Today we begin a 4-week sermon series entitled, “Now and Forever: Viewing the Church Through the Lens of Charles Wesley.” The theme for each Sunday will be based on the days’ lectionary reading from either Acts of Revelation, and supported by the lyrics of a hymn by Charles Wesley. The hymn which will get special focus is “And Can It Be that I Should Gain?” one of Wesley’s most beloved but lesser-sung hymns. Today’s theme is God’s amazing love. The main point is that salvation and freedom is available to the ‘vilest offender’; the worst of human depravity cannot disqualify one from receiving God’s amazing love.
For many years, ABC Television’s sports anthology, Wide World of Sports, began with this introduction. Many of you will remember it well.
Though it’s common to all fields of endeavor, athletes in particular have to learn to put the past behind them quickly and make a new start. This is especially the case when it comes to experiencing “the agony of defeat.” A painful failure can’t be allowed to enshrine bitter discouragement and an attitude of chronic defeatism. The hockey goal tender who lets in a bad goal can’t dwell on that for the rest of the game. The batter who strikes out in must be ready to focus on their next at-bat. And Vinko Bogataj, the Slovenian long jump skier featured in this television introduction, who had to literally re-live this calamitous crash week after week after week—I have no idea of whether or not he was ever able to come back from it? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.
I mentioned last week that I’ve sat with persons who’ve been convinced that their sins are so atrocious that God cannot possibly forgive them. As they see it, God’s love is both conditional and in limited supply. To me, this belief is absolutely heartbreaking. And that’s because it’s not only untrue, which makes it a lie, but also because believing it to be true has the effect of binding them up and locking them in spiritual imprisonment. In the worst cases, persons can remain spiritually shackled for life. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have to convince you that this is a terribly debilitating existence.
Now, while most of you listening today probably aren’t in that particular place—and praise God for that!—I’ve been around long enough to know that even relatively healthy Christians aren’t immune to becoming spiritually shackled when they identify themselves with their past sins and failures. It’s all too easy to wring our hands at past failures. And before we realize it, we find ourselves knee-deep in discouragement. Or, worse yet, what we might call an unholy acceptance of our struggle, which is coming to the conclusion that despite having been washed clean and set free from the power of sin by the blood of Lamb, this particular sin I struggle with (whatever it may be) is just something I’ll have to get used to dealing with, because nothing I do seems to make it go away.
So, whether you’re someone who’s discouraged by your struggles, or who’s given up on trying to gain victory over that besetting sin in your life, or who’s convinced that your sins make you too far out of reach for even God, brother Charles Wesley has a word of hope for you this morning.
Today, we began worship by singing “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies,” written by Wesley in 1740. (And just to be clear, unless otherwise stated, we’re talking about the hymn lyrics, not the hymn tune. By modern definition, a “hymn” insinuates a song. But I believe there was a day when one could speak of a hymn as a poem in praise of God which was then connected to a tune which make the poem singable. John Wesley wrote what we today call hymn lyrics.) This hymn was originally entitled “A Morning Hymn” and is believed to have been written for use in one’s morning prayers.
Verse 1 brings out this idea with its focus on the glorious light found in the sky of a new day.
Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only light,
Sun of righteousness, arise, (a poetic reference to the rising sun)
triumph o’er the shades of night.
According to a Church of Scotland website (https://is.gd/cAu2Pp), this hymn is based on ‘The Song of Zechariah’ from Matthew 1, where Zechariah prophesizes over his new son, John, who later became John the Baptist. In this prophesy, Zechariah refers to the coming Messiah as the “rising sun,” which is a direct reference to Malachi 4:2, where Messiah is called “the sun of righteousness.” And according to Zechariah, what will this rising sun, or Sun of Righteousness, do? He will “come from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Mt. 1:78-79). Messiah will shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. To what end? That we would eventually walk along the path of God’s peace.
This is where verse 2 of the hymn picks up, where Wesley reminds us that without the light of the Sun of Righteousness—the light of Jesus—shining upon us and into us, the morning around us is but dark and gloomy and joyless and cold. Here are the lyrics:
Dark and cheerless is the morn unaccompanied by thee;
joyless is the day’s return, till thy mercy’s beams I see;
till thy inward light impart, cheer my eyes and warm my heart.
Jesus came to shine the warm, life-giving light of God into every human life. Even those lives beset by sin; the sins of other people being inflicted upon them, and self-inflicted sins. Jesus not only offers us a path to peace, but more to the point, he is the path to peace that we all need.
Wesley knows the human struggle, the need for the light that puts us on that path, and so he pens verse 3 which becomes the prayer of every human being:
Visit then this soul of mine;
pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
fill me, Radiancy divine, scatter all my unbelief;
more and more thyself display,
shining to the perfect day.
On July 22, 1941, John Leonard Wilson was consecrated the Bishop of Singapore (in The Church of England), and immediately moved there to begin his post. Four months later, as part of World War 2, Japan invaded Singapore. Two years later, he and many other clergy were imprisoned and regularly beaten. But for reasons unexplained, Bishop Wilson was often singled out and tortured unfathomably. He later told reporters that the text of “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” was one of the things that kept him going day after day after day. Every morning he’d pray the lyrics of the hymn, affirming the truth that God’s light can break through the darkest of nights. In the bishop’s own words, “Gradually the burden of this world was lifted and I was carried into the presence of God and received from Him the strength and peace which were enough to live by, day by day.”
Jesus said of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 11:12). The light called Jesus doesn’t just shine in us so that we can see better, but it also fills us so that we have in our possession God’s power and strength–the strength to face and overcome the strongest of sins. On the cross, Jesus broke the power of sin, and through his Spirit, gives each of us the same Holy Spirit power that resurrected him from the dead.
You know who experienced this kind of resurrection power? The Apostle Paul, known in the earlier part of his life as Saul. Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a leader in the ancient Jewish sect called Pharisees. Pharisees can be thought of as the lawyers of the Jewish faith back in Jesus’ day. They were known for their strict adherence to the Law of Moses as well as enforcing the Law in the case of others. Throughout the Gospels, whenever Jesus broke the law—for example, by healing someone on the Sabbath day—it was the Pharisees who angrily responded by trying to figure out a way to kill him. Saul was a Pharisee during the beginning years of the Christian movement.
The book of Acts is basically the history of Paul’s ministry, including his conversion to Christ as described in chapter 9. But we’re introduced to him back in chapter 7, which describes the stoning of Stephen, a follower of Jesus. Steven said something that made the blood of the Pharisees boil, at which point “they rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:57-58). The story of Stephen’s death concludes with this important detail: “Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen” (8:1).
So just to be clear, Saul was singlehandedly responsible for the imprisonment and deaths of countless Christians. And as a ‘man of God,’ he believed he was doing God’s work. He believed his purpose in life was to destroy the church as quickly as possible. And doing so, he believed, would glorify the LORD God.
Then Acts chapter 9 happens. On his way to Damascus, where he’s planning to round up those lawless people of “the Way,” he’s confronted by a bright light. To his surprise, that light turns out to be the same light Malachi wrote about, you know, the Sun of Righteousness. And what happens if you look into the sun? You can go blind. Which is what happened to Saul. Skip ahead to the end of the story. His vision has been returned and now he can see…truly see the truth…the truth of Jesus Christ. And thus begins Paul’s ministry which eventually resulted in the spread of the church throughout the world.
In time, Paul came to fully understand the extreme depth of not only his own depravity, but of God’s love and grace. Reflecting on his own life, especially the early part where he purposefully imprisoned and killed people for following Jesus, he wrote a letter to the young pastor and protégé, Timothy, in which he said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—and I am the worst of them all!” (1 Tim. 1:15). Personally, I don’t think Paul was using hyperbole to get his point across; I think he really meant it. Because of what he’d done early in his life, he saw himself as the worst sinner against God there ever was. But Paul knew God’s grace, and he knew not to identify himself with his past sins and failures. He knew that he was now a new creation. So, in the very next verse he writes, “But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners” (v 16).
Paul had been a persecutor of the church and, therefore, a persecutor of Jesus Christ himself. But when he understood what Jesus had done for him, he confessed his sin, received the Lord’s forgiveness, and moved forward as a resurrected man.
This is the message of one of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns. It’s called “And Can It Be that I Should Gain.” It was written very shortly after his own conversion experience. To me, the text of this hymn reflects the same attitude Paul had of himself, wherein he saw himself as the chief among all sinners and could hardly believe that God’s grace was avail to him. This sentiment seems especially evident in the opening verse in which he boldly exclaims, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood!” In this context, “interest” probably means advantage or benefit, not curiosity. In other words, Is it possible that sinful me can benefit from Jesus’ death? This opening line is written as a statement of exclamation, but I hear it as a question of amazement. It’s like when we hear something we know to be true, but a part of us still wonders in amazement, so we respond, “Really? Wow, that’s hard to believe.” Wesley is utterly amazed that Jesus would die for him—who caused his pain; for him—who figuratively nailed him to the cross. Verse 1 end with him boldly proclaiming God’s “amazing love!” which he simply finds bewildering that it would include him
The second verse continues this sense of awe with its opening line, “‘Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies!” Here, Wesley captures the paradox of what the church calls the mystery of faith, which is the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. Wesley’s professing the mystery and wonder of the death and resurrection of Messiah.
The next line in this verse is confusing to our modern ears. In vain the firstborn seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine. Seraphs are a type of angel, specifically, angels of highest importance. A “firstborn seraph” is probably the highest ranking angel amongst the throng of seraphs. A 10-star general angel! To “sound the depths” of divine love is the same terminology used today for measuring the depth of a body of water. So, Wesley’s saying that the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection is so mysterious, so deep, that even an angel of the highest order is unable to fully grasp it all. So much so that, in the words of the last line, should simply stop trying to find out just what it all means because they’ll never know. That’s how deep God’s love is!
Verse 3 echoes Philippians 2: It speaks of Jesus leaving the glory of heaven to come to the earth in order to die on the cross, where he showers all of us with mercy…including the chief of all sinners!
Verse four compares humanity’s newfound freedom from sin to that of Peter’s miraculous release from prison as described in the Book of Acts.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
In this verse, “thine eye” is God’s eyes. “Diffused” means causing something to spread out over a wide area or a number of people.” What came from God’s eye and spread out over his life was a “quickening ray.” “Quickening” here probably means animated or inspiring or strengthening. And “ray” would be something akin to a ‘ray’ of sunshine. So this is a poetic way of describing how God’s love and power comes down [in the person of Jesus Christ] to release the captives and set them free [through his work on the cross].
Finally, verse 5 speaks of the present justification we now have in Christ and our future glorification in the life to come. The first line is taken directly from Roman 8:1, which I mentioned last week if my life verse.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine.
In Jesus Christ, you and I are no longer condemned for our sins, because Jesus took that condemnation on our behalf. And instead of being given a “guilty” verdict, we’ve been given Christ himself. And now, bold I approach the eternal throne [of God,] and claim the [eternal] crown of glory won for us by Christ.
Here’s the painful truth: we all have a past which, apart from Christ, disqualifies us from being a part of the kingdom of God. Each of us, even the very best of us, is unable to meet the just requirements of God’s laws to be acceptable and holy. But that’s not the end of the story. Because the joyful truth is that Jesus Christ the Son of God met those requirements of God’s law. And his presence within you qualifies you for the Kingdom and makes you a beloved child of God. In Christ, you past no longer counts against you. I hope you hear and understand this important truth. And not only does it not count against you, you’ve also been released from the grip of sin. (which could easily be the topic of another sermon!)
If you’ve ever wondered, “Is God’s love available for me?” the answer is a resounding YES!! Absolutely, yes!