Prayer: God of song and story, attune our ears to hear what you would have us hear this day. Inspire our hearts and minds to join in your song and your story. In Christ’s name, amen.
This morning we will continue our summer sermon series, “Songs of the Faith.” We know that when we are unable to express our faith in our own words, words found in verses of familiar hymns can help fill in the blanks with words and prayers behind our jumbled thoughts. Both of today’s hymns expand on God’s faithfulness and both each reference one of today’s two scripture passages. As you hear today’s scripture readings, I invite you to think of ways you have known God as faithful in your own life. Hear these words:
1 Samuel 7:3-13: 3 Then Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are turning to the Lord with all your heart, then get rid of all the foreign gods and the Astartes you have. Set your heart on the Lord! Worship him only! Then he will deliver you from the Philistines’ power.” 4 So the Israelites got rid of the Baals and the Astartes and worshipped the Lord only.
5 Next Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah. I will pray to the Lord for you.”
6 So they assembled at Mizpah, and they drew water and poured it out in the Lord’s presence. They fasted that same day and confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” Samuel served as judge of the Israelites at Mizpah.
7 When the Philistines heard that the Israelites had assembled at Mizpah, the Philistine rulers went up to attack Israel. When the Israelites learned of this, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8 The Israelites said to Samuel, “Please don’t stop praying to the Lord our God for us, so God will save us from the Philistines’ power!” 9 So Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as an entirely burned offering to the Lord. Samuel cried out in prayer to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.
10 While Samuel was offering the entirely burned offering, the Philistines advanced to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered against the Philistines with a great blast on that very day, throwing the Philistines into such a panic that they were defeated by Israel. 11 The Israelite soldiers came out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines. They struck them down until they reached a place just below Beth-car. 12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah.[a] He named it Ebenezer,[b] explaining, “The Lord helped us to this very point.”
13 So the Philistines were defeated, and they stopped coming into Israelite territory. The Lord’s hand was against the Philistines throughout Samuel’s life.
Lamentations 3: 19-24: The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.20 Ican’t help but remember and am depressed. 21 I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait. 22 Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended;[b] certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! 23 They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness. 24 I think:[c] The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for the Lord.
“Come thou fount of every blessings, tune my heart to sing thy grace, streams of mercy, never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise!” A song about the baptismal waters of grace and how Jesus seeks after us, rescuing us from danger. Perhaps all hymns are to some extent autobiographical in that they reveal something of the author’s spiritual experience.
In some hymns, the autobiographical thread is stronger and more obvious. Such is the case with British Baptist hymn writer Robert Robinson (1735-1790). Robert Robinson was born to parents of little means in Swaffham, Norfolk, England on September 27, 1735. His father died when he was eight and at age of fourteen he was sent by his mother to London to learn as a barber’s apprentice. It was in London where Robinson was “prone to wander,” and associated with notorious gangs stirring up trouble wherever he went. Then at the age of 17, Robinson and some friends stumbled upon a meeting where George Whitefield was preaching with the purpose of “scoffing at the poor deluded Methodists.” But God’s sense of humor intervened and Robinson was converted to Christ. He eventually moved to Cambridge and became a Baptist pastor- writing several hymns.
At the age of 23, he wrote the beloved hymn, “Come Thou Fount.” He references our scripture from Samuel, where the Ebenezer is a symbol of God’s faithfulness. The lyric, “here I raise my Ebenezer,” a stone memorial symbolizing God’s help. As Samuel raised the stone and called it Ebenezer, meaning, the Lord has helped us to reach this point, so too is Robinson raising his own Ebenezer to remember how God sought him even when he wandered and was a stranger. Robert Robinson was headed down a dangerous path in his life, until God plucked him out of it. This hymn is Robinson’s Ebenezer. It is a reminder to not only him, but to Christians today that God has plucked us out of a life of wandering and sin, and we can enjoy the grace and faithfulness of the Lord.
“Prone to wander- Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” seems to have also been prophetic of Robinson’s later years, as once again his life was characterized by unstableness, sin, and involvement in Unitarianism. But perhaps this makes his hymn relatable, as we all may wander from time to time. Even still grace is abundant through baptism as we are claimed children of God.
There is a story told that one day Robinson was riding in a stagecoach when he noticed a woman he didn’t know engrossed in a hymnbook. Somehow the two entered into a conversation in which the woman asked what he thought of the hymn she was humming. Robinson burst into tears and replied, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.” It is said that she responded by telling him “Sir, the ‘streams of mercy’ are still flowing.” (Source: 101 Hymn Stories) Mercies which are new with each passing day as we worship a God who seek after us even when we are wandering and leaving the God we love. God indeed remains faithful.
Of the many hymns written on the theme of God’s goodness and faithfulness, our next hymn in particular stands out like a beacon light pointing day after day to all the ways God is a faithful presence in our lives. “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” provides comfort in times of sorrow or change. While many of our favorite powerful hymns are born out of a particular dramatic faith shaking or defining experience followed by a come to Jesus moment for the hymn’s author, today’s second hymn was simply a result of the author’s “morning by morning” realization of God’s personal faithfulness.
A native of the small Kentucky town of Franklin, Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960) was born in a log cabin. Despite his lack of formal education, he became a teacher at age sixteen and the associate editor of his hometown weekly newspaper, the Franklin Advocate, at age twenty-one. In 1893 Chisholm became a Christian through the ministry of Henry Clay Morrison, who was the founder of Asbury College and Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Morrison persuaded Chisholm to move to Louisville where he then became editor of the Pentecostal Herald. Though Chisholm was ordained a Methodist minister in 1903, he served only a single, brief appointment at Scottsville, Kentucky, due to ill health. Chisholm relocated his family to Winona Lake, Indiana, to recover, and then to Vineland, New Jersey, in 1916 where he sold insurance. By the time of his retirement, he had written more than 1200 poems, 800 of which were published. They often appeared in religious periodicals such as the Sunday School Times, Moody Monthly, and Alliance Weekly. Many of these were set to music. (UMC website.)
In a letter dated 1941, Thomas Chisholm wrote, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier yeas 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 God has given me many wonderful displays of providing care, for which I am filled with astounding gratefulness.” He continued to profess God’s faithfulness the remainder of his life. (101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth Osbeck)
According to the author of our text from Lamentations, Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended;[b] certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! 23 God’s faithfulness and compassion are renewed every morning. God’s faithfulness is unrelenting. I invite you to listen to the following poem by 18th century poet Nicolaus Zinzendorf, which may have inspired Chisholm:
“The Lord leads us on by paths we did not know;
Upward the Lord leads us, though our steps be slow,
Though often we faint or falter on the way,
Though storms and darkness can obscure the day;
Yet when the clouds are gone, we know the Lord leads us on.
The Lord leads us on through all the unquiet years;
Past all our dreamland hopes, and doubts, and fears,
The Lord guides our steps, through all the tangled maze
Of losses, sorrows, and overclouded days;
We know the Lord’s will is done; and still the Lord is faithful, and still the Lord leads us on.”
What is God’s faithfulness like? What does it look like? It looks like a peace which holds true, a peace that lasts, stands the test of time, and endures all things. It looks like strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. It looks like comfort in knowing as God has been, God forever will be. It looks like unfailing compassion from God. It looks like God providing enough food for the birds of the air and clothing the flowers of the field to bloom in splendor. God’s faithfulness looks like all we truly need being provided for each and every new day. As surely has waves hit the shoreline, or as the sun rises over the seas, God is faithful.
On August 21st we will conclude our Songs of the Faith series by taking a closer look at the stories behind hymns which praise the expansive and all-encompassing welcome and love of God. But until then, let’s try with each new sunrise to seek out and appreciate the many examples of God’s faithfulness all around us. But friends, let’s not just stop there. Let’s also seek to response by working to be more faithful to God who never leaves us and always calls back to our hearts even though they are prone to wander. Let us be strive to be faithful as God calls us to be and along God to use us as compassionate Christ followers. Amen.