The Blessing of not having enough
Hearing the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God,” we might not realize that this hymn of thanksgiving was forged during times of tragedy. The author Martin Rinkart was called as a Lutheran pastor in his native Ellenberg, Germany at the age of 31. He arrived just as the Thirty Years’ War began in 1618.
Ellenberg became a place of refuge for fugitives of war and was overcome with famine and disease due to the overcrowding. The plague of 1637 was particularly severe. In 1647, after 25 years of parish ministry, Rinkart was the only clergyman left in the city and performed 40 to 50 burials daily including fellow clergy and his own wife. He had trouble providing for his own family as the war ravaged an already impoverished people. Amazingly these were the times that Rinkart wrote a total of 66 hymns including this powerful prayer of thankfulness in the face of human and personal tragedy.
This hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God,” began as a prayer before family meals. In fact, “Table Prayer” was the original title. This prayer of thanksgiving is laid out simply and beautifully in the first verse but we see the influence of the war in the subsequent verses.
Rinkart reminds us that God is involved throughout our lives. In life and death, we are surrounded by God’s love. He writes, “Who from our mother’s arms Hath blessed us on our way, With countless gifts of love, And still is ours today.” And in verse 2, God keeps us “in His grace, And guides us when perplexed, And frees us from all ills In this world and the next.”
Perhaps Rinkart wrote this hymn with Psalm 147 in mind. Psalm 147 spoke to the Israelites as they returned from exile. “[the Lord] gathers the outcast of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds…lifts up the downtrodden.”
It is not what we do, but our thankfulness comes in what God has already done and is doing.
Loving What God loves and doing what God does
Dr. Edwin Hatch, the author of “Breathe on Me Breath of God,” was ordained in the Church of England in 1859 and came to Canada as a professor of Classics at Trinity College the same year. Dr. Hatch returned to Oxford in 1868 where he spent the rest of his academic career. The few hymns he wrote were not published in hymnals until after his death.
Hatch originally gave this hymn the title, “Spirit of God” and privately published it in 1878. The text is a prayer for renewal by God’s Spirit that is expressed through a life of love. The hymn was intended as a hymn for ordination.
The simplicity of this hymn says something about the faith of this learned scholar. His faith was said to be as unaffected as the faith of a child without the trappings of deep theology or complex biblical themes. This hymn is a simple prayer for God’s spirit to fill us with life so that we may love what God loves and do what God does. That is as basic as it gets.
That is exactly what it says in Ezekiel. Israel was to experience a change of heart because true faith begins in the heart. Ezekiel differentiates between a heart of stone and a heart of flesh. The Israelite’s heart of stone was inflexible, resistant, and cold. The promise of God’s Spirit was to replace their heart of stone with a heart of flesh that would make them responsive to the leadership of God’s spirit.
The lesson for us, that comes from this hymn and this Biblical passage is that simple. The hymn is a prayer that God’s Spirit is to breathe on us until we are completely His. God’s Spirit is allowed to work in us so that we may love what God loves and do what God would do.
Strength to pass through the wilderness
William Williams grew up in Wales and was headed for a career in medicine. He was influenced by evangelistic preaching and congregational singing. He gave his heart and life to God and decided to enter the ministry. He served two parishes in the Anglican Church but never felt at home in the established church.
Williams left the organized church and took all of Wales as his congregation. For the next 43 years, he traveled on horseback preaching and singing the gospel. He was known as the “sweet singer of Wales.” While he wrote over 800 hymns, this is the only one widely known today.
This hymn first appeared in hymnals in 1745 titled, “Strength to Pass Through the Wilderness.” The Biblical imagery compares the 40-year journey of the Israelites with the journey of living the Christian life as “a pilgrim through this barren land.”
The hymn is a prayer, as are all of these we have focused on today. The prayer is for God’s guidance through our own barren land. We recognize that God has delivered us and that God will be our strength, protector, and defender as we move forward.
Isaiah 43 tells the fear of the Hebrew people as they faced extinction under Babylonian domination. They were a people whose future was in grave doubt and whose God seems to have abandoned them. Their faith was threadbare. Isaiah reassures them by reasserting God’s presence. Their “wandering through barren lands” as Williams alludes to in this hymn has been reversed.
Isaiah declares they have a new identity valued and honoured by God. “I’m doing a new thing; do you not perceive it?” The new thing is for the despairing people not to get stuck by their memories of the past or their own failures. They were to be on the lookout for God’s surprising action.
These hymns call us to remember. Despite our struggles and in light of our questions, “What will happen to us?” God is doing a new thing within us. God guides and provides when we are perplexed so that we are led to love what God loves and do what God does. It’s as simple as that.