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2 In Christ alone

18 March In Christ alone; talk by Robert Sheard, summary awaiting proof check.  Listen again via Spalding Baptist

In Christ alone; talk by Robert Sheard

Introduced by Steve Weatherly-Barton, Robert said that In Christ alone is one of his favourite hymns; my congregation will know that because he chooses it quite often.  For hymns we go through stages of hymns that are more in favour than at other times but since he heard this hymn for the first time it has always stuck up there as one of his favourites.  It does speak to people in different ways.  His talk was in several sections:

At college we used to always say that a modern hymn was written after 1900; this fits the category, composed between 2001 and 2002.  It has quickly become a firm favourite of many churches.  We often think of just written by Stuart Townsend, but if you look in the hymn book Keith Getty also helped him write it, their first collaboration – they’ve done others since.  When properly looing at a hymn, you need to look at the authors to understand perhaps something about why they wrote it, something of their background.  Robert started with Julian Keith Getty:

Born 16 December 1974 in Lisbon, Northern Ireland, only a couple of years after the height of The Troubles.  The oldest of four children, he began making music at the early age of 11 with the classical guitar, the flute at 12.  He was influenced by classical music, Irish music as well as church music of all kinds.  As a young adult, he studied music at Durham university, gaining a BA in 1995.  He has produced music for over 200 projects, recordings, concerts, theatre, television and film – sound tracks for some including The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Keith, along with his wife Kirsty Getty, is said to occupy a unique space in the world of music today, a prominent modern hymn writer, both renewing the traditional hymn form they have created a catalogue of Christian music.  They have come down as one of the best modern hymn writers while touching on the traditions of Celtic and English hymnary.

Stuart Townsend, born in 1963 in Sowerby Bridge, not far from Halifax where Robert grew up (that’s not the only reason he likes his music!).  Youngest of four children himself, his father was a church of England minister but sadly was killed in a motorbike accident in 1984.  At the age of 13, Stuart made a Christian conviction and began song writing at the age of 22.  He studied literature at the university of Sussex and he has led worship and performed at events across the world at many conferences and festivals including the Keswick Conventions, Spring Harvest and many more, featuring often on Songs of Praise.  In 2005, the Cross Rhythms magazine described Townsend as one of the most significant songwriters in the whole international Christian music field.  The Christian website Crosswalk commented that the uniqueness of Townsend’s writing, partly its literature content, is both having a theological depth and a poetic expression that some say is rare today in modern writing of worship hymns.  So to the hymn itself.

In a nutshell, if we want to sum In Christ alone up, it’s a Christian credal for belief in Jesus Christ, the theme song, if you like, for the life, death and resurrection of Christ and that he is God whom even death could not hold.  A creed is a formal statement of Christian belief.  Ones that come to mind are the Apostles’ creed [on screen] or the Nicene creed.  In a sense, simple statements that we use throughout our churches, perhaps not as often as we used to.  It sums up the key thoughts, tries to express what the writers are trying to say.  Both our writers are motivated by the idea of Biblical truth and wanting to convey this in their songs and hymns.  They want people to express that in worship in the church, to build up their own Christian life.  The uniqueness of Stuart Townsend’s writing, partly liturgical content almost. there is theological depth in it, a poetic expression.  They themselves say they wanted a hymn that told the whole story of Christ coming to earth.  Telling the whole story is not easy in one hymn or song.  When Townsend first wrote the words for this hymn, he started with ‘My hope is found in God alone’; it was Keith Getty who suggested it be changed around to ‘In Christ alone, my hope is found’.  It is one of the top five hymns that people choose today.

Robert spoke of the ‘elephant in the room’; the one line that seems controversial for some people is ‘Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’.  I don’t know how it makes you feel.  Does it challenge you or put you off the hymn?  It challenges Robert to think more about what the authors are trying to say, how they are trying to make us think.  Over the years, hymn collectors have tried to get them to change the wording.  One suggestion was to change it to ‘Til on the cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified’ and it has meant that certain collections of hymns have missed out this hymn because they said the authors don’t want to change it.  Robert read out what the authors have said: Keith Getty believes the lyrics in In Christ alone significantly express theological truths about life, death and saving power of Christ through his sacrificial death on the cross, and yet the song is more than dogmatic theology as we’ve shared the hymn in churches which the passion and emotion that it invokes, this is what makes it so memorable.  Two groups wanted to change the lyrics in order to circumvent the idea that God’s wrath was satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross - which is why it was important that this lyric is not altered.  We believe that altering the lyrics would remove an essential part of the gospel story, an explanation through the scriptures, the main thread of what we see revealed through the Old and New Testaments is the need for man or woman to be made right with God.  The perceived path towards reconciliation came through Christ’s perfect sacrifice for us on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all.  The two hymnal committees wanted to change the lyric to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world, and indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves shedding his on perfect blood to atone for our sins.

Those gathered broke up into small groups to consider Robert’s question: How does the line ‘Til on the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied’ make you feel and should it be changed?

Robert outlined why he chose this hymn, verse by verse, finding it very personal.  Even though he didn’t write it, it helps him respond to his faith, to sing his faith, to sing God’s glory.  A good hymn or song should help the singer respond to and to share their faith.  It should say something about what they believe as well as what they want others to do.  A good hymn, when we sing it in church, is our response to what the minister is doing at the front.  Every good minister doesn’t just pick his favourite hymns every week (we wouldn’t sing many at all if we did that!) but we try to have hymns to respond to the theme of the week and want people to experience their faith through it.  Without Christ in his life, Robert admitted that he would not be where he is; yes, he still makes mistakes, he still gets it wrong from time to time, life isn’t perfect, yet in Christ that’s where I start from.  Perhaps not politically correct in today’s world, in our multi-faith world, but I do believe that we can work together ‘multi-faith-ly’ with Christ at our centre.  Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that’s so important to him as a Christian.  It’s where he starts from, he is that firm foundation. We hear in the Bible of him being the cornerstone of the Church; Jesus should be the cornerstone of our lives.  With everything else that goes on in our lives and in the world, he’s something that’s solid, something that is firm and we can stay with, as it were.  And he’s there, no matter what, my comforter, my all in all.

In our next verse, we start to see the story starting to be lived out in Christ who took on flesh.  It goes back to the Christmas story, to Christ being born as a helpless babe, to being born as one of us.  Christ walks the same paths we walk, he feels the same pain we feel because he gets alongside us.  We start to move on in this verse to the Easter story; ‘Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’ are challenging words – yes, Christ died for our sins.  It reminds me of my own faults, but reminds me more importantly that I am forgiven as a Christian.  I can say ‘God, I’ve got it wrong again, forgive me’ and he does.  It also takes him back to the Old Testament, where we see God who is wrathful almost, hellfire and damnation, but if we truly look at the Old Testament he isn’t, he forgives time and time again.  In the story of Jonah, who didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew what God would do, he was going to prophesy ‘You’re all going to be wiped off he earth unless you repent’, and he knew that because they did, God would forgive them – and Jonah didn’t want that.  So even though we have that ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’, because that wrath comes with love, a love that is deep founded, like the parent who gets angry with the child because they’ve done something wrong but only because they don’t want them to hurt themselves or do it again because they want them to be protected.

We see in our next verse more of the Easter story: ‘Til in the ground his body lay, light of the world by darkness slain’, very much he died because of what humankind did, because of Eve giving Adam that first apple, well, first fruit (we’re not sure what fruit it was) – because of that, he is our God, he is God for everybody and Christ came to pay for our sins with his own blood.  In a few weeks we will be celebrating his resurrection but before that we have Maundy Thursday and communion when we remember that last meal Jesus had with his disciples when he predicts his own death and how it will be.  There is nothing impossible with God, if we let him in our lives, because of what Christ has done for us.

In the final verse ‘No guilt in life, no fear in death’, we know what we’re going on to, a better life.  No scheme of anybody can turn us from God’s love.  We might wander from the path occasionally, we might find it hard, but God still loves us.  People often talk about ‘God’s forgotten us, he’s not in the world anymore’; Robert says it’s us who’ve forgotten God, we don’t look out for the signs or the places where God is, we don’t look out for God in the humble.  Whatever happens, Christ is walking alongside us, as has been described in the poem ‘Footprints’ where, near the end, he talks about just one set of footprints for ‘that is where I carried you’.  That’s what this hymn says to Robert; no matter how others make us feel or treat us, Christ is always there, walking with us and makes us stronger.  Robert says he can never sing this song too many times, it’s such a powerful song.

Groups discussed a further question: How does this song, the whole song, make you feel?

‘In Christ alone’ is a modern hymn that shows us what Christ has done for us, reminding us of the price he paid for us, challenges us to look at ourselves but despite that we can still be part of the kingdom and come into the glory of God.  This is what the cross and the resurrection means.  It comes to change everything.  The power of the song points to what Christ went through.  We get to stand before him, not because of our great faith, or because doing well as a Christian but purely and simply because what he has done for us.  This is why Robert believes that the song is hopeful, this is why it means something, making In Christ alone a true hymn of the cross.

Video shown of In Christ alone by Kristian Stanfill via YouTube