“Amazing Grace: Songs that Transform Us” – Hymn 744
1. Meticulously remastered hymn lyrics
Sometimes when people talk they use difficult, inappropriate or even unintelligible speech. Babies are extremely good at it. We had a video chat with our daughter and son-in-law last Monday, and Kara reported that sometimes 2 year-old Jubilee will be saying something, explaining what she wants, and even mom can’t decipher it. Lisa Segbarth meticulously remastered the lyrics of a familiar hymn. You have to listen carefully… see if you can decipher it.
Unexpected lenience, in the form of a mellifluous phonation, preserved an organism of questionable value commonly associated with the author of this composition. Said ego was at one time misplaced, but the situation has been altered and currently there is no doubt as to its location. In addition, said ego formerly was incapacitated by a malfunction of the visual sense, but at this moment has recovered the associated ability.
That’s the first verse of John Newton’s famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It’s performed as many as 10 million times a year, and many consider it Newton’s autobiography in song.
2. John Newton’s life
John Newton was born in 1725 and grew up just south of the London Tower in a little hamlet named Wapping. His father was a shipping merchant, and his mother died just before he turned 7 years old. At age 11, he joined his father on the ship, and that began a period of his life of disobedience and rebellion. He used foul and profane language, even when speaking directly to the ship’s captain. He got into disagreements with ship mates, he almost starved to death, he deserted the navy. He was imprisoned at sea and chained to the slaves the ship was carrying to pending slave owners. He not only neglected the faith his mother had brought him up in, but opposed it and denounced God as a myth. At one point he ended up in slavery himself in Sierra Leone. It was a violent storm on the North Atlantic that threatened his life and caused him to cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me.” Based on his past life, he didn’t think he was worthy of any of the Lord’s mercy, but their ship was spared, and two weeks later the battered ship landed in Ireland. He came to believe that, in that rescue, God had sent him a profound message and he counted that as the moment of his conversion, but it took some time for his life to change. He ended up as a captain on a slave ship, living almost as cruelly as he had before. But a developing relationship with Polly Catlett and a pending marriage to her signaled the end of that chapter of his life. He married Polly when he was 25, and didn’t sail again. Rather his life turned to a study of Latin, Greek and theology, and he and Polly immersed themselves in a church community. Later he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, where he would write arguably the most famous hymn in Christianity today. Let’s explore the lyrics and the Biblical background and the application to our lives.
3. Amazing Grace
a. Found, and see
Verse 1 by itself carries some powerful words and concepts and Biblical connections. Grace is one of the most rich and meaningful words in Scripture. The Greek word is cariV (charis), and we often define it as God’s undeserved kindness and favour, usually connecting it with forgiveness and pardon and steadfast love. There’s much more to grace than simply God’s favour.
When we deserve punishment, instead, God gives mercy.
When we cannot do it alone, God gives help.
When we lack in wisdom, God gives wise guidance.
When we suffer, God gives various types of healing.
When we are unlovable, God loves us to the utmost.
When we continually sin and fail, God gives forgiveness.
When we need strength, God gives perseverance.
That begins to unpack the depth of the meaning of the word grace. It truly is AMAZING, as John Newton wrote. And he considered that grace amazing because he considered himself to be a wretch, a sinful, undeserving human being. When we hear about the first part of his life, we tend to agree. And Newton had company. St. Paul, writing to his pastoral apprentice, Timothy, said: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” The worst… a wretch… when we hear about the first part of Paul’s life – threatening and imprisoning Christian believers – we tend to agree. When we consider the first part of our lives, or maybe last year, or this morning!! – we honestly join their company… wretchedly sinful… but wretched sinners who have been blessed to have received the amazing grace of a loving God!!
In the first verse of his hymn, Newton personally believed himself to have been spiritually lost, but then to have been found by God, and to have been spiritually blind, but then to have been given spiritual sight and insight by that same gracious God. In those images, Newton was drawing on truths from several Biblical accounts.
When we consider the concept of being lost, besides the conversion of St. Paul, these stories may come to mind:
– The story Jesus told of the lost son, the prodigal son, who, after having wasted his entire inheritance on wild living, returned home in a genuinely repentant state to find a welcoming and forgiving father who even said, “This son of mine was… lost and is found.”
– The story Jesus told of a lost sheep. The shepherd left 99 other sheep in order to rescue the lost 1.
– The story Jesus told of a tax collector who was praying in the temple and, recognizing only his sinful state, blurted out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
– The real encounter Jesus had with a real tax collector, Zacchaeus, and how Jesus brought him to a place of faith and of faithful living. Jesus’ concluding remark in that encounter was: “[I] came to seek and to save what was lost.”
When we consider the concept of being blind, especially this story may come to mind:
– The real “lived-out-parable” encounter Jesus had with a man born blind. This blind man not only received his sight thanks to a gracious Jesus, but he also gained spiritual sight and over the course of just one day, he moved from considering Jesus just “a man” to calling him “a prophet” to “a man from God” and finally confessing Jesus as “Lord.” Blind but now I see, indeed!
Whether in a story Jesus told or in a real-life encounter, they all experienced the amazing grace of a loving God!! They were all transformed – from lost to found, from blind to seeing, from dead to alive. St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, and added one more metaphor. He said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come.” From old to new.
In the Broadway musical “School of Rock,” shy Tomika barely says a word for the first act of the show. Then one day, she claims to be a singer rather than a back-up singer. The teacher and the rest of the class dismiss her, having seen nothing to verify that claim. Then, out of nowhere, she belts out the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” The entire cast freezes as her voice pierces the air. Time stops. The students and the teacher are captivated, and Tomika goes from being the girl who must not have any talent, to the girl with the unbelievable voice that needs to be showcased front and center. Tomika’s own opinion of herself changes, too. She goes from being uncertain and doubting her abilities to confident in her gifting. She was truly transformed. That is the power of God’s AMAZING GRACE!! It takes us from being one thing – lost, blind, dead, old – to being something unbelievably better and totally other than what we were – found, seeing, alive, and new.
b. Good and hope and protection
The second verse of Newton’s hymn further explains God’s grace.
“The Lord has promised good to me.” Don’t misinterpret that to mean that the Lord has promised you health, wealth and happiness. He doesn’t do that. What He does promise is “good.” St. Paul writes in Romans 8 – “In all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” That good may not be immediately evident, but God does ultimately and eternally work for the good of His faithful followers, and that, too, is grace.
“His Word my hope secures.” God’s Word, the Bible, strongly affirms that our hope is found in Jesus Christ, and that it is a secure and solid anchor for our souls and for our lives. Also in Romans 8 is the affirmation that the Holy Spirit points us toward our adoption as sons and daughters, and toward the redemption of our bodies, and in THAT hope we are saved.
“He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.” The Psalms are the book of the Bible that talk the most about God being our shield, but Paul also picks up that imagery in Ephesians 6 as he talks about the armor of God. Faith is our shield and it protects us from the darts and temptations of the evil one, right up until our last day and our last breath – as long as life endures.
c. Grace through dangers, toils and snares
Probably none of us will experience the dangers, toils, and snares of St. Paul – the 25 specific sufferings that he catalogued in 2 Corinthians 11, and none of us lives the ups and downs of John Newton’s life, but we all have faced challenging times and temptations, which we have survived only by the grace of God. That’s what Newton says in verse 3: it was only God’s grace that got him to the moment when he penned his hymn, and he understands that God’s grace would continue, as David wrote in Psalm 23: “Surely goodness and love (grace) will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
I don’t know what dangers, toils and snares you have endured in your life. Dangers… the things that seriously threaten your life and well-being. Toils… the hard work that we go through in our daily living and perhaps also for the sake of the Gospel. Snares… things that tempt us, that threaten to lead us away from true faith in God, what Paul calls the cunning and craftiness of men and the wiles of the devil. If you look back on your life and you see some or all of those things, you can look back with gratitude that you are where you are today by the amazing grace of God.
d. Grace when mortal life shall cease
None of us welcomes that day or that moment when we stare our mortality in the face. It may come when we hear that unwelcome diagnosis from the doctor. It may come in that second when an out of control car threatens to inevitably and irreversibly end our earthly existence. For John Newton, it was that fierce storm at sea. He realized that his life could end, with his body sinking down, sinking down to the depths of the ocean, and he wasn’t truly prepared to meet God on that final day. That was God’s wake-up call for Newton, and he not only called on God for mercy but his entire life turned around so that, later in life, he had the confidence that comes with heaven’s joy and peace.
Ten days ago, some seniors and I completed a study of several psalms. The last psalm we looked at was Psalm 90 – a psalm that contrasts God’s eternalness with our mortality, and God’s holiness with our sins and iniquities. It says that our days will be 70 years, or maybe 80, and yet their span will include trouble and sorrow – Newton’s dangers, toils, and snares. But the heart of the psalm is verse 12 which says: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
If we consider end of life issues before they actually happen, that is a wise thing. And what is even more wise is considering what lies beyond the grave and who will transport us there. It’s Jesus, God’s Saviour, who will transport us there – by virtue of God’s grace and through our faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. He is the one who forgives us and makes us holy and prepared for heaven.
The fourth verse of Newton’s hymn lands on that same idea – “When this flesh and heart shall fail and mortal life shall cease.” Newton was pondering his own last day, which was still some 35 years in the future, but he had the confidence that God’s grace would even prevail over the enemies of death and the grave. That means that he was looking to and that we can look to God’s amazing grace (in Jesus) as the source of our joy and peace that will lead us to heaven when our mortal life shall cease.
[Bible Readings side trip]
Let’s take a little side trip before we get to the last verse. Let’s see if we can find God’s amazing grace in our Bible readings today.
Nehemiah 8 – The Old Testament lesson featured the first reading of the Law of Moses after the people of Israel returned from 70 years of captivity in Babylon. God’s amazing grace is seen in keeping His promise to bring the people back to the Promised Land, despite their disobedience in years past. His amazing grace is seen in their eager listening to the Word and their genuine and heart-felt worship. His amazing grace is seen in Nehemiah’s words – that God’s people are strengthened as they experience His joy.
1 Corinthians 12 – The Epistle reading talks about the unity of the Body of Christ despite the diversity of its members. God’s amazing grace is seen in the unity that the Holy Spirit creates no matter whether people are Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. His amazing grace is seen in the way that He gifts the people in the church to both work together and yet to have unique roles. His amazing grace is seen in the way that His people both suffer and rejoice together.
Luke 4 – The Gospel reading describes Jesus’ first preaching assignment in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. God’s amazing grace is seen in the good-news, Lord’s-favour passage that He reads from the scroll of Isaiah. His amazing grace is seen in the fulfillment of that passage in the person of Jesus, Himself. His amazing grace is seen in Jesus’ escape from the evil intent of his jealous and disbelieving home-town neighbours.
e. 10,000 years of praise for God’s grace
The fifth verse of the hymn in our hymnal is actually not in Newton’s original song, but was added a few years later. It carries with it the truth that our praise of God’s grace will be eternal. 10,000 years is just the beginning of our praise of God’s grace. After those first 10,000 years, we’ve still got lots and lots and LOTS of time to sing God’s praise.
4. God’s grace for you
So, how have you experienced God’s grace personally? Jesus spoke grace over a man who was born blind, and who, because of his impairment, had no place in his society. Jesus showed that man that he had value. He mattered. Jesus spoke grace to Paul, a man passionate about persecuting Christians. Jesus showed him that he had a different purpose – to grow the church rather than to squash it. Jesus spoke grace to John Newton, a profane slave-trading ship captain. Jesus showed him how to love other human beings rather than to hatefully trade them.
Some of you are new Christian believers, having come from a non-Christian upbringing. You may not have been as wicked and profane as John Newton or St. Paul (before his conversion), but you got tangled up in so many places you shouldn’t have been, and you had your eyes closed, blinded, to the reality of God, and you were definitely not on the Lord’s side. But now you are, and your past is all forgiven, and you can sing “Amazing Grace” with heart-felt and personal conviction.
Others of you have grown up in a Christian home, and have never really known a life apart from Jesus. But you still have your own areas of disobedience and rebellion against God. You are sinful. You mess up. Every. Single. Day. And you, too, need those sins forgiven. “Amazing Grace” is no less meaningful for you, because Jesus did forgive those sins. He loves you so much that He died for you, showering you with God’s grace.
And then – no matter what your past life looked like – there is the present and the future, and how you can point someone else to God’s amazing grace. Maybe it’s telling a co-worker about your journey to faith in Jesus, and how your forgiven sins have transformed you from lost to found, from blind to sight. Maybe it’s praying for a family member struggling with both doubt and health issues, and leaving them in the hands of that Amazing Grace God. Maybe it’s authentically recognizing and appreciating the grace of God that covers your entire life and then turning it over in service to Him like both Newton and St. Paul did. However you live out your life, may it portray the delicious taste, the beautiful sight, and the sweet sound (the mellifluous phonation) of God’s amazing grace every day. Amen.