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Hymns of Wonder and Worship to Remember His Love
Joni Eareckson Tada
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
—1 Corinthians 15:55, KJV
I wish you could have been with my mother and me on that lovely late spring evening in June 2001. We were on her porch with the ocean to our backs, its breeze in our face, and watched the sun set over the bay. The air was salty, and except for a few gulls crying in the distance, the evening was utterly quiet. The clouds may have been dark and brooding, but the fading sun spread dazzling rays of light across the entire horizon. It was a moment to remember. In fact, it called for a hymn, and so we did what Mom and I always did when watching a lovely sunset. We sang.
Our singing was especially poignant. My mother's health was failing fast, and we knew we wouldn't have her much longer. My husband Ken came out on the back porch to snap a photo of me, Mom, and the sunset. The moment would end up being unforgettable. Two months later, my mother, Lindy Eareckson, went home to be with the Lord Jesus.
My mother's remaining days were filled with suffocating pain and mentalanguish. Everything from hallucinations to anxiety attacks, claustrophobia to terrible back pain. It didn't help that she had to wrestle against the blindness of macular degeneration as well as a failing heart and deep fatigue. Old age and mini-strokes were staking their claim on my mother's bright spirit until finally one afternoon while a family friend was reading from my heaven book by her bedside, Mother released a deep sigh and left for Home. I was shocked when I heard the news. On the other hand, I was relieved my mother was now in heaven.
My sisters asked if I would give a short message at our mother's memorial service back in Maryland. At first I balked, thinking that I'd fall apart halfway through; then I realized it would be a chance to honor her among many extended family and friends. I decided yes and asked my husband, Ken, and a few close friends to pray that God would give me an extra measure of grace. He did. My short speech about Mother's life and her love of Christ was indeed a blessing. And I didn't fall apart.
On our flight back to California, I continued to move through the same covering of grace. By the time we arrived at our house, the hour was late, and Ken and I were exhausted. We dropped our suitcases and took a minute to thumb through mail, noticing what were probably a few sympathy cards. I opened the first one addressed from Maryland. Something dropped out of the envelope. When I took a closer look, my chest tightened. It was an obituary from The Baltimore Sun. There in print I read: "Margaret J. Eareckson died August 21, 2001." Hot tears filled my eyes. For the first time, I fell apart.
The word homegoing, much like passing away or going to be with Jesus, sounds ... easier. Easier to swallow than death or died. But the bare facts in the obituary were as cold and hard as ice.
I shoved the newspaper item aside and bravely opened another card. It was a card of sympathy from my friend Sandy. At least I thought it was a sympathy card. This one, however, looked different. On the front were lilies, and on the inside were the words of "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today." It was an Easter card. Sandy had written, "Joni, somehow this Easter card expresses more what I want to say. Your lively, happy mother is free from pain and isn't it good to know that we will all be reunited at the resurrection. I'm so glad He arose."
Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! Foll'wing our exalted Head; Alleluia! Made like him, like him we rise; Alleluia! Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!
The warmth and joy of the resurrection melted the cold-as-ice fact of my mother's death, releasing the claustrophobic tightness in my chest. Fresh hope and confidence infused me, and in the next moment I almost sang. In fact, I did sing—"Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!" Never were there better words of sympathy than this reminder from my friend of the resurrection of Christ. Because Jesus arose, we have the happy assurance that one day we, too, shall rise and be reunited with our Lord and our loved ones. Oh, joy! My mother is safe and secure, all because Christ our Lord is risen!
Sending an Easter card upon hearing of someone's death? Some might say, "Naah, stick with tradition." I say that tradition can always use an upgrade. And so, in honor of Lindy, I'm holding on to a few Easter cards ... just in case someone grieving needs a little assurance of the soothing comfort of Christ's resurrection.
In the Light of the Word
No hymn more perfectly captures the triumph of Christ's resurrection than this one. It begins with a declaration of the glorious truth discovered by the apostles on resurrection morning: "Christ the Lord is ris'n today."
An angel at the tomb of Christ first made the announcement to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome when they went to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body after the Sabbath was over. When they arrived at the tomb, the stone was rolled away, and an angel in a white robe met them inside the burial place. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here" (Mark 16:6).
After Christ had appeared to Peter, and then to other apostles on the road to Emmaus, the eleven met together in Jerusalem to discuss what had happened. "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon," they said (Luke 24:34). In the familiar words of the King James Version of Scripture, "The Lord is risen indeed."
That proclamation of victory became a common greeting in the early church. "Christ is risen!" someone would say. "He is risen indeed!" was the inevitable reply. The statement and its response are to this day a part of the liturgy in churches worldwide.
The first stanza of this hymn invokes celebration from both heaven and earth ("sons of men and angels"). The hymn-writer calls on the heavens to sing ("Christ is risen!") and earth to reply ("He is risen indeed!"). Alleluia!
"Alleluia" is a Latinized transliteration of the Hebrew hallelujah—"Praise God." Every line of every stanza in this hymn is punctuated with the same refrain.
Verse 2 begins with a reference to the extraordinary measures the Romans took to guard the body of Jesus. When Christ's body was removed from the cross, some Pharisees went to Pilate and said, "Sir ... we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, `After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead" (Matthew 27:63-64).
"`Take a guard,' Pilate answered. `Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.' So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard" (vv. 65-66). But "the stone, the watch, the seal" were all in vain. Christ "burst the gates of hell" (cf. Matthew 16:18); a violent earthquake shook the area; an angel appeared and rolled away the stone; and the Roman guards were so frightened by the appearance of the angel that they "shook and became like dead men" (Matthew 28:4).
"Death in vain forbids his rise." He broke the bonds of death and "was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4). He thus "opened paradise" to all who believe. Alleluia!
The third stanza borrows language from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul's great discourse on the resurrection. "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (v. 55). Paul goes on to say, "The sting of death is sin.... But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (vv. 56-57). In other words, Christ's resurrection signified victory over sin as well as over death.
The final stanza celebrates the fact that we participate in Christ's triumph. The hymn draws once again from Paul's teaching about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul wrote, "Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven" (v. 49). Elsewhere Paul says that we who believe have spiritual union with Christ in both His death and His resurrection. "If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection" (Romans 6:5). We thus participate with Him in "the cross, the grave, the skies." Alleluia!
From Out of the Past
Charles Wesley was the brilliant and prolific hymn-writer who led one of the most dramatic and fruitful episodes in church history. He and his brother John were fearless pioneers in the battle for revival and reform in England.
Born the eighteenth child in the family of Susanna and Samuel Wesley, Charles was a friendly boy and cared deeply for others. At home, interaction and sharing were mixed with prayers, Scripture, and the study of Latin. While attending school in London he defended a small Scottish lad against the school bully. Proving his true grit was good preparation for the mobs he would face in his later life.
In college, Charles and John led a group of students called the "Holy Club." This group of friends met to strengthen each other's faith through Bible reading, sharing, singing, and evangelism. Little did they dream that their "methods" of organization would spread revival fire across Europe.
Greatly influenced by devout Moravian Christians, the Wesley brothers ministered to the poor and the outcast. But their energetic evangelistic campaigns and small group meetings were met with fierce opposition. The clergy and society "gentlemen" who wanted to keep the lower classes "in their places" led vicious attacks on the converts and their property.
Meetings led by the Wesleys were held at night in schoolhouses or homes of commoners. Warmed by friendship and a fireplace and candles, the miners, homemakers, unschooled workers, and poor from all over the region would gather for encouragement and teaching. The leader would warmly greet each "parishioner" before teaching a new hymn Charles had written. Line by line, hymns like "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" or "Rejoice, the Lord Is King" were repeated, memorized, and heartily sung by the motley crowd.
The subject of the evening would then be introduced by reading another of Wesley's compositions, like "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" or "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling." After instruction, a time of testimony allowed each person to tell "what the Lord had done" since the last meeting. Stories of old habits losing their grip, prayer that was answered in times of distress, strength in weakness, forgiveness of enemies, and deep sorrow over failures were openly shared. The humble folks, with coal grime still on their faces or holding babies in tattered smocks, were lifted out of despondency and spiritual ignorance to knowledge and a great sense of calling.
As the Wesleyan society raised the fallen, set them on their feet, and inspired the socially poor with honesty, industry, and ambition, the opposition grew violent. Rocks were thrown at converts, horses were driven into ponds and drowned, shops were flooded with fire hoses, and homes were vandalized with broken windows and ripped shutters. It was said you could point out where Methodists lived by the condition of their homes. The ruffians were ruthless.
The clergy and gentlemen opposition resented the astonishing success of the movement and the intrusion on their private domain. The converts and leaders were hounded with bulldogs, ducked in deep water, stoned, and threatened with brutality of body, home, and business. Led by the Wesley brothers, the disciples boldly walked amid the scowling faces, singing hymns as they went. They sang their way to eventual victory and the establishment of Methodism.
Summoning spiritual energies equal to the violence, Charles wrote constantly. Using warlike imagery, he issued new hymns daily for use in class meetings. Evangelistic campaigns were fueled with the fire of words set to music. "Soldiers of Christ, Arise" and "Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim" were put in a tract collection entitled "Hymns for Times of Trouble and Persecution."
A fearless soldier of Christ, Charles put to verse the ultimate battle fought with death—apparently lost but finally won. "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" is the supreme vision for the redeemed society on earth. With exultant voices we sing, "soar we now where Christ has led." The final conquest is victory. "Alleluia!"
Excerpted from What Wondrous Love Is This by Joni Eareckson Tada John MacArthur Robert & Bobbie Wolgemuth. Copyright © 2002 by John MacArthur, Joni Eareckson Tada, and Robert and Bobbie Wolgemuth. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.