Hymns for the times: A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Exodus 17: 1-7, Psalm 78:1-4,11-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Like many who have been life-long Christians and Anglicans, I grew up singing hymns. I have no idea now which were the first hymns I learned – I suspect those good old favourites like “Praise my soul the king of heaven”, “Guide me O thou great redeemer”, and, because I am a post 2nd World War child hymns like “O God our help in ages past”. For a very long time it was the tunes, the melody, the harmony, the feel, the mood, the music of the hymn that spoke to me, rather than the words. One child captured the mood of a hymn beautifully when requesting to sing ‘that smoky hymn’. It turned out to be “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”. I do remember the thrill the first time I heard Philip Bliss’s hymn,

Ho, my comrades! see the signal waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing, victory is nigh.


Hold the fort, for I am coming, Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to Heaven, By Thy grace we will.

As an enthusiastic eight year old there was something rather wonderful about being asked by Jesus to ‘hold the fort’ and ‘wave the signal’. I loved the tune and introduced it to my school assembly, where we sang it with energy. Imagine my disappointment then when, in my week to choose hymns at theological college, it was rejected by a chaplain who made fun of the words, acting out the ‘waving back to heaven’. I’ve not sung or heard it sung since!!

Like so many hymns this one too has a history and a context. Bliss wrote it in 1870 not long after the American Civil War. The inspiration was the Battle of Altoona Pass where General Corse was overwhelmed by the enemy. One of his men spotted a white signal flag many miles away signalling that help was on the way. A message was spelt out – ‘hold the fort, I am coming.’

We can see something like this happening in today’s psalm, number 78. The great salvation story told in Exodus is recast into song form. If nothing else it provided an easy way to remember the incidents in the story. Today’s snippet clearly draws on Exodus 17 – the complaining by the Israelites that they had no water to drink. The seven verses which tell the story of the complaint and the solution – Moses striking a rock from which water flowed – is well known. But we should not rush over it too quickly for there are a number of threads worth noticing.

There are the understandable complaints of the people – they have trusted Moses, followed him, left their homes, gone into the desert. And now there is no water. There is Moses’s exasperation with them, and his conversation with God voicing his very real fear for his life at the hands of angry fearful people. There is God’s response – go ahead, take some as witnesses, take your staff, strike the rock. Water flowed. Theologically the point is being made that it is God, as Creator and Provider, who makes the water flow. The Israelites have already experienced God’s power to rescue them from slavery. Now they will come to understand that water (and in a different story food) comes ultimately from God. It’s a lesson that was difficult to learn, especially when they came into the land of the Canaanites and discovered the fertility god Astarte and Baal, the god revealed in the storm and rain. (You may like to refer to Psalm 29 for further thinking on this aspect.)

This story about water in a dry land also invites us to think more laterally into our own context. Christine and I have been travelling in the Flinders and beyond towards the deserts of the Outback. Because we intended to get away from the towns and camp in the bush we needed to be self-sufficient. Water was obviously a high priority on the shopping list. For us it came primarily in 10 litre packs from the Adelaide Hills and easily, and relatively cheaply, bought at even the smallest store. But for people like Reg Sprigg and those predecessors who explored this driest of continents water was vital. In order to exploit the rich mineral wealth Sprigg discovered on his prospecting journeys, good sources of water were essential. Among the places we stayed at was Farina, a town that sprang up in the good years of the 1860s when the rains fell; and then quickly ran into trouble in the dry decades that followed.

In a Season of Creation the question of water will be high on our list of priorities. We hear much about the pollution of land and ocean caused by plastic – much of it used to contain bottled water. But the issues around water reach deep into inter-state and international politics. The building of a dam in one place, which offers such hope to the people there, means less water, less flood silt, more hunger and thirst further downstream.  It has been said that the next world war will be fought over water.

An ancient story about a thirsty people’s complaints to their leader led to a psalm, a hymn, being written and sung, capturing for all eternity a moment in time which speaks into all time. While God is praised as the one who gave water, the grumbling and complaining of the Israelites will not be forgotten and is written into the story.

There’s not too big a jump to the words of St Paul in his letter to the Philippians, and especially the hymn he quotes. Thought to be one of the very earliest Christian hymns, Philippians 2: 6 – 11 is sometimes called the ‘kenosis’ hymn – it’s about the self-emptying of Christ. Given that the Church argued for centuries about whether Jesus Christ was divine or human, and it took two synods spaced about fifty years apart for anything like an agreement to be reached, it seems remarkable that within twenty years of the crucifixion St Paul could be quoting this hymn. Christ, the exalted Lord of all, before whom every knee shall bow, empties himself, humbles himself before God and before all creation. This Christ became, in the words of the Affirmation of Faith we are using this month, ‘a piece of Earth, a human being called Jesus’. In the more familiar words of the Nicene Creed he ‘became truly/fully human.’

But let’s also notice the context in which Paul sets the words of this kenotic hymn. It’s a context that resonates well with my earlier fear about water and the way water is becoming a weapon. “Be of the same mind”, says Paul, “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit… look to the interests of others…” it’s all there in the opening words of Philippians 2. Paul brings his readers, and us, back to the second of the Great Commandments of God – to love our neighbour. Jesus did that, He offered his life on the cross for his neighbour. And who is that neighbour? Why – you and me, the person who needs the water that is in my dam, the one whose property will burn if I am careless in my fire season preparations, the one who knocks at the door of our country asking to be let in, to be given a chance. And by a not very big extension our neighbour is the beautiful crimson breasted chat whose habitat is fast disappearing, the turtle dragged back by nylon fishing netting, the wily rakali, also known as the Australian otter, which I caught on video in the Torrens last week, being choked by garden fertiliser run-off.

Also American, Francis Bland Tucker wrote the words of a hymn beginning “All praise to Christ, our Lord and king divine” in 1940. He was part of a panel working on a new hymnbook for the American church. An Episcopal priest, Tucker found inspiration in the ancient hymn quoted by Paul to the Philippians. He actually wrote the hymn to be sung to the tune “Sine Nomine” – familiar to us on All Saints Day as we sing the hymn beginning “For all the saints”. Tucker has added to the original hymn some of the teachings of Jesus – the special attention to the outcast and poor, for example.

When others are undergoing so much greater hardship than we in these Covid times, we need to be careful not to complain too much about not being able to sing hymns. But we can at least name the loss. It may be that this all too brief look at a few hymns –from our hymn books and the Bible – will inspire us to look more closely at the words we sing, and now listen to, and explore more deeply, the stories and teaching behind the words and tunes.

Let every tongue confess with one accord,     
in heaven and earth, that Jesus Christ is Lord,
and God the Father be by all adored: