Today we start a month-long sermon series on the history and theological background for some of your favorite hymns and mine. I don’t think there’s a better place to start than Amazing Grace. After all, I’ve said more than once that I am the wretch that the song speaks of. I know for many of you, Amazing Grace ranks up there as one of your favorite hymns as well. It was published in 1779 and written by John Newton. And it was semi-autobiographical in nature so that might start to give you a taste of Newton’s life. His mother died when he was young of tuberculosis. His father worked as a shipping merchant so John’s upbringing was left to a stepmother and boarding schools. He joined his dad at age 11. As he aged, he was employed by several different ships often being asked to leave because of his insubordination and vulgar language. He literally cursed like a sailor.
He was on board the ship, the Greyhound, when a terrible storm struck. This was the start of John’s “come to Jesus” conversion. This wasn’t a simple rainstorm. This was a storm of epic proportions. I doubt Hollywood could even make this stuff up. The wind had taken the sails, ripped wood off the side of the boat, and thrown men overboard. John was responsible for manually working the pumps in the hopes of keeping the ship going. But, he did this for 11 days. Finally, he was just too tired to keep pumping, so he was tied to the helm of the ship and hoped to keep it afloat and on course. I would imagine that an experience like that gives one an opportunity to think about God. The story goes that he even begged for God to have mercy on him and the remaining men on the ship.
Upon landing safely, his conversion to Christianity started. He was comforted by Luke 11:13 “if you then, who are evil, know who to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Still, like so many of us, he began to question if he was even worthy of God’s love. But he slowly started to develop his faith and eventually became a pastor. He often would write a hymn to accompany his Sunday night lectures and sermons. It was in that context that he wrote Amazing Grace. He drew inspiration from King David in 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God; you have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank, O Lord God!” The other thing that is important to remember or know is that John Newton spent part of his time at sea as a slave merchant. Once he became a rector, he spoke out against slavery. One of his congregation members was a member of parliament and instrumental in abolishing slavery, thanks to being influenced by his pastor.
For Christians, for Lutherans, this hymn is more than just a hymn. This is a way of life. After all, one of the hallmarks of our theology is that we live by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 says “for grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We are saved by grace. We cannot be saved from ourselves by ourselves. If and when someone asks me “why do you need God?” or “why do you need Jesus?” And my answer is always “because I cannot save myself.” Luther said “knowledge of original sin is a necessity. For we cannot know the magnitude of Christ’s grace unless we first recognize our malady” (AP 117:33). This is why we always open our worship time together confessing our sins to God. It is only after we’re aware of our sins that we are ready to accept the grace that God has waiting for us.
So, what makes grace so amazing (other than the fact that it saves us from ourselves)? Once again, we turn to scripture. Romans 5:8-10 “but God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Did you hear the good news in this scripture, my beloveds? “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Christ didn’t die for us once we got our stuff together, once we prayed so many times, once we gave so much money…instead, Christ died while we still were sinners.
God’s love changes us. That’s probably a given. I hope you hear me say something like that and you think “duh Pastor! Of course God’s love changes us!” But do you believe it? Sin has the tendency to make us blind. We are blind to God’s love, we are blind to God’s mercy, and we are blind to God’s grace. That’s what makes God’s grace so amazing; we can be completely blind, we can be completely unaware and yet God’s grace allows us to see. “Was blind but now I see” is more than just an afterthought. It is a statement and true testament to God’s goodness.
The verses all tell a story. The verses all speak to the ways that God’s grace infiltrates our lives on a minute by minute basis. However, the words we have today weren’t the original words that John Newton wrote. The fifth verse was a later addition. The two verses you may not be familiar with are these: “Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.” And “the earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine, but God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.”
Grace teaches us to simultaneously fear God and yet somehow also relieves us from our fears. Grace has a way of showing us the truth of life, the messy stuff the ugly parts of our lives, and still says “but yet….” For me, that’s what grace is all about. It’s as if God is saying to me and to all of us “but yet…” But yet, God still loves you. But yet, God still forgives you. But yet, God still provides for you. But yet, God still feeds you. But yet…and maybe that’s where the idea of grace upon grace comes from. It is more than we ever need and certainly more than we ever deserve.
The last few weeks I’ve talked about being a disciple and the difficulties that life entails. Newton’s words spoke to this as well: “through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” We’ve all been through a lot. We all have stories we could share. We all have instances in our lives that we could look back on and claim “I got through only by the grace of God.” We will continue to survive by grace through faith. We will continue to breath by grace. We will continue to live solely by grace. And, when the time comes, when our journey on this earth is complete, it is by God’s grace alone that we will be welcomed into heaven. It is by God’s grace alone that we will continue to know God’s love after death. And it is because of God’s grace alone that we will continue to praise God, even if we do it for 10,000 years or more.