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Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "How Great Thou Art"

Sermon 8/22/10
Jeremiah 1:4-10

How Great Thou Art

How Great Thou Art, at least in the form we know it today, has a somewhat of a complicated history. The original hymn, written as a poem, was penned in 1885 by Carl Boberg, and included nine verses. Boberg was a Swedish man who served as a lay minister, sailor, and member of the Swedish Parilament. He was the editor of Christian newspaper called “Witness of the Truth,” and published more than 60 poems and hymns. (1)
The inspiration for the poem, which Boberg called, “O Great God,” came when Boberg was walking home from church and listening to the church bells. Boberg’s poem was based loosely on Psalm 8, and he said of his inspiration to write:  "It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest coloring; the birds were singing in trees and everywhere. It was very warm; a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon and soon thunder and lightning. We had to hurry to shelter. But the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared. When I came home I opened my window toward the sea. There evidently had been a funeral and the bells were playing the tune of 'When eternity's clock calling my saved soul to its Sabbath rest.' That evening, I wrote the song, [O Great God.]
But that’s not the end of the story – the hymn took shape and was modified and changed through the years, and translated into many different languages. British Methodist missionary Stuart Wesley Keene Hine first heard this hymn as a Russian translation of the German version of the song that was originally written in Swedish! He heard the song while he was doing mission work in the Ukraine in 1931. Upon hearing it, he was inspired to write an English paraphrase of the hymn, which we know as How Great Thou Art. Hine started using the hymn in his services, and added two new verses that inspired him, which today make our third and fourth verses.
And when I 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.
According to Michael Ireland, “it was typical of the Hines to inquire as to the existence of any Christians in the villages [he] visited. In one case, they found out that the only Christians that their host knew about were a man named Dmitri and his wife Lyudmila. Dmitri's wife knew how to read -- evidently a fairly rare thing at that time and in that place. She taught herself how to read because a Russian soldier had left a Bible behind several years earlier, and she started slowly learning by reading that Bible. When the Hines arrived in the village and approached Dmitri's house, they heard a strange and wonderful sound: Dmitri's wife was reading from the gospel of John about the crucifixion of Christ to a houseful of guests, and those visitors were in the very act of repenting. So the Hines heard people calling out to God, saying how unbelievable it was that Christ would die for their own sins, and praising Him for His love and mercy. [Hines] just couldn't barge in and disrupt this obvious work of the Holy Spirit, so [he] stayed outside and listened. Stuart wrote down the phrases he heard, and they became the third verse that we know today.
“The fourth verse was another innovation of Stuart Hine, which was added after World War II. His concern for the exiled Polish community in England, who were anxious to return home, provided part of the inspiration for Hine's final verse. Hines visited a camp in Sussex, England, in 1948 where displaced Russians were being held, but where only two were professing Christians. The testimony of one of these refugees and his anticipation of the second coming of Christ inspired Hine to write the fourth stanza of his English version of the hymn.”
Again, according to Ireland: “One man to whom they were ministering told them an amazing story: he had been separated from his wife at the very end of the war, and had not seen her since. At the time they were separated, his wife was a Christian, but he was not, but he had since been converted. His deep desire was to find his wife so they could at last share their faith together. But he told the Hines that he did not think he would ever see his wife on earth again. Instead he was longing for the day when they would meet in heaven, and could share in the Life Eternal there. These words again inspired Hine, and they became the basis for his fourth and final verse to 'How Great Thou Art': "When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then we shall bow in humble adoration and there proclaim, My God How Great Thou Art!"
Eventually, Hine’s paraphrase of Boberg’s original work, along with the verses added by Hines, because the popular version of How Great Thou Art that we know today, a hymn tied for eighth place on our congregation’s favorite hymn list. With a hymn with a story like this, it almost makes the whole sermon in itself, doesn’t it? Ah, but as a preacher, I feel obliged to give you a little more to the message. Let’s look at our scripture text.
Our passage from the first chapter of Jeremiah describes the prophet’s calling, in his own words: He hears God’s voice, saying that God knew him before he was even formed in the womb, that before he was born, he was consecrated, in other words, set apart, to be a prophet. Jeremiah responds reluctantly, with hesitation: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But, as we often find in the scriptures, God is not impressed with Jeremiah’s excuses. “Don’t say it,” God says, “for you shall go and you shall speak what I command.” Pretty straightforward. But God adds, “Don’t be afraid – for I am with you to deliver you.” And then Jeremiah describes God touching his mouth and saying, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” God’s plan for Jeremiah – to be appointed over the nations, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant. With that kind of job description, no wonder Jeremiah is nervous about the work ahead of him! But indeed, the Book of Jeremiah is the story of Jeremiah responding to God’s call and going where God sends him.
I think Jeremiah’s story, like many of the stories of call and response in the Bible, is s story about someone learning to believe in what God can do. I think even though we talk about believing in God’s power, God’s greatness, God’s ability, God being able to do anything, we often act as though we believe this only until it comes up to our own lives. God is great, but is God really great enough to use even us? God is great, but can God really use me to do all the things that God is about? What do we really believe that God can do, and what do we really believe is within God’s power? Jeremiah is skeptical at first. What can God do with only a boy? But God says God shall and God does.
Our hymn today is written from the perspective of some people who have learned how great God is. First Carl Boberg, and then Stuart Hines – both were overwhelmed by the greatness of the acts of God. Boberg looked around in nature, looked at the beauty of creation, and was amazed at how great God was, how great was the gift of this earth. His dependence on God’s goodness shaped his whole life. Stuart Hines was overwhelmed by the greatness of God made manifest in the gift that we have in Jesus – and Hines, as a missionary, regularly saw God’s goodness at work in the amazing stories he was hearing from people he met, who inspired his hymn-writing.
How great is God? Is God great enough to create our world and all that is in it? We believe that. Is God great enough to come to us as God-with-us, God close enough to touch, God in human form as Jesus? We believe that. Is God great enough to take your life, shape your life, use your life – to change the world? Jeremiah believed it. Noah did. Moses believed it. Sarah and Abraham did too. Ruth and Naomi, Peter and Paul, Mary and Mary, and Martha – they believed it. Do you? How great is God? Amen.


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