Before you start to read, take a minute and listen to Johann Sebastian Bach's beautiful harmonization of the Lenten hymn, "A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth."
(A little plug before I continue. If you click on the picture of the man at the piano on the video above, it will take you to his YouTube channel. He has recorded all of The Lutheran Hymnal on piano. His playing is excellent, and is good for devotional use if you like to have something to sing with!)
It’s no secret that I like hymns. If you’ve listened to me, or read anything I’ve written, you see that what we sing is a tremendous influence on me. The Lent and Holy Week section of our hymnal is one of my favorites, as I know it is for many of you. This Sunday we sang what is possibly my favorite Lenten hymn, “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth.” I like it because it unashamedly sings of our redemption and the comfort Jesus’ crucifixion gives us.
But I also like it because it uses one of my favorite devices in hymns: dialogue between the Father and the Son. Stanzas two and three get me every time. “Go forth, My Son,” the Father said, “And free My children from their dread of guilt and condemnation…” “Yes, Father, Yes, most willingly I’ll bear what You command me. My will conforms to Your decree. I’ll do what You have asked me.” The only other hymn I can think of that uses the same device is Luther’s “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (LSB 556). The back and forth between the Father and Jesus is profound. It demonstrates how each person of the Trinity is involved in our salvation. The Father wills it; the Son accomplishes it; the Holy Spirit delivers it. I wish our hymns used this kind of structure more often!
The second part of “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth” that draws me in is the conclusion of stanza three: “O Love, how strong You are to save! You lay the one into the grave who built the earth’s foundation.” While it’s obvious throughout the entire hymn, those two sentences perfectly encapsulate the power of Good Friday. God Himself allows death to do its worst. The one who was the Master Craftsman of the world (Proverbs 8:22-30) allows Himself to die and be buried within the earth He created. If that doesn’t make you stop in amazement, I don’t know what will!
This hymn is one of Lutheranism’s contributions to Lenten/Holy Week hymnody. It was written by Paul Gerhardt, a German Lutheran Pastor, who lived from 1607-1676. He wrote it in 1647, one year before the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). That helps us understand the hymn a little bit better. That particular war was terrible for the German people and the religious landscape. It devastated Lutheran churches as rulers fought over which territories would be Calvinist, which would be Lutheran, and which would be Roman Catholic. Because the state controlled the churches, there could be no peaceful coexistence. You had no choice but to be the chosen religion of the ruler. Those who refused to do so faced sharp opposition and persecution. Gerhardt was a Pastor during this time and on several occasions found himself without a church in which to preach (which meant nowhere to live and no income) when he refused to sacrifice his Lutheran belief to be whatever the ruler decided he wanted to be that day. That makes the hymn make even more sense as Gerhardt frequently extols the comfort that we have because of the crucifixion.
Gerhardt originally wrote this hymn as a ten-stanza hymn. Lutheran Service Book has stanzas 1-3 and 10 of the original. You know that I’m not afraid of long hymns, and this is no exception. While I’m not opposed to the four-stanza version we have in LSB, this is one case where the removal of stanzas was a disservice to the hymn, not a blessing. Even though The Lutheran Hymnal had a few more stanzas than LSB, even their version omitted four stanzas. They included one of the best, but also cut out one of the best! Fortunately there are resources that have the missing stanzas translated into English. Two of the best (missing) stanzas are stanzas eight and nine of the original.
Stanza eight reminds us of the comfort that the Lord’s Supper is to us when we are in times of trial. Whatever we are missing, Holy Communion is the cure. When Jesus comes to make His dwelling in us, all sorrow flees. Isn’t this a wonderful confession of the role of the Lord’s Supper in our life?
This treasure ever I’ll employ
This every aid shall yield me;
In sorrow it shall be my joy,
In conflict it shall shield me;
In joy, the music of my feast,
And when all else has lost its zest,
This manna still shall feed me;
In thirst my drink; in want my food;
My company in solitude,
To comfort and to yield me.
The ninth stanza is a good reminder of the comfort Jesus gives us in trial, especially where we find ourselves presently with COVID-19. No matter how the world surges and the earth trembles and shakes, our God protects us.
Of death I am no more afraid,
New life from Thee is flowing;
Thy cross affords me cooling shade
When noonday’s sun is glowing.
When by my grief I am oppressed,
On Thee my weary soul shall rest
Serenely as on pillows.
Thou art my Anchor when by woe
My bark is driven to-and-fro
On trouble’s surging billows.
Isn’t that an image of ultimate comfort?! Death pursues me; heat scorches me; I’m tossed around in life’s unsettled seas. But in Christ, I rest “serenely as on pillows.” Take that, Satan! Because of Christ, you can do your worst and I lounge on pillows.
I pray this hymn becomes a favorite for you, not just in Lent, but always. It’s a perfect reminder of what is ours because of Christ, His crucifixion, and our Baptism into that same death and resurrection. When you need comfort in an unsettled life, Gerhardt will always give you excellent words to sing!
P.S.: If you have some extra time to devote to listening, I commend the following video to you. It is a new composition by David von Kampen, who teaches at the University of Nebraska and Concordia University Seward, and is music coordinator for Christ Lutheran Church, Seward. This cantata is a beautiful setting of this Gerhardt text that will provide good listening and meditation. Enjoy!
This is the question we all ask when we see something different, especially in church. Why are we using white instead of red? Why does this day have a name? Why did the Pastor do what he just did?