Today I’m delivering another sermon in the sermon series, “Polyphony of Grace.” When designing this sermon series and doing a survey of our favorite hymns, I really hoped to have at least one African-American spiritual and one contemporary Christian music among the favorites. And guess what, thankfully enough, it worked out as I wanted! So last Sunday, with our gospel choir, Voices of Praise, we could sing one touching spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” and praise our God of freedom. And today, with our contemporary band, LIFT, we’re going to sing “How Great Is Our God” as our closing song.
I believe it’s truly a great blessing that we can enjoy different kinds of music in our worship services and make the true polyphony of grace in our midst. As you already know, in our church, we worship with various music styles—traditional hymns, classical music, Taizé songs, gospels, African-American spirituals, and contemporary praise songs and so on. Even though each of us has a personal preference when it comes to worship music, we still fully try and accept other forms of praise in our worship services with our open hearts and open ears. And this is a wonderful thing.
You’d hear quite frequently about conflicts regarding music in some churches. There have been tensions and disputes between the people who prefer traditional music and the people who prefer contemporary music. But this conflict is nothing new; it’s actually a centuries-old conflict that, I think, will last as long as the church exists. You’ll find this interesting: there was a time when one of the most traditional hymns to us, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written by Martin Luther, was regarded unholy because he used a folk tune of his days. Also, there was a time when the beautiful hymn of Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” was treated as ungodly and even banned from some churches because of its cheerful mood. And not too long ago, I myself remember the days when people debated on whether to include guitars and drums in worship services.
Yes, because we are humans, we may prefer certain kinds of music over others and feel uncomfortable with particular rhythms, tunes, and instruments. And we can’t change the way we are as individuals. But I believe, as a church, as the people who are called and saved by God’s grace, if we put first the reason that we praise and worship God before anything else, the controversies on styles of music would mean nothing. I believe, it is much more important for all of us to be clear on “why” we should praise God before “how” we should praise God.
So why should we praise God? We praise God because God’s grace for us is ever admirable and praiseworthy. We praise God because God has done the great work of salvation among us as the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. This work of grace is so unfathomable that no single way of praise can fully describe it. It cannot be glorified fully even with a thousand tongues to sing and even with a thousand music to play. The greatness of God shall be acclaimed in many different forms of music and many different tunes from generation to generation. And before this absolute and primary reason for our praise, the way of our praise can become relative and secondary.
“How Great Is Our God,” which is picked as our favorite contemporary song, bountifully reveals our reasons for praise. Inspired by the words of the Psalms (96;104), the first verse sings the greatness of God the Creator, the one who is transcendent and has the power and dominion over all creations: “The splendor of a King, clothed in majesty, let all the earth rejoice…He wraps himself in light and darkness tries to hide and trembles at His voice…How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.” The song goes on to touch upon other reasons for praise like the work of God in the Trinity, especially God’s immanent presence in the person of Jesus Christ. “Age to age He stands and time is in His hands. Beginning and the end. The Godhead Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son. The Lion and the Lamb, the Lion and the Lamb. How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.”
Why should we praise God? The song gives us clear answers. We praise God for God’s transcendence, God’s beyondness, but even more we praise God because God is immanent and present among us walking closely with us. We praise God for God’s splendor and majesty, but even more we praise God because God’s splendor and majesty are clothed with humility and meekness in Jesus Christ. We praise God for God’s dominion over the creation, but even more we praise God because in Jesus Christ, we see how God’s power was humbled and emptied for the sake of our reconciliation with God. We praise God for God’s Son who came to the world as the lion, as the mighty king who builds the kingdom of God on earth, but even more we praise God because this lion became the lamb of salvation obediently sacrificed on the cross to declare God’s everlasting love for us (John 1:29-34). We praise God for these amazing reasons.
So now, how should we praise God? Do we have to choose one type of music over others to express our faith in God? Do we have to argue about a better way to express our heart full of wonder, gratitude, and joy? Again, before the absolute and primary reason for our praise, the way of our praise becomes relative and secondary. And it is rather unnecessary to decide legitimate forms of music as far as a music reveals the unchanging reasons that we praise God and inspires us to keep our faith in God.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, no matter how we praise our God, let us remember that our God, who has the name above all names, is always worthy of our praise. So let us sing and praise the greatness of our God in every way that we can take and continue to make the beautiful polyphony of grace in our gathering. Amen.
“Let freedom ring!” At the end of his historic speech, “I Have a Dream,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shouted. “Let freedom ring!” The speech sparked a light of justice in numerous people’s hearts and led them to a fight for freedom from long-standing segregation and discrimination. From that day, our society has walked a long way to keep everyone’s unalienable right of freedom. But today, in this so-called land of liberty, are we actually free? Are we truly free?
We are not free from the powers of the world that delimit our freedom. We are not free from the powers that aggravate discrimination and bigotry in our society. We are not free from the powers that tear immigrant families apart by federal raids, indefinite detentions, and deportations. We are not free from the powers of biased media that control our perspectives. We are not free from the powers that retain basic necessaries of human life like food, medical service, and education, from being more accessible and affordable. We are not free from the irresponsible powers that don’t care about lurking danger of gun violence and environmental crisis. We are not free from the powers that gain benefits from putting crushing weight of financial burdens on people’s back. How are we actually free from this inescapable web of the worldly powers? I don’t think we are free enough to live the way God created us to be. And it looks like we still need to walk another long way to seek true freedom as it is endowed by God.
But to us, although we are bound up in the web, here comes the good news of God. The Bible clearly testifies that God is the giver of freedom. Indeed, the work of God’s grace, at its core, is to set God’s people free from all the powers of the world. God is the God of Exoduswho raised Moses and led God’s people out of the slavery in Egypt. The Song of Moses in the book of Exodus praises the God who saved God’s people by leading them through the Red Sea, and defeated the Pharaoh’s chariots and army by exercising a great miracle. Moses sings, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him” (Exodus 15:1-2).
The psalmist acclaims God as the God of liberationwho delivered the captives from the oppressive rules of the Empire. The psalmist praises God on the historic day when the Israelites finally returned to their homeland from the long exile: (3) “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” (Psalm 126:1-2).
Jesus also reveals that God is the God of deliverancewho breaks the bondages to evil powers, the powers of sin and death. Jesus, at the very beginning of his mission in this world, proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The God of Exodus, the God of liberation, and the God of deliverance… the Bible affirms that our God is the Chain Breaker who gives us freedom, the freedom from all worldly powers that try to bind us. Do you believe this?
Through history, Christians firmly upheld this truth and courageously strived for their freedom with their faith. And the stories of freedom in the Bible became their own testimonies in their lived experiences. Today, we want to remember especially those who fought for freedom on this American soil even before the days of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They are African-American slaves. Their songs, which we call spirituals, are the direct testimonies to their strong faith in God, the God who is the giver of freedom.
Our Voices of Praise choir beautifully sang two spirituals already, “Go Down Moses” and “Wade in the Water.” And as our closing hymn, we’re going to sing “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” one of the songs that enrich our polyphony of grace. Historians find the origin of these three spirituals from the Underground Railroad, which was a network of secret routes and safe houses for runaway African-American slaves. It was established in the early to mid-19th century, and used by fugitive slaves as a way to escape into free states in the North and Canada with the aid of abolitionists.
New Jersey was also an integral part of the eastern corridor of the Underground Railroad and proudly, many Methodist churches served as important stations on the trail.
On this treacherous road to freedom, the slaves faithfully remembered the stories in Exodus, identified their experience with that of the Hebrew slaves, and on this railroad, they sang, “Go Down Moses,” and “Wade in the Water.” It is known that one of the renowned abolitionists, Harriet Tubman, used these songs like some secrete codes. For example, she sang “Wade in the Water” when she needed to notice the escaping slaves to get off the trail and walk into the water to make sure that the dogs of slavecatchers lose their trail. On their perilous pilgrimage to the promised land, they asked Jesus to walk with them. “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” In face of life-threatening moments, they yearned for God’s care and protection from the bottom of their heart. “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; in my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” And in the middle of troubles and gut-wrenching sorrows, in the middle of doubts and fears, the slaves kept moving on and sang, “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” To freedom, taking one step at a time, they made their honest and faithful plea for deliverance to the God of the Hebrew slaves, to the God of the captives, and to the God of the oppressed.
Today, we are also walking our own ways to freedom. For sure, our path may not be as life-threating or desperate as African-American slaves’ Underground Railroad. But as we sing these spirituals, don’t we feel the melodies and lyrics still touching our souls? Don’t we feel the faith that they expressed still resonating deeply in our hearts? Why? It’s because we are not also free from the worldly powers that always try to seize us. It’s because our battle for freedom still continues in different forms. It’s because we still have different burdens to carry, yokes to bear, and fears to encounter. It’s because our ways can turn into stony trails and rocky railroads at any given moment. Yes, it’s because we are the ones who need to keep the faith in our God of Exodus, our God of liberation, and our God of deliverance all along our pilgrim journeys. Yes, we are the ones who seriously need Jesus to walk with us in our trials and in our troubles.
Who is our God? The Bible testifies clearly that our God is the Chain Breaker. The grace of our God always sets us free from all the bondages to the spiritual forces of wickedness and to the evil powers of this world. Let us accept this gift of freedom through our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for us to be unbound, to walk with us through our homebound journey of faith. So let us walk with Jesus Christ our Savior, putting our whole trust in his grace and carrying one another’s burden as he did on the cross, until we may “join hands and sing in the words of the old African-American spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” Amen.
I did a survey of our favorite hymns for last two Sundays. I think almost all of us named three favorite hymns of our choice. And I ended up having a lot of hymn titles. Guess what, I got 41 hymns in total! And among those 41 hymns, I selected 6 most voted hymns, and you will hear me preach on each of those hymns starting from today. Thank you again for your participation.
I named the title of this sermon series as the “Polyphony of Grace.” As you might know, polyphony is a way of singing. When a group of people, like a choir, sing several parts at the same time, we hear the individual melody of each part get along with one another and make a harmony. And that’s what we call polyphony. Like this polyphony, each one of us, as an individual, experiences God’s grace in our lives; each one of us has a story of faith about God’s grace in Christian faith and in the church. It can be simple or dramatic; anyhow, we have our own stories, our own melodies of grace. And in the church, the array of melodies comes together and makes a beautiful harmony as we share our lives in one faith in Jesus Christ, as we love and serve each other, and as the Holy Spirit moves us, inspires us, and motivates us to follow Jesus and build God’s kingdom on earth together. Here, in this church, we are creating the polyphony of grace, a divine harmony of faith. For this, we give our thanks and praises to our God.
Among many ways to express our polyphony of grace, there is the most common and traditional way that Christians used almost from the beginning of church history. That is to sing songs of praise—such as hymns, chants, and praise songs. These kinds of church music have been created not just to make us feel good. Actually, they have played a significant role like concise theological booklets where people poetically and rhythmically express Christian beliefs. So if we carefully meditate on the lyrics while singing, we can always learn more about the truth of God.
The hymn for us today is “How Great Thou Art.” How great you are! If you read through the stanzas of the hymn, you may see that the amazement of the author emerges from knowing who God is. For sure, knowing who God is brought so much wonder and awe that the author couldn’t stop singing, “How great you are!” Then, the question is, how did the author know of God? And in what way how do “we” know of God?
In Christian theology, it is always the God who makes Godself known to us first. In the Bible we see many events, in which God discloses who God is to the people of God. And we call those events, “revelations.” In Christian tradition, there are two kinds of revelation. The first one is called natural or general revelation. What does it mean? As the name says, it’s about getting to know God in natural ways—through nature around us or through our natural mind or conscience. The Psalms we read today describe this naturally gained knowledge about God. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge”(Psalm 19:1-2). And Paul even claims that because God has shown Godself to everyone in this way, it is natural that people search for God and try to live by God’s will. He says, “Ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse (Romans 1:20).
And in today’s hymn, the first two stanzas precisely express the moment of this natural revelation. The author realizes God’s existence and greatness through his experience of nature. “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art! How great Thou art!” We can feel the vivid experience that the author had with the nature. The author of this hymn is Pastor Carl Boberg, who was a sailor and a member of the Swedish Parliament before he was called to ministry.
Pastor Boberg said, “It was in 1885, and in the time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest coloring; the birds were singing in trees and wherever they could find a perch. On a particular afternoon, some friends and I had been to Kronobäck where we had participated in an afternoon service. As we were returning, a thunderstorm began to appear on the horizon. We hurried to shelter. There were loud claps of thunder, and the lighting flashed across the sky. Strong winds swept over the meadows and billowing fields of grain. However, the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared with a beautiful rainbow.” “After reaching my home, I opened my window toward the sea. The church bells were playing the tune of a hymn. That same evening I wrote a poem which I titled, ‘O Store Gud,’ (which was translated in English as ‘How Great Thou Art’).”
Pastor Boberg felt the magnitude of God in that awe-inspiring experience. He knew that it must be God who created this world with such marvels of nature. It was his moment of natural revelation. So he praised God in his astonishment…. But here comes a question. Just imagine that we are not Christians now. Then, even if we sense the presence of God in nature, beyond just some general and vague supernatural knowledge about God, can we possibly know the God in the Bible, the God incarnated in Jesus Christ? No, we can’t. So here we should understand the second and more important kind of revelation, which is called special revelation. And this special revelation is nothing but Jesus Christ through whom we clearly know who God is.
I believe Pastor Boberg clearly understood these two kinds of revelation when he wrote the hymn. Indeed, the third and the fourth stanzas of the hymn exactly tell us about the special revelation. In those two stanzas, his focus now moves from the greatness of God who is the Creator as revealed in nature, to the greatness of God who is the Savior revealed in Jesus Christ, through his act of salvation on the cross. The hymn goes, “And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing; Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in; That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin. Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art! How great Thou art!” Now, the hymn completes singing both revelations of God. God has made Godself known to us. God’s greatness in creation and in Jesus Christ has been revealed to us. Because God is the Creator who created our life in the universe, and also because God sent God’s only Son Jesus Christ to give us new life, we have our permanent reason to praise God.
In our lives, there are times when we cannot find any reason to praise God’s greatness. When our hearts are filled with grief and despair, when our situations are complicated and desperate, when our ways are lost, it’s really hard to find any great wonder in our lives. But even at those moment, I hope and pray that we can sing this hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” We can sing and see nature; we can look up and gaze at the stars in the night sky; we can see the trees and mountains. Then, we shall realize something beyond our life; something higher and greater than the world; something transcendent, something divine. Also, we can sing this hymn and look at Jesus on the cross. We can feel his love afresh and find his grace that saves us and gives us a new hope for the future always. In the name of the one who reveals oneself to us with love, may we make our polyphony of grace here and now, in any circumstances, and may we all sing, “My God, how great thou art!” Amen.
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘How Great Thou Art’” (General Board of Discipleship, the United Methodist Church: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-how-great-thou-art)
The Pharisees! In today’s Gospel reading, we see this particular group of people who had some issues with Jesus and try to argue with him. Who are they? There are a number of stories about them in the Gospels; mostly, they are known for conflicts they had with John the Baptist and with Jesus. In those stories, the Pharisees appear to be really obsessed with keeping certain rules and rituals—especially concerning purity. Also, they act like self-righteous hypocrites placing the letter of the law above its spirit. In other words, they value the word-by-word observance of the law of Moses more than the actual practice of love for God and for neighbor. It is not a coincident that Jesus rejects their ideas and denounces them all the time. No doubt, they are the bad guys! Right?
But, wait a minute… is it really fair to judge them just like that? Isn’t it quite harsh to simply write them off as wrongdoers? Perhaps, those Pharisees, who got involved in unpleasant episodes with Jesus, would be some hardliners, some radicals among them. Perhaps, not all Pharisees would be such arrogant and close-minded hypocrites. In fact, historically, the Pharisees were known as good people. Josephus, who was a first-century historian, tells us that the Pharisees were fully supported by common people for their good deeds, in contrast to the more elite and upper-class religious group called Sadducees, who also appear in the Gospels. Most of the Pharisees were well-intended people who tried hard to keep their faith in God in a turbulent time. Their ideal was to pursue everyday sanctification by the law, against the dominant cultural and religious influence of the Romans. And surprisingly to us, they had little political power, so it was unlikely for them to play a major role in Jesus’ death. No doubt, we can’t just singlehandedly say that all of them were bad guys.
The Pharisees… more or less, they look like any other groups of believers… even just like us here today. In this group, there must be amicable people, serious people, passionate people, liberal people, conservative people and so on. Just like us; we are different from one another, but we gather together in our common faith. The Pharisees wanted to keep their traditions and practices that they thought were right. Just like us; we cherish our own favorite styles of worship and spiritual disciplines, and want to do good through our ministries. Still, the Pharisees surely made some mistakes; they were sometimes stuck with their rules and customs and they couldn’t discern what’s really important. This also seems just like us who sometimes refuse to see beyond our own ways of believing God and serving the church, even when those ways become obsolete and lifeless. Do the Pharisees somehow look just like us?
Now, having that said about the Pharisees, can we read the stories of the Pharisees in the Gospels differently? One thing for sure is that we can’t simply criticize and blame the Pharisees while staying safely on Jesus’ side—the good guy’s side. That must be an easy way out for us. Condemning the Pharisees’ wrongdoings on the side of Jesus, we may feel good about ourselves. But is there any other way to read the living Word of God in a way that it is truly meaningful and lifegiving to us? Today, I believe, the Gospel of Mark invites us to stand on the Pharisees’ side. It takes us to the place of the Pharisees, and on that side, we encounter Jesus who sees us… who sees us through our minds and our hearts. Standing on the Pharisees’ side in the story, we may ask to ourselves, “How would Jesus see us?” “To the eyes of Jesus, how would we look like?”
In today’s Gospel story, there comes a two-part confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. In part one, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. When they get hungry, the disciples pluck a few heads of grain to munch on. But Jesus doesn’t stop them. So the Pharisees challenge Jesus, asking why he’s allowing his followers to do such a unlawful thing on the Sabbath, the day people shouldn’t harvest. Then Jesus answers, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). (4) In part two, Jesus enters the synagogue and meets a man with a withered hand. Knowing that the Pharisees are watching him, Jesus asks them whether it’s lawful to “do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill” (Mark 3:4). The Pharisees are silent. Angered and grieved by the hardness of their hearts, Jesus heals the man’s withered hand.
In both parts, what does Jesus see? I believe, Jesus sees the things that the Pharisees are clinging to other than God. Jesus sees that the Pharisees hold on to the laws of righteousness and the rules of holiness more than to God; they cannot seek God who is the compassionate and lifegiving love and also God’s kingdom where the hungry are fed and the broken made whole. Jesus clearly sees the Pharisees cling to other things, not to God. Today, as we put ourselves in the Pharisees’ position, what would Jesus see in us? Certainly, Jesus would see the things that we are clinging to other than God. What do we hold on to that is not God? Our pride, reason, ability, and experience? What mortal things have we prioritized over God’s compassionate love? Our plans, benefits, rules, and preferences? What kind of barriers have we built in our minds and hearts? Our judgment, hatred, complacency, and indifference? With all these, we sometimes lose the sight of God’s grace working in and through us.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, to be mature Christians, even if it is quite difficult, we need to see ourselves as Jesus sees. Of course, Jesus sees us through his eyes of everlasting love. But at the same time Jesus sees us through his eyes of justice and righteousness. And I think Jesus wouldn’t mind saying some words of admonishment to us today. Let us try to see as Jesus sees. We may find our own blindness that hinders the power of God’s love from perpetrating in our lives and ministry. We may find our own rigid hearts that make us adhere to what is not God and what is not for God’s kingdom. “How would Jesus see us?” “To the eyes of Jesus, how would we look like?” As we find our answers to the questions, may the Spirit of the Lord be with us and awaken us to our shortcomings, liberate us from what we are falsely clinging to, and lead us to seek God and God’s kingdom first always. Amen.
Josephus, Antiquities, 18:12-15; 13:297-298.
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdamans 1985), 1246-1251.