Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken

[Note:  This sermon was given in the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, June 9, 2018.  Below is the prepared notes]

[Optional introductory comments:  I would like to thank the songleader for choosing Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken [1] to end the opening set of hymns, not least because I asked him to do so.  I want you to keep the song in your head as we will be looking at it, and the chapter of the Bible it comes from, in some detail shortly.]

If you my remember my last message, I commented on the fierce reaction that the congregants of Jesus’ hometown of Nazereth had to His statement that Gentiles would share in the blessings promised by the Messiah in His first and second comings.  I would like for us to begin with this passage and remind ourselves of the vehemently hostile response that these Jews had to sharing the blessings of the Messiah with Gentiles in Luke 4:24-30.  In Luke 4:24-30 we read the following:  “Then He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.  But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.  And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath,  and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff.  Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.”

The reaction of the Jews here in this passage has always been mysterious to me.  Besides the stories that Jesus mentions here, there are many cases where God provided grace and acceptance and healing and favor to Gentiles.  We have the example of Ruth and Tamar and Rehab the harlot, all of whom were accepted as part of Israel and were included in the maternal lines of Jesus Christ’s own genealogy.  And besides numerous prophecies and psalms are written that point to Gentile believers sharing in the blessings of Israel and obeying God’s laws, including the Sabbath and Holy Days.  A sermon, or even a series of sermons, could be given on this subject if someone had the interest to do so.  Today I would like to focus on a small section of this corpus of biblical writings and point out some of its perhaps unrealized significance and relevance to us today as believers.

In our hymnals we regularly sing a piece called “Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken.”  This song has an interesting history that relates to the subject we have been speaking of and the mystery of the Nazereth congregation’s unhappiness at hearing about the Messiah’s generosity towards Gentiles.  The words to this hymn were written by John Newton, an antislavery Anglican minister who had been a slave trader in his youth and who is also responsible for writing the familiar tune “Amazing Grace,” which some of us have performed before.  The music in our hymnal for this piece comes from a tune by the talented Austrian classical composer Franz Josef Haydn.  Originally, this tune was called, if you will forgive my German, “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser,” and it became the national anthem of Hitler’s Germany, whose first line went something like this:  “Deuschland Deuschland uber alles.”  When we sing this hymn, though, as we often do, I wonder how often we can answer the following simple question:  What glorious thing is being spoken of in this psalm?  We may also ask another question, why does this matter in the present discussion?

To find out the answer to the first of these questions, let us turn today to Psalm 87.  This psalm is the second-to-last of the dozen or so psalms written by the Sons of Korah.  This psalm is a short one so we will read it all quickly.  Psalm 87:1-6 reads:  “His foundation is in the holy mountains.  The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.  Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God! Selah.  I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to those who know Me; behold, O Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia:  ‘This one was born there.’”  And of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her; and the Most High Himself shall establish her.”  The Lord will record, when He registers the peoples:  “This one was born there.” Selah.  Both the singers and the players on instruments say, “All my springs are in you.”

What does this psalm mean?  To summarize it simply, this psalm celebrates the fact that all believers are counted as citizens of Jerusalem regardless of their backgrounds.  Whenever someone is recorded in the book of life as a member of God’s family, his or her background is wiped away and he or she is counted as a native-born citizen of Jerusalem with no discrimination or separation from those who actually were born Israelites or were born as citizens of the physical Jerusalem.  Whether we are speaking of the fierce Philistines, or the corrupt Phoenecians, or the African Ethopians, or anyone else among the Gentiles (called “the peoples” in this psalm), whenever someone came to a belief in God, they were counted as fully Israelite without any sort of second-class status.

It is worthwhile to note here that Psalm 87 is not the only psalm that speaks openly of the joy that Gentile believers will have in worshiping God.  While there are other examples of this, I would like to turn to the shortest such psalm, Psalm 117.  Psalm 117 only has two verses and it reads in its entirety:  “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles!  Laud Him, all you peoples!  For His merciful kindness is great toward us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever.  Praise the Lord!”  This psalm is part of the collection of hymns that is sung by Jews to this day every Passover at their Seders.  And yet this psalm has as its whole point a reminder for the Gentiles and “peoples” to sing along with the Jews about the merciful kindness that God shows towards both Jew and Gentile and the fact that God’s truth endures forever and is accessible to people regardless of their background.  In light of this fact, how was it that the Jews of Nazereth had entirely forgotten that in their own psalms that they regularly sung they were singing in praise of God’s generosity towards Gentile believers in grafting them as part of Israel and considering the background of those Gentile believers as causing no hindrance to full acceptance as Israelites and as believers?

Is this of relevance to believers today?  Absolutely.  While there are several passages that deal with the full acceptance of people of diverse backgrounds as citizens of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, I would like for us to look today at Galatians 3:26-29.  In Galatians 3:26-29 Paul spells out in detail the unimportance of our physical backgrounds to our place in God’s Kingdom.  We read:  “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Do we understand the implications of this passage?  There are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God.  All believers are counted as one and the same in Christ Jesus.  Being a physical Israelite, or being freeborn, or being male gives one no privilege or special place in God’s kingdom.  Neither does being a Gentile, being of low social status, or being female make one any less of a child of God.  The Kingdom of God is not like a high school cafeteria where there are cliques of cool kids, group of kids who are not so cool, and then outcasts who are social lepers not even worth greeting or acknowledging the presence of.  All of the accidents of birth and background, of race and ethnicity, of gender, of social class, of personality, or of anything else that is unconnected with our conduct as Christians is of no importance in the eyes of God and of no importance in His Kingdom.

It may be difficult for us to apply this equality to our lives and to our practices.  It may be hard for us to respect our brethren, especially when these brethren are very different from us.  But the truth remains consistent throughout scripture that our backgrounds do not create any inferiority when it comes to being followers of God and believers in Him and citizens of His Kingdom and of the Jerusalem above.  It remains mysterious that this truth was forgotten by the Jews of Nazereth when they sought to throw Jesus Christ off of a cliff for pointing out that God had always been merciful and gracious to believing Gentile men and women.  It remains mysterious that a hymn based on the glorious truth of God grafting Gentile believers into Israel and that celebrated their citizenship in Jerusalem became connected with the national anthem of Hitler’s Germany.  But it should not be a mystery to us that no matter our own background, we who are baptized are united and with the same status as believers in God’s ways and as brethren of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with every other believer across all space and time.  Let us make sure that to the best of our abilities and with all the help that God can give us that we never stop acting like we are united and one and equals together as brethren in God’s family.

[1] This is a hymn I have written about and reflected on often.  See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings, Sermonettes, Sons of Korah and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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