Since the second Sunday of June, we have explored the stories and theological meanings of our favorite hymns and sung them together as closing each worship service. And today, we are already looking into our last favorite hymn. Beginning with “How Great Thou Art,” we reflected on an African American spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” a contemporary praise, “How Great Is Our God,” and the classics, “Blessed Assurance,” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Are you enjoying this sermon series so far? Through this journey, I hope those hymns may resonate within our own stories of faith and our own melodies of grace as we continue to make our beautiful polyphony of grace here with the guidance of the Holy Spirit…
If there is one word that every little kid loves to use other than “no,” it would be “why.” They throw countless why-questions at their parents and teachers. “Why can’t we get a puppy?” “Why is the sky blue?” “Why can’t I have ice cream right now?” The funniest why-question I’ve ever received when I was a Sunday school teacher was, “Why do you have hair coming out of your nose?” Oops! Judy Arnall, a parenting expert says, the “why stage” of development isn’t about misbehaving or annoying parents. It’s what happens when children’s brains exercise their imagination and creative thinking. So the question of “why” actually shows a significant leap in brain development.
But when children advance from the why stage to the next stage of development, do why-questions ever go away? Perhaps, they would ask less questions, because they have certain answers from their experience and learn how to find answers as their intellect grows. But look at us. As grown-ups, can we say that we are now free from asking why? No, we can’t. It looks like we only have different sets of why-questions. And even worse, questions we ask in our adulthood are more complicated and hard to answer, because they are more about our life and existence. Why do I live? Why do I exist? Why is my life such and such? It’s truly difficult to answer these why-questions especially about the reason for life.
Then, when we have those in-depth why-questions about our life, how do we find answers? In what way? We might get some help from great achievements of human mind like philosophy and science. And we might get some wisdom from our friends and someone we respect and trust. Yes, they may provide us with quite good rationales of life. But even though those rationales are meaningful to us, we know they are not enough to discover life’s purpose behind its reality. Why? It’s simply because we are humans, and the way of human mind has certain limitations. So here, we better come up with a different approach, a different way to find answers. And the other way we have is the way of faith. This way tends to be disregarded and considered archaic in this world of advanced science and technology. However, as a Christian, I am confident that this is the way. This is the only way that assures us of the ultimate reason for life.
Our Christian faith simply affirms that God’s everlasting love for us is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. And he is the answer to the why-questions about our life. Through our faith in Jesus, we get to know the truth that we are beloved children of God. With love, God created us in God’s image. And by grace, God saved us even when we were yet sinners. So why do we live? It’s because we are called to live our life in God’s love and abundant blessing. We cannot even measure how much we are loved and how priceless our lives are. Please remember, Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave just for our lives, for our new lives. The first verse of the hymn “Because He Lives” tells us exactly about this reason for life. “God sent his son, They called him Jesus, He came to love, Heal and forgive, He lived and died, To buy my pardon, An empty grave, Is there to prove, My Savior lives.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we are called to God’s love. Each one of us is personally called to the love that gives us new life, new hope, and new purpose and meaning of life.
The authors of the hymn are the two of the longest-lasting performing couples of Christian contemporary music, Gloria and William J. Gaither.
It is said they wrote the hymn based on the answer to their own why-questions of life. It was when they were expecting their third child, they saw many social upheavals in the sixties. Drug traffic, assassinations, racial tensions, and threats of war monopolized the headline news. And Mr. Gaither was very ill and the couple went through a very hard time. Ms. Gaither recalls the time when they asked to themselves, “Why do we give birth to a child into such a world like this?” “Why should we let our child face the uncertain future?” But facing these why-questions, the Gaithers experienced a mysterious moment of divine assurance. Ms. Gaither says, “At a moment, suddenly I felt released from it all… the assurance of the risen Christ blew across our troubled minds like a cooling breeze in the parched desert… Gradually, the fear left and the joy began to return. I knew I could have that baby and face the future with optimism and trust. It was the resurrection affirming itself in our lives once again. It was life conquering death in the regularity of my day.” With this answer, they wrote, “How sweet to hold, A newborn baby, And feel the pride, And joy he gives, But greater still, The calm assurance, This child can face, Uncertain days, Just Because he lives.”
Because he lives, not only because he died on the cross for us, but because he lives for us, we know we can live our new life in Christ, the life that is everlasting. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus assures his disciples, “Because I live, you also will live.” The chorus of the hymn gloriously sings, “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, Because he lives, All fear is gone, Because I know, He holds the future, And life is worth the living, Just because he lives.” Yes, because he lives, we know that we will also live. Because he lives, we know that our faith in God will never go in vain. Because he lives, we know that the true love can overcome any suffering and death in this world. Because he lives, we know that God loves us and calls us to love God and love one another. Because he lives, we have unending hope for the future.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus has risen and freed us from our sins and liberate us even from the power of death. He has risen and assured us of the worthiness of our life. So let us never cease praising him who gives us the ultimate reason for life. And let us live our life in all confidence of God’s everlasting love for us. Why? Because he lives, just because he lives. Amen.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The survey of our favorite hymns showed me that this hymn was picked more than others, and I think it is not a surprise at all. No doubt, it’s a great hymn with beautiful praises for God’s steadfast love, care, and guidance in our lives. Hear the heartfelt chorus of the hymn, “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!” Singing this hymn, have you ever got curious about the author of this hymn? From the beautiful lyrics we may guess that the author probably had many reasons to be grateful to God. And it seems likely that the author lived a wonderful life, because such praise can’t just come out of someone who didn’t experience God’s abundant blessings. Sure enough.
But against our expectation, this hymn’s author, Thomas Chisholm (1866-1960) lived a rather underprivileged and challenging life.
Born in a log cabin in a small Kentucky town of Franklin, Chisholm was a farm boy who grew up without any formal education. Nevertheless, he tried hard and became a teacher at age sixteen, and the associate editor of his hometown newspaper, the Franklin Advocate, at age twenty-one. After he converted into Christianity, he pursued to be a pastor and finally got ordained as a Methodist minister ten years later. He started his ordained ministry at a church in Kentucky, but very unfortunately, he had to resign after just one year because of his poor health condition. He struggled with his health issue for many years. Later, he moved to New Jersey but couldn’t go back to ministry. So, for the rest of his life, he worked as a life insurance salesperson.
Even though his life didn’t start in a favorable circumstance, even though his life didn’t unfold as the way he wanted, Chisholm never ceased praising God through his poems. And by the time of his retirement, he already had more than 1,200 poems. 800 of them were published including the most famous, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Toward the end of his life, Chisholm testified, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years, which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
What a testimony! This powerful testimony of faith resonates right within the first verse of the hymn. “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father; There is no shadow of turning with Thee, Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.” How could Chisholm keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all those challenges in his life? How could he keep trusting God no matter what?
The questions run even more deeply as we meditate on the Bible passage that directly inspired Chisholm to write the hymn. That is a passage from the Book of Lamentations. As the title says, the Book of Lamentations is a collection of poetic laments. This book can hardly ever be a favorite reference of hymn writers or pastors, because it is mostly packed with vehement expressions of gut-wrenching grief. In the book, the poets of lamentations cry out for God as they witness the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem (586 BCE), and they hold God accountable for the miseries they are facing as captives. But it is just incredible that even in their deepest desperation, they don’t lose their faith in God. Rather, they reaffirm their faith and even praise God, because they believe that their hope is still in God, and in God only. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). “Great is your faithfulness! Even we are in the middle of unending ordeal and anguish, we believe, great still is your faithfulness.” Yes, they sing! And this authentic praise out of the turbulent depth inspired Chisholm to join their singing.
How could Chisholm and the people of God keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all those challenges in their lives? How could they keep trusting God no matter what? The rest of the hymn gives us the answers to the questions. It first tells us that when we simply observe the course of nature, we can find God’s care for all creation and believe God’s unchanging faithfulness. Verse 2 goes, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above; Join with all nature in manifold witness, To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” Here the hymn praises our God the Creator who gives us the confidence in God’s faithful care. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus also asks us to see God’s steadfast love, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field…will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30).
Now the hymn gives us another answer that when we remember what God has done for our new life, we will never lose our faith in God’s faithfulness. Verse 3 goes, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow. Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.” Here the hymn praises our God the Redeemer who liberates us from the chain to sin and death, and it also praises our God the Sustainer who is ever present among us and closely guides our journey of faith.
Because of the one who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us, because of the faithful work of our triune God among us, because of God’s lifegiving love, saving grace, and everlasting peace for us, we can keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all the challenges in our lives; we can keep trusting God no matter what; and we can sing, “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”
Sometimes, we face moments of grief and suffering. And sometimes, our reality is too hard to bear. It is never easy to remain faithful when our lives don’t get any better or when we struggle with our own situations. It is never easy to keep our faith when our light of hope flickers in our hearts, yet the winds of despair gust through our lives. In times like these, what shall we do to keep our faith? From the hymn of Thomas Chisholm and the lamentation of the Israelites in exile, we should learn one thing for sure today. In such times like those, we praise God. We praise God witnessing God’s faithful care for all God’s creation. We praise God trusting in God’s faithful work as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. And we praise God’s faithfulness no matter what. Then, I believe, God will surely fill our hearts with heavenly joy and confidence. So let us praise God once more and every time, “Great is Thy faithfulness!” Amen.
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-great-is-thy-faithfulness); (http://gaither.com/news/“great-thy-faithfulness”-story-behind-hymn)
Do you remember what happened in this sanctuary exactly on this day six years ago, July 1st, 2012? Can anybody guess? That day was also Sunday… Yes, it was the very first Sunday that I had the worship service and delivered my sermon as a pastor right in this pulpit. That was six years ago already. And it means that today, another year of my ministry has started. How do I feel? I am truly grateful that I can have this worship service with you today and still belong to my loving church family from both congregations. In a way, I feel like I have been through a tough journey with you, a journey with many roadblocks, with many ups and downs. But above all, I am truly grateful that through the journey, I have witnessed how God is working among us to grow and enlarge our circle of blessing.
Looking back on those years, personally, I have many testimonies. But beyond everything else, what I can testify in all confidence is just one simple assurance engraved in my heart. That is, “God never gives up.” God never gives up on us because we are the children of God. And God never gives up on us until God’s will be done in our lives. God never gives up. This is the assurance I have come to hold through my short and humble journey in ministry.
Last week as I was reflecting on the assurance and preparing another sermon in the sermon series, “Polyphony of Grace,” I felt like God reassuring my faith by the beautiful message of the hymn that we are looking into today. This favorite hymn of our choice is “Blessed Assurance.” Yes, what else would it be?
This hymn was written by one of the most famous hymn writers of all time, Fanny Crosby. She became blind at the age of six weeks,but with her extraordinary talent, She began composing hymns at age six and eventually became an author of more than 8,000 gospel hymn texts. And more importantly to us… she was a lifelong Methodist. History tells us about the day in 1873 when Crosby wrote “Blessed Assurance.” On that day, her friend, Phoebe Palmer Knapp, visited her and played a melody to Fanny Crosby and asked, “What does the melody say to you?” Crosby replied that the tune suggested the words, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” And she immediately proceeded to recite the entire first verse of the hymn.
From the story, we can imagine, Crosby must have kept her assurance so faithfully in her heart that it could be immediately crystalized into words as soon as the melody inspired her soul. Then, how does her vivid assurance come to be expressed in a form of hymn? The hymn begins by describing the foundation of Christian assurance, the ground on which we can keep our faith in God. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of his spirit, washed in his blood.” The first verse of the hymn tells us, the foundation of our blessed assurance is Jesus who comes to us and reveals God’s steadfast love for us. True, through Jesus, we are assured that we can experience the “foretaste of glory divine” in our lives. Through Jesus, we are assured that his sacrifice on the cross makes us the “heirs of salvation” “born of His Spirit.” And through Jesus, we are assured that God loves us always and therefore, God never gives up on us. In today’s Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul proclaims that nothing can change God’s love for us, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Romans 8:38-39). Indeed, upon Jesus Christ, who is the firm foundation of our faith, the rock of our salvation, the cornerstone of our church, we can stand assured of God’s everlasting love for us.
Following the foundation of our blessed assurance, the hymn moves on to teach us the way of Christian assurance, the way we can remain assured of God’s loving presence. How can we always feel blessed, beloved, joyful, redeemed, and esteemed on the ground of our faith? One thing for sure is that we cannot stay assured by our own will, by our own power and effort. Even though we have the assurance of God’s love, we are still humans whose faith easily gets weakened by our fears, doubts, and despairs. And we are still humans who seek other grounds of assurance than Jesus Christ because we crave some short-term guarantees of evanescent happiness, and we strive to fulfill instinctive human needs of security, power, and affection.
Then, what is the way we can permanently live on the ground of our true assurance? The hymn tells us the way in two words, “Perfect submission.” “Perfect submission, perfect delight! Visions of rapture now burst on my sight; Angels descending bring from above, Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” Yes, the way that we can be always assured of God’s love and joyfully abide in that love is perfect submission of our will. When we surrender our stubborn will and let God take the steering wheel, we will be able to find the glimpse of “perfect delight.” When we deny our strong ego that blinds our eyes and deafens our ears, we will be able to see the “visions of [joy]… burst on [our] sight,” and hear the “echoes of mercy” and “whispers of love.” So let us surrender our will and let God’s will be done through us. Let us submit our ego and let only Christ live in us, let our Good Shepherd find us the way to green pastures. This is the way, the only way, we can always have the “foretaste of glory divine” and live in the assurance of new life, of new hope, of the new heaven and the new earth.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, today we are standing on the foundation of our assurance, that is, God’s steadfast love for us in Jesus Christ. With this divine love, we surely become confident that God never gives up on us, the beloved children of God. Delivering this sermon on the day that marks a new start of ministry here, I can certainly say to you that this is my story and this is my song. God has never given up on us, and I know, God never will. So I praise my savior, all the day long. On our way of assurance, let us remain assured in Christ; let us surrender our will and let God’s will be done in our lives. Through the blessed assurance and the perfect submission, I hope and pray that we can find a true joy of salvation and a true hope for the kingdom to come always. Amen.