Monday, August 11, 2014

May God Bestow on Us His Grace

A Bible Study Inspired by a Hymn
Text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546
 (Lutheran Service Book 823, 824)

(Primary Biblical References: Psalm 67:1–2; 96:10–13; Isaiah 55:10–11; 62:1–2)

May God bestow on us His grace,
    With blessings rich provide us;
And may the brightness of His face
    To life eternal guide us,
That we His saving health may know,
    His gracious will and pleasure,
And also to the nations show
    Christ’s riches without measure
And unto God convert them.

Martin Luther 1532
Thine over all shall be the praise
    And thanks of ev’ry nation;
And all the world with joy shall raise
    The voice of exultation.
For Thou shalt judge the earth, O Lord,
    Nor suffer sin to flourish;
Thy people’s pasture is Thy Word
    Their souls to feed and nourish,
In righteous paths to keep them.

O let the people praise Thy worth,
    In all good works increasing;
The land shall plenteous fruit bring forth,
    Thy Word is rich in blessing.
May God the Father, God the Son,
    And God the Spirit bless us!
Let all the world praise Him alone,
    Let solemn awe possess us.
Now let our hearts say, “Amen!”

When most people think of Martin Luther, they think of him as the great 16th Century Reformer of the church. If they know anything about his musical contributions, they typically think of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the hymn that is sometimes called the “battle hymn of the Reformation.” In reality Luther was a proficient musician with a good sense of poetry and a good singing voice. He composed 37 hymns along with some ballads, chants and liturgies in the German language. He also encouraged others to write hymns. It is no surprise that the Lutheran Church was known as the “singing church” and the first Protestant hymnals were all Lutheran. His contributions to church music would be enough to have him remembered today; it is just that his other work overshadowed his musical contributions. Six of Luther’s hymns are in the Lutheran Service Book. You can find them listed on page 1005 of that hymnal under Luther’s name.

“May God Bestow on Us His Grace” is typical of the focus of Luther’s hymns. It really isn’t about us, and certainly not about him or his work. Instead the focus is on Christ and Christ’s work. We factor in as the object of his work and as responding to his work. This is not surprising. Christ and his redemptive work were at the center of all Luther did.

Psalm 67 begins with the words:

1           May God be gracious to us and bless us
                        and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
2           that your way may be known on earth,
                        your saving power among all nations.

It isn’t hard to hear in the words of the Psalmist an echo of the Aaronic benediction, by which Aaron was to bless God’s people and put God’s name on them.

22          The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 23“Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
24          The Lord bless you and keep you;
25          the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26          the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
27          “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27)

These are the thoughts Luther captures in his first verse. But the hymn does not leave us wondering how God might bless us. If we were to determine what constitutes a blessing, we would probably never lift our eyes above the temporal realm; health, wealth, power, or at least completing our “bucket list.” But the blessings of God are far greater. They don’t end when we “kick the bucket.” His blessings are eternal life and an understanding of his gracious will. This is what the Psalmist told us in verse 2. We would also likely limit his blessings to us and our loved ones. But God’s blessings are not so limited. They are for all the nations (Isaiah 45:22; Matthew 28:19; 1 Timothy 2:4, as well as Psalm 67:2). So we sing “And also to the nations show, Christ’s riches without measure.”

In verse two Luther continues with the thought of the universal blessing of God. He echoes Psalm 96:10-13.

10          Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
                        Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
                        he will judge the peoples with equity.”

11          Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
                        let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12                      let the field exult, and everything in it!
            Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13                      before the Lord, for he comes,
                        for he comes to judge the earth.
            He will judge the world in righteousness,
                        and the peoples in his faithfulness.

The Psalmist reminds us that all the world is to praise the Creator; Christians have even more reason to do so because, through the Holy Spirit, we know what has been done for our salvation. The Father sent His Son to pay for our sins; Jesus rose, and returned to heaven until He comes again; so “Thine over all shall be the praise.” We sing in this verse of the coming Judgment, which the Psalm refers to in verses 10 and 13. While the coming judgment is a source of concern, worry and fear on the part of some, for us it is yet another reason to rejoice for He judges the people in His faithfulness. God is indeed faithful and will keep His promises, like the promise that baptized believers will be saved. Those who reject Christ do have reason to fear the coming judgment, but by His grace we are not part of that crowd.

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)

The Holy Spirit works through the Means of Grace (Word and Sacrament). This is reflected in what is probably my favorite line: “Thy people’s pasture is Thy Word, Their souls to feed and nourish”. It is by His Word that we are established Verse three also speaks of the blessings we receive from the Word. Isaiah 55:10–11 tells us more about God’s Word.

10          “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
                        and do not return there but water the earth,
            making it bring forth and sprout,
                        giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11          so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
                        it shall not return to me empty,
            but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
                        and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

How powerful is God’s Word! It accomplishes what God desires. So we feed on it, we immerse ourselves in it, and it strengthens us, it grows our faith, and it keeps us faithful. When that happens we increase in good works.

1           For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
                        and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet,
            until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
                        and her salvation as a burning torch.
2           The nations shall see your righteousness,
                        and all the kings your glory,
            and you shall be called by a new name
                        that the mouth of the Lord will give. (Isaiah 62:1-2)

To understand Isaiah 62:1-2 we need to understand that “Zion” and “Jerusalem” are synonymous with God’s believing people. Today that would be the “hidden” Church (i.e. all believers in the Triune God). God loves His Church on earth and has some amazing words for us. God himself will not keep silent. He continues His care for us until we join the Church Triumphant in heaven. So we sing in verse two that the Lord will keep us in righteous paths.

God also speaks of our witness through Isaiah (though it is really God’s witness through us). He says that, by the witness of the Church, nations and kings will be positively influenced by us, by what we do. God’s Word will bring “outsiders” into the Church. So, “all the world” will “praise Him alone.” To put this in the words of Psalm 23, our cup of blessing is to overflow so others receive God’s blessings, so others are brought into God’s kingdom. And remember, God’s blessings are not about some me-centered “bucket list,” but the eternal blessings of being God’s child and possessor of eternal life, both here and hereafter.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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