by: Denise Robinson
Singing Our Faith
Romans 8:1-6, 18, 31-39
Our sermon series this Sunday looks at several different writers of hymns which fall into one category. Simply put, they are among my favorites and united by one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, Romans 8.
The prelude this morning is not, technically speaking, a hymn. It was What a Wonderful World, written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss and first recorded in 1967 by Louis Armstrong. The song reminds me not only of Genesis 1 and 2 and the creation of the world, but of the love of God for us. “I see trees of green; red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’ I hear babies cry; I watch them grow. They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” The Apostle Paul, in Acts 17, speaks of the evidence of God in creation. Ps. 121, our Call to Worship for this morning, says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” All we have to do is to look at this wonderful world and at ourselves in it, and we know there is a God and that God loves us. Despite all the pain and suffering, and everything I have seen and experienced, I still believe it’s a wonderful world.
But when we come to our opening hymn, we are reminded that this wonderful world can also be terrifying and deadly. Many of you know the history to “It Is Well with My Soul,” but for those who don’t, the story is impactful. It was written in 1873 by a man named Horatio Spafford. Spafford was a successful attorney in Chicago who invested heavily in downtown city real estate, particularly real estate located along the Lake Michigan shoreline. A member of the Presbyterian church, he was also a friend of the evangelist D. L. Moody and other evangelists of the era. Then came the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Spafford’s real estate holdings were wiped out overnight. Just before this happened, his only son had died of scarlet fever at 4 years of age. Desiring a rest for his family, Spafford concentrated on his law practice for 2 years and in 1873 arranged for himself, his wife, and their four daughters to travel to Europe. Remember, the year is 1873, so the only way to England was by ship. Just before November of that year when they were scheduled to depart, some last-minute legal business prevented Spafford from going. He sent his wife and daughters on ahead, expecting he would follow in several days. Out in the Atlantic, on Nov. 22, 1873, the ship that Spafford’s family was on was struck by another ship and sank in twelve minutes. There were 226 fatalities that early morning and 4 of them shared the last name of Spafford: their names were Maggie, Tanetta, Anna, and Bessie. Forty-seven survivors from the ship made it to Wales. Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband from Wales with this message: “Saved alone.” Several days later in early December, Horatio Spafford boarded a ship to join his wife. The story tells it that on the sea, approximately where the two ships collided and his daughters drowned, the captain of the ship took Spafford aside and told him he believed they were passing over the place where the ship carrying his family just a couple of weeks before had gone down. Spafford reportedly went down to his cabin and wrote: “It is well with my soul.” He later penned these words: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”
As the hymn continues, Spafford does not dwell on life’s sorrows and trials, but turns his attention to the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and the promise of Christ’s second coming. The third stanza ends with the words: “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!” The fourth stanza ends with the simple assurance, “Even so, it is well with my soul.” From our human perspective, it seems impossible that anyone could experience such personal losses as Spafford – the loss of a son, the loss of his fortune, and the loss of four daughters – and still be able to say, “It is well with my soul.” John Wesley, at the beginning of his small group meetings, would ask, “How is it with your soul?” Wesley knew that the state of our soul is more important than anything else. This hymn, and Wesley’s question, remind us that we can endure anything the world throws our way if our soul is firmly connected to God.
Our prayer hymn is one familiar to many pastors who have heard and responded to God’s call. The title is, “Here I Am, Lord” and it opens with these words: “I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry, all who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save. I, who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright. Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send? Refrain: Here I am, Lord. Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” “Here I Am, Lord” recalls immediately Isaiah 6:8: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” An unusual attribute of this hymn is the change in point of view that the singer makes between the stanzas and the refrain. The stanzas speak from the perspective of God, while the refrain, though remaining in first person, is from the perspective of the singers of the hymn offering their lives to God. Each stanza reflects a paradox. The powerful God, creator of “sea and sky,” “snow and rain” and “wind and flame” is also the God who hears the “people cry,” bears the “people’s pain” and “tend[s] the poor and lame.” This is a hymn of transformation. God transforms the darkness into light in stanza one, melts “hearts of stone” with love in stanza two and nourishes the “poor and lame” with the “finest bread.” Each stanza ends with the question, “Whom shall I send?” The refrain immediately offers the response, “Here I am, Lord.”
While the hymn is popular with seminary students and pastors, God’s call is not limited to clergy. God calls each of us to service and each of us must answer God’s call. I have heard it said this way: “If you are breathing, God has a call on your life.” One person who heard God’s call and answered, “Here I am,” was the Apostle Paul. Paul heard God’s call when traveling on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus. He was going to Damascus to arrest Christians in that city – and to bring them back to Jerusalem, imprison them, and possibly kill them. Then he had a Jesus encounter and his life was forever changed. Afterwards, Paul wrote the book of Romans and Chapter 8 of that book is, I think, the greatest chapter in the Bible. It begins with these words (reading Romans 8:1-6 and 18). These words of Paul are words of celebration. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free.”
On May 21, 1738, Charles Wesley was recovering from an illness. But his physical illness was really the least of his worries. He was in a spiritual crisis. He had the knowledge of God and the knowledge of faith, but had not experienced the substance of either. Later that day, as Wesley again read the Bible and prayed, something changed in him. Charles later wrote that he was reading from the Psalms: “He (God) has put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God,” followed by the first verse of Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” He wrote in his journal, “I have found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in the hope of love Christ.” Wesley finally felt the presence of God; he finally found himself at peace with God. Wesley called this his day of conversion, his day when he, on a personal level, felt the love of God and became assured of his salvation. In a journal entry on May 23, Wesley wrote: “I began a hymn upon my conversion” in celebration of the “amazing love” I have come to know. Wesley wrote thousands of hymns during his lifetime, but that hymn is, I think, my favorite of all of Wesley’s hymns. It’s called, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” It is our closing hymn for today.
The first stanza opens with these words: “And can it be that I should gain An int’rest in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain— For me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” These words express wonder and amazement at the redemptive act of God and God’s offering of free grace to all, even those "who caused his pain." This wonder is further emphasized by the repeated phrase "for me" in lines three and four. The hymn then continues: “He left His Father’s throne above—so free, so infinite His grace—emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race: ’Tis mercy all, immense and free, for, O my God, it found out me!” Notice how Wesley continues with his use of the word “me” in this hymn. God’s love and grace are no longer abstract concepts for him; God’s immense and free mercy is a mystery to him, but just as it found the Apostle Paul, it has found him and cannot be denied.
It is the last stanza of the hymn, however, that is to me the greatest. “No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him, is mine; alive in Him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine. Bold, I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” When you think about meeting God at the end of your life, what do you see in your mind? For me, for many years, it was about judgment, about God looking at all of my faults, reminding me of all my shortcomings and failures. But Romans 8 and this hymn have none of that. Romans 8 ends with these words: (READ Romans 8:31-39).
Think of all the promises in these words. If God is for us, who can be against us. Nothing will separate us from the love of Christ. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nothing in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Imagine in your mind, if you can, this imagery from Wesley’s hymn: No condemnation now I dread. Jesus is mine. I am alive in him and clothed in divine righteousness. So, bold I approach the eternal throne and claim the crown through Christ my own. Because of God’s love and grace, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we need not live lives of fear in the present or the future; we can boldly approach God at the throne and claim the crown that is waiting there for us.
Our postlude for today summarizes how I feel when I think about Ps. 121 and Romans 8, and these great hymns. “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. And wonder how he could love me, a sinner condemned unclean. How marvelous, how wonderful, and my song shall ever be. How marvelous, how wonderful, is my Savior’s love for me.” When you think on these words from this morning there is a common thread and that is the word “me.” The question that arises from today’s message is a personal one for everyone hearing this message. Do you know the grace and love of God? Have you experienced it personally? Can you say it is well with my soul? Can you sing amazing love, how can it be, that though my God died for me? Do you know, deep down, that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus? If you have the love of Christ in you, if you have accepted the love God freely offers, if you can answer yes to all these questions, then I challenge you to daily say to God, “here I am, what would you have me do today.” The challenge to follow God is not a one-time event, but a lifetime commitment. If, on the other hand, you are struggling with the answers and don’t have this personal knowledge, I want you to know that this can change today. You can, right now, wherever you are, accept the grace and love freely offered. Tell God how you feel, tell God that you believe in God and in the gift of grace offered through the death of Jesus Christ for you, ask God to come into your life and make you whole. If you have questions or want someone to pray with you, reach out to me after the service or contact the church. Today make it well with your soul.