It has been said that good hymns help us to sing theology into our hearts. The confessions of the faithful, the doctrines which have been clarified and handed down through the centuries, get in a little deeper and are held in more passionately when the congregation sings them. Perhaps this is why the great hymns of the Church have little to do with what I have done or what I want or what I can accomplish. Instead, they sing of the great workings of God. They confess the promises found throughout the pages of Scripture, promises that guide and comfort us even today. The singing of the Church is one of its great strengths, for time and again, when there is disaster and chaos, when uncertainty seems to lurk around every corner, it is the clarity of what we sing that continues to make the clear proclamation of the truth.
The hymns of the Church are full of emotion. They carry memories, build confidence, and deliver comfort. I have been at the bedside of a dying brother in Christ. His immediate family is all gathered around, the prayers have been prayed, the weeping seems nonstop, and then someone begins to sing one of the old hymns, a hymn our dying brother knew from his youth, a hymn all those gathered around could sing. Perhaps they could not have done it by themselves, but each person filled in the blank spots the others had forgotten. Soon this old hymn is given new life and in that moment the lips of the man in the middle begin to move. Somewhere from the edges of death itself he begins to sing, to join in the hymnody of the Church, to confess the deep and powerful faith which promises an age beyond this one, beyond the tears and imminent separation.
There is power in those old hymns. It is a power needed in those chaotic times. Now, as a pastor I have noticed how my life has been shaped in many ways by the great hymns of the Church. And like many of you, I ceritnaly have my favorites. But there is one hymn which is especially dear to me. It did not begin that way, but as I have matured in my faith, I have grown increasingly fond of the great hymn we sing every year on All Saint’s Day. In fact, I think the hymn, “For All the Saints,” is one of the greatest hymns in our hymnal. So, I thought today we might explore the teaching of this powerful hymn. It has a lot to tell us, a lot we need to be reminded of, and a lot that will carry us in confidence through a world of chaos.
The whole hymn is a proclamation made to the saints of God, all the saints, those who have gone before us and are at rest with our Lord and those who battle on here and now. This hymn confesses a truth about our connection to all the saints, the ones who sit next to you at this moment as well as those you have loved and lost. In fact, it begins with those who have gone before us: “For all the saints who from their labors rest.” They are resting, secure, waiting in the Paradise of our Lord. In fact, as the second stanza confesses, “Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might; Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.” Christ alone was their rock. Christ is the captain who saw them through the battle and led them on toward victory. So now, in Christ they are secure. The tombs of the saints of God will not be their final resting place, for their Captain is not yet done fulfilling His promises to them. They rest in the fortress of God’s love and compassion.
As we sing the old hymn we are inspired and encouraged by the saints who have gone before us. They are not forgotten to time and allowed to slip from memory. No, our parents and grandparents, our husbands and wives, our friends who have died in the faith continue to be our encouragement here and now. “Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old.” We learn from the battles they have fought. We are inspired by their hope and confidence. I have noticed over and again as I am near the bedside of a dying saint, when all the supports of life have been stripped away from them, there remains this unreasonable confidence, this boldness not in their strength, wisdom, or cleverness but only and always in Jesus. There in weakness and frailty I am regularly given a glimpse of the strength and dominion of the Word of God. They are the inspiration that urges you into the field of battle. They encourage you to take up the banner of your Lord and go again, yet one more day, one more charge, confident you are not alone, you are not forgotten or forsaken.
We confess as we sing, “Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” But where they are, we too will be. The rest they recline in is the rest promised to all of you. As the heavenly elder tells Saint John, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” So, with great confidence we sing, “And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song.” It is the song of the victory accomplished for you all in the blood of the Lamb, the victory which stretches beyond the grave and is heard in your ears even now. This means your battle, your warfare against the Devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh is being played out under the certain victory which is already yours in Christ. This changes everything my friends.
We sing of a reunion. We sing of victory in the face of defeat, of life in the midst of death. This is the hope of the Christian faith. This is the proclamation we hear over and again throughout our days. It is the proclamation we need to hear repeatedly, for we can be forgetful creatures. We can lose hope and think this life is all there is. We can easily be consumed by the challenges and fears of our day-to-day existence. It can grow dark and bleak at times. We can get so overwhelmed that we find ourselves in a place where we are not sure if there is hope, if there is something greater, something more than this veil of tears. But then we sing, “The golden evening brightens in the west; Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest; Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.” We are reminded of the vision John sees, the vision of worship and celebration and victory around the throne of the Lamb. The evening brightens in the dawn of the new day, a perpetual day in the glory of God. The calm of Paradise awaits all the saints of God. This is the promise made to you, and here we sing it into our hearts.
But then comes the seventh stanza, and I have to tell you, it chokes me up every time I try and sing it. In my opinion, this is what separates this hymn out from the others, and this is why I love it so much. We have sung about the saints who have gone before, the saints who are an encouragement and inspiration to our struggle here and now. We have sung about our battle, about our bleak days and the promise of Paradise which awaits the children of God. Paradise awaits you, my friends. But then we sing something even more amazing, “But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day: The saints triumphant rise in bright array.” It will be a yet more glorious day, more glorious than Paradise in Heaven, more glorious than resting from your labor. We sing about the resurrection of the dead, the glorious reunion as all the saints rise together. The end for the saints of God is a new Heaven and new Earth. This is a celebration without end. It is a day when you will embrace again those you have lost.
This is the hope given freely to you in Christ. This is what your faith is all about. This is what we celebrate on All Saint’s Day. Therefore, we sing, “From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Alleluia! Alleluia!”