St Mary’s Rotherhithe
1st October 2006
Frail earthen vessels
Sometimes churchgoers are worried because when they have sung a hymn during a service, they haven’t been paying much attention to what the words mean. Worse than that, they can’t even remember after the service which hymns they have sung. So they worry that they are insincere or hypocritical.
If that’s your worry, set your mind at rest. It’s almost impossible to concentrate at one and the same time on both words and music. That being said, however, our hymn-books include some of the greatest aids to learning about God and His plans for us; and by carefully studying the words of these hymns when we get home, rather than when singing them in church, we can discover almost as much about God from them as we can from the Bible.
That’s because many of the best hymns are solidly Bible-based. The hymn, Disposer Supreme and Judge of the Earth, which we shall be studying this morning by the great French poet Jean de Santeuil is a particularly good example of this.
In its twenty lines of poetry this hymn contains as much information about God as two or three hundred pages of prose. So hymns are a sort of text-message from God. But they have two other advantages: poetry makes things easier to remember, even if it’s only the odd phrase or two; secondly, since a hymn is often associated with a particular tune, we can instantly recognize it and, if we’ve done our homework, remind us of what we’ve learnt.
So without more ado, let’s look at what this hymn says:
Disposer supreme, and Judge of the earth,
Who choosest for thine the weak and the poor;
To frail earthen vessels, and things of no worth,
Entrusting thy riches which ay shall endure.
God, the poet tells us, is the supreme Disposer and Judge of everything and everyone on earth,. Of all earthly creatures he has chosen to give us human beings the gift of free-will. That means of course that we can use that free-will to choose either to worship or to ignore Him; we can keep or break His commandments; we can love or hate one another. As Supreme Disposer he has put at our disposal a vast range of resources to use as we choose. But He is also the Judge of all the earth and will hold us to account for the way we have used or misused them; and, at the bottom line of everything is the fact that one day we shall die and see Him face-to-face to be judged by Him.
But the next three lines contain a big surprise. It’s not those who are wise and clever in earthly terms that God has entrusted with His most precious and important belongings. It’s people like you and me: ‘frail earthen vessels and things of no worth’. God has revealed to you and me, rather to the wise and clever, the permanent truths about Himself and his purposes for creation ‘– riches which ay shall endure’.
So before we adopt the popular idea that individuals like us are just too insignificant, too unimportant, too simple to be of any use in God’s eyes let us remind ourselves of what St Paul said in his First Letter to the Corinthians ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…, the weak to shame the strong…, what is low and despised in the world, even things that have not yet come into existence to bring to nothing things that already are’. The poet continues:
Those vessels soon fail, though full of thy light,
And at thy decree are broken and gone;
Thence brightly appeareth the arm of thy might,
As through the clouds breaking the lightnings have shone.
Like clouds are they borne to do thy great will,
And swift as the winds about the world go:
The Word with his wisdom their spirits doth fill;
They thunder, they lighten, the waters o'erflow.
‘We carry this treasure in earthenware jars to show that any real power we have comes from God’ says St Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Earthenware jars are by their nature fragile and easily broken. But since inside each and every Christian lies concealed the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, then sooner or later it is God the Father’s intention that those jars should be broken open to reveal their contents.
‘Or to put it another way’, the poet continues, ‘we are like clouds propelled to our destiny by the Wind of the Holy Spirit.’ Clouds may indeed obscure for a while the light of the sun, but they are charged not only with life-giving rain, but the amazing electrical power which we call ‘lightning’. The ordinary people, fishermen and tax-collectors whom Jesus called to be his followers (‘unlearned, ignorant men’ St Luke says that their contemporaries called them) became persons of whom it was said ’these men have turned the world upside-down’, as the Spirit drove them to and fro throughout the known world.
Their sound goeth forth, "Christ Jesus is Lord!"
Then Satan doth fear, his citadels fall;
As when the dread trumpets went forth at thy word,
And one long blast shattered the Canaanite's wall.
O loud be their trump, and stirring their sound,
To rouse us, O Lord, from sin's deadly sleep.
May lights which thou kindlest in darkness around
The dull soul awaken her vigils to keep!
At this point the poem undergoes, so to speak, a change of key. Instead of fragile earthen vessels filled with light, or thunderclouds rich with life-giving rain and charged with potential electrical energy, the author draws our attention to the Old Testament description of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho.
The People of God, you will remember, were on their way to possess the Promised Land of Canaan. Having successfully crossed the Red Sea, the Sinai Desert and the River Jordan, they found themselves being forced to a halt outside the apparently impregnable walls of the Fortress of Jericho. It was, the Bible tells us ‘shut up from within and from without because of the people of Israel; none went out and none came in’.
Jericho sounds very like South London today, doesn’t it? We are faced with an apparently impenetrable indifference by the very people to whom we have been entrusted to bring the Light of Christ. The temptation now, as then, would be to try and by-pass the whole problem and say that such people are none of our business – so why not just leave them to get on with living their lives and stop wasting our time on them?
Well, sometimes that is the only thing to do. But we need to be absolutely certain that the present is such a time before deciding that such is God’s will for us. And in the case of Jericho it wasn’t. God had it in mind to introduce what would now be called a ‘new technology’ to overcome the stone-walling of the inhabitants of Jericho. In that case it was the combination of trumpet and shouting which caused the walls to tumble down. In our case it’s likely to be something much more sophisticated though equally powerful – possibly the Internet..
Meanwhile we could do worse than look carefully at the strategies of those local churches which are more successful than we are at ‘getting through’ that blank wall of indifference which faces us. We should study them not necessarily with a view to copying them, because what works in one place doesn’t always in another as many a faithful parish priest has discovered to his cost. But it’s simply futile to ignore success when we see it because we may find ourselves in the position of being one of several armies, with a common purpose but completely unable to work with each other because although we have a common cause, our unwillingness to learn from them prevents us from having any effective contact with each other. Since becoming a Street Pastor, I have found myself talking with people of generations and a cultures of which till now I have known next to nothing.
But our message is one and the same, whatever our tradition, and it can only be ‘Christ Jesus is Lord’ – as the first Christian missionaries proclaimed. We are those who, as St Peter said, have been ‘called by God out of darkness into His marvellous light that we should show forth his praise’. As the final verse of the hymn says:
All honour and praise, dominion and might,
To God, Three in One, eternally be,
Who round us hath shed his own marvellous light,
And called us from darkness his glory to see.
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