St Augustine Grove Park
June 23rd, 1991
God moves in a mysterious way
For a change today we shall be looking at a well known Christian hymn:
"God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
Sometimes very dedicated Christians try and tell us that unless you're concentrating fiercely and meaning every word we sing in Church then we're being hypocritical or insincere in some way.
That is quite untrue. What's far more important is that we should come together Sunday by Sunday and do together the sort of things Christians have always done. Sing hymns, say prayers, listen to Readings, learn about what they mean and break Bread. By the end of an hour we should all have found something to take away with us till the next time.
But having said that it is helpful now and again to look at some hymn to see what it really has to say. For every hymn is about something and by someone. By looking at it we shall find it contains treasures which we'd probably never noticed before and which will thenceforth come crowding back to our mind whenever we sing that particular hymn again. Then it won't matter whether we are thinking hard about what we're singing because the thoughts will simply "be there".
William Cowper who wrote that hymn lived from 1731 to 1800. All his life he suffered from the most terrible bouts of depression and on a number of occasions he tried to kill himself. It was just as he had completed the hymn "God moves in a mysterious way" in 1773 that he was seized with one of his periodic fits of depression.
One evening the vicar of his parish of Olney in Buckingham Sher, who was called John Newton (who also wrote some of the hymns we sing) heard a knock at the front door. It was his friend the poet and solicitor William Cowper who lived just down the road at a house called Orchard Side. Cowper was in a dreadful state of depression and begged that he might be allowed to stay the night. Mr and Mrs Newton readily agreed – but the intended brief visit ran to nearly 14 months!
So bear that in mind. This hymn was written by somebody who was feeling at his wits end. Like many depressives he found it difficult to say what he was depressed about. But that it didn't make it any easier to cope with.
"God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform"
In other words, Cowper says our God is a God of Surprises. Don't expect the course of your life to beat smooth and sweet from the day that you turn to God; it's probably going to be smooth and sweet rather less than five percent of the time.
As the book of Ecclesiasticus says, and this is echoed over and over again in the Bible
"My son, if you would serve the Lord prepare yourself for an ordeal, an uphill struggle".
The poet in then goes on:
He plants his footsteps pinned the sec
And rides upon the storm.
This life is going to be full of changes and chances: it's going to be as unpredictable as the sea. Currents and tides, waves and breakers, storm and tempest are all going to home in upon us. But the important thing to remember is that God is present in storm and tempest. We don't look to our faith as a kind of escape route from the realities and hard facts which face us.
It's more like that boat in which the terrified Apostles found themselves with Jesus that we heard about in today's gospel. In one sense of course being in a boat in a storm seems the very worst place on earth to be; however if you think about it for a moment it's infinitely better than being in a storm at sea without a boat. If you're floating about helplessly in a life-jacket or worse still, clinging desperately to a piece of floating driftwood without a lifebelt then the appearance of a boat however small and the cheerful cry of "Hold on! We're coming!" must seem to be a wonderful relief.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will
This reminds us that God has a plan and purpose for each one of us. He seldom reveals to us anymore than a fraction of that plan at any one time. In all probability there is someone here this morning whose life is going to be changed however slightly, for the better by something I have said or you have said or done – for all I know that change to life may be my very own.
What is certain is that our being together here this morning is no matter of chance. God's never-failing skill lies behind it all with a wisdom deeper than the deepest diamond mine. He has treasured up a gem of grace which in due time he means to make us a present of – but in due time mark you. In the meanwhile the storm clouds may continue to gather
"Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head".
To many of us the worst part of any experience is waiting for it. We can see the clouds building up and the storm coming closer as the exam, or surgical operation or the threat of redundancy get nearer. If we've taken all reasonable steps to face it then our Lord's words "don't worry about tomorrow" are surely meant to apply to us – and yet that's easier said than done, isn't it? Try as we may we can't get the thing we are having to face out of our mind.
Yet it is a matter of quite common fact that every ordeal we have to go through brings its blessings. Not just in the sense that we can look back on it with some satisfaction at "having got through it safely" nor yet the thought whilst we are in the midst of it that it "won't last for ever" – light at the end of the tunnel silvery linings and joy in the morning.
Alongside all these blessings, whose reality I am not doubting, lies the fact that many of life's greatest blessings are to be found that wrapped up in the midst of sorrows and troubles. And as the People of God found in the time of Moses, his presence can equally well take the form of a dark cloud as that of the fiery pillar.
"Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face"
Feeble sense: that is to say the feelings of the moment are a dreadfully unreliable way of judging how things are going.
Not that I'm saying they'll go away if we ignore them. The fears that we feel for the future and the pain and grief that we experience in the here-and-now are real enough.
But how Ever acute our sufferings at any moment, we ought not to let them get out of hand. That is where our fellow-Christians can be such a blessing. The smiling face of God which lies behind his "frowning providence" may often be discovered by opening our grief to somebody else. Not to all and sundry but "to me or some other devout person" as the Prayer book puts it so well.
I said a moment or two back that there is in all probability at least one person here this morning whose life is going to be changed by what is said or done. Well you may equally well be the person by whom that change is brought about. Or perhaps this sermon plus your goodwill may be what he has in mind. Just as the setting for a precious gem is every bit as important as a the gem itself, so too God may use the setting of St Augustine's on a Sunday morning to present to someone here the bright design he has treasured up for them.
"His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste
But sweet will be the flower"
Like most things in life the grace of God needs time to work and do its stuff. The fruit that grows on a tree, apple, pear, orange or whatever before it is ripe will taste bitter and horrible. But that's not what it's intended to become.
It's easy to say "be patient", I know. But that's how so many things actually work in the world that God has given us to live in. Sometimes we can only know that progress is being made by sampling the fruit to see if it is ripe. If it isn't then besides tasting nasty we know we've got to wait a bit longer. However, a careful series of tastings will tell anyone whose sense of taste has been carefully developed, that progress is being made.
How often have we said truthfully to someone who has been ill and whom we haven't seen for a little while "Goodness, you're looking better"? In all probability the sick person looking at himself day-by-day in the mirror hasn't noticed any improvement. But the outsider who remarks upon the change they can see may be doing an incomparable service to the person who has been unwell just by a simple remark like that. As a rule we should say five words of encouragement to other people for every one word of criticism.
"Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan his work in vain"
Faithlessness – the situation of those who have fallen or slipped away from the grace of God (and I am sure you know some people will have) always results in people "getting the answer wrong". The people who complain most bitterly about the way life has treated them are the ones who have turned their backs upon God.
Without the constant reminder of God's presence in his word, his people, his sacraments, his priests which churchgoing gives us, then we aren't giving ourselves or God a chance to make sense of anything. It's like trying to understand a foreign language. If we don't really know the language then we may indeed pick up the odd word or two that people are saying, or understand a simple gesture. But unless someone interprets for us what is being said we shall miss 90 percent of its meaning.
"God is his own interpreter
And he will make it plain"
In the midst of so many things which puzzle and perplex us God himself is waiting to explain what they mean. Many things which Jesus said perplexed his hearers. But, says the Gospel, "when he was alone with his disciples he explained everything".
Don't forget that the hymn was written by someone in a state of deep depression, for whom life's troubles seemed to be overwhelming. In six short verses, easily remembered, he has provided us with a little gem to enable us "so to pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal".
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