O God Our Help in Ages Past
We continue our “Composing a Faith” sermon series by looking to one of the most beloved hymns ever composed, O God Our Help in Ages Past. It is in every hymnal I can find, maybe ever produced. Written by an Englishman, Isaac Watts, more than 300 years ago, it is a song played at every major national event in England from consecrating tomb of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey to Winston Churchill’s funeral. It’s an official part of some formal Canadian celebrations, too.
Over his lifetime, Watts composed thousands of hymns and revolutionized the whole idea of what a hymn is and its place in Christian worship. He is called the father of the modern hymn. Basically, any hymn you’ve ever liked is in part thanks to the innovations of Isaac Watts developed way back in the 1600s. He was one of the great geniuses to have walked the earth. He wrote a textbook on logic that became the standard text for philosophy classes for the next 200 years in England.
But as a young kid he was annoying. He rhymed nearly everything that came out of his mouth. It was like having a four-year-old Dr. Seuss. His father, a pastor, tried to break this habit. Once he asked why Isaac didn’t close his eyes during a prayer, Isaac said, A little mouse for want of stairs/ran up a rope to say its prayers. When his father reacted Isaac cried, O father, father, pity take/And I will no more verses make.
Later he whined about the awful, unsingable music in church. His father said, “Why don’t you give us something better, young man!” The light bulb turned on in his head, the tumblers clicked. It was a revelation. “You mean I could write worshipful music we don’t just have to use these stuffy old hymns?”
That’s what good parenting will do. Challenge. Inspire. Recognize the gifts in the next generation to make things better. Isaac’s father opened a whole new vision of what he could do with his life, a contribution he could make.
Isaac grew up moved away to become an academic. But he dropped out of his formal education in his 20’s for 3 years and lived with his parents. Yes, that was “a thing” way back then. Take heart, if that’s your family situation. Should anyone ever raise an eyebrow, just say, “We’re Isaac Watt’sing it, being patient, building a foundation, working on stuff God can use for the next 300 hundred years. Why don’t you come back then with your judgment?”
Isaac was right. By all accounts, church music at the time was bad. The only music they sang were direct translations of the Psalms. You can still find some churches today where this is the practice. The Psalms were always meant to be sung, they are in verse, but they were written in Hebrew and translating word for word from Hebrew to English doesn’t always give you the rhyme where you need it. Watts, a natural lyricist set to his challenge to produce new and better music for worship. He didn’t just use stiff translations, he expanded on themes. For instance, O God our Help in Ages Past, based on Psalm 90 has a nice line about God being “our refuge” and Watts enlarged the concept with the vivid line: our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home. It captures the sentiment of the arc of the whole psalm and gives it depth and a pleasure to sing.
He didn’t just stick to the Psalms. He opened up all of scripture as material for hymn making. Others had tried this before but nothing really stuck until Watts came along and did really solid stuff that stuck.
Watts could revolutionize the concept of hymn because he was in a forerunner to the Congregationalist church (where our roots are). He didn’t have to gain permission from a bishop or whole denomination to innovate. It was something his own congregation honored as a gift of one of their own and it has made all the difference.
I could give a whole series based on this hymn and what it reflects from Psalm 90. We can only scratch the surface today. The hymn originally had 9 verses and the first line was “Our God our help in ages past.” But John Wesley later changed it from “Our God” to “O God.” Not only because it’s easier to sing–as Miss Julie says hard “r’s” are horrible for choral music. He was concerned about the trend to make it sound like God only belonged to one group of people. So if you want to sing it in the original, sing “Our God our help.”
The hymn was composed during a time of a national crisis and great uncertainty. The original 9 verses point to this and even had a bit of a political edge to them. So the hymn is really written in a time of crisis, as probably was Psalm 90. They both appeal to God not just on a personal level but a wider national level, too.
Both the Psalm and the hymn are designed to give us hope in times of national anxiety or personal crisis. Abraham Lincoln’s line from the Gettysburg Address, “Four Score and Seven Years ago…” Was an allusion to the KJV of Psalm 90.
O God our Help in Ages Past. But it isn’t just about the God of the past, it’s about an assurance, a trust in the God of the future. Our hope for years to come.
The God who brought you safely this far will lead you. Make your list of times God has worked in your life. Let it build confidence you will be helped again. It might even help you get to God earlier. It’s like the old saying, “We are not easily reduced to prayer.” We want to try everything else on our own first. You’ll be surprised how much your perspective; your confidence grows when you make this your beginning rather than desperate move.
The important thing about asking God for help is to recognize it when it arrives. Like that old story about the guy in the flood. He prayed and knew God would save him from the flood. As the waters came up, a van came by and asked the guy if they could drive him to safety. He said, “No. God is going to save me.” A while later, a boat came by his second story window and asked if they could help. “No. God is going to save me.” When he was on his roof, a helicopter came. But still he refused. “God will save me.” When he got swallowed up by the flood and found himself in heaven. He accosted God and said, “Hey! I thought you were going to save me!” And God said, “What? I tried. I sent a van, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?” Sometimes the answer is right before our eyes, but we might miss it because we are looking for something more spectacular.
God’s help often doesn’t come in the way we expect it. We want something epic, biblical, unambiguous. A big flashy sea-splitting, water-into-wine, walls tumbling down bona fide instant solution to our problem. We want God to act decisively and do it in the way we’ve already decided he should do it. We all yearn for those. Sometimes it happens. But more often than not, if you read your Bible is that God meets our needs in ways no one expects. Just because God did it one way in the past doesn’t mean that is the only way God operates. For every big flashy miracle in the Bible there are scores of accounts of ways of God operating behind the scenes. Working through people. Hardly ever doing things the way someone expects.
Don’t miss the help God sends because you have an agenda of how God operates and how you think your help has to come. How your situation needs to work out. Our story is God has a larger perspective.
I’ve found most of the time God helps us through normal, flawed people in our lives who support us, encourage us, guide us, pray for us, love on us even when we don’t feel particularly lovely. This is your car.
A church friend, group, a pastor, a support group, a therapist
A friend who shows up and says I don’t know what to say. But I’m here. Might look like a broken and rusted jalopy, but they’ve got the scars and will say “You’ve got this.”
When you come up against something bigger than you don’t try to Lone Ranger it. God has sent help. I believe if you look you will see God has provided just the right people who will get you through and help.
Whatever you are going through there is a group and professionals who God has given great brains and open hearts to assist you. God works through the science, the medicine, the insights of others to help us all.
Who is in your car right now? It could be Uber helpful to figure it out and can Lyft your spirits.
Invest yourself in surrounding yourself in building deep relationships with positive people God has put in your life. You will be amazed of all the help at your disposal.
Your boat. One of the ways God meets a need is to present you with a need–someone else’s need. In Psalm 90 there is all this stuff about how meaningless life can seem. It is only when we find our purpose of living for more than self, that we are lifted out of the despair of that meaninglessness. God meets a need with a need. Often it is in helping someone else that we are lifted. When we get all self-absorbed we get depressed, bitter, anxious. We shrink our spirits down to the size of our situation. But when we help someone, we gain some perspective about the molehill sized problem we have compared with someone else’s problem. Sometimes the problem isn’t that we have a problem, sometimes the biggest problem we have is a sense of entitlement.
We get sucked into the myth that everything is supposed to be easy, trouble free. We think our lives are supposed to be like the lives other people who post every perfect thing in their perfect lives on social media. It’s an image–what they want you to see. The truth is we all struggle. Sometimes our greatest times of growth come through the hard times. Sometimes you are too close to a situation to know what you need. Today’s failure, struggle is tomorrow’s building block.
So many times our prayers can be reduced to gimme prayers. God gimme strength, gimme direction, gimme a new a way out of situation. Like kids go through that stage they want everything, and every little obstacle is some huge drama. You turn into W.C. Fields. Go away kid, you bother me. Take a step of spiritual maturity this week. Make God smile and turn your gimme gimme prayer into a show me show me prayer. Say show me show me show me. Show me someone in need. Show me ten people I can send a text to that will encourage them. Show me someone lonely and aching for attention. Show me show me show me how I can make a difference.
Joy isn’t about everything always going smoothly, but the result of a lifetime of loving service. You might be someone else’s boat. You might be the positive person. A person of faith that inspires them and gives them what they need. You never know. That person on your left or right or in front or behind you may need a smile, acknowledgment.
O Captain. When you serve you have a sense of purpose, of direction, something positive. God’s provided you a boat, a freaking fleet. An armada of need around you. Pick a cause, get involved. Set sail for calmer waters.
The helicopter. Ah the technology of a helicopter as a helper. I like to think about the spiritual technology, the tools, the spiritual resources you have at your disposal. God helps us through these, too.
I like that after the resurrection and just before Jesus ascended, the disciples asked. “Is this the time you are going to restore the nation of Israel?” Basically, Jesus said, “Remember what I taught you. The kingdom of God is within you, amongst you. You’ve got what you need. The Holy Spirit will be with you and guide you and empower you.”
I gave you my teachings. My forgiveness. My example of a true life. Follow that. The Holy Spirit will empower you.
Your helicopter is the spiritual disciplines. Prayer. You need help. Have you tried praying? Calming your mind?
Are you seeking to embody the way of Jesus, the way of compassion and kindness and generosity and forgiveness? Worship? Praising God as he taught?
When we live into these things we realize we have the peace, the grace everything we will need to get through whatever we may face in this life. We get the holy presence that sustains.
Psalm 90 and the hymn have a clear eye on our mortality. There are those verses about time like an ever-flowing stream bears all breath away. We are singing merrily about our own deaths. And there is a sense in which when we are aware of the limits of our lives, the boundaries, the more important it is to be able to enjoy the time we have, the realization that our today is blessed. This leads to a richer and fuller life. If you look behind you and see that God has helped and you trust in God with your future. That means your day, your right now doesn’t have to be anxious. Doesn’t have to be lost by worry and distraction, you can be fully present and receive its blessings.
Examine your life. God’s been helping you, with the people, the service opportunities, the disciplines you need. It’s not so much help is on the way. Help has already come. It’s within and all around you always. AMEN