Sermon: On singing 'Te Deum'
Preached on 19th July 2009
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Today we say goodbye to some of the choir who are leaving us. So I'm going to begin with the Te Deum which you have sung for us on so many occasions.
It never ceases to amaze me how the music brings out different emphases in the words. Week by week we hear new things. Sometimes we are there with the angels and all the powers of heaven caught up in thunderous praise, at other times we approach cautiously, aware of our own smallness and unworthiness to be in God's presence. When we sing to Christ ‘when thou tookest upon thee to deliver man thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb; when thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers' we are variously in stunned wonder or jubilant rejoicing at the enormity of what Christ has done for us. And the prospect of Christ coming as our judge evokes a whole range of emotions through the music from quiet awe to bold confidence.
The Te Deum is essentially a song of the church. Unlike the Psalms and other canticles, it is not in the scriptures but dates from no later than the fourth century; the first surviving manuscript is from the seventh century. Structurally, it is like a Eucharistic prayer and may have been written for that purpose although it soon became used as a canticle and we know that Benedict knew of it because he prescribes its use at Matins. However it is interpreted musically, it is a glorious song of praise by the church to her Lord that begins by taking us straight into the worship of heaven which is what the Eucharistic prayer also does when we sing, ‘Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify thy glorious name ever praising thee and saying "holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory."' The Te Deum reminds us of the company of heaven - angels, heavens, powers, cherubim, seraphim, apostles, prophets, martyrs - and then that ‘the holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee.'
So it begins by telling us where we are and who we are with, then it focuses us on the God whom we worship: the Majestic Father, the honourable, true and only Son and the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. And then it recounts what Christ has done for us and for our salvation - the incarnation, his death and ascension ‘thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers' - his reigning in glory and the assurance that he will come again to be our judge. Sobered by that though, we ask for help and claim the redemption secured by Christ that enables us to anticipate the time when we too will share with saints in the glory.
Thus far it is praise and wonder all the way. But at the very end, it turns to petition rather than praise. And the mood turns with it, ‘Vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without sin. Have mercy upon us. Let thy mercy lighten upon us as our trust is in thee.' In the face of this glimpse of the worship of heaven, this reminder of who God is and what has been done for our salvation, and the prospect of being judged by the one who has redeemed us, the church pleads for mercy. We get things in perspective because the proper response to the holiness of God is awareness of our own need for mercy, so we come before God in hopeful anticipation of God's mercy as we affirm our trust in God.
And then there is a final twist to the hymn of praise. Because in the very last line of what has been until now the hymn of the church becomes the very personal prayer of each individual, ‘O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.' That line draws from the Psalms, 31:18 and 119:116 ‘Let me not be confounded, O Lord, for I have called upon thee.' ‘O stablish me according to thy word, that I may live: and let me not be disappointed of my hope.' It catches my breath every time, whether it is sung confidently as the climax of the hymn or tentatively as a plea for help in the light of all the truths that have just been sung, because suddenly, in the midst of the noisy and glorious worship of the whole company of heaven, I stand before God pleading that the trust I have placed in him is never misplaced, pleading never to be confounded. Having staked my life on God's faithfulness I now need to put that trustworthiness to the test.
And if there is one person of whom this is true, it is Job from whom we heard earlier.
The story of Job is thought to date from the period after Israel's exile in Babylon which had been described by the prophets as a consequence of their wrongdoing. Thus their suffering in exile was punishment for sin. But now they were back in Jerusalem and new answers were needed to the old questions: could it really be said that all suffering was punishment for sin? The psalm we heard struggled with God over the same question. And so we are given, as so often in the Hebrew bible, a story that explores the questions. We needn't worry whether it is fact or fiction, a sort of extended parable - either way it tells us truths. All we need to know for our purposes today is that it is the story of a pious and good man whose trust in God is tested to the limits when his life collapses around him in a series of disasters that affect his family, his livelihood and his reputation. Just about all he is left with is his wife who can't cope with his longsuffering trust in God, a body wracked by sores, various friends who are strong on theory but short on compassion and all too ready to jump to conclusions about his sin, and his extraordinary refusal to let go of his integrity which is founded on trust in God and in his own innocence of anything that would merit such extreme punishment.
What Job doesn't know, but the editor of the story has told us, is that Job's sufferings are at the instigation of the satan, the accuser who, interestingly, was in the courts of God that we were singing about earlier. He had challenged God with the idea that Job's faith and trust are purely enlightened self-interest designed to secure God's continued blessing and won't survive the loss of his material security. The specific dare to God from the satan was that if God removed all the blessings, Job would curse God. Indeed that was what his wife urged him to do, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity. Curse God, and die', which Job resisted. The story goes that God trusted Job to withstand this, and allowed the satan to try him. This set up the dilemma the Psalmist also faced, ‘Truly God is loving unto Israel, even unto such as are of a clean heart. Nevertheless, my feet were almost gone, my treadings had well-nigh slipped.' The rest of the book is essentially wisdom literature embedded within this framing story as the various speakers - including at the end God - debate the issues. We heard part of one of Job's speeches which is in response to his friend Zophar's assertion that Job must be guilty and deserves punishment. He has already answered Zophar rather sarcastically and, in the part we heard today, has turned to God with a desperate plea for two things: ‘withdraw your hand far from me', in other words that God stop the suffering which belief at the time said God somehow had a hand in, and ‘do not let dread of you terrify me.' That second request echoes the last line of the Te Deum, ‘O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded'. Both are driving at the same thing although they express it differently. At heart they are pleas that our trust in God should not be our undoing, either through extreme terror or through bewilderment, and both, because they are in the context of prayer, are pleas based on tenacious trust in God despite present circumstances.
The reading from Hebrews spoke of Jesus sharing our flesh and blood and, as the pioneer of our salvation, being made perfect through suffering, being tested by what he suffered so now he can help others who are being tested. The gospels give us vignettes of Jesus' suffering under testing - his brief prayers to be delivered from the suffering coupled with the ultimate trust in God, ‘nevertheless, not what I will but your will be done.' That is not a million miles away from Job's prayer: frequently he asks and argues vehemently for the suffering to cease but he never pulls out of the relationship with God. Were we to skip ahead in his book, we would realise that God did answer the prayer, ‘Do not let dread of you terrify me' because Job was not afraid to keep up a robust argument almost to the end, and only gave it up when God gave him a whirlwind behind the scenes tour of creation to which Job's response was not terror but repentance, ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.' When God answered, Job's questions and suffering were set in a new context, that of a glimpse of God's marvellous and at times inscrutable ways with the world. It was that much wider perspective that gave Job a sense of proportion and of right relationship with God.
To go back to those who are leaving the choir: you have been singing for us for, in some cases, many years. You have sung us words of hope and joy, words of lament and distress. When you run into hard times, when things go wrong, when you are suffering in any way, do what the Psalmist did - when it is too hard to understand, go to the sanctuary of God to gain understanding and perspective. On eway to do that is to go back to the Te Deum. Remember the way it takes us into the courts of heaven and the worship of all creation, reminds us who God is and - only in that context - dares to pray for mercy for all of us together and then, at the very end, makes a personal confession of faith and plea, ‘O Lord in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.' That prayer has never gone unanswered, but the answer may come in a demanding way. It was suffering that led Job to deeper knowledge of God; and it is because Jesus has been tested by suffering is able to help those who are now being tested. The does not make suffering good or to be desired, but it does allow it to become a resource God can use for our ultimate good. That does not make suffering good or to be desired, but it does allow it to become a resource God can use for our ultimate good. ‘but it is good for me to hold fast to God, to put my trust in the Lord God'.
So, Sylvan, Miles, Harry, David, Ed, Will, Jason and Joe: go from here singing the Te Deum with joy and with trust. For all of us, the Te Deum is our corporate hymn of praise that we sing with all the company of heaven, but it is also our very personal prayer for God's mercy. When suffering or troubles come, as come they will at times, you are not in it alone, be trusting enough not to lose sight or sound of the prayer and praise of the church. As we sang earlier in the service,
Let all thy days
Till life shall end
Whate'er he send
Be filled with praise.