843.
Image cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Eirian Evans

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Here is love, vast as the ocean” by William Rees to a tune by Robert Lowry. I first came across this some years ago, and was surprised to find that both words and music are from the 19th century as they sound much more recent to me. The language seems more imaginative than most Victorian hymns, and the imagery is more striking than I would expect of its time. 

Maybe that’s because the composer was thoroughly Welsh, a nation known for their love of poetry and song.  A biography of Rees describes him as a largely self-taught shepherd and farmer, Welsh being his first language, becoming a preacher aged 27, later a minister in churches in North Wales and Liverpool. It’s interesting how many of God’s great servants have been shepherds, including Moses and King David. The solitude of their trade and closeness to the natural world, it seems, lends itself to being open to God’s leading.

Only two verses of the hymn are given in this book, which (to continue a point made in yesterday’s post) are corporate praise from the congregation.  But there are more.  I found a setting online with two more verses: which are a personal response, and altogether this four-verse version is more complete. 

The overall impression one gets from these words is of God’s intention for us to receive his grace, not grudgingly given or in small measure, but as Jesus himself put it, as “good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over” (Luke 6:38, KJV).  Ponder on these words: “love, vast as the ocean”, “a vast and gracious tide”, “grace and love like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above”.  God’s grace once given is unstoppable.  The last lines of the extended version linked above echo this theme in the singer’s response: “Of thy fullness thou art pouring thy great love and power on me; without measure, full and boundless, drawing out my heart to thee”.

Of course there was a cost to offering that grace, as any meditation on the Cross reminds us, as do words in the first verse of this hymn. “The Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood”. Other hymns for Holy Week will explore that in more depth, but for today we have this hymn for praise for the abundance of God’s saving grace.

Beneath the cross of Jesus

The holy rood at St. Andrew’s, Nuthurst, West Sussex
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © nick macneill 

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Keith & Kristyn Getty’s “Beneath the cross of Jesus”.  As we approach Holy Week we focus more on the inevitable death of Jesus, and there are many hymns on this theme, which is why we’re starting well ahead of time.

I liked this one, because it gets a good balance between the individual or devotional approach to the Cross and a corporate one.  Not only the words but also the music is quite different from “O to see the dawn” that I sang on 9 March, which was another Keith Getty composition but in partnership with Stuart Townend.  Perhaps it’s that difference in partnership that brings a much softer approach both to the music (the tune is a pleasant, almost folk-style one, although set a bit low for my tenor voice) and also the words, where the message of Jesus suffering punishment for us is replaced with a meditation on how Jesus has brought grace to me, the church and the world.

The first verse is personal – “Beneath the cross of Jesus I find a place to stand, and wonder at the mercy that calls me as I am. For hands that should discard me hold wounds which tell me ‘Come’. Beneath the cross of Jesus my unworthy soul is won.”  The second tells how by his death Jesus brought into being a new family of those saved by grace: “Beneath the cross of Jesus see the children called by God”.  This is symbolised by the words (in the Bible, not in this hymn) that Jesus spoke from the cross telling his mother Mary and closest disciple John to treat each other as mother and son after his own death.

The third verse follows with what that family should do in response: “We follow in his footsteps where promised hope is found”.  The last lines refer to the Church as the Bride (an image found in the book of Revelation) and finish with “Beneath the cross of Jesus we will gladly live our lives”.

The Bible in a Year – 26 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this

26 December. 1 John chapters 1-5

There is so much in this deeply spiritual writing that it is impossible to summarise it neatly, and it reads more like an unscripted but passionate sermon than like one of Paul’s carefully argued theological letters.  The one unifying theme is love: the love of God for those who believe in Jesus, the importance of us loving God more than the “world”, and of loving our “brothers and sisters” (other Christians) even if we disagree with them.

There is also a second strand running through the book, that of sin and grace. John does not actually use the word ‘grace’ but describes it in other ways. He says that if we confess our sins and repent, Jesus will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9); and describes those who truly believe in Jesus as having “God’s seed abiding in them” and being “born of God” (3:9) to prevent them from sinning.

What John is trying to get at, although it is such a deep mystery that even he struggles to convey it in simple language, is that since Jesus Christ came into the world there is now a clear division between people, greater than any division caused by barriers of race, language and even religious background.  On the one hand are those who have come to him, described as “walking in the light and having fellowship with one another” (1:7), who obey the commandments of Jesus, particularly those regarding loving others (2:3), do the will of God (2:17) and are called his children (3:2), no longer commit sin (3:9) – although the epilogue at the end of chapter 5 admits that this is not quite true – and have the Holy Spirit (4:13).  The opposite is true of those who do not yet walk in the light but remain in darkness: they do not obey God or Jesus, cannot be called his children, live in sin and do not have the Spirit in them. They “love the world and the things in the world” (2:15).  The distinction is summed up starkly at the end of the letter: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5:12).

The good news is that the only way to move from darkness to light is to believe in Jesus – not simply in assenting that he lived and died, or that he was a good teacher, but in wanting to become part of him and be open to the Holy Spirit.  Only in that way can we share in the light that comes from God the Father.

There are no doubt many better summaries of John’s teaching than mine.  But the message is clear – anyone can become part of God’s family, but Jesus is the only way in.

The Bible in a Year – 25 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 November. Ephesians chapters 1-3

Paul addresses this letter to a Christian congregation which, as he makes very clear, consists of Gentiles (non-Jews). For those of us in a 21st century democracy, the distinction does not seem so great.  We are used to the idea of religious diversity, of tolerance of different views, of the freedom of the individual to accept or reject the faith into which their families brought them up – or indeed any other.  Or not to be religious at all.  While some religions (especially Islam and Christianity) do claim to have the “final revelation” of God and to be the only way to him, the boundaries are still fluid – some people born into Christian families convert to Islam, or declare themselves atheists, and vice versa.

For Jews in the time of Jesus and Paul, that was not so. The Jews (in their own view) were the chosen people, the only ones blessed by the God of the universe.  Not only were the Roman and Greek gods false ones whose worship would be punished by God as idolatry, but there could be no forgiveness, no salvation for them.  Therefore the Jews separated themselves from other people, regarded them as ritually unclean, would not even share a meal with them.  I’m not talking about today’s Jews of course, but those of Bible times.

Then came the Resurrection of Jesus, the giving of the Holy Spirit, and revelations to several of the apostles including Paul himself.  Out of these grew the conviction that the Jews had got it wrong, they had misunderstood their own scriptures, they had failed to hear the true message of the prophets.  God was actually calling the whole world to be reconciled to himself. The role of the Jewish people as his chosen race was not to set themselves against the rest of the world but to be the channel through which God’s grace and favour could flow.

Thus, Paul realised that his mission was not so much to the Jews to tell them about Jesus, as to spread the message as far as possible into what others would regard as hostile territory, pagan peoples.  This was a total about-turn from what he had preached previously as a Pharisee, so it is not surprising that the Christians initially received him with suspicion.

Just look at some of the things Pauls writes in Ephesians 2:11-22:  “you were … aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, … without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. …He has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. … He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

There can therefore be no excuse for any Christian group to view the whole Christian church, let alone one denomination of it, as having exclusive access to God or being the only ones to receive his favour. Our religion is a world one, not only in its geographical spread, but in its target audience. Whoever lives on this earth is a child of God, to be called back to him by the reconciling love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.