John 3:1-17, Luke 13:31-35
New Arrangements: What Wondrous Love Is This?
What wondrous love is this? Oh my soul, oh my soul! What wondrous love is this, oh my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of life to lay aside the crown for my soul, for my soul? To lay aside the crown for my soul! What Wondrous Love Is This is probably my favorite Lenten hymn, simply one of my favorite hymns overall. I find the plaintive melody deeply moving, as tune and text combine to fill us with what the title suggests – a sense of wonder at God’s love for us, expressed in the gift of Jesus Christ. This hymn has both an unknown and a rich and interesting history at the same time. The author of the text is unknown. We know that it was first heard in the Appalachian Mountain region in the late 1700s, early 1800s, and was written down by William Walker, editor of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.
Southern Harmony is a famous collection of hymns, folksongs, mostly from rural Appalachia, with tunes written in a singing notation called shape notes. Southern Harmony contains a number of hymns we still sing today. It seems to contain, for example, the first pairing of the words of Amazing Grace with the tune we know, which is called New Britain. Unlike the notes that you see in our hymnal today, shape note songs used different shapes for each note to tell people what note to sing. These hymns and tunes were taught with lined out singing, a kind of call and response where a leader would give the next line and a sense of the tune before everyone sang. Today, there are still festivals to celebrate the very unique sound of shape note singing, and in some areas in Appalachia, shape note singing is still common. What Wondrous Love Is This was arranged by James Christopher, and William Walker recorded the known text. Listen to this snippet of the hymn in the traditional shape note style. (1) (Listen.) As you can see, the hymn that we sing today is already a new arrangement of the original form we’ve just heard!
But let’s talk about the text. What wondrous love is this, oh my soul! The hymn is both a question and an exclamation. What is this love, that would cause the Christ to choose us, over a throne, a crown? What is this love, that would cause God to come to us in the flesh? There’s a verse that doesn’t appear in our hymnals today, that exclaims, “When I was sinking down beneath, Christ laid aside the crown for my soul.” Have you ever been surprised to find yourself loved by someone? My mom has a friend that she’s known for years, someone who might seem, by appearances, a little rough around the edges. He’s been through a lot, had a lot of pain, addiction, struggle in his life. But he’s been a wonderful friend to my mom. Every so often, he would do something particularly nice for my mom or our family – buy us dinner, or send mom a thoughtful email, something like that. And every time, my mom would comment on how surprised she was by her friend’s kindness. Every time, it caught her off guard. I actually teased her about it, wondering how she could be surprised again and again. I suspect, though, that when we’ve been let down in the past, when we’ve experienced love that’s failed, that’s not stood up against tests, when we’ve hurt and been hurt, love, real love, unconditional love, love that seems beyond what we feel we deserve – it can catch us off guard. Fill us with hope, joy, and wonder.
When was it that you were last filled with a sense of wonder? As many of you know, this past week I had my college roommate and her family in town visiting me. Sue and Jeremy have a three year old boy, and he finds pretty much everything fascinating. When he first arrived at my house, he ran from room to room, touching everything, opening everything. Oh, he wasn’t destructive or getting into trouble. No, he just wanted to see inside every single closet, and he wanted to open every drawer in the house, and we looked at every board game I own, and he explored every nook and cranny of the house. Not destructive, but curious. Fascinated. Full of wonderment. When I was searching for sermon images, the most common picture for “wonderment” was the face of a child. Indeed, children have it all over adults when it comes to the ability to be filled with wonder.
Nicodemus, star of our gospel lesson today, is someone who doesn’t understand the wisdom of a child, and our scene brings us a scholar of the law who is completely confused by Jesus talking about being born again. His seasoned soul can’t grasp, right away, something that requires wonder and imagination. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader among the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the scholars and interpreters of the law with whom Jesus was most often in conflict, because the Pharisees, Jesus argued, tried to put too many rules and regulations on the people for being “good Jews,” while managing to miss the heart and soul of it – that is, relationship with God. Nicodemus is sort of stepping out of the pack by coming to see Jesus – he’s taking a risk because he has some questions that he really wants Jesus to answer. But he’s also protecting himself and his position– he comes to see Jesus at night, when he can meet with Jesus without drawing attention to himself.
Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus’ legitimacy – “no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God,” he says. But Jesus pushes him: “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Remember, the kingdom of God being here and now – that’s the core of Jesus’ message. Jesus turns the focus away from himself and his power, and to Nicodemus – and whether or not Nicodemus wants to be part of the kingdom of God. Jesus is always an outside-the-box thinker, but Nicodemus can’t understand what Jesus is getting at – “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” He’s full of wonder – but more the confused-variety than the awed-variety. Can you enter the womb again and be born? But Jesus explains that he means that we have to be Spirit-born as well as born in flesh, and he wonders how one who is a teacher of Israel can’t get it.
Then Jesus says, “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This is a strange verse if you don’t know the context. Jesus is talking about something we can find in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, this story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites, still wandering in the desert, were complaining to God and Moses about food and water, when poisonous snakes were sent among the people. The snakes would bite the people, and the people would die. The people understood these snakes to be a punishment on them from God. So they came to Moses and confessed their sinfulness, and asked Moses for help. Moses prayed for the people, and heard God’s voice, telling him to create a serpent out of bronze that would be fixed to a pole. The passage concludes, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
Jesus says “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The serpent, raised up for the Israelites, gave them earthly life. Jesus, raised up – resurrected – gives life too – real life, eternal life. Then, finally the verse that we know so well, and its companion, that I find as compelling as verse 16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus is the life-giver – that is his purpose – to give life, not to condemn and judge, but to save, and make whole, to help people see, be part of the kingdom of God. And the why of his purpose, why he’s here is love. Because God so loved the world.
What we don’t know is how Nicodemus responds, at least immediately, to what he hears from Jesus. Clearly Jesus’ words have overwhelmed him. It is a lot to take in. What we do see in the gospels is Nicodemus appearing later – first when the Pharisees are urging action against Jesus, and Nicodemus reminds them that the law doesn’t condemn people without giving them a trial first. And then, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. Nicodemus doesn’t immediately drop his nets, so to speak, to follow Jesus. But it seems like something might be sinking in by degrees, as he reflects on what Jesus said to him.
In some ways I related to Nicodemus more than others who encounter Jesus in the gospels. When Jesus calls Simon Peter, for example, Peter just drops his nets and follows. I find it hard to imagine that kind of complete, life-changing response, so immediate and total. No time to think or plan or process. It is so hard to imagine being like that, when it seems a struggle to make just the simplest of lasting changes in my life. But Nicodemus – a skeptic maybe, confused, believing and not yet acting on what he’s beginning to believe, finding it too wonderful to be true – I find I can relate to Nicodemus. The people who already have nothing, like fishermen and tax collectors, prostitutes and poor folk, who already have been told they count for nothing – embracing Jesus makes sense, when hope is all you have left. But for those who have something to lose, some power to give up, some control to hand over to God in order to enter this kingdom as peers, co-workers with the “least of these” – well, the choice is a challenge: called to the status quo or called to God and new life that requires being born, spiritually, all over again. Is it too wonderful to be possible?
Our hymn today is an ode of wonder at God’s love for us, a song of wonder, and awe, that God would love us so much that Jesus would opt to become one of us, and not just become one of us, but then be belittled by us, crucified by us, choosing to be humbled instead of crowned. And still, God loves us. Can we, with amazement, sing these words? Are we surprised again by Jesus’ loving act, for us? Or do we think we know the story so well that we expect it? Or do we know it so well that we’re surprised, again, to find out how true it is?
What wondrous love is this, oh, my soul! Amen.
(1) Sources on this section: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/walker/harmony/files/intro.html, http://www.hopechestlegacy.com/index.php?page=what-wonderous-love-is-this