Then Sings My Soul: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
August 13, 2023
Revelation 4: 1-11
When I say the following last names, many of you will instantly know the type of person of whom I speak.
Boeheim, Calhoun, Rupp.
Knight, Wooden, Williams and of course Smith.
I…should probably mention…the guy down the street…Mike Krzyzewski…but I’d rather sing “For The Beauty of the Earth.”
These are the names of College Basketball’s great coaches.
There are many more of course.
I probably have enough Davidson grads here that I ought to name Lefty Driesel, but if I have omitted your favorite coach then please know that the list is long and full of greatness.
As we continue our sermon series marching through the Final Four of our Hymn Bracket, it should surprise no one that we have arrived at a hymn penned by Charles Wesley.
Among Hymn writers, Charles Wesley is most certainly one of the all-time greats.
When we measure the greatness of a basketball coach we often cite all-time-wins or win percentages. At the highest end of that list, you’ll see numbers hovering in the 1200 range for the greatest of the greats.
No offense to any of these esteemed coaches, but such numbers pale in comparison to the number of hymns penned by Charles Wesley.
It’s estimated that he may have written lyrics for as many as 10,000 hymns in his lifetime – many of them on horseback riding from revival to revival.
Scholars more familiar with the man than I believe that he wrote roughly ten lines of verse every day – and he did that for 50 years.
His equally regarded brother, John Wesley, served as his editor. He said of his brother’s hymn-craft: “some were good, some were mediocre, and some were exceptional.”
Today we tune our hearts to what is perhaps Charles Wesley’s most beloved hymn text:
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
What sets Wesley’s hymns apart is his knack for folding Scripture into his verses. Our reading today certainly furnished the dramatic conclusion to this beloved hymn.
A reading from the fourth chapter of Revelation – fair warning, we have an odd one here.
Let us pray:
God, your Word is not always clear.
In fact, at times it can be downright mystifying.
Bless us with a spirit of understanding as we delve into the divine mysteries that surround your heavenly throne. Amen.
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’
At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne… and around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.
Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside.
Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.’
The Word of the Lord – Thanks be to God.
Are any of you enamored by royalty?
Did any of you wake up extra early to catch the pageantry of King Charles’ coronation a few months back.
Did any of you glue yourself to the TV for any of the royal weddings?
I am…not one of those people. In fact, I distinctly remember going into the office back in 2018 and the whole staff at that Virginia church was talking about Harry and Meghan this and Harry and Meghan that. The conversation kept going and the whole time I was desperately flipping through the mental rolodex of church members or visitors – “Harry….Meghan.”
After maybe ten or fifteen minutes of this I finally broke down and asked: “Y’all…who are you talking about? What’s their last name and when did they join the church?”
My colleague Kim looked at me like I had a third eye:
“We’re talking about PRINCE Harry and PRINCESS Meghan who just got married, and last I checked they’re not pledging members of the church.”
“Ooooooohhhhh…that Harry and Meghan.”
Y’all – I just don’t live and breathe British royalty.
I think that is in part because they lead such different lives from me,
which is probably what makes them so fascinating to others.
Sure, their lives are grand and elegant, but they are also hemmed in on every side by rules of etiquette and decorum – customs they are steeped in from birth like so much black tea.
(pinky out of course)
A number of years ago the ever-present paparazzi captured the perfect illustration of this. Prince William and Kate had taken their children on a royal visit to Poland and as they walked down the red carpet rolled out on the tarmac, their daughter Charlotte – a toddler who may very well have been wearing a diaper still, turned to the Polish dignitaries and offered a curtsy. It wasn’t the most elegant bow, but it was revealing of how this child is being shaped to engage the world around her.
The book of Revelation is about as bizarre as Scripture gets, and this vision of a throne room rivals anything you’ll find in Buckingham Palace:
four creatures – six wings each, covered with eyes.
flashes of lightning and peals of thunder.
Bizarre might be an understatement.
I think the gist is that we have reached the limits of human language.
Whatever the author is seeing here, it defies all explanation.
The thing about the book of Revelation, and really the entire New Testament, is that Rome and the Emperor cast a shadow over every dotted I and every crossed T. Rome is simultaneously the water in which the early church existed and the stream against which it swam.
Which also means that Revelation has less to do with predicting things that are to come and more about describing the lived experience of the earliest Christ followers. I would argue that it’s impossible to understand this vision of the heavenly throne room without understanding that.
At the very center of this vision – amidst the fantastical flames and the four creatures – there is something that would have been very familiar in the Roman Empire – A throne.
If the Emperor appeared in public, more times than not he would be seated on – a throne.
When the Emperor traveled, it was not uncommon for a subject community to send representatives – dressed in white – to present him with a crown, a recognition of his sovereignty.
Those who approached the throne bowed down and prostrated themselves before the throne.
It’s not at all unlike what you might find at the local dog park when one canine goes belly up in deference to a more dominant dog.
In such a context, this vision is more than flowery language and fantastical imagery. It’s making a very strong, very risky statement: the one seated on the throne of all creation is not Caesar. It’s Christ, and so those who follow him do not go belly up for Caesar. We bend the knee, curtsy and cast our crowns before God and God alone.
That’s the message buried in this bizarre corner of the Bible.
In this land of the free, it’s been a long time since we cut ties with British royalty. We are not in the habit of literally bowing, but that does not mean we won’t prostrate ourselves before some-thing or some-one else.
Idols surround, demagogues abound.
We joyfully give our devotion to all manner of unworthy objects,
lost in wonder, love and praise to gods that do not and cannot save us.
In fact, that’s why we sing hymns in the first place…hymns like “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” They remind us of our true allegiance. They shape us until we bow and bend the knee to the only one who is worthy of our worship.
You may not know it but that Purple Hymnal in front of you celebrates its tenth anniversary this summer. I lovingly refer to it as “The Purp,” but have you ever really noticed the title of the hymnal?
It’s predecessor, “the blue hymnal,” was imaginatively entitled “The Presbyterian Hymnal.” Before that “the red one” was called “The Hymnbook.”
Not bad titles. You certainly know what you’re getting when you crack the spine.
But this most recent purple hymnals is called “Glory to God.”
It’s a subtle reminder of what all of this is for – what the pulpit and font and table; the organ and choirs and singing; the liturgy, preaching and sacraments – what it’s all for. It’s our worship and praise given to the proper object of our worship and praise. God alone.
Worship doesn’t exist to inspire us or make us feel better. Worship really isn’t about us at all.
Worship reminds us who is worthy of our praise.
Worship shapes us until we bow, if even inelegantly, to the only one who deserves it, because like a Princess still toddling, we need practice.
Our stiff necks and stubborn hearts do not easily bend.
In worship we hear of a God who created everything out of nothing; who made promises to Abraham and Sarah; who made a way for freedom through the waters of the Red Sea.
In worship we hear of a God who loves enough to risk incarnation and we hear of a God who will not even let death stand between us.
In worship we hear of a love divine, all loves excelling, and it elicits a response of praise. The neck softens, the knee bends and we find ourselves in a deep bow. How can we keep from singing?