Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: Loves Excelling

   Charles Wesley, the brother of Methodism’s founder or instigator John, wrote 6,500 hymns – a staggering number! The best of the lot? Walter Brueggemann suggests it’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which he calls “a well-nigh perfect hymn.”

If there’s anything perfect in the hymn, it is its realization of the perfection of God’s love. We might think we know what love is, and infer God must be like that. But God’s love is overwhelmingly and delightfully far greater, and more marvelous and extensive than all the love we might imagine woven together. Yet it’s accessible, it’s personal, as small as a hug or a young child nestled in your lap: “Joy of heaven to earth come down.” Indeed, God made a “humble dwelling” down here in Bethlehem when Jesus was born – or as Philippians 2 (an ancient Christian hymn!) puts it, “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, born in human likeness.”

For the hymn, that “joy come down” to the “humble dwelling” isn’t a once upon a time story of old. “Fix in us thy humble dwelling.” A miracle: God taking on flesh in Mary is the consummate, repeatable wonder. God is born once more in me, in you. What if we walked around all day thinking “God has fixed in me his humble dwelling”?

“Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit” into us. In a way, God is already doing this. While you’ve been reading, you’ve inhaled more than a dozen times. That is God’s breath, God’s Spirit rhythmically giving you life and love – and it’s involuntary! You weren’t even trying, or asking. God’s grace just comes. We recall Genesis 2:7, when God breathed into humanity the breath of life, and that moment after Easter when Jesus met the disciples and breathed on them (John 20:19).

“Take away our bent to sinning.” Judaism teaches that all of us have a yetzer ha’ra in the soul, a tendency, and inclination to sin. Christianity would say we are fallen creatures, mired in and shackled by self and the world. We can’t just grit our teeth and not sin. We people in unwitting bondage to sin can only ask God’s to take it away, to “Set our hearts at liberty.” Americans boast of their freedom, even as they doggedly embrace their stuckness in the culture, the anxiety, the trendiness, the rancor of the world. As Galatians 5 shows us, God sets us bound people free – not so we can do as we wish, but so we might be fruitful for God.

“Alpha and Omega” is our God (as extolled in Revelation 21:6) – the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet serving as a comprehensive metaphor for the totality of God’s grace, the all-encompassing range of God’s boundless love. What’s most profound in the hymn and about this beginning and ending is rarely noticed “End of faith as its beginning.” God is, as we know, the “end,” the goal, the object, the purpose of faith. But God is also the beginning of faith. Faith isn’t merely how we access God. Faith is itself a gift – maybe God’s greatest gift (along with the breath, of course). If you have faith, you can’t pat yourself on the back for being so clever as to believe. Belief itself comes from God, despite you, despite your unfaith!

The last stanza looks forward to the final crescendo and glorious conclusion of God’s long work since creation: “Finish then thy new creation.” What will that kingdom of God, that eternal life be like for us? We ask now that God begin to bring to fruition God’s eternal purpose for us – not that we live forever having fun, but this: “Pure and spotless let us be.” I have to ask, am I seeking to be pure and spotless?

Not yet, not even close. But God’s not done with me just yet. In the meantime, when I ponder God’s love and determined labor to finish me and creation, my mind is boggled, my heart is moved: I might just find myself “lost in wonder, love and praise.” I want more of that – in worship, and in daily life too.

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