See what a morning

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is a modern classic, “See what a morning” by Stuart Townend.  It has a very catchy tune, assisted by a syncopated rhythm that suits the joyful theme.  There is no separate chorus but each of the three verses has the same last line: “For he lives, Christ is risen from the dead!”

The first half of each of the first two verses set out some of the evidence for the resurrection from the Gospels: folded grave clothes, tomb filled with light (i.e. angels), the angels announcing that he is risen, Mary hearing Jesus speak her name.  The rest is what follows from that evidence in terms of our Easter faith, described near the start as “the dawning of hope in Jerusalem”.  God’s salvation plan, once “borne in pain, paid in sacrifice” is fulfilled as Christ lives.  The voice of the risen Lord is “speaking life, stirring hope, bringing peace”, but it also “spans the years … [and] will sound till he appears”, for the resurrection is a timeless event.

The last verse perhaps looks forward to the feast of the Ascension at the end of the forty days of Easter, with Christ now “one with the Father through the Spirit” and reigning as King.  The final lines are a series of shouts of triumph making the most of the syncopations: “We are raised with him, death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered, we shall reign with him, for he lives, Christ is risen from the dead!”  Though the Resurrection will keep theologians debating until Kingdom come, a congregational hymn like this keeps its theology short and punchy.

Jesus is risen, Alleluia!

Christians in Ihimbo, Tanzania
From the website of St Stephen’s Lutheran Church, WSP

There are no doubt several hymns or worship songs with this title, but the one I have chosen today from Sing Praise is John Bell’s translation of a Tanzanian song of praise. I love the simple and easily learnt melodies and harmonies of East African songs, coming from a part of the world where communal singing is still an essential part of life in a way that has been lost in most ‘developed’ countries.

African Christians also seem to have a joy in their faith that we have lost in an over-cautious and over-intellectualised Western religion. From the start, this hymn is full of the confidence and joy of the first Christians that Jesus is alive and worthy of praise. Just listen to some of the phrases in this song: “Come let us worship him, endlessly sing!”; “Blest are the hearts which for him rejoice”; “Go and tell others, Christ is alive”; “Let heaven echo, let the earth sing: Jesus is saviour of everything”; and the final line, “Therefore rejoice, obey and believe”. This hymn will truly send me into the day rejoicing.

We shall draw water joyfully

Jesus and the Woman of Samaria,
painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

Today’s Easter song from Sing Praise is “We shall draw water joyfully”.  It’s one of those set for cantor and congregation, with the cantor’s line adapted slightly for each of the three acclamations. 

These three cantor’s acclamations are based on Isaiah chapter 12, and express firstly confidence in God’s salvation, secondly the thanks due to him for his ‘mighty deeds’ and thirdly a psalm of praise to the Lord as we make his works known.  Thanks and praise to God in response to his saving acts are a regular theme in the Hebrew scriptures and in Christian worship.

The chorus is to a tune that fits the words – fast, flowing and joyful as we sing “We shall draw water joyfully, singing joyfully, from the wellspring of salvation”. he chorus could just as easily be said to be based on Jesus’ own sayings about himself offering ‘living water’.  The ‘water’ here is metaphorical and represents both something that meets the needs of our physical life (which of course is utterly dependent on H2O) and also a spiritual refreshment contrasted with the insipid and sometimes dangerous forms of spiritual sustenance that this world offers us.

Christ is our light, the bright and morning star

On the three Sundays after Epiphany, Catholic tradition retells three stories from different times in the life of Jesus, which together are considered to reveal his identity.  The three verses of this hymn pick up on those stories.  The first is the nativity itself, the coming of light into the world.  It’s often associated with the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem and the star (i.e. source of light) that they followed, although they are not referenced here.  Rather the emphasis is on Christ’s light or ‘radiance’ which we ask to shine into our hearts and into our world – a world which at this present time needs God’s light more than ever.

The second is his baptism (as an adult), associated here with the love of God (who is recorded as speaking at the time, the heavenly voice declaring Jesus to be God’s son, in whom God was ‘well pleased’ even before his public ministry started).  The reference in the words to God’s love ‘swooping low’ is to the form of a dove in which Saint John says the Holy Spirit appeared to accompany the voice of God.    

The third story is that of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding, which is seen as much more than a gift to those present at the feast, rather a sign of the transformation that Jesus can bring to the life of anyone who follows him – from the plain water of life without him, to the joyful wine of knowing his presence.  It is that presence, that joy, that we constantly must seek, because once given, like wine, it doesn’t stay fresh for long.

Light, love and joy – the three aspects of the presence of Jesus Christ, revealed at his birth, his baptism, and in his presence among us. That is the Epiphany, the revelation of God in our lives.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 12 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

12 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 12-14

The section I am choosing to look at from today’s chapters is 14:5-19, which begins “If a man is mean to himself, to whom will he be good? He does not even enjoy what is his own.”  And in verse 11, “My son, treat yourself as well as you can afford, and bring worthy offerings to the Lord”.    The basis of this philosophy, like much in the Wisdom literature, is the reality of death, for “will you not have to leave your fortune to another, and the fruit of your labour to be divided by lot?” (v.15).   This, of course, is the wisdom of Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts – what’s the point in being a miser, making life uncomfortable for yourself, just to amass money in the bank?  The person with children and grandchildren has a reason to pass on a large inheritance, but for those of us who don’t (myself included) there is no such incentive.

It might be thought, by people who know a little about Christianity and the Bible, that they both encourage, or even expect, believers to live in poverty, for there is much teaching about the blessings that God gives to the poor and humble.  But any idea that we should deliberately make life uncomfortable for ourselves derives from the ascetic tradition seen in the “desert fathers” and in medieval monasticism (at least in its pure form – by the time of the Reformation the monks were living very well on their profits!).  Ascetics have their place, but they have never represented mainstream Christianity, or for that matter Judaism.  When Jesus said “I have come that people may have life, and have it to the full”  (John 10:10) he was not saying something opposed to traditional Jewish religion, but rather rescuing it from the religious “authorities” whose rules and regulations were restricting the proper practice of religion, which is to live lovingly, joyfully and generously with other people.  And that starts with ourselves. To repeat the opening phrase of this passage, “If a man is mean to himself, to whom will he be good?”

In the days of Nehemiah, when the Jewish people were rebuilding their towns after years of exile, life was difficult.   And when people heard all the religious laws read out to them, they wept, for it must have seemed that to keep these laws would be the end of any enjoyment. But Ezra the wise priest told them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8:10-11).  Joy is found, not in denying ourselves, but in being generous both to ourselves and to others.

The Bible in a Year – 20 November

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

20 November. Luke chapters 14-16

The first ten verses of chapter 15 comprise the two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  They go together, two ways of making the same point, which is: “there is joy in heaven over one person who repents”.  Why does Jesus make this point about joy?  Because the “scribes and Pharisees” – those full-time theologians who became the bane of his life – were grumbling again.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.

What was the motivation of the Pharisees for their grumbling? I think it was jealousy, for they saw people coming to Jesus, finding forgiveness, and responding joyfully.  They themselves, caught up as they were in their own detailed commentaries and interpretations of Jewish law, had no time for joy.  Joy, in the sense that Christians use the term, is not physical pleasure but the deep contentment and happiness of a fulfilled life, something that God always intended for us.  It’s easy to lose that sense of joy in the busyness and troubles of this life.  Sin, self-centredness and materialism (all of which characterised the Pharisees) work against a joy-filled life. But Jesus saw it as part of his mission to restore it.  In John’s Gospel he says, “I speak these things so they may have my joy made complete in themselves” [John 17:13].

There’s nothing like a sense of guilt for making people joyless, and nothing like having that guilt removed for restoring joy. That is why repentance is more than merely praying for forgiveness.  Saint Paul experienced this, as he writes to Timothy.  He may not be using the word “joy”, but “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:14) surely describes such joy.  This “joy in the Lord” comes when someone experiences, as Paul did, the assurance of forgiveness and being made at one with God.

Looking again at the second of Jesus’ short parables, the lost coin, he is describing the joy, the relief, of finding something that we knew all along was missing.  The coin was not additional income, but something that already belonged to the woman.  In the same way, repenting and finding peace with God through Christ is restoring a relationship that we all should have had in the first place.

For that reason, it’s more than just a matter for the individual.  Christianity is never a closed shop, our mission is always to help people see what they are missing and find it.  The shepherd, or the housewife, in the parables represents not only Jesus, but each one of us. Jesus says there is “joy in heaven”, or “joy in the presence of the angels of God”, over one sinner who repents.  It is a matter of rejoicing for the whole Christian community when another person understands what Christ has done for him or her, and turns to him.

How might we express joy when we see someone coming to faith?  The charity “Christians Against Poverty” work with churches throughout the country to offer debt counselling.  Each local church is encouraged to celebrate when someone is set free from debt, after the counsellor has negotiated cancellation of some of their debts and a repayment plan for the rest that they can afford.  But more than that, along with debt counselling, CAP advisers take any opportunity they can to share their faith and tell people of Jesus who can set them free from sin as well as financial debt.  In CAP head office in Bradford there is a bell, and that bell is rung whenever it is reported by a local church that one of their clients has decided to become a Christian.

Have you found a lost sheep recently?  Helped another person along the way back to God?  Or experienced joy when he found you? Then meet up with with other Christians and rejoice together.

Extracts from a sermon for Holy Trinity, North Greenwich, 15 September 2013

The Bible in a Year – 9 September

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

9 September. Nehemiah chapters 7-8

In chapter 7 the city gates have been completed although few houses have yet been rebuilt.  The reconstruction of a city after war is both a difficult challenge, and also an opportunity to make a new start in the way the city is built. It is also an opportunity to rethink how it is governed.  The city is put in charge of two men – Hanani the brother of Nehemiah (who presumably was, like him, an administrator by profession), and Hananiah the commander of the citadel, i.e. a military leader (7:2). This latter was chosen because he “feared God more than most people”, and therefore would be a man of integrity. These two between them could make a good go of this challenging situation.

Chapter 8 records the reading of the law to the people.  There had been several generations without a functioning civil society. Levels of literacy would have been low, and the younger people would have no knowledge of the traditions of the Temple and its laws. So they have to be taught.  Ezra and thirteen other men carry out this task over the course of a week. The picture this passage gives of the assembled crowd bowing down together in response to the reading of the scripture is remarkably similar to how Islam is still practised.

Many people wept when they heard the Law being read.  Presumably that was when they realised that some of their actions and habits were in fact contrary to the religious laws, the penalties for which were often harsh.  But Ezra and Nehemiah – the civil and religious leaders – told people not to weep, but to rejoice.  They understood, as many people still do not, that the purpose of religious laws is not really to punish people, but to guide them.  Having scripture as a guide for life is actually something to be thankful for and happy about.  As Nehemiah put it, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). And so the people celebrated with feasting and joy “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them”.