Today we are continuing on with our sermon series “Songs of the Faith.” Our song for today is one that is especially dear to my heart: “Be Thou My Vision.” As many of you know I did not grow up in the church, so this is one of the first hymns I ever learned. The worship band at the college fellowship group I attended at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle Washington played it, and the lyrics have stuck with me ever since.
Vision is a big buzz word. We talk about organizations having a “vision” to help guide their work. Even churches have a vision statement about where they think God is leading them. Even on the micro-level there’s been a movement for individuals to have what’s called a Vision Board. It’s a collage representing all of the goals one wants to accomplish in areas such as finances, relationships, career, health and wellness. But my question is this: What happens when the vision we have for ourselves falls apart? Then what?
We are need a vision that exists outside of ourselves.
Before I get to the lyrics of Be Thou My Vision, I’d like to share the background of the tune to which this beloved hymn is set. Like most of the older hymns they are set to a tune that was not meant for the lyrics. The tune to which Be Thou Vision was set is actually an Irish folk tune that was written centuries after the lyrics of Be Thou My Vision were written.
The name of the tune is called “Slane.” It’s named after the Hill of Slane in Ireland. Slane Hill rises higher than most hills in that area of Ireland. Legend has it that when St. Patrick arrived in Ireland he lit a fire on top of Slane Hill to commemorate the coming of Easter. Because of the height of Slane Hill the fire could be seen for miles. The pagan king at the time saw the fire that St. Patrick had lit and sent his soldiers to bring him in for questioning. The reason for this was because the king had set a decree throughout the land that no one besides the king was to light a fire for a period of time, as it was a special pagan holiday that most in the land followed. Although St. Patrick had defied this decree, the king was so impressed with St. Patrick’s devotion to God that he allowed St. Patrick to keep the fire burning.
Now for the background of the lyrics. The lyrics of Be Thou My Vision dates back to the 8th century and wasn’t translated into English until the early 1900s. It follows the pattern of a Lorica, which is a Prayer of protection. Many poems and prayers that were written at the time follow the same pattern. It is a prayer that invokes all the power of God as a safeguard and follows a pattern. This pattern follows that of the Psalms in that it begins with praise of who God is and how God is with us. We see this in the first verse where the author praises God and states that the best things about ourselves, our thoughts “by day or by night” are from God.
This Lorica prayer also reflects what was happening at the time in Ireland. The author calls God the shelter for their very soul and “Thou my high tower.” The author sees God as their protective tower. At the time Be Thou My Vision was written war was always likely to break out between rival clans and their kings. High towers were built for protection for families and their livestock. More elaborate for those with higher status such as a chieftain and his family. Ruins of such towers can be seen all over Ireland
In the midst of dark times when you are under constant threat of violence there’s a need for a greater vision. That vision can only come from God. In the next verse the author says riches, vain and empty praise aren’t helpful. Those things don’t offer any hope or reassurance that all will be okay. What is most valuable is “thy inheritance.” But what does that mean?
Ephesians 1:11 states: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.” Our inheritance is this: Through Jesus Christ we aways have a way back to God no matter how far away we feel from God whether it was because of our own doing or things that were done to us.
With God as our tower of protection we don’t have to stay in a physical tower. But we all have towers we’ve constructed out of fear. Fear about financial stability, fears about our children, or fears that people will find out we aren’t as intelligent or talented as we seem to be. We have constructed towers out of negative self talk or fears about all of the “what ifs” of life.
I heard a speaker say recently that worship is not to give us an hour of reprieve from all that is happening out there. For some worship has become an hour of escapism. But that is not what worship is for.
Instead worship is when we are reminded that God is just as much “out there” as he is in here. God is just as present in our fears, anxieties and worries where it’s harder to focus as he is here in this sanctuary where it’s easier to see God.
It’s time for a disclaimer about following God’s vision: It’s hard to be in line with God’s vision. More often than not God’s vision doesn’t always align with our vision.
Paul, in the passage from Acts 16 that we just read, could have stayed in his “safe tower.” He was currently ministering to people near and around where he grew up. He was familiar with their culture, but instead he responded to God’s vision for his life to travel to Macedonia, a country he had never visited, much less a culture he was familiar with. Paul was willing to share with others what he had come to know about Jesus Christ. Are we willing to do the same?
Salvation and protection is only the beginning of God’s vision for us. The larger part of God’s vision is that we are now invited to be a part of God’s vision for the world. God wants to work through us to help people know Christ. But we won’t know this for ourselves until we say “yes” to God’s vision like Paul and St Patrick said “yes” to God. I know you might be thinking “Pastor Kristine, I’m no apostle Paul or St. Patrick.” It is the same Holy Spirit, however, that worked through Paul and St. Patrick that desires to work through you.
Who could God be calling you to minister to today?
Chances are it’s to someone you already know. It’s funny how God’s puts certain people in our lives to help us and encourage us to grow in faith.
In whose life did God place you? It doesn’t mean you be a bible thumper, or preach hell and damnation. It simply means that you continue to do what you’ve been doing. Continue to be a good friend and a good neighbor. Add to that prayers for opportunities to talk about Jesus Christ with them.
You’ll know when you’re being prompted and the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say. Most likely it won’t be a one-time conversation, but a series of conversations. Trust and be surprised by how God will use you, even when we are intimidated or downright scared to have such conversations.
It’s through relationships that God transforms us from people who live out of fear to people who live out of God’s love. First of all it’s through our relationship with God and then it’s God working through our relationships with one another.
In closing I want to cover the last verse:
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
Knowing what we know about the time this was written, How can one be victorious when you’ve lost everything? We need to redefine “victory” so that it is line with and defined by God’s vision. The author’s hope rests in the truth that God is the true king. God is more powerful and is above all of the Irish kings who constantly try to conquer one another. God’s reign is eternal.
“Whatever befall”–no matter what happens to us we belong to Jesus Christ and no one can take that away from us. In this life and when this life ends we belong to God because he has already claimed us through Jesus Christ.
God’s vision is for the here and now. God’s love for us is the true reality that can’t be broken by any present threat or danger. To live outside of God’s vision is to live out of fear. To live life protecting ourselves from the “what ifs.” But God calls each of us to live a life of a vision that is beyond ourselves. To live life knowing that we are loved, protected and empowered in and through Jesus. I pray we are all ready to live out of God’s vision so that we can be a part of what God is already doing to share his vision with all.