Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: How Great

   When I was a boy, my mother tuned in to the Billy Graham crusades that were televised. I don’t recall much of what the preacher said, but I was always struck and moved (as much as a little kid can be “moved”) by George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art.” It’s a great hymn, reminding us just how great God is.

We underestimate God’s grandeur. We whittle God down to size, to a manageable kind of guy, an assistant, a power boost, a doctor’s helper, the rescuer in times of trial. J.B. Phillips wrote a lovely book a generation ago fittingly entitled Your God is Too Small. We will never exaggerate when we speak of God’s amazing greatness; we are not capable of saying too many adulatory things about God; our most spectacular, eloquent words, songs and actions will be embarrassingly modest, falling far short of the reality of how great God is.

When I think of this hymn, and of God’s greatness, I recall the times I’ve heard it sung in faraway places, and in different languages. Once, with a group of pilgrims at the Jordan River, we peered across the place where Jesus probably was baptized and admired a group of Korean Christians singing a stirring rendition of How Great Thou Art. They’d come from the other side of the globe from us, to the place where Jesus showed us how great God really is, and there they were, singing enthusiastically. We echoed their rendition, singing back in English. God’s greatness, echoed for just a marvelous moment.

Idolatry is when we shrink God down to something useful, a badge to stick on our political ideology, or a hide-out from the challenges of the world. God is so great, encompassing all people, everywhere and always, that we are summoned by that greatness not to settle back into our easy chair with an Ahhh. If God is great, we are set free to be courageous for God. We are required to be bold for God. We cannot help but labor for those whom God cares about – if this God really is as great as we sing.

The hymn rightly directs our attention to the stars – so check them out tonight! And the thunder – which seems and is scary, but God’s world isn’t a security blanket. Quite truthfully, the hymn recognizes that God’s greatness is embodied in Christ, who sacrificed everything, even his own life, to liberate us from sin and death. And he’s not done, he’s not a figure in the religious past. “When Christ shall come… and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” This thrills me every time we sing it.

And what will heaven be like? Having fun with people we dig? Hardly. Something far grander: “Then I shall bow with humble adoration, and then proclaim, My God, how great thou art!” We will need an eternity to try to tell God how awed we are, how grateful we are, how humbled and ennobled we are, to be God’s people, and to delight in the gift of dwelling – forever! – in God’s presence.

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