O for a Thousand Tongues: Not Disobedient to the Heavenly Vision

. 6 min read

09/04/2016 Christ Mountain Top
Acts 26
2 Kings 7 (kids)
Psalm 40.1-11 (call to worship)
A few years back, I was listening
to a lecture by church historian Diana Butler-Bass (2009 audio, Christianity21,
JoPa Productions).  She referred to a
television interview of Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, who had just
received a Pulitzer for a biography of Andrew Jackson.  The interviewer, Joe Scarborough, asked, “Why
don’t you write about something relevant [as opposed to history]?”  Meacham’s response: “History is to a country
what memory is to an individual.”
reminded her listeners of the pain of memory loss or caring for family members
with memory loss.  She, borrowing
Meacham, declared, “History is to a church what memory is to an
individual.”  And she went on to say that
history brings wholeness (the wholeness of a clear and honest memory) and that
people who study history are more open to change, because they really have seen
it all before.  In God’s economy, memory
doesn’t tie us to the past but to the future, to promise.
Each fall, I like to do a message
series I call ROOTS.  I believe it is
important for us to learn our history and the basics of our tradition, whether
it is the movements of grace in Wesleyan theology, the practice of prayer and
reading Scripture, or (this year) hymns by Charles Wesley.  It’s an effort to keep us rooted in a history
and tradition that is older than us, older than our memories and our
grandparents’ memories.
Wesley and his brother John were the two founding figures of the Methodist
movement.  John was the organizer and the
best known preacher, but Charles wrote some 9,000 hymns!  The 51 Charles Wesley hymns in our hymnal,
more than any other author, are only a small portion of his gift to the church.
love the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”.  It originally had 18 verses, 17 of which are
included in our hymnal.  If you look at
the notes in the hymnal, you will see that Charles Wesley wrote it in 1739 to
commemorate an anniversary, the anniversary of his conversion May 21, 1738.

God has done something in our lives, it is the most natural thing in the world
to talk about it.  You get close to
someone, you hear their passion, whether it is the new grandchild or the recent
fishing trip or the Penn State game.  Talking
about our faith, telling that story, doesn’t involve a canned presentation or sales
pitch.  It’s about life suffused with
grace.  “King Agrippa, I was not
disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26.19).  Once your life has been hijacked by the grace
of God folks are going to notice, and they are going to ask: You really kept
your cool with that irate customer? I couldn’t have done that. . . . Hey, like,
I know you pray and get answers, right? Would you pray for me? . . . Don’t
Christians believe in forgiveness? I just can’t do it. How do you manage?

King Agrippa and most excellent Festus, I’m a forgiven man.  I know what I have done; I know what I
deserve; and I know what God has done for me. 
I don’t like to forgive, but I can’t be disobedient to the heavenly
King Agrippa and most excellent Festus, when I stumbled blind into Damascus,
there was this guy – Ananias – who prayed over me and I received my sight.  Sure. 
I’ll pray for you. 
King Agrippa and most excellent Festus, Jesus upon the cross prayed, “Father,
forgive them for they know not what they do.” 
So, when someone gets bent out of shape I try to live with that same
generosity – to offer forgiveness even when it isn’t asked, to not judge too
harshly folks who don’t really understand why they are becoming so defensive.
King Agrippa and most excellent Festus, I was not disobedient to the heavenly
The old fashioned word for this
is being a witness.  Note the verb in the
phrase: BEING.  Witnessing is first about
who we are, it is not first about what we say. 
Here in Acts, we hear Paul’s conversion story for the third time, the
second time he has witnessed to it.  But
the only reason people want to hear the story is because of who Paul is, Paul
BEING a witness.  His summation: “I pray
to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today might become
such as I am – except for these chains” (Ac 26.29).  “Such as I am” – Being a Witness.
Wesley doesn’t write his conversion poem to enhance his reputation.  He doesn’t provide it as one more awkward or
overbearing effort to beat someone into the kingdom.  He writes it because God has done something
profound in his life: He knows he has been forgiven.  Most old hymns have been revised in several
ways before they come to us.  This one is
no exception.  The original final verse
me, your chief, you then shall know,
feel your sins forgiven;
your heaven below,
own that love is heaven.
The verse now reads, “In Christ,
your head, you then shall know.”  The new
reading is very much true.  The original
reading reflects Charles Wesley’s identification of himself, like Paul, as
“chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15; Companion to The United Methodist
p 510-511).  Wesley is
overcome by the miracle of the love of Jesus Christ, who died for him, for us,
for me, while we were still sinners, still enemies of the God of love.
“I was not disobedient to the
heavenly vision.”  So, what’s my story,
my witness?  I was raised in a home free
of religion in any form.  At some point,
around the age of nine, I asked my dad, “Who’s God?  What’s he like?”  I don’t remember asking the question.  I was just a curious kid.  But the question put the family, and me, on
an adventure of discovery.  We went to
church, which – when we weren’t singing or doing anything, that is, when the
preacher was doing his thing – was boring to me.  So I sat and read the Bible – the Jesus
stories, the stories of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah, the psalms.  And I discovered that this God loved me in
all my nine-year-old imperfection.  I
said “Yes” to Jesus, “Yes” to grace, “Yes” to forgiveness.  And that was only the beginning of my story.
With the children, we had the
story of the four men with leprosy who discovered that the Aramean camp was
deserted, with all their treasure and food left behind.  After eating their fill and stashing treasure
from two tents, they realized: We have good news that must be shared.  If we don’t share our good news, people will
die, so we are responsible to tell the story. 
O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!
My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread through all the earth
the honors of thy name.
Jesus! the name that charms our
that bids our sorrows cease;
‘tis music in the sinner’s ears,
‘tis life, and health, and peace.
He breaks the power of canceled
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest
his blood availed for me.
[With me, your chief,] you then
shall know,
shall feel your sins forgiven;
anticipate your heaven below,
and own that love is heaven.
“Shall feel your sins forgiven.”  In our baptismal covenant, we commit to
“surround . . . persons with a community of love and forgiveness”.  That is, we ask the congregation to model,
together, the grace of God in all our relationships.  It’s a tough thing to do.  Too often we complain, we gossip, we argue.  Any one of us, at any time, may be, to use
polite language, “ungracious”.  Together,
though, we are called to be a people of grace, second chance, forgiveness,
restoration.  God knows, I am not perfect
now – not in the absolute sense that we typically use.  But you have forgiven me.  You have judged me generously: “He don’t know
what he’s doing.”  Or, “He’s doing his
best.”  The reason we confess sin in the
church is because in the church we recognize that we aren’t perfect – yet.  God is still working on me, on us.
“O for a thousand tongues
to sing”.  A thousand?  Our mission: Christ Church exists to make
disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  In the last three years, around 90 adults –
not including children – have connected to Christ Church and become part of our
fellowship in some way.  We have lost a
lot of folks too, mostly to aging, and when we think of the entire history of
Christ Church, the persons who have followed Jesus with us, the impact is much
bigger than we imagine.

Charles Wesley, he imagined having 1000 tongues, he imagined all the praise
that he could bring to God with those 1000 tongues.  It reminds me of a Sesame Street
sketch . . . .  None of us, however, have
more than one tongue.  But as we pursue
our mission, as we tell our stories, as we Be a Witness, God willing, at least
1000 voices will be raised in fresh praise to God.