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Saints, See the Cloud of Witness

July 10, 2009

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is Mark 6:14-29, which tells of the beheading of John the Baptist.  Pastor decided to preach on that text and we are singing several hymns that fit well with that text.  The sermon hymn will be LSB 518 “By All Your Saints in Warfare,” stanzas 1, 24, and 3, as it thanks God for what He did through John the Baptist.  However, the hymn I want to focus on  today is the opening hymn, LSB 667 “Saints, See the Cloud of Witnesses.”  The tune, WOJTKIEWIECZ (and if you can spell that phonetically, you get a gold star), is by Dale Wood (1934-2003).  The tune is by the excellent Lutheran hymn-writer Rev. Stephen P. Starke.  I have reviewed another of his hymns here,  We Praise You and Acknowledge You, and will probably review more, as he has written a great many in the Lutheran Service Book.

If someone were to come up to me and ask what Lutherans believe regarding the saints, I would point them to this hymn.  It certainly talks about the saints, but in light of what God has done in their lives, and ultimately what God did by sending His Son, Jesus the Christ, to redeem the entire world, saints included.   It echoes the words from Hebrews 12, especially the first and second verses: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and prefecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising thd shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Here is Stanza One: Saints, see the cloud of witnesses surround us; Their lives of faith encourage and astound us.  Hear how the Master praised their faith so fervent: “Well done, My servant!” This stanza combines the first part of Hebrews 12 with Matt 25:21, which is in the Parable of the Talents.  The key phrase in this first stanza, when speaking of how we deal with the saints, is Their lives of faith encourage and astound us.  The saints are there to give us encouragement because of what God has done for them in Christ Jesus.  Indeed, in Hebrews 11 we hear how God blessed His people in the Old Testament through faith.  Faith is the hand that receives all of God’s good gifts.  The hand is passive, but without it no gifts can be given.

This idea is expressed quite well in Stanza Two.  These saints of old received God’s commendation; They lived as pilgrim-heirs of His salvation.  Through faith they conquered flame and sword and gallows, God’s name to hallow. The saints lived by faith, and through that faith they “conquered flame and sword and gallows,” not for their own glory or through their own power, but to hallow God’s name.  Now you may be asking, “How is God’s name kept holy?”  The answer comes from Lutheran’s Small Catechism, in the explanation to the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it.  Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven!  But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us.  Protect us from this, heavenly Father! The saints did not do all these thing by faith so that everyone could say, “Gee, God’s name must be holy.”  There is no point in that.  But instead, they endured “flame and sword and gallows” so that the Gospel might be preached.

Stanza Four is the center of the hymn, echoing the words of Hebrews 12:2: Come, let us fix our sight on Christ who suffered, He faced the cross, His sinless life He offered, He scorned the shame, He died, our death enduring, Our hope securing. This is the point of the Christian faith: to have our eyes fixed on Jesus.  I may be going out on a limb, but just as we say “O Lord, open my lips,” we must also say, “O Lord, open my eyes.”  We are unable to see Christ without faith, since it is through faith that we receive forgiveness, life, and salvation.  When our eyes are lifted to Jesus through Word and Sacrament, we receive just that.

Stanza Five is a prayer that God would give us the faith to endure through the trying times to come: Lord, give us faith to walk where You are sending On paths unmarked, eyes blind as to their ending, Not knowing where we go, but that You lead us — With grace precede us. This stanza seems to be a paraphrase of the collect For guidance in our calling (LSB 311): Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. Indeed, this prayer is appropriate for every day of a Christian’s life.

Stanza Six finishes with a doxological stanza focusing on Christ: You, Jesus, You alone deserve all glory!  Our lives unfold, embraced within Your story, Past, present, future — You, the same forever — You fail us never! Christ does indeed deserve all glory, and what is great is that this hymn tells us why that is so.  It is not merely saying, “Jesus, You’re awesome and I think You’re cool.”  It gives a reason.  Indeed, for all that God has done for us in Christ, Soli Deo Gloria: To God Alone the Glory.

Saints, See the Cloud of Witnesses – LSB 667

1 Saints, see the cloud of witnesses surround us;
Their lives of faith encourage and astound us.
Hear how the Master praised their faith so fervent:
“Well done, My servant!”

2 These saints of old received God’s commendation;
They lived as pilgrim-heirs of His salvation.
Through faith they conquered flame and sword and gallows,
God’s name to hallow.

3 They call to us, “Your timid footsteps lengthen;
Throw off sin’s weight, your halting weakness strengthen.
We kept the faith, we shed our blood, were martyred;
Our lives we bartered.”

4 Come, let us fix our sight on Christ who suffered,
He faced the cross, His sinless life He offered;
He scorned the shame, He died, our death enduring,
Our hope securing.

5 Lord, give us faith to walk where You are sending,
On paths unmarked, eyes blind as to their ending;
Not knowing where we go, but that You lead us—
With grace precede us.

6 You, Jesus, You alone deserve all glory!
Our lives unfold, embraced within Your story;
Past, present, future—You, the same forever—
You fail us never!

© 1997 Stephen P. Starke. Used by permission: LSB Hymn License .NET, no. 100011479.

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From → Church Music, Hymns

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