On Hymnody and Preaching…
I remember some years ago a friend of mine posted as a Facebook status something along the lines of, "I am using so-and-so's hymn for the hymn of the day. Why do I have to preach afterward? It already says everything I want to say." Obviously, that thought has stuck with me.
But then that thought came back to me on the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Three-Year Lectionary, Series B, John 15:1-8). I selected TLH 206, "Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense," as the hymn of the day. And in both services I struggled mightily with the decision to cast aside my prepared sermon and preach instead on this hymn text. In neither case did I actually do it, and now part of me regrets that.
1. Jesus Christ, my sure Defense
2. Jesus, my Redeemer, lives;
3. Nay, too closely am I bound
4. I am flesh and must return
5. Glorified, I shall anew
6. Then these eyes my Lord shall know,
7. They who sorrow here and moan
8. Then take comfort and rejoice,
9. Laugh to scorn the gloomy grave
10. Oh, then, draw away your hearts
There are two themes in hymnody that really drive my passion: one is any reference to Christ as our Priest; and the other, which is very strongly portrayed in this hymn, is that of the Christian conquering death. Our goal is not merely to "go to heaven." Our goal is to overcome death in the resurrection of the dead.
Indeed, we will be in heaven and I certainly don't wish to deny that. But the concept of heaven has become so watered down in pop culture and pop theology. Many Christians view heaven as nothing more than this ethereal existence where we float around as disembodied spirits, strumming golden harps, sitting on clouds.
Nay, for the Christian our goal is the resurrection of all flesh, the reunion of body and soul unto eternal life in the perfectly restored creation. Notice at the end of the creeds we don't say, "And I believe in eternal life in heaven." We say, "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen!" At our funerals we stand next to open graves and say, "Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, is thy sting?" And to the world we look like fools.
But in the resurrection of Jesus Christ we can "laugh to scorn the gloomy grave." In the resurrection of the dead "then these eyes my Lord shall know, My Redeemer and my Brother." Because Jesus lives we do not fear death. We do not hide from death. We do not sweep death under the rug and pretend that it doesn't exist. We face death with all boldness and confidence because Death is dead and Jesus is alive.
"Shall my courage, then, be shaken? Shall I fear, or could the Head rise and leave His members dead?" Absolutely not. Jesus lives. So will we. Death has done its worst and Death has lost.
I was not astonished that many people disagreed with me about the content of Walther's Easter hymn. But what did astonish me was the number of people who claimed that his hymn was their favorite, especially when there are far superior texts such as this one out there. I'm not sure that I could narrow myself down to one solitary favorite Easter hymn. My disagreement with Walther aside, that one still wouldn't make my top ten. This one, however, would probably be in the top three (along with the Easter Sequence and "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands").
This hymn really does almost have it all. It proclaims Christ's victory over death, our salvation through grace by faith, the powerlessness of death, the hope of eternal life, and the comfort for all who mourn that is found only in He who rose again from the dead. And that's what Easter is all about. I'd be even more excited if a stanza pertaining to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion could be worked in there; but I am more than content with how the hymn stands.