Speak, O Lord, as we come to you

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another on the theme of “The word of God”: “Speak, O Lord, as we come to you” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.  It’s a straightforward hymn of three eight-line verses, with no chorus or bridge – surprisingly traditional for Townend, although there is no attempt at rhyming the lines and the text by itself reads as a prose prayer rather than poetry.

The overall theme is that God’s ‘word’ is something living. Not just the written word of the Bible (although presumably that is meant by the words “Truths unchanged from the dawn of time that will echo down through eternity”) but God’s message to us today.  So the first and last verses start by asking him to speak to us (the middle verse starts “Teach us…”). 

Although throughout the hymn the text refers to “us” and “we”, much of it is personal. Listening to God is the work of personal devotion.  Asking to be “fashioned in God’s likeness” (v.1), or to have thoughts and attitudes tested against God’s purity (v.2), or to have minds renewed (v.3) are really the requests of an individual.  But when many people pray in this way and find themselves changed in response, that is when the Church as a whole (the “we”) can, as the last line puts it, be built and the earth filled with God’s glory.

God has spoken

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “God has spoken” by George Wallace Briggs (the middle name is perhaps important to distinguish him from George Nairn Briggs, sometime Dean of Wakefield).  It dates from 1953 although the words have been “updated” in the book, and is quite traditional in its musical style.   This hymn is ‘didactic’ (a way of teaching what the Church believes) rather than a hymn of praise from the singer to God.

The three verses explain the different ways in which God communicates with people. The verb “speak” is used but in a wider context that just oral/aural communication, as few of us have the experience of hearing God speak aloud.  Firstly, “God has spoken” in the ‘unchanging word’ given through prophets – those who did receive a direct revelation from God and either wrote it down themselves or passed on a message in their own speech that was eventually written down by others.  Secondly is his direct revelation in Jesus – “Christ the everlasting Son”, who himself in human form spoke directly to his disciples, and at least some of what he said is recorded in the Gospels.  And thirdly “God is speaking by his Spirit, speaking to our hearts again, in the age long word expounding God’s own message, now aa then”.  The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in people’s lives, and communicates with us, whether by an inspired thought, by prompting to pray for a particular person or situation, by a new understanding of part of the Bible, or by reminding us of what we have heard or read previously.

Word that formed creation

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Word that formed creation” by the American composer Marty Haugen, but set to the old French tune Noel Nouvelet, better known to the words of another Easter hymn, “Now the green blade riseth”. It shares with yesterday’s hymn (See what a morning) a sense of joyful hope, and a catchy tune.  But there are contrasts too. This one is set in a minor key, which might seem odd for a song about joy and hope, but it works (I hope John can explain this musically).

There’s also a contrast in the words.  Stuart Townend takes phrases from the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection and expounds them in a way that’s in agreement with received theology, but also in accessible language.  Marty Haugen works with images that can be found in the Bible, but not necessarily in the Easter stories.  The hymn addresses God or Jesus in different ways, which seem to blur the neat distinctions between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But maybe that’s the point: God’s work in the divine-human Jesus at Easter is an inexplicable mystery that defies simple description. 

The first verse speaks of God’s eternal being: the “Word that formed creation, earth and sea and sky” which is one understanding of Christ’s pre-existence; but which also brings salvation, and which we can call on now: “Living Word of Jesus, sound within us all”.

The second verse addresses God as “Love that formed and named us, filled this clay with breath, love that seeks and claims us, love beyond all death”. That God is not remote but should seek and claim us is part of the Gospel message. Here we call on the “Love that raised up Jesus [to] raise us up anew”.

The third verse seems to address the Holy Spirit, “Song of joy and wonder, sound so wild and free, voice of wind and thunder, boundless as the sea”.  Here we call on the “song that sang in Jesus [to] sing within us here”. I’m reminded of Calvin Miller’s allegory of Jesus in “The Singer” which our work book group studied last year.   The last verse, more clearly Trinitarian in structure, summarises the above: God of creation, salvation and inspiration.

Bright as fire in darkness

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Bright as fire in darkness”, words attributed to Stanbrook Abbey. We have already had one of their other compositions, “When Jesus comes to be baptised”, on 14 January.

This is a very short hymn, comprising just three verses, each four lines of five or six syllables. Yesterday’s theme of the Word of God appears here too, revealed at the end of verse 1: “Bright as fire in darkness, sharper than a sword, lives throughout the ages God’s eternal Word”.  Note that ‘Word’ is capitalised to make it clear it refers to the person of the Trinity revealed in Jesus.  And as with yesterday, the Word is seen to be active – fire and sword are not static images, nor are they signs of safety. There are risks involved when we engage with the Word of God.

The second verse also refers to the ‘word’ – “Christ, your eyes of mercy see our sins revealed; speak the word that saves us, that we may be healed”.   Forgiveness, salvation and healing are not three separate things but three aspects of the work of the Word of God.  Note that this time ‘word’ is not capitalised – is there a meaningful distinction between the person of the Word who lives throughout the ages, and the spoken word that saves us?  Is salvation not through the Word himself, rather than the spoken (or written) word? 

In the last verse the first two lines are a standard doxology (praise to the Trinity) followed by “compassed in your glory, give the world your light”. The reference to light brings us full circle to where we started – ‘bright as fire’. So may we be.

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Praise to you, O Christ, our Saviour

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is by Bernadette Farrell, one of my favourite modern hymnwriters. She has a gift for writing in plain (American) English but without it sounding trite, and to melodies that are easy to sing. The title (first line of the chorus) is “Praise to you O Christ our Saviour”, but the theme of the four verses is Christ the Word.  For an exploration of the different meanings of that phrase, see my commentary on her similar hymn “Word of God, renew your people” (25 January).

In the first verse here, the Word is the one who “calls us out of darkness and leads us into light, who brings us through the desert”; in the third verse, the one who “calls us to be servants, whose only law is love, who lives among us” and in the final verse the Word “binds us and unites us, calls us to be one, teaches us forgiveness”.  In the second verse, “the Word” doesn’t appear but Jesus is names as “the one whom prophets hoped and longed for, who speaks to us today, who leads us to our future”.   Many of these phrases contain verbs expressing the way Jesus is active in moving us along – leads, brings, calls, and (again) leads. The Christian understanding of God as revealed in Jesus is not like the remote mountaintop guru who must be sought out, but the complete opposite, one who is always on the lookout for people who might respond if he calls them, follow if he leads them.

Not for nothing is Lent often thought of as a period of journeying. We not only hear the story of Jesus’ own journey from fame to infamy and from Galilee to Golgotha, but also (hopefully) find him calling us and leading us on the next stage of our own journeys.

Word of God, renew your people

The hymn I chose for today from Sing Praise was “Word of God, renew your people” by the American composer Bernadette Farrell. The term ‘Word of God’ is used in three ways in Christian thought – in the most general sense referring to communication between God and creation, the Creator ‘speaking’ his intentions into being.  It is also understood as referring to words in the more literal sense of the Bible, whether you understand the inspiration of the Bible in a literal sense of God speaking exact words to be written down or more vaguely as inspiring people who then put the revelation in their own words.  And finally it can refer to Jesus Christ himself, as in the well known beginning of John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.

The Word here is described as the Word of hope, of healing, of peace and of justice.  This points more towards the last of those understandings – Jesus, who as God in man brought hope and healing to individual lives and who by his risen power we believe will one day bring peace and justice to the world (verse 4 – “God alone, the power we trust in”).

Interestingly, although the first line of each verse is different, the remaining three lines are unvarying, so they are sung four or five times depending on whether the final verse (for a baptism service) is included.   “Make us now your living sign. Recreate us for your purpose in this place and in this time”. There is, as Ecclesiastes wrote, a time for everything, and maybe the time is right now for each of us to be a ‘living sign’ for others that the Word of God is still alive and active today.

The Bible in a Year – 17 December

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

17 December. John chapters 1-2

John, as is well known, orders the material in his Gospel differently from Mark, Matthew or Luke – he is not telling the story of Jesus necessarily in the order things happened, and pays no attention at all to the birth or parentage of Jesus. Instead he selects those scenes that he thinks most important and orders them in a symbolic way.  The first two chapters are like an overture or the brief scenes at the start of a movie before the credits, that give an idea of the plot that is to follow.

This evening, churches across England including my own will have a service of “lessons and carols” – Bible readings and hymns or other music selected to tell the story of Jesus, focusing on his birth.  By tradition the last reading is the beginning of this Gospel, with its mysterious description of Jesus as “the Word” who existed in the beginning, even before the creation of the world, but became flesh as a man.  Over the next two weeks, our readings in church will include other passages from these chapters – this morning, the third Sunday in Advent, the theme was John the Baptiser; and the story of the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into fine wine is read at Epiphany, usually the first Sunday of the new year.

All these are understood to be among the “signs” that John is presenting: events that point towards who Jesus really is, rather than stating it directly.  The nativity itself is the first and greatest of these signs. The angels and the mysterious star that Luke and Matthew tell us about, respectively, were also signs that led shepherds and magi to Bethlehem to see this greater sign – that God had appeared as an ordinary human being.

John’s ministry of baptism was, as he told anyone who would listen, also only a sign of something greater – baptism in water signifying repentance was only about preparing oneself to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus would offer (but only at Pentecost, after his resurrection). And the miracle at Cana was not so much about just keeping a party going, as an example of the abundance of life that Jesus came to bring.  The one who could draw water from a well and turn it into wine would, as we will see tomorrow, also draw water from another well and turn it into a means of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.

As John tells us, “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (2:21).  Are there enough signs here for you to believe?