“How Sweet That Sound”
Imagine a young man, pushed to enter into the Navy, becoming a sailor. Furthering his career by working on boats participating in the slave trade. He was well known for his attitude upon the boats. It’s no secret that the language and actions of sailors can sometimes be a little… rough… for Christian tastes, but this young man was often reprimanded for his language, using words that were too strong even for other sailors’ ears! Deciding that maybe the words he was using wasn’t bad enough, he made up his own, much to the disgust of those around him. This young man was a serious trouble-maker.
Believe it or not, his mother was raising him to be a minister! But she died when he was only 6, and was raised by his step-mother while his father worked on the seas himself, and treated poorly at boarding school. It was at the age 11 when he joined his father on the boats. Learning the craft at a very young age, and no doubt this early influence had major implications on his growing up to be the salty sailor he became, even to the point of denouncing his faith. After deserting the Navy, he hid by finding work in the slave trade, and began his new career for creating obscene poems and songs to pass the time at sea.
He was so poorly respected on the boats that he himself even ended up chained along with the slaves they were trading. His life spiralled downward to the point where he found himself working on a plantation in Sierra Leone.
Upon being rescued from the plantation, he found himself on a ship in the North Atlantic in the midst of a great storm, where crew members were being swept overboard. He tied himself to the pump, working tirelessly to get the water out of the ship to avoid certain death. Somehow, they survived and he found his way back to the arms of the woman he loved, Polly, the memories of her is what kept him alive in many situations.
That’s quite the biography isn’t it? You might wonder whatever became of this man. Once he got off the ships, what did he do with his life?
His name is John Newton. The same John Newton who wrote the song we look to today, Amazing Grace.
It was Newton who suggested to the Captain that he tie himself to the pump, and when the Captain ordered it so, Newton said, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” As he reflected on what had happened over the course of the storm, those words echoed in his ears.
He continued in the slave trade, even becoming captain of boats later in his career. He cleaned up his language somewhat, and slowly began to change his life around. At the age of 30 he was forced into retirement from the sea due to health issues and never sailed again.
He returned to living on the land with Polly and began studying theology, immersing himself in the church community and writing about his experiences working in the slave trade. Eventually he would be ordained and would produce one of the most recognizable hymns ever written, the one we sang just a few moments ago, Amazing Grace. An hymn recalling his experience on that stormy night and the words he spoke.
It’s a powerful hymn that we all know very well. Did you know that it’s thought to have over 70 different arrangements for it? There’s the traditional tune we sang this morning. There are some with choruses added, there are different tunes for it, including one to the tune of the theme song for Gilligan’s Island.
It’s been in movies, it’s been recorded by professional artists, some of which have even hit the top 10 of the hit charts.
This song is well known. Yet doesn’t it add a little bit more meaning when you hear the story behind the life of its author?
A vile man who acts about as far away from God as one can get ends up writing the most popular hymn of all time out of his experience during a huge storm that threatened to take his life.
Our reading from Romans this morning talks about the grace and mercy of God. It tells us it’s not about what we do in terms of following rules, we all fail at following the rules. We are all sinners.
But what is important is what we believe. Do we believe that Jesus Christ came and died for us? Do we believe that his blood was spilled for us. Do we believe that it is by our faith and not by our actions we receive such grace and mercy?
It begins with a simple act of faith. For John Newton it began by stating it will only be by God’s mercy they will survive the storm. This simple statement is what began a change in him that would slowly change him from who he was into a great man of faith, a clergyman who would preach the Good News and write the most famous hymn of all time.
So famous that we sing it at almost all our funerals, even at funerals for those who have no faith stories themselves.
What is it about the words we connect so personally to?
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.”
Maybe it’s because we recognize our faults. Maybe it’s because we realize deep down there is a God who loves us, no matter how badly we screw up and are undeserving of such a love. We know we are a wretch in our own way, yet God still will save us with His amazing grace and mercy.
The song starts with acknowledging we are sinners. That we’re all lost at some point in our lives, but through this wonderful Grace offered to us through Jesus Christ, we not only have been found, we are promised great hope. Hope in that we will spend eternity singing our praises to God in His presence.
The Bible is full of people who committed great sins and yet God still used them for great things.
The most obvious example is Paul, the author of the letter to the Romans. He was once a zealous persecutor of the early church, and yet God spoke to him and used him to spread the Gospel to thousands of people across thousands of miles.
In the Old Testament, one need not look far for examples. Adam and Eve started it all in the Garden of Eden. Moses killed an Egyptian. David lusted after a woman so much he had her husband killed. These are just 3 of the many who turned their back on what they knew to be the right decision, yet let their sin control them. And still God loved them and used them.
John Newton was one of the most vile, crude, disgusting sailors on the seas in the 18th century. Yet God took his simple, off the cuff statement in the panic of trying to save his own life and wrote the most famous song of all time.
So often we might find ourselves wondering what will come of our lives. We don’t know for sure what our actions will lead to. Certainly Newton would have never predicted his song to become so popular, in fact he was probably dead before it had spread very far.
Sometimes what we do today may not get the reaction we’d like to see, but it might continue to grow, and who knows what it might look like in another 50 years or more!
God’s timing is not our timing. We cannot pretend to know the will of God fully, but we can do is know that God is with us.
We can know we live in hope that through the life and death of Jesus Christ we receive God’s love, mercy, and grace for all of eternity.
That God can use even people we might consider the scum of the earth and use them to change lives for hundreds of years to come. Just as he did with John Newton and the song he penned.
How sweet the sound of hearing the words inspired by God, telling us that we are His.
In this season of Lent, let us remember the sacrifice God made by sending us His Son to die for us. Pouring out his blood to show he is the God of all people of all places and of all time.
This story of grace and mercy and love sounds pretty sweet to me. I hopeit your to you too. Thanks be to God. Amen.