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Thy Strong Word

 

Thy Strong Word  Although this hymn has become somewhat of a favorite in many Lutheran churches, it is of relatively recent origin, the text having been composed by Martin Franzmann in 1954 for Concordia Seminary in St Louis, MO. 

            Franzmann, a lifelong member of the LCMS, taught exegetical theology at several institutions in the US before his ordination in 1969. He subsequently moved to Cambridge, England, where he served as a professor in a theological college. He died in 1976 at the age of 69.

            This hymn text reminds us again of God’s commands to us and of the supremacy of His Word.  This hymn reminds us of God the Father’s omnipotence: God’s word “did cleave the darkness” and spoke Creation into being! Both “light” and the “ordered seasons” are part of God’s domain of which this text reminds us. Franzmann’s second stanza laments those who “dwelt in darkness, dark as night and deep as death,” a darkness through which “broke the light of Thy salvation, breathed Thine own life-breathing breath.” Here Franzmann captures the stark reality of sin and death as well as life and salvation in a manner reminiscent of Luther, for whom the light and dark dichotomy was always suggestive of the great battle between Christ, “the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected” and the nefarious “world’s prince,” a metaphor for the reality of Satan. Today’s gospel reading illustrates the theological reality of such an image when Jesus says in Matthew 5:

 

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

 

Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world, with wages occasionally being paid in salt instead of currency (ie., the word “salary” is derived from “salt.”) It was valuable as a preservative, for taste, and even for pickling. (In Elizabethan times, a dinner guest of social importance was placed closer to the salt shaker [cellar] than one of lesser importance, who was not “worth his salt.”) Without salt, the world would grind to a halt, just as it would without Christians whose spiritual life is enlightened through Word and Sacrament. It is Christ’s light which informs our lives as Christians as we meet together to worship, to hear and to study His Word, and to receive the sacrament. We don’t become metaphorically saltier and more enlightened by sitting at home Sunday mornings watching television preachers nor by making up excuses why not to participate in the life of our congregation. The fourth stanza points us to a Christological foundation: “From the cross Thy wisdom shineth breaketh forth in conquering might; from the cross forever beameth all Thy bright redeeming light,” paraphrasing Paul who writes in I Cor. 18 that “. . . the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

            This famous tune, known in Welsh as “Ton-Y-Botel,” literally means “tune in a bottle,” for it was said that a bottle washing up on the Welsh coast in the 19th-century contained this unexplained and tuneful melody.  Perhaps that explains why Wales has produced so many lovely tunes over the years. . .

 

 

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Your Hand, O Lord in Days of Old

 

“Your Hand, O Lord”  This text was written by Edward Plumptre (1821-1891), who also wrote “My Song is Love Unknown.”  The hauntingly-beautiful tune is traditional English, having been arranged and adapted by the great composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958.) 

          This hymn puts forth the idea of God’s healing and forgiveness spanning the continuum of time.  The gospel lesson relates the story of the ten lepers who were cleansed by Jesus, although only one of whom offered any thanks to Jesus.  Plumptre’s first stanza observes, “Your hand, O Lord, in days of old, was strong to heal and save;  it triumphed over ills and death, o’er darkness and the grave.  To You they came, the blind, the mute, the palsied and the lame, the lepers in their misery, the sick with fevered frame.”  Not only the lepers were healed, but the ancient Hebrews were guided, guarded and protected as they left Egypt and wandered in the desert.  (The reference to “Gennes’ret” in the second stanza is another name for the Sea of Galilee or Lake Tiberius.)  The final stanza prays that God “Be our great deliverer still, the Lord of life and death;  restore and quicken soothe and bless, with Your lifegiving breath.”

          The modern Christian would do well to remember the sentiments conveyed by this hymn;  although it is sometimes easy to think the current generation is the most advanced, smart, ambitious, or savvy, we need always to remember that our human condition has not changed through the centuries.  Ancient cultures may have had their own ridiculous superstitions, but a walk through the New Age section in the bookstore should put to rest the idea that the current culture is any more grounded.  How many of us have behaved as the Children of Israel?  We praise God during the good times, but during the bad times we bemoan why He has given us such crosses to bear.  Or, we pray to God during the bad times and forsake Him during the good?  Perhaps we select a church based on its programmes, attractiveness, personality, or its ability to fulfill our own wants and desires.  This hymn seeks to remind us that we not only share the same flaws as those throughout history, but we receive the same forgiveness.  We sing or say psalms every Sunday not simply to bore each other with tales of honey dripping from Aaron’s beard or ponderings of sitting next to Babylonian rivers, but to remind us that the emotions, experiences, frustrations and joys of the Hebrews are similar to ours.  We are assured that God will act graciously to us not only because He assures us He will, but also because God’s witness through history is one of continual forgiveness and protection.  For those who have difficulty believing the words of scripture, the testimony of God’s action in scripture should serve to remind that “actions speak louder than words.” 

          It is sad and, dare one say it, unChristian for a church to separate itself from the believers of history.  In so doing, we risk misunderstanding what the Church Invisible truly is—all of those, past, present and future who share redemption in Christ Jesus.  The Church is about “finding truth” in Christ and not in one’s sinful nature. . . by keeping ourselves aware of God’s actions and faithfulness in the past, we are assured that He will continue to guard and protect us.

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