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God Moves in a Mysterious Way

 “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”  We are all familiar with the Old Testament account in which God reminds Job of the limits of human reason when He asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.  Who marked off its dimensions?  Surely you know!”  (Job 38: 4) Not only is God’s knowledge complete, but His omnipotence is demonstrate when the disciples, of “little faith,” call upon Jesus to still the storm which He does in the succinct command, “Quiet.  Be still!” This prompts the disciples to ask the question whose answer Job would have done well to consider before he questioned God, “Who is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey Him!”  (Mark 4: 39) With this thought in mind, today’s sermon hymn comes from William Cowper:  “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform!  He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.” 

                William Cowper (1725-1800) is perhaps one of the more colourful figures in hymnological history, begging for a diagnosis of mental illness.  Early in his life, he fell in love with his cousin.  The marriage being forbidden by her father, Cowper was left distraught and attempted to commit suicide, although he failed at this.  He had studied law and in 1763 was offered a clerkship in the House of Lords, requiring a brief but public examination in Parliament.  This prospect so distressed the fragile and already-depressed Cowper that the night before the examination he attempted to hang himself.  This again ended in failure, merely cementing Cowper’s notion that he could do nothing right.  He eventually took refuge in the household of Morely and Mary Unwin who befriended and looked after him.  They eventually moved to Olney, where Morely died.  Olney, a picturesque medieval market town about 100 miles outside of London, happened to be home to a most famous curate—John Newton.  Newton laboured hard and continuously at the Church of St Peter and Paul striving to help the many poor people of the town.  Newton, of course, was the ex-slave trader turned evangelical clergy whose hymns include “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.”  Newton saw some poetic potential in the young man, and together they explored writing poetry and hymns.  Cowper had published poetry before (one of his first poems was entitled, “Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portions”), but now he began to be infused with Newton’s Christian zeal, and it might be said the moving of the Holy Spirit in Cowper’s life was now evident.  Newton invited Cowper to include his hymns in Olney Hymns (1779), one of the first and most important hymnals in the English language.  It is from this volume that this hymn originates.

                Considering Cowper’s emotional state, one wonders if he wrote the third stanza of this hymn in order to convince himself it was true:  “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;  the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.”  The following stanza illustrates that Cowper himself probably intellectually understood his own limitations as a human being, both emotional and mental, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.  But trust Him for His grace;  behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.”  We moderns might not like to characterize God as having a “frowning providence,” but Cowper here sums up law and gospel, an oft-misapplied paradigm in modern Christianity.  God is both and the same a stern lawgiver demanding perfection, but also a loving Father who sent His Son that all might be saved.  One concept demands the other.  The final stanza echoes Jesus words in today’s gospel, “Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain;  God is His own Interpreter and He will make it plain.”  Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4: 40b)  Even after they continually witness Jesus’ miracles, they continue to demonstrate a lack of faith, whether in Peter’s denial or in Thomas’ doubting.  Yet, the disciples merely exhibit the human tendency toward doubt which we all harbour.  How many times do we watch tele programs which advocate a secular humanist approach to the world?  Scientists, those who study and know the works of God better than anyone else, are interviewed and put forth their ideas of how “nature” provided this or that creature with the means to survive, or how “nature” designed earth to be a hospitable environment for life, never acknowledging God’s designing and sustaining work.  What better example of “Blind unbelief” “scanning” God’s work for naught, never seeing the Designer in the design.  God is a great mystery to some, even though He is omnipresent.  We have never seen air, but depend on it for our life and we would certainly know if it were absent!  Such is it with God—we do not know and cannot always reason His ways for doing something, but the faith supplied us by the Holy Spirit assures us that what He does is good. 

 

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

How Firm a Foundation

 

“How Firm A Foundation.”   This is a one of the best Lutheran hymns ever written by a Baptist.  This hymn text was possibly written by John Rippon and was certainly first published in his A Selection of Hymns, from the Best Authors intended to be an Appendix to Dr Watts Psalms and Hymns (1787.)  Rippon (1751-1836) was an Englishman who graduated from Bristol Baptist College and in 1772 began preaching in London.  This same year, he was asked to guest-preach at Carter’s Lane Baptist Church, Tooley Street, for a few months. . . this few months turned quickly into 59 years and ended only with Rippon’s death.  (Much as Lord of Life’s organist agreed only to play organ for three Sundays in June, 1993. . .) 

            This hymn text probably was not actually written by Rippon.  He only collected some of the best Baptist hymns of the past and present and published them in his volume.  Most ascriptions of authorship were left blank.  Rippon’s hymnal was published in many editions.  It sold so well that Rippon himself even became rather wealthy.  He is buried in the Dissenter’s cemetery of Bunhill Fields in East London, where also Isaac Watts, John Bunyan, William Blake and Daniel DeFoe are buried.  LoL’s organist did not realize Rippon was buried here until he literally stumbled over his grave whilst walking on the SW side of the cemetery one. Let us consider the text: 

How firm a foundation, O saints of the Lord,

Is made for your faith in His excellent Word.

What more can He say than to you He has said

Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?

One of the fundamental concepts of the Reformation has been the sola scriptura (“scripture alone”) principle.  This idea is viewed differently in different denominations.  Baptists view this to mean that church traditions not directly mandated by scripture ought not be done.  Luther viewed this as meaning church traditions that were not forbidden by scripture could be done.  Regardless, we observe in this first stanza this sufficiency of scripture:  “What more can He say than to you He has said?”  God’s revelation sufficient for salvation is found in the Bible.  This, then can be the only foundation upon which we build our faith. 

            The second and following stanzas shift the focus from the narration of the hymnwriter to the commands of God:  God speaks to us from Isaiah when He says “Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed, for I am your God.”  As is typical with penultimate (next-to-last) stanzas, the focus is on sufferings or adversity:  “When through fiery trials your pathway will lie, My grace, all sufficient, will be your supply.”  (See also “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “A Mighty Fortress” for similar language in the third stanzas.)  The fourth stanza emphasizes sanctification:  “Throughout all their lifetime my people will prove my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love. . .”  Perhaps here we can determine this was not written by a Lutheran, for a Lutheran, especially of this era, would not write about people proving God’s love.  Yet, do we not go about daily living as Christian examples to those around us?  Should not God’s love be evident through us daily and in the most mundane actions?  If Lutherans do not do this, perhaps we should learn from the Baptists.

 

 

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

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