One of the great blessings which the Lord has provided to the Church is her rich collection of hymnody. Pastor Steven Starke, who helped assemble Lutheran Service Book (LSB), writes, “A hymn is a combination of dogma (theology) and doxa (praise) for worshipers to sing in a corporate setting.” In other words, hymns take the Word of God and put it into a form to be sung. For nearly two-thousand years the Church has been assembling hymns to the glory of God in the name of Jesus. If you flip through the pages of Lutheran Service Book, you will, for example, see hymns from approximately two-hundred years after the birth of Jesus (LSB 864: “Shepherd of Tender Youth”), 400 AD (LSB 384: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”), 800 AD (LSB 442: “All Glory, Laud and Honor”), 1100 AD (LSB 554: “O Jesus, King Most Wonderful”), 1500 (LSB 656: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), and even from men and women who are alive today (LSB 624: “The Infant Priest Was Holy Born”). This collection of hymns grows daily. If all you do is consider the more than 600 hymns in our current hymnal and compare that collection with the hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH), you can’t help but notice that some hymns that were in the old hymnal are not in the new hymnal (TLH 607: “Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning”), and some of hymns from the new hymnal, though written hundreds of years ago, weren’t included in the old hymnal (LSB 594: “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It”, which wasn’t even translated into English until after TLH was released)—and indeed, some of the hymns in the new hymnal weren’t even written when the old hymnal was assembled. This collection of hymns comes from Christians of every time and place, and it will continue to grow as long as long as there is one Christian who wishes to sing praise to God.
It was my privilege to attend a recent conference for the writers of hymns. Dr. Joseph Herl, a professor at Concordia University, Nebraska, opened his presentation by asking, “How many of you remember a sermon you heard when you were a child?” None of us raised our hands. Then he asked, “How many of you remember any hymn you sang as a child?” Every person in the room raised a hand. The point was not to belittle the staying power of sermons. Instead the presenter was making a point about the long-term impact of hymns. Hymns are so much easier to remember than sermons. You hear a sermon, whereas you sing a hymn. You usually only hear a sermon once, whereas you sing hymns over and over again. Don’t get me wrong: it is very important to listen to the sermon. After all, “Faith comes by hearing.” But even the best of sermons are hard to remember. Hymns, on the other hand, you carry with you. The music, the marriage of music and text, and the repetition all aid in memorization. And once you’ve memorized a hymn (or anything else, for that matter), what you’ve memorized becomes part of you for the rest of your life.
That memorization becomes important for two reasons. First, do you remember that definition of a hymn? It is “a combination of dogma (theology) and doxa (praise)…” That makes hymns a valuable tool for teaching the faith. In the same way that we have our children memorize Luther’s Small Catechism so that it may grow with them throughout their lives, hymns helps take that theology and put it into language that aids memorization and understanding. Do you want to learn about the Incarnation (Jesus in the flesh)? Sing “Savior of the Nations, Come” (LSB 332, vv.2-3), in which we learn:
Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh—
Woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.
Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.
Teaching your children about the Communion of Saints? Sing “For All the Saints” (LSB 677, vv.1,4):
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
I could go on, but you get the point. Good hymns teach good theology. (That’s also why I am so careful in choosing hymns: bad hymns teach bad theology or no theology at all. Bad hymns give Satan a voice in the very house of God!)
That memorization also becomes important in times of trial. Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, “What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. … That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” I was in a car accident in 1997. I don't remember much about that evening. But in what could be considered “the valley of the shadow of death,” when I was terrified as I rested on a gurney in an ambulance, on a day of which I remember precious little, I remember praying parts of the liturgy, including the Lord's Prayer. I remember singing “Abide With Me” and other hymns. These gifts, these treasures which so many in the Church disregard with nary a thought, took me to the feet of my Savior in the midst of tribulation. The hymns, the liturgy, tools that I had memorized, stuck with me in a dark hour.
And that’s just everyday life. What happens when the day of persecution comes? What happens when preaching the Word of God becomes a hate crime and your pastor is imprisoned for doing what you have Called him to do? During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Lutheran laypeople could not count on having Lutheran pastors. Every time an army passed through and took over their town, the authorities would install clergy who held to their confession of faith, whether Lutheran or Roman. This could happen several times in a year! One Lutheran pastor wrote to his congregation, “You should assemble yourselves together at arranged times with your children and domestics, consult your collections of sermons and other pure books, [let] the Word [of God] live richly among you, and let your prayers and singing of psalms sound out in consolation.” In the Soviet Union, the faithful had no faithful clergy, no churches, no Bibles, no hymnals. Even so, the Church survived and even flourished because they maintained an oral tradition of the Christian Faith.
Along with your Bible and the Catechism, your hymnal is one of the most important tools you carry with you in your life in Christ. The hymns of the Church are your songs. The faith, the Word of God they teach: this is your faith; this is the Word of God for you. The God they praise is your God. God grant that the Word, taught in Scripture, taught in the Catechism, taught in sermons, taught in the liturgy, and taught in the hymns of the Church, dwell in you richly—in good times and bad, in joy and in persecution—even unto death.
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.