Thanksgiving Hymns – “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”

On the interior walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. there are quotes from some of the things that he wrote through the years.  Most of them are what you would expect from the man who gave us the Declaration of Independence. But on the Northeast wall of the Memorial there is a rather unexpected quote from Jefferson – “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

 “Tremble” — that’s not a word we use very often, is it?  In fact, right off the top of my head I could only come up with one familiar reference to “trembling” – the hymn “Were You There?” with its refrain – “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”  So I went to my concordance, and I looked up every reference to “trembling” that I could find in the Bible. And what I discovered was that while “tremble” is much more of an Old Testament word than it is a New Testament word, that whenever it shows up in the Bible, “tremble” is a word that describes the visceral response that a person makes when they come into the presence of the living God. Isaiah 66:2 is a representative text of what the Bible says about trembling – “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”  There’s a church that took its name from this idea of trembling at God’s word?

“The word ‘Quaker’ was originally an insult spoken by King George of England to William Penn, who would not take his hat off in deference to his majesty. Penn told the King that instead of worrying about a silly thing like his hat, what he really should be doing was ‘Quaking in the fear of the Lord.’ And the King responded, ‘Get this Quaker out of here!’”

So, have you ever quaked?  Have you ever trembled before the Lord?  Preacher John Piper says that – “If you know God – really know God – who he is in the greatness of his holiness and… his grace, then you will tremble in his presence.”  But what if you don’t tremble, what does that say about your knowledge of God?  Could it be that we don’t tremble because our knowledge of God has gotten skewed?  Thomas Jefferson said that he trembled for his country when he reflected on the fact that God is just.  So, is this the problem?  Have we lost sight of the fact that God is just?  One of the Thanksgiving hymns we sing this time of year suggests that we may have.

For many of us “Come, Ye Thankful People Come” is part of the soundtrack of our Thanksgivings.  Henry Alford (1810-1871), a 19th century Anglican priest wrote this hymn to be sung on the day of the English equivalent to our American Thanksgiving Day, something known as “Harvest Home.”  This is when a portion of the fall harvest would be brought into parish churches as an offering to God.  It would be blessed.  Prayers of thanksgiving would be offered over it, and then a portion of it would be shared with the poor and needy.   This is what Henry Alford’s hymn celebrates in its first stanza –

Come, ye thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, Raise the song of harvest home.

It’s at this point that the version of “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” which appears in our hymnal takes an interesting turn.  You see, the rest of this hymn in our hymnal is not the hymn that Henry Alford wrote.  The second and third verses of “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” we usually sing were written by another hymn writer altogether, a woman named Anna Barbauld (1743-1825). 

Anna Barbauld was an important figure in the history of Christian hymnody in her own right; one of the very few women in her day to write and publish hymns. And you can see why her work was popular by looking at the second and third stanzas of “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” that we are accustomed to singing. Anna Barbauld’s version of the hymn, continues with the familiar Thanksgiving themes of bounty and blessing, harvest and gratitude. The words are beautiful, entirely appropriate for Thanksgiving.  Theologically there’s nothing objectionable about them at all, and frankly, that’s why they wound up replacing Henry Alford’s words. Henry Alford’s original words for “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” were objectionable, at least to some people.  You may have a memory of singing these words.  It’s the version of the hymn as it appeared in earlier Disciples’ hymnals. 

After celebrating the harvest of the fall’s crops in the first stanza, in the rest of the hymn that Henry Alford wrote, he explored the final harvest that awaits us.  The way that he originally wrote it, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” was Henry Alford’s meditation on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Matthew 13: 24-30, our Scripture Lesson this morning –

“All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day all offenses purge away,
Giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.”

Throughout Scripture the annual harvest was taken as a timely reminder of the fact that spiritually there is a harvest waiting for us as well.  And so, in the book of Revelation, the Final Judgement begins with the words: “Put in your sharp sickle and reap… because the harvest of the earth is ripe” (14:15).  This is a constant theme in Scripture. There’s not a story that the Bible tells that that doesn’t include an element of judgement.  You’re just not paying attention if you can read the Bible and not conclude that the God whose story it tells is holy and just, or that we live in a universe that is framed by right and wrong with very real choices to be made at every turn, or that there will be a final reckoning by God of the choices that we do make.  Trembling is a perfectly appropriate response to these facts, but, as it turns out, these are the very facts that are most at risk in the church today.

Theologian David Wells calls it the “weightlessness” of God in our lives.   80% of people surveyed will tell you that they believe in God and that they consider themselves to be “spiritual.”  But the real question in David Well’s mind is – “What weight does this belief have?”  He says that the evidence all points in the direction of our cultural belief in God being “a bit skinny.”  It doesn’t have “the weight to define how we think about life, or on how we actually go about living.”  Our God is a cheerleader who shouts encouragement to us from the sidelines, not a God who makes moral demands on us, or who takes personal offense at what we say and do. We’re on easy terms with God, and we fully expect, no matter what we do, to live with Him happily ever after.

Back in 1964 Erik Routley, an eminent church musician, reflecting this kind of thinking, said that he was deeply “offended” by the original words of Henry Alford’s hymn “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”  He thought it “extremely doubtful” that the idea of God’s judgement was meaningful to Christians, or to anyone anymore!  And in our very next hymnal, the words were changed. Gone were all those references to judgement, accountability, and consequences, and taking their place were references to sunny skies, bountiful gardens, and smiling fields.

Now, without a doubt, there have been times when we Christians have spoken way too fast, and way too much, and way too rashly about the judgement of God.  I first read Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” when I was a High School Junior, and I can remember thinking, even back then, that it wasn’t a very good description of the way that I myself had experienced God in Jesus Christ.  But then again, neither were the soft and sentimental ways that I was hearing God being popularly described in lots of the churches that I was visiting back in those days, “a saccharine God… a God who demanded nothing, who never criticized anybody for anything, who accepted everyone and everything, a God who did nothing but affirm us” (Echeverra).

I’m not a hellfire and brimstone preacher; I never have been.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that God is holy, or that our choices don’t matter, or that there’s not going to be a judgement in the end.  I believe that God is love, but I don’t believe that God is only love.  It was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century mystical theologian, who said that the God we find in the Bible is a God who stands on two feet – a foot of justice, and a foot of mercy – and that neither foot can be neglected without serious damage being done to our understanding of God.

Neglect God’s foot of justice, force God to stand on his foot of love alone, and we have “no serious Word for a world which is racked by evil” (Wells).  Without God’s solid foot of justice, we’ve got nothing to say about racism.  We’ve got nothing to say about sexual abuse. We’ve got nothing to say about greed.  We’ve got nothing to say about gun violence. We’ve got nothing to say about the exclusion of the “other.”  But neglect God’s other foot, the foot of mercy, force God to stand on His foot of justice alone, and we will wind up in despair for we all leave undone things that we ought to have done, and we all do things that we ought not to have done.  

We all fall short of the standards of God’s justice. The Psalmist got it exactly right when he asked – “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who could escape being condemned by you?” (130:3). That’s the perfect response to a God who stands only on His foot of justice.  But the Psalmist wasn’t finished.  In the very next verse, he prayed – “But there is forgiveness with you, and so we stand in awe of you” (130:4).  And that’s the response that we make to the God who also stands on a foot of mercy.  And where we see this most clearly as Christians, where we see God standing on both feet – His foot of justice, and His foot of mercy – is at the cross.

If God were only merciful and not just, then the cross would have been completely unnecessary.  “God could have just breezily said ‘forget it’ instead of ‘forgiving it’” (Peter Kreeft).  And if God were only just and not merciful, then the cross would have been completely unthinkable. God would have had to sternly say “forget it” instead of “forgiving it.” But as it is, God says, “I forgive it,” and that “forgiveness is costly.”

It’s God’s justice and God’s mercy that make Calvary necessary, and remarkable. Just the thought of this kind of forgiveness made the psalmist “stand in awe” of God. And for those of us who have actually experienced it — what should be our response?

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?                                                                       Were you there when they crucified my Lord?                                                     Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.                            Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

We should tremble whenever we see a cross. We should tremble when we remember that God is just. We should tremble when we realize that we deserve judgement. We should tremble when we remember that God is merciful. And we should tremble when are told that we have been forgiven.        

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