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Jul 15, 2018

Favorite Song #3 - Blessed Assurance

Passage: Philippians 1:21-26

Speaker: Michael E. Karunas

Series: Playing Favorites

Category: Playing Favorites


Our scripture today comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter of the Philippians (which we will get to in a moment).  But when Paul wrote this letter he was on the “back 9” of his ministry career.  Not quite putting on the 18th green, but definitely having made the turn with the clubhouse in view.  He was tired, having logged thousands of miles over the years in his attempt to spread Christianity and plant churches.  The church in Philippi, for example, was over 700 miles from his hometown.   It was located in a territory north of Greece called Macedonia.  The city (Philippi) was named after King Philip I who ruled several centuries earlier and was the grandfather of Alexander the Great.  Paul had started dozens of churches in his career.  And some of them caused him frustration.  In Galatia (modern day Turkey) for example, he thought he had explained the Gospel to them clearly but no sooner did he leave than they began doing things he told them explicitly not to do.  That’s why his letter to those churches begins with the words, “I’m astonished that you are so quickly turning away from the Gospel…” (clearly not happy with them). 

But there was no frustration with the Philippians.  On the contrary, there was great affection.  It was in Philippi that a very successful businesswoman named Lydia took Paul in when he had no place to stay and became a key contributor to his ministry there.  And one of Paul’s traveling partners was a man named Epaphroditus.  He was with Paul in Philippi and some time after they left the city, he became deathly ill.  But the Philippian church sent their prayers, concerns, and many gifts to Epaphroditus who ended up making a dramatic recovery.  Paul never forgot their generosity and when Epaphroditus was healthy again, Paul sent him back to Philippi so they could celebrate his healing and so that he could express gratitude for their kindness.

Paul, however, could not go.  He was in prison.  We don’t know exactly why, or where, he was in prison.  Throughout the years he was imprisoned several times both for religious and economic reasons.  In living out his calling, he was always upsetting the establishment, even receiving beatings and death threats.  Either way, Paul is stuck, trapped and confined behind bars.  He’s getting on in years.  His body is tired and worn down.  And he has a lot time to think about his life.  And with that time, he wrote these words:  Philippians 1:21-26

“To live is Christ and to die is gain.”  By that Paul means that whatever he does in life should reflect his faith in Jesus Christ.  That’s his mission.  Jesus is the vine and he (Paul) wants his every word and action to show forth the Christ who lives in him.  That’s the calling for all of us as Christians, as we seek to imitate Paul – to let others see the Christ in us, by revealing him in how we speak, and in the ways we work with and for others. 

Yet to die is also gain because, as we said last week, as long as we live on earth we are “not yet” in our true, permanent, spiritual home in the kingdom.  Only when we leave this body and this world will that happen.  So Paul is torn.  As an older man, in prison, with body breaking down, in the twilight of his career, he’s tempted to retire and let someone else take over and dream about the next life that is to come.  But he loves the church in Philippi.  He worries about the people; whether they will stay close to the Gospel.  So what he finally resolves is not to retire and think about leaving this world, because the progress of the Gospel and the needs of others are more important than his own personal preferences.  For Paul, his faith is deeply personal but never purely individual.  “My faith isn’t given for me alone,” he would say.  “It is given to me so that others may be served – and so that Christ is served – through me.  To die – whenever that is – will always be our personal gain.  But as long live, we are to live for the work and will of Christ.  That’s he means by the words “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Little did Paul know that these words would impact a young girl in NY state nearly 1800 years later.  Her name was Fanny Crosby and she was born in 1820 just north of NY city.  When she was just 6 weeks old, she caught a virus that eventually left her blind.  And when she was just 6 months old, her father died.  But she was raised by her mother and grandmother, who instilled a strong faith in her.  At the age of 10 she would memorize 5 chapters of the bible per week and by the age of 15, she had completely memorized… Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and all 4 Gospels.  In that same year, she entered the NY Institute for the Blind where she learned to play the piano, organ, harp and guitar, and where she became an accomplished singer. 

As an adult she was an ardent Baptist, attending church in Brooklyn, and she continued her love of music, beginning to compose lyrics for Christian hymns.  In fact, she would go on to write over 8,000 hymns and gospel songs, which (to date) have been reprinted over 100 million times!  She even had to write under different names because hymnal companies didn’t want to have too many songs by the same person in their songbooks.  Her songs include, To God be the Glory, I am Thine O Lord, Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.  And in 1873, when she was 53, she was visiting Phoebe Knapp, a friend and fellow composer of music.  Phoebe played for Fanny a few bars of a bouncy melody she was working on and said, “What do you think of when you hear those notes?”  Without hesitating, Fanny Crosby said, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.” 

Today is week 3 a sermon series called “Playing Favorites: Hymns and Songs.”  We asked you to share with us your Top 5 favorite Christian hymns and songs, and we will preach on one each week for the month of July.  We began with “How Great Thou Art,” which was followed last week by “I’ll Fly Away.”  Today is “Blessed Assurance.”  But writing the words for this song was not all that Fanny Crosby did.  She was also the first woman to ever address congress, urging support for the education of the blind.  Throughout her lifetime, whenever she received an honorarium, she was likely to give it away to someone less fortunate.  She started orphanages in NYC and advocated for the urban poor.  And when she was interviewed at age 83, she said that she considered her greatest calling in life not a musician and song-writer, but a city missions worker.  In fact, it was her decades of work in what we would call “social services” that provided the inspiration for many of her songs. 

Perhaps most inspiringly was the way she talked about her blindness.  As a young woman she wrote, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for that dispensation.  If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow, I would not accept it.  I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.” 

It is not surprising that she named the Apostle Paul as a great inspiration in her life.  And it is not surprising that of all the words Paul wrote, the ones we heard today from Philippians 1 were some of her favorites: “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”  She was ultimately not defeated by her physical condition.  She truly walked by faith and not by sight.  The condition of her blindness would not hold her captive from the light of Christ.  Nor would it keep that light from shining through her on all of the people she served, and in all of the music that still inspires us today.  And so when Fanny Crosby writes, “This is my story, this is my song… praising my savior all the day long,” we see in her life story that the way we praise the savior is by living for the savior.  For as long as we live, to live in such a way that our faith is expressed in what we say and do – in word and in action – to serve the needs of others and in doing so to serve the Christ we worship.  Faith is always meant to be deeply personal, but never purely individual.  We are grateful for stories from Paul’s life and Fanny Crosby’s life – and for the song Blessed Assurance - that remind us of that.  Amen.