24 October 2010
Such practical advice our Gospel lesson (Luke 18.9–14) brings! Arrogant people end up being humbled, and humble people end up being accepted. Even more important than practical advice, however, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector takes us to the heart of Luke’s Gospel and, for that matter, of the Christian message itself. Luke (whose memory we celebrated last Monday) helps us to recognize God’s love for the marginalized, the poor and the lowly. As Christians who know that we have no particular reason to be accepted by God other than his extravagant kindness, we also are encouraged by that support to address the needs of those around us.
The Introit hymn, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’, takes us to the heart of God’s extravagant kindness. Written by Charles Wesley (1707–1788), it achieved great popularity down through the years and today appears in hymnals of every denomination. Scholars believe that Wesley imitated the opening stanza of John Dryden’s operatic play King Arthur (1691) written to a tune composed by Henry Purcell (1659–1695), now known as ‘Westminster’.
Loosely Trinitarian, the verses compel us to celebrate God’s kindness at work in us. The final verse says it all: ‘Finish, then, Thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be. Let us see Thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee’.
The Communion hymn ‘Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face’ was written by Horatius Bonar (1808–1889). Having some of the loveliest lyrics in the Christian tradition that relate the physical aspects of bread and wine to the spiritual dimensions of forgiveness and salvation, the text also makes clear that Bonar is a Scottish Presbyterian (‘Too soon we rise, the symbols disappear’). The ministry of Bonar, the author of many hymns (including ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’), had an evangelical bent. Bonar helped sponsor the visits of Chicago’s Dwight L. Moody to Scotland and wrote many articles about claiming souls and reviving the church. Finally, he left the Church of Scotland, participating in the formation of a more evangelical denomination of which he became the moderator.
The Postcommunion hymn, ‘O God, our help in ages past’, is a nice conclusion to a worship service which has its Introit hymn written by England’s most prolific hymn writer, Charles Wesley. This hymn is written by Isaac Watts (1674–1748), the second most prolific hymn writer in England with 750 texts to his name. Watts’s father was a non-conformist, and Isaac himself became a dissenting preacher. Because his views did not accord with the Church of England, he was not allowed to attend a major university, but he nevertheless mastered numerous languages and wrote many beloved poems we love to sing today. He often drove his parents to distraction with all his rhymes. From the window of his brother John’s house, Charles Wesley could see Isaac’s grave. The two masterful poets in the English language who gave us texts to sing bless us with their language as they open and close our worship today.
The hymn tune to which this text is usually sung, St Anne, was composed by William Croft in 1708. Not until it became associated with Watts’s text did it become well known.