How Great Thou Art! (4/22/18)

Sermon Text: 1 John 3:1-2 /

Pastor Steven Pagels /

In the name of Jesus Christ, that great Shepherd of the sheep, dear friends:

Carl Boberg was a pastor, actually a Swedish pastor, whose life spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  As the story goes, he was returning from a visit on the coast when he got caught in a huge thunderstorm.  The rain came down.  The lightning flashed.  The thunder crashed.  And then just as quickly as the storm came up it was gone.

This experience inspired him to write a nine verse poem, some of which still survives in the hymn we just sang.  “How Great Thou Art” is a well-known and much loved Christian hymn, and the four word title is repeated seventeen times in four verses.

The first verse praises God for the power he displayed in nature, in the stars and the thunder and the whole universe.  Verse two sees God’s greatness in the little things, in birds singing and brooks bubbling and the gentle breeze.

The focus of the second half of the hymn shifts from God’s act of creation to God’s plan of salvation.  The third verse describes Jesus’ first coming, how he bled and died to take away our sins, and the final verse anticipates the joy we will feel when Jesus comes again.

When Carl Boberg looked around at the world God made for him, when he opened up his Bible and read about what God had done for him, when he stopped and thought about the future God had planned for him, he couldn’t contain himself.  He had to express himself.  He had to exclaim: “How Great Thou Art.”

These emotions, and the poetry used to express them, aren’t exclusive to pastors or to people who live in Sweden.  The apostle John felt the same way, and so do we.  John’s inspired words remind us who we are and what we will be, and those twin truths help us make the title of a hymn into our personal declaration of praise.  In the words we just sang we now declare…


1 John 3 begins with the same two words as that theme, but instead of praising God in a general way the apostle singles out what is perhaps God’s greatest attribute: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us” (1).  It probably shouldn’t surprise us that the first thing John mentions is God’s love.  John referred to himself in his gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  He was the one who recorded the familiar words of Jesus in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…”    

And the love language that is so prominent in John’s gospel is even easier to find in his first letter.  The word, “love,” appears more than forty times in just over a hundred verses.  1 John contains gems like: “God is love” (4:16).  “Love comes from God” (4:7).  “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (3:16).  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:10).  “We love because he first loved us” (4:19).

 By piling up all these passages John confirms this simple, beautiful truth: God loves us.  God lavishes his love on us in so many different ways, but today we focus our attention on just one of the blessings of being loved by God: ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are” (1a)!

We are God’s children.  So what?  What does that mean, and what does that mean for our lives?  Being a child of God means that even if our earthly parents have been taken from us, even if, heaven forbid, our human fathers and mothers would ever withhold their love from us, even if not a soul in the world cares about your soul, your heavenly Father does.  He cares about you, and he will take care of you.

Being a child of God also brings along with it certain privileges, like being able to talk to God in prayer.  Luther reminds us what a privilege it is to be able to call God our Father whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer: With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that he is our true Father and that we are his true children, so that we may pray to him as boldly and confidently as dear children ask their dear father.

Because we are God’s children, we also have the promise that one day we will receive an inheritance, an eternal inheritance that will never perish or spoil or fade.  Because God is our Father, the place we call home now is only temporary, and our real home is in heaven.  Because God is our Father, Jesus is our brother.  Everything he did he did for us, and everything he has he will share with us in glory.

But before we talk any more about the future, we need to remember something about the present.  Being a child of God is a great blessing, but it can be challenging too.  There are more and more people in the world who don’t identify themselves as God’s children, and they can’t relate to those of us who do.  John explained it this way: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1b).

If you need proof that the world doesn’t know God the Father just look at how they treated his Son.  Some people came out against Jesus the first time they laid eyes on him, but not everyone was like that.  Some people were intrigued by him.  Some even wanted to follow him, but they eventually gave up because they just didn’t get him.  He had so much power, but he was reluctant to use it.  Why?  He had the makings of a national icon, but he shunned the spotlight. Why?  He could have been a great king like David, even greater than David, but the only crown he ever accepted was a crown of thorns.  Why?

Most people didn’t understand Jesus, and you could probably say the same about Jesus’ followers.  Maybe you have been asked questions like these: Why do you go to church on Sunday morning when there are so many other things you could be doing?  Why do you give your hard earned money to church when you could keep it and spend it on yourself?  Why would you pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to send your kids to school when they can go to public school for free?

The world doesn’t know us because the world doesn’t know what we know.  The world doesn’t know who we know and what he has done for us.  That’s the difference.  Our faith is what makes us different.  And the fruits of our faith, the way we live our lives, those things make us stand out, right?  Or is it sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the Christians and the non-Christians in the room?  Is it possible that world does know us, or least that it knows us better than we would like to admit?

How many Christians singing God’s praises today will use the same mouth to curse and swear tomorrow?  When we open up our wallets do we gladly give God our first and best, or only after we have satisfied our own wants and desires do we give God what’s left?  If the world doesn’t know Christians, then how is it that so many worldly problems have made their way into Christian homes and lives?

Those are tough questions, and we can’t ignore them.  We can’t take the fifth.  We can’t refuse to answer on the grounds that we might incriminate ourselves because our actions already have. Instead of the world not knowing us, far too often we act like we don’t know God.

That’s the part of Good Shepherd Sunday we don’t like to talk about.  We love it when the little children sing “I am Jesus’ little lamb.”   And we love to read David’s beautiful confession: “The Lord is my shepherd,” but we don’t want to think about what that makes us.  We don’t want to admit that if the Lord is our shepherd that makes the rest of us sheep.  Stubborn, sinful sheep, sheep who love to wander, sheep who couldn’t survive for a second on our own.

But when we come to realize how helpless we are, when we come to grips with how hopeless our condition is, then we can we appreciate the greatness of God’s love.  Then you can appreciate what a miracle it is that God calls you his child.  By the grace of God that is what you are, but thanks be to God that is not everything you will be.

John continues: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (2).

I don’t like surprises, or at least I like to say that I don’t like surprises.  For example, let’s say that my wife tells me in the morning that she has planned a special dinner for that evening.  When I ask her what we are having, she refuses to tell me because she wants it to be a surprise.

I don’t like hearing that, so I might try to trick her into telling me, or I might keep bugging her with hope that she will eventually break down and tell me, but deep down I don’t mind not knowing.  Deep down I kind of enjoy not knowing because then the anticipation builds throughout the day, and there is that feeling of excitement, that thrill when the surprise is finally revealed.

On a much greater scale our Savior has something much greater in store for us.   We know who we are (we are children of God).  We know whose we are (we belong to God).  We have God’s promise that he has something wonderful in store for us in our future, but beyond the promises God hasn’t provided us with too many details.

What will heaven be like?  When we get to heaven what will we look like?  What will our bodies look like?  Will we be young or old or somewhere in between?   We don’t know.  What we will be has not yet been made known, but we do know this.  We won’t be disappointed.

When Jesus appears on the Last Day we will see him as he is.  We will see him coming down from the clouds in all his glory.  We will see the angels and hear the trumpets, and we won’t be the least bit scared.  We won’t have to shield our eyes.  We won’t have to cover our faces.  Even though our sins are like scarlet, on that day we will appear before God as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).  On that day Jesus will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21).  We will be like him.  We will be holy like him.  Jesus will take us to the perfect place he has prepared for us because he has taken all of our imperfections away.

And when we get there, all the anticipation will be over.  In heaven all our questions will be answered.  In heaven every promise will be fulfilled.  We will be with God, and we will sing God’s praises forever.  And who knows?  When you are singing in the heavenly choir you might recognize the tune of one of those hymns and say: “I know that one.  And now I really get it. Now more than ever I know that those words are true.  “How Great Thou Art!” Amen.