Lay Reader = Acts 4:23-31
23After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, 25it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? 26The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ 27For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed,28to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.29And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 30while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
Last week we finished with the seven churches in the book of Revelation. This week is the last in our series looking at some of the classic hymns of our faith. Next week we start a series that walks through the key ministries of Jesus, and we’ll ask how we can be a church like Jesus.
This week we are looking at the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” In 2010 it was named as the second most popular English hymn of all time – any guesses on #1? Amazing Grace.
This hymn has a long and twisty life before it reaches America. It started off as a Swedish hymn written by Carl Boberg. He said that he experienced a very sudden and intense storm. And that storm disappeared just as suddenly as it appeared – as if it had been banished by God. And then a little while later he heard the tolling of the church bells across the lake, and as he looked out at the water it was as smooth as glass, as if it were reflecting the very face of God. That’s what inspired him to write the nine verses of his poem.
And then…no one noticed. It took quite a few years before someone with some musical chops read the poem and put it to the tune of an old Swedish folk melody. And it took a couple more decades to make its way to Russia, with a fresh Russian translation set to a Russian melody. From there an Englishman picked it up and gave it an English translation that tweaked the Russian melody. A few decades after that it made its way to India. And that’s where some American missionaries heard the locals singing it, and they brought it back to the States. Cue up Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades, which used the hymn as one of its main songs, and then the rest, as they say, is history.
Looking at the circuitous route over many decades that it took for this poem to become the second most popular English hymn of all time, I have to say God, How Great Thou Art for pulling that off!
The first two verses of the hymn focus on being in awe of God’s creation – “I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.” Then the third verse moves the focus off of creation and instead stands in awe of God’s sacrificial love in Christ – “and when I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in.” Finally, the fourth verse is in awe of the eternal hope we have in Christ – “when Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!”
Given the wide scope of the hymn, many Bible verses are associated with it, but I’m going to focus in mainly on verse 3’s awe at God’s sacrificial love in Christ, and that takes me to Isaiah 53.
3He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 11Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
What Is Greatness?
If you want a fascinating read, I recommend the Wikipedia article on the list of people known as “The Great.” Now I’m halfway decent at history, and I’m only looking at people who earned “the great” as their moniker, so color me surprised when my reaction to about half the names was, “who’s that?”
Some of the “who’s that’s” were great in their lifetimes but largely footnotes in history. Others were great as long as their children were alive and in power to enforce their great memory. But my favorites were the long list of rulers who came after someone I had heard of, and they just forced people to call them “great” because the original ruler actually had been great. Classic.
Pop Quiz – who can you think of in history that was known as “the Great?” Throw out some names.
It’s pretty interesting to think about those names who have stuck around as “the Great.” What made them great?
You have great conquerors like Alexander the Great, who influenced others by force. You have the political, philosophical, and military capabilities of Frederick the Great in Prussia. You see Catherine the Great in Russia using a highly capable team to expand the very idea of Russia to the immense size that it has today. Genghis Khan unified and conquered the largest empire in history.
But each of them, despite their many flaws and sometimes brutal tactics, were and still are known as “the great” because they had ideas bigger than themselves. Some leaders want things to go great when they’re around and then go down the tubes when they’re gone – that shows how awesome they were. But others want something to continue past their involvement. Alexander wanted the Greek culture and philosophy to be spread, so he setup Greek cultural centers in the large cities he conquered. Frederick called himself “the first servant of the state,” and sponsored art and education and what we would eventually call German culture. Catherine started the first state-financed higher education for women. Genghis Khan unified the Silk Road, the longest overland trade route.
And then there’s Herod the Great, one of the Herods during Jesus’ time. He’s an interesting case, because he wasn’t even the real ruler. He ruled underneath – WAY underneath – Caesar in Rome. And yet he’s called “the Great.” Why? I would say that Herod was “the Great” because he was the champion of pork. Pork is the term used when politicians funnel money back to their home districts for projects like infrastructure or military bases. And Herod was like the patron saint for this. He managed to get the Jewish Temple rebuilt. He got funding for several new Roman-style cities in Israel. He brought in Roman education, Roman entertainment, Roman everything. He was the greatest pork politician in history. But even then, he wanted buildings that outlasted his rule. He wanted culture that outlasted his rule. Greatness apparently requires something bigger than yourself and longer-lasting than yourself.
But here’s the problem. When we sing “My God, How Great Thou Art,” what can God do that’s bigger than himself? What can God do that’s longer-lasting than himself? Isn’t God the top of the food chain?
Well yes, but that’s why it’s so surprising to think “that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in, that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin.” God is the only one of the “greats” I’ve mentioned today that actually has reason to be all about himself. He’s the only one who is truly greater than everyone else. And yet we still see that God isn’t just about himself. He’s about us, too.
That’s why God is great. The one who is above all is also down here with us. The one who created everything is also concerned with our tiny little lives. The one who defines what “goodness” is was willing to suffer on the cross to save us from our “sin.” And because of THAT, “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee: How great thou art!”
Let’s setup a contrast. Here’s how the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun is referred to in his tomb: “Son of Re, living image of Amun, ruler of Thebes forever and ever. Beloved of Amun-Re, lord of thrones, and of the two lands, lord of heaven.”
And how is Jesus referred to in the book of Isaiah? “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account…They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”
Instead of being great because he’s beloved of God or king of kings and lord of lords, Jesus is called great because he was willing to suffer on our behalf. Jesus is called great because he came to serve, not be served.
Greatness in Our Lives
I think Dean Kamen figured this out when he started the FIRST Robotics tournament for kids. He didn’t want it to be all about cutthroat I win, you lose competition. So he setup the point system to reward alliances and cooperation. He actually made it beneficial to help other people, because he wanted kids to learn that engineering requires collaboration, not just competition and victory. If you help others, you’re more likely to receive help when you need it. The greatest teams are those that help the most people AND do the best in their project.
I’m reading a book called “Growing Young” that looks at churches around the country that have successfully reached the rising generations. And Chap Clark, one of the researchers, was talking about the role of parents in building faith. He said, “We have evolved to the point where we believe that driving is support, being active is love, and providing any and every opportunity is selfless nurture.” But what young people are actually hungering for is caring adults who help them discover meaningful answers to their main questions. Who am I? Where do I belong? Why am I here? No amount of soccer practices will answer those questions. Being a great parent is much harder than having kids signed up for organized activities every waking moment.
In the business realm, many leaders are too busy worrying about how they are perceived or how to get the credit, but Patrick Lencioni reminds us, “If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” Being a great business leader requires doing the hard work of serving others, getting them bought in, helping them feel connected to and passionate about the company’s direction. And you can’t do that with performance reviews and sales quotas.
Sisters and brothers, we sing of God’s greatness because of his shocking willingness to care about our lives. We sing of God’s greatness because of his shocking willingness to suffer on our behalf. We sing of God’s greatness because of his shocking offer of eternal hope even to people like us.
We aren’t singing about God’s domination. We aren’t singing about God’s selfishness. We aren’t singing about God’s busy schedule. We sing about God’s great love and service instead.
May that be the kind of greatness that people see in us as well. Amen.