Last night at our Lenten Vespers service, we closed by singing Abide With Me (CW 588). I’m guessing that hymn makes just about everybody’s top 10 hymn list ― everyone who actually has a top 10 hymn list, that is. It also happens to be one of my favorites.
My paternal grandfather, William Pluger, was a faithful churchgoing man who raised his children (and, by extension, his grandchildren) in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6). One of his many favorite hymns was also Abide With Me. As an elder in his congregation, he helped establish the tradition of singing it on New Year’s Eve. What a great hymn to sing as the old year is remembered, confessed, forgiven, and the new year is welcomed with all the blessings of God. I’m guessing he was especially thinking of the stanza:
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Grandpa died in 1984. I was ten. At his funeral, my cousin and I made a deal that we weren’t going to cry ― for some reason, we didn’t think it was right to be sad. Maybe we felt it was inappropriate, considering he was in heaven. Whatever, we were missing the point, and clearly forgetting the example of Jesus himself. At any rate, I was doing OK through the entire service: Psalm 23, the sermon, Jerusalem The Golden, and all the Lutheran funeral stand-bys. Until Abide With Me. Grandma had explained to us how meaningful that hymn had been to grandpa, what an important part of his faith-life it had been. And knowing that made it impossible to sing these words without completely losing it (in a good way):
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Grandma outlived grandpa by a good number of years. She saw her little congregation through many ups and downs, the calling of another pastor, and about fifteen more New Year’s Eve services. And in her own faithful way, she upheld the memory of her husband and his belief in God’s faithful gracious presence by gently and quietly making sure that Abide With Me still made it into the service every New Year’s Eve. Grandma died in December of 2003, from complications following a heart attack she suffered while cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family. When we buried her on Christmas Eve morning, Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church sang Abide With Me one week early.
I need Thy presence every passing hour;
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
In the summer of 2004 I took six of the best students I’ve ever had to Peru. We spent 12 days driving around the Andes mountains, traveling from village to village teaching Bible stories to little children and old men, doing crafts, singing songs, and learning more about faith and hope and love than we ever could have possibly taught. (You can read more about our trip to Peru here.) It’s hard to have an experience like that and not be changed forever, but when you get back it’s even harder to pinpoint what, exactly, about the trip so affected you. One moment, though, stands out above all the emotions and experiences of that odyssey. We had woken up early on our “free day” and gone to climb a glacier. We rode horses. We climbed and climbed and climbed. I fell in a little. We made it to the top ― 16,886 feet above sea level (which is really really high). Then we walked back down, and ate the best sandwiches any of us had ever eaten. Then we drove about three hours down the worst road ever. We were all bone-tired but no one could sleep. So we sang. Lifetime Lutherans all, we knew our hymnody pretty well. We started at the beginning, Advent, and worked our way through the Church Year. We did a pretty good job (I could try to remember all the hymns that we sang, but it would spoil the moment). We could usually get at least the first and last verse of any hymn anyone could remember at least the first line of. Eventually (remember, it’s hymn 588) we got to Abide With Me. Everyone knew it, of course. The memory of a van full of tired, happy, young missionaries singing a cappella as the sun set slowly behind the snow-covered peaks of South America still brings a smile to my lips and puts a lump in my throat. Simply beautiful…
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide!
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Which finally brings me back to last night. The sermon text was “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23). Jesus’ words from the cross, from his hours of excruciating agony, were words of pardon and forgiveness. We, who manage to be thrown into a rage at the slightest provocation, whose words are a rain of curses when being cut off on the freeway, could learn much from the words of the God-Man as he was being cut off from the land of the living.
But Jesus’ ministry on earth and his trip to the cross were more than just exemplary, to show us how to live. If Jesus’ ministry were primarily to give us an example to follow, “we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15), because no one could even come close to perfectly following his example.
No. Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross were not exemplary, rather they were primarily substitutionary. Jesus hung on the cross so I wouldn’t have to. Jesus suffered the Father’s wrath so I wouldn’t have to. Jesus paid for my sins so I wouldn’t have to. Try as I might to do the right thing, try as I might to make up for my sins, the fact of the matter is that I “don’t know what I do.” It’s all Jesus’ work that I am saved. Salvation is completely outside of me.
“Father, forgive them,” Jesus said, talking about me as much as about the Roman soldiers who were nailing him up. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus said, talking for me as my perfect substitute. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus said, talking to me with words of promise that I am forgiven, because he lived and died for me. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus said, talking to all who would believe in him, calling out to us and looking forward to Easter morning. “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14).
And so our prayer, last night and every night until the end of the world, is the prayer that points us to Christ, always to Christ:
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.