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)
Pastor Earl Kim