Here is love, vast as the ocean
Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 8th September 2010
“See if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” Malachi 3:10
One of the most profound memories from my childhood comes from the week after my sixth birthday. My father is standing in the farmyard talking to my grandfather, the only words I remember spoken by my father are “they were exhausted”. My father is wearing overalls and black Wellington boots, which are covered in black dust.
During the years that followed, the background to that scene slowly unfolded. My father had been a member of the Civil Defence Corps and had gone to help with the digging at Aberfan, where on Friday, 21st October 1966 a coal slag heap had slipped, engulfing a farm, several houses, and Pantglas Primary School. 144 people had died; 116 of them schoolchildren.
Years later, I heard the story of the Revd Kenneth Hayes, the minister of Zion Baptist church in Aberfan. Hayes’ son, Dyfrig, had been one of the children buried in the school. Twelve hours after Dyfrig’s body had been found, Hayes stood up at Zion Baptist on Sunday, 23rd October to lead worship. The church was packed, the congregation was comprised of those too old or too young to help with the digging and journalists from around the world. Kenneth Hayes led the service and announced the singing of ’Safe in the arms of Jesus’ at the end, before sitting in his chair and weeping.
Kenneth Hayes embodied all that was best in Welsh evangelicalism; that chapel tradition which became the spiritual home to generations of Welsh people; that tradition that equipped people with a faith that coped with poverty, hardship, sadness and tragedy.
The high point of that evangelicalism had come some sixty years previously with the Welsh Revival led by Evan Roberts. There had been signs of renewed life in many churches in the months previously, but Roberts was moved by the Spirit to preach at gatherings across Wales. Sometimes his congregations numbered thousands; it is estimated that as many as 100,000 people became Christians as a result of the Revival of 1904-05.
Evan Roberts was 26 years old and was not ordained; he was still completing second level education in preparation for further studies when he felt God’s call. It was said in the press that he held the nation in the palm of his hand.
He preached a very simple message:
1. Confess all your sins
2. Remove all doubtful things from your life.
3. Submit to the Spirit.
4. Publicly stand and confess Christ.
There was one hymn that came to express that Revival. A century later, the Rev Roy Jenkins of the BBC described it in this way,
“Just after eleven o’clock on a Wednesday evening in 1904, a solo voice rang out with the hymn, “Here is love, vast as the ocean”. Maybe a thousand people were in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Abertillery at the time, leaning over the galleries, packing every pew and squeezing into every spare corner. They’d been here for more than four hours, in a service of intense emotion.
Meetings like it were taking place across Wales night after night, with fervent prayer and passionate singing – and similar disregard for the clock. They both excited and appalled, left many puzzled and some frightened, but it was reckoned that in little over a year a hundred thousand people had made a new commitment to Jesus Christ.
For a period whole communities changed, as men and women found themselves drawn into a powerful experience of God; and sparks from their awakening were soon to ignite fires in more than a dozen other countries. And the hymn that soloist struck up spontaneously about “love vast as the ocean” was heard so often that it became known as “the love song of the revival.”
“Here is love, vast as the ocean” had come from the pen of William Rees, born in 1802 in Denbighshire. In poor health as a child, he contracted smallpox when he was three and lost his right eye, Rees received very little formal education and only attending the village school during the winter months. From an early age he worked as a shepherd, but kept studying in his spare time.
Brought up as a member of a Calvinistic Methodist congregation, he joined the Independents in 1828. A dispute within the local Methodist church following the expulsion of a member, had led to the departure of a handful of the congregation, including Rees. In 1829 he began to preach, and in 1831 he became pastor of the small Congregational church at Mostyn, Flintshire, where he was ordained in 1832. He then went on to minister in Denbigh, before moving to Liverpool.
Rees ministered in Liverpool for thirty-two years, during which he played a leading role in political and educational movements in the city. But he exercised a still more powerful influence on the politics, poetry, and literature of Wales. His eloquence made him one of the greatest Welsh preachers and popular lecturers of his time. Rees combined a powerful evangelical faith with a radical view of politics; as the Salvation Army would later express it, a heart to God and a hand to man.
“Here is love, vast as the ocean”, expresses William Rees’ faith, a faith rooted in understanding what it means to be human and what it is that God has done for us. Those who gathered in the chapels across Wales would have felt a keen sense of their own humanity; Evan Roberts tells them that Jesus takes on that humanity and brings it back from its lostness and restores it to a place with God. God breaks into our lives because by ourselves we could do nothing, “Who His love will not remember? Who can cease to sing His praise?” William Rees asks us.
“Through the floodgates of God’s mercy, Flowed a vast and gracious tide”, Rees writes. Being a Christian is about grace; it’s about sensing God’s mercy and his grace for ourselves. This is unnerving for churches, which like to think that they are the dispensers of salvation. It is also unnerving for people who believe being a Christian is about subscribing to an organization and that nothing more is expected of them.
Experience of God’s love transforms the lives of those who receive it and it transforms their relationships with others. “Heaven’s peace and perfect justice, Kissed a guilty world in love”, declares that the ways of God’s Kingdom should be the ways of God’s people; if we do not act in peace, justice and love, then we are not God’s people.
Driving through South Wales last week, there was a chapel in one of the towns. Closed now, it seemed sad that a great Christian witness seemed to be coming to an end; a witness that expressed a deep love for God and a deep love for one’s neighbour. Where are the William Rees and Evan Roberts of our time?
What was Roberts’ message? Confess all our sins; remove all doubtful things from our lives; submit to the Spirit and stand and confess Christ.
And why? Because we are offered love, love vast as an ocean.
Thank you Ian, great words.
A great hymn.
Hi Ian, I wish I had been there to hear that sermon, Having worked in Merthyr Tydfil for 7 Years, The Aberfan disaster touched everyone I worked with, The date also my Mums Birthday always reminds me of the great sorrow and loss of that day. Although I was only 23 Months old at the time I can remember seeing coverage of the news on the television, one of my earliest memories. Thank You, Alistair.
I was thinking about your Dad when we sang the hymn – the Dublin Welsh Choir would do a great rendition of it.
August 26, 2011
Last night I was looking for a new praise song to learn for our church’s music program. I went through pieces of about thirty modern songs and happened to “stumble” on this one (Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean). When I heard it, that was it. I had to learn it and started playing it. While walking to work this morning I was memorizing the lyrics.
The Hand of Providence? This morning before leaving for work I found your article. I also “stumbled” upon it.
The irony? Two weeks ago, I had preached a sermon on Evan Roberts, and the revival of 1904. I had covered Evan’s four points for revival. We will be playing this song today at lunch and tomorrow at church, and hopefully many times thereafter, God willing. Please keep us in your prayers!
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Here Is Love, Vast as the Ocean
C2 G C2
Here is love, vast as the ocean
Lovingkindness as the flood
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom
G D/F# G
Shed for us His precious blood
Who His love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing His Praise?
He can never be forgotten
G D/F# G C2
Throughout Heav’n’s eternal days
On the mount of crucifixion
Fountains opened deep and wide
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide
Grace and love, like mighty rivers
Pour incessant from above
And Heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.
Let me all Thy love accepting,
Love Thee, ever all my days;
Let me seek Thy kingdom only
And my life be to Thy praise;
Thou alone shalt be my glory,
Nothing in the world I see.
Thou hast cleansed and sanctified me,
Thou Thyself hast set me free.
In Thy truth Thou dost direct me
By Thy Spirit through Thy Word;
And Thy grace my need is meeting,
As I trust in Thee, my Lord.
Of Thy fullness Thou art pouring
Thy great love and power on me,
Without measure, full and boundless,
Drawing out my heart to Thee.
‘Here is love’ seems to encapsulate the spirit of the Welsh Revival. May your endeavours for the Kingdom be blessed.
This article has blest my soul more than words can tell. God bless you dear brother
My father was at Aberfan, helping with the digging. It was the worst experience of his life but, like many of his fellow would be rescuers, he never blamed God for waht had happened. Rev. Hayes and his wife (who the last I heard is still alive) were truly inspirational Christians – faith in action in even the worst conditions. Thanks you for this article. Diolch yn fawr iawn!
Thank you, Val. Hayes’ story always moves me to tears.
Have you introduced the Parish of St Matthias Gahogo to that wonderful hymn yet? Wouldn’t it be so great for a whole new fellowship to sing this in their own special way. I was chatting to Maria the other evening and we both said how you can move us to tears so easily. This has again and also your blog of today. How wonderful that a man who died all those years ago should be remembered by you his Rector and friend. This is what you are made of Ian – kindness, sympathy, compassion and love vast as the ocean. Blessings.
Thank you for the kind words – I’m not sure who you are talking about 🙂 I’m hoping to visit Gahogo over the weekend, but am not sure if the hymn would fit their sense of rhythm!
Thank you for this inspirational article! Let us pray for repentance and revival to begin again. I pray that the light of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ His Son will begin again!
Reading this today, and the comments left for you have brought a tear to my eye. I feel blessed. Thank you.