Summer sermons: How great thou art – revisited

Jul 29th, 2006 | By | Category: Sermons

Summer Sermon Series No 6

Saint Matthias’ Church, 30th July 2006

Did you ever feel really fed up?

I remember the days when I was a young curate, going out knocking on doors in a big housing estate on the edge of a town in the North. It was a horrible estate, bleak and soulless and run by the paramilitaries. There were over a hundred families from our parish living there, most of them depressed about being in the place. It was a November afternoon and the sky was black and the wind blowing a gale and the rain coming in sideways. I felt cold and wet and miserable and fed up.

I knocked at the door of a downstairs flat that opened out onto the pavement. The lady who lived there was more or less housebound and we would have called with her half a dozen times a year. I stood and waited, knowing that her arthritis made the walk to the door a painful experience. She had lost her husband years before and had no family living nearby. Her home help was her best friend and main contact with the outside world. When she opened the door she would have been confronted with a wet, bedraggled and miserable-looking young clergyman.

“Hello, Mrs Campbell�?, I said, “that’s a terrible day�?.

She looked at me and shook her head. “Son�?, she said, “the Lord never made a bad day�?.

This lady had everything in the world to complain about—being alone; having poor health; living on an estate where the kids would terrify you; getting by on a pension that wasn’t adequate; she could have had a stream of complaints, but for her the Lord never sent a bad day.

I think there is much of the spirit of Mrs Campbell in our hymn today, How great thou art.

It was written by Carl Gustaf Boberg, a Lutheran pastor in Sweden. In the summer of 1885, Boberg and some friends were returning home after an afternoon service. The weather was changeable and dark storm clouds gathered in the sky. The pleasant afternoon became altogether different with lightning flashes followed by rolls of thunder, strong winds and driving rain. When the storm passed there was a rainbow in the sky. When Boberg arrived home, there was a great calm; he opened the window and saw water in the bay gleaming like glass; from woods nearby he heard birds singing and there were church bells ringing in the distance.

Boberg could have muttered about getting caught in the storm and getting soaked to the skin. He could have said to his friends what an awful afternoon it was and thank goodness it was a fine evening, but he doesn’t. The thunderstorm is as much a part of life as the sunshine, and he includes them both in his praise to God.

Stuart Hine, who translated the words of the hymn into English, could have said he was fed up many times. He lived through times that were beyond our imagination. Stuart Hine and his wife were working in the Carpathian mountains in 1933 in a very poor very small very isolated rural village. There was the Stalinist Communism of the Soviet Union to the east and the National Socialism in Germany to the west, and the Hines were living with a little group of Ukraine Christians in Czechoslovakia because the borders drawn in 1921 after the First World War and the revolutions in Europe had cut them off from the rest of their country. They had every reason to be fed up and yet Stuart Hine found them singing How great thou art, this great hymn of joy.

The outbreak of war in 1939 forced Stuart Hine and his wife to leave their mission work and to return to England for their own safety. Hine translated three verses of the hymn into English, the first three verses. In 1948, with the whole of Europe in chaos after the horrors of war and millions of displaced people still seeking to return to home and security, Stuart Hine could have said “enough is enough, I see no sign of God’s greatness�?. Stuart Hine could have said he was fed up with God and religion and everything, but instead he is inspired to write the fourth verse, an assurance that for Christians there will ultimate be a true home with Christ.

This is a hymn for people who feel fed up because it recognizes that there are two sides to life. It doesn’t start with the sunshine, it starts with the stars on a dark night and it starts with the thunder. A God who pretended that everything was great all the time and expected us to be jolly and happy and cheerful the whole time wouldn’t be much of a God.

If we feel fed up at times, imagine how Jesus must have felt. Read the Gospels and look at what happens. Jesus spends his whole time trying to do the best for people, and he ends up being murdered.

It’s hard to understand a God like that and the hymn recognizes this, “I scarce can take it in�?, it says. But in the end there is sense in things because in the end this is God’s world and in the end he puts things right, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation�?, say the hymn.

Life is not straightforward, it’s not simple, sometimes it’s grim, sometimes it is pure darkness. Anyone who thinks that God makes life easy should try visiting an African village where there has been drought for three years and where there is no food and where the children’s stomachs are distended and there is an air of death. The only way in which life can have meaning or purpose is that at the end there is someone who makes sense of it all.

God is a God of the fed up and the angry. He knows what the bad times are like as well as the good times.

Mrs Campbell’s God is a God of thunderstorms and the Cross as well as a God of birdsong and joy. Because he is a God of all our moments we can sing to him How great thou art.

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