The Promise is not Vain
This morning in the Livestream Peter sang ‘Oh love that will not let me go’ One or two of the comments referred to these words from the hymn: ‘The promise is not vain.’
I remembered an earlier occasion when we sang that hymn at Hilton, back in 2013. Here’s what I wrote about that service:
A couple of Sunday ago at Hilton Church in Inverness we were delighted to have the minister, Duncan Macpherson back preaching after several months of absence due to ill-health. Duncan’s sermon was fresh and powerful.
It was Good Shepherd Sunday in the Church Calendar, and Duncan reflected on Jesus’ words in St John’s Gospel about being the Good Shepherd, leading and protecting a ‘flock’ comprised of all who have entrusted themselves to him. ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.’
Duncan also discussed the context of those words – Jesus was attending the Feast of Dedication in the Temple at Jerusalem, also known as Hanukkah. By the end of the eight-day festival, celebrating the restoration of the Temple in around 160 BC after it had been desecrated by the Seleucid Empire, eight candles one lit each day of the celebration burned brightly, a symbol of light’s power to overcome darkness.
The Good Shepherd story. It’s summer. The shepherd leads his flock across grassy field, beside the singing stream’s cool waters. The sheep hear his voice. It’s a picture of the joy of Christian faith, when you know for a certainty that God is there and utterly reliable. You know you are loved. The words of the Bible speak peace.
That Sunday we also sang the old hymn O love that will not let me go. It was written by the blind Church of Scotland minister Rev George Matheson in his manse at Innellan on the Clyde on 6th June 1882 after an undisclosed experience had, he said ‘caused me the most severe mental suffering.’
The hymn is the fruit of suffering, its subject faith in time of suffering. The words came from somewhere very deep in Matheson, or else were given from beyond him. The hymn came ‘like a dayspring from on high.’
Our atheist friends suggest we’re deceiving ourselves with our picture of shepherd and sheep. What truly good shepherd, they say, would lead his sheep into the bleakness of faith’s winter?
Yet Matheson wrote from a place of suffering of the love of God from which nothing can separate us, the love which, despite appearances, never lets us go. The line of the hymn which most spoke to me, years ago, when I was struggling with sadness, was ‘O Joy that seekest me through pain.’
The line has two levels of meaning. The Joy which is God seeks to penetrate our pain, so that we catch glimpses of Joy, like you see the sun’s bright circle through a swirling mist before a denser fog hides it once again.
But the words also suggest that pain can be a vehicle through which God comes to us, as if our hurt and depression sweeps aside all which distances us from God. The beauty of the rainbow is seen only after the storm.
These glimpses energise us to live in the light of a joy which for the moment we don’t feel.
The hymn also explores the surrender of self to God.
Matheson writes about giving back to God the light he has been given, in order to live more radiantly, about relinquishing his life in order to live more fully.
Is this another example of faith’s madness in an age when we emphasise the need to find ourselves, to be ourselves, to affirm ourselves. Yet many of us hand ourselves over to other people’s ideas of what we should be like; we let culture, or friends, or lovers, or advertisers, or religious systems shape our identities. And sometimes we hand ourselves over to the pursuit of our own mistaken dreams.
I write as someone who has barely started the journey, but it seems to me that when we yield ourselves to anything other than God, we are diminished but conversely when we allow God to live through us we increasingly realise our unique potential.
But what about those times of storm when Joy seems not to reach us, when no sun is glimpsed through the mist, no rainbow, when all is midnight darkness?
American poet and cancer patient Christian Wiman describes this experience: ‘God has given me courage in the past – I have felt palpably lifted beyond my own ability to respond or react. But this most recent time in hospital, when the cancer had become so much more aggressive and it seemed for a time as if I’d reached the end of my options, I felt only death.’
Can we still believe that the one whose joyful, weather-beaten face reflected the glorious light of eight Hanukkah candles stands in the darkness with us, and that because of his presence we will know in this world, or if not in the dimension beyond ‘a dayspring from on high.’