Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III
Third Sunday in Lent, 7 March 2021
Texts: Exodus 20:1-21, Romans 7:12-25, John 2:13-22
Collect of the Day
Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Some of the worst hymns in the history of the church were written during the period between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, during the heyday of the “Social Gospel” era. They were bad not because they were difficult to sing or because they were matched with cumbersome tunes and melodies. In fact, many of them, on the surface, have a very majestic sound and quality to them.
They were bad not because, taken individually, they contained any particularly objectionable material.
They were bad because, taken as whole body of work, in historical context, they were, and still are, generic and theologically vacuous.
Too many of them begin with “God of” this or “God of” that—a most impersonal deity.
“God of Grace and God of Glory” is a classic example. We still sing this hymn today with a lot of gusto. It is, in many ways, a stirring hymn. But to draw out of it any spiritual energy, you have to lay aside the historical background behind its composition and its composer.
|Harry Emerson Fosdick|
Harry Emerson Fosdick was, by any measure, a heretic of the first order. He wrote the hymn on the occasion of the dedication of his new church, founded and underwritten by none other than John D. Rockefeller, for the specific purpose of the propagation of Fosdick’s different gospel.
Scott Wilson (A Concise History of Preaching) describes Fosdick’s preaching in this way:
After floundering for his first years as a preacher, he devised a homiletic based in pastoral counseling that made preaching an adventure for him. Every sermon was to start with the “real problems of people” and was to “meet their difficulties, answer their questions, confirm their noblest faiths and interpret their experiences in sympathetic, wise and understanding co-operation.”
In other words, a lot of pop psychology and self-help with minimal Scripture and only used, when employed, to illustrate a pre-determined point. That method of preaching is exactly backward. You begin with the Scriptural text and move to the point. You don’t begin with the point and move to the text.
You might say I am using Harry Emerson Fosdick today to illustrate my pre-determined point. I would plead guilty to that, except for the fact that when I began writing this sermon, I had no idea I would even mention the man. But it was today’s text from Romans that started me down the path that led to my mentioning him and his stirring but flawed hymn.
“Wretched man that I am!” Paul writes. “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
In the course of a service of worship, from its rudimentary planning all the way to the final blessing and dismissal, the Holy Spirit is at work—bringing together the collects and prayers, the Scripture readings, the hymns, the sermon, the gathering at the Table—all the elements of worship into a cohesive act of praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God.
That is always the case—every Sunday, every week. But there are some weeks when it is more clearly discernable. This is such a week—from the collect (which we will get to in a moment) to the readings to the hymns.
At the close of our service this morning we will sing “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” a hymn written barely 20 years ago. Yet, listen to these words, and hear the clear echo of Paul’s words:
How deep the Father’s love for us, How vast beyond all measure, That he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure!
Hymnwriters today seem to be rediscovering the power of biblical language. Hymnwriters of old were never afraid to us it.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
When you understand the history behind these words, they are even more powerful. John Newton was very much a wretch. He was the captain of a slave ship. But after a powerful conversion experience, he became an Anglican priest. One of his parishioners was a member of Parliament named William Wilberforce, the man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the abolition of the British slave trade.
That’s not speaking about “real problems of people” but, rather, the problem and the solution, the only solution, that brings life and health and peace to every person. And is that not, again, merely a reiteration of the words of Paul?
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Romans 7 is a difficult passage, not only to preach but to read—because not a single one of us can read it without realizing we are, indeed, wretched. There is no comfort in the law because, as Paul says, “the law is spiritual” but we are “of the flesh, sold under sin.” Slaves, if you will, to sin. We are wretches. We are bound to do those things we know we ought not to do, yet we do them anyway.
If that sounds like circular reasoning, well, it is—because sin makes us go around in circles, bouncing off the walls, tying us up in knots, burying us in self-pity and self-loathing—restless souls longing to be free, but knowing we cannot free ourselves.
“Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself,” we prayed earlier, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”
|Augustine of Hippo|
The language of this prayer, particularly the first part, is borrowed from St. Augustine, another wretch of a man that God made his treasure. In his Confessions, his spiritual autobiography, he withholds nothing in bearing his soul to God about his own disordered affections that manifested themselves in some pretty wild youthful indiscretions.
I cared for nothing but to love and be loved. But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of friendship. Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust. Love and lust together seethed within me. In my tender youth they swept me away over the precipice of my body’s appetites and plunged me in the whirlpool of sin. More and more I angered you, unawares. For I had been deafened by the clank of my chains, the fetters of the death which was my due to punish the pride of my soul. I strayed still farther from you and you did not restrain me. I was tossed and spilled, floundering in the broiling sea of my fornication, and you said no word. How long it was before I learned that you were my true joy! You were silent then, and I went on my way, farther from you, proud in my distress and restless in fatigue, sowing more and more seeds whose only crop was grief.
That is one paragraph in a 13-volume, 350-page work. Augustine, like Paul and like John Newton, was certainly not born a Christian. No one is. We are all born wretches. We don’t like to hear that. We don’t like to be reminded of it. But if we were not all born wretches, born in sin, far gone from original righteousness, we would not all be here today, to cry out as Paul and Augustine and Newton and countless others have done, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders; Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished; His dying breath has brought me life; I know that it is finished.
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.