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.