The Jesus we needed to hear about in 2020

I don’t often confess this to my musical friends, but one of my all-time favourite songwriters was neither a producer of commercial hits nor a writer of traditional folk songs. He was a former slave-trader who later became a Christian minister and one of the most prolific hymn writers of the 18th century. His name was John Newton.

Most people encounter Newton today without realising it, as he is the principal author of the popular hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ But ‘Amazing Grace’ was far from the only hymn he wrote. In fact, when he was the pastor of the church in Olney in Buckinghamshire, he and the poet William Cowper committed themselves to writing a hymn a week, to be taught and sung at their weekly Tuesday night prayer meeting. Many of those who attended would have been illiterate, so Newton and Cowper taught them the lyrics verse by verse. And some of those hymns had a whole lot of verses!

Today is the Feast of the Naming of Jesus. As a Jewish boy, eight days after birth Jesus would have been circumcised as a sign of entering into God’s covenant people, and on this day he would also have been given his name.

Accordingly, the Gospel of Luke tells us that on the eighth day after his birth Mary’s son was circumcised and given the name ‘Jesus’, the name the angel had specified for him. ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Yeshua’, as it would almost certainly have been pronounced by Jewish people at the time) means ‘Yahweh Saves’ (or ‘God to the rescue,’ as I once heard it translated!). Before the time of Jesus, the most famous Israelite with that name would have been Joshua (it’s the same name in Hebrew), who led the Israelite military campaigns when they were occupying the promised land. Indeed, the words ‘save’, ‘salvation’ and ‘saviour’ are most often used in the Old Testament in a military sense.

But I’ve been thinking, on this feast on the Naming of Yeshua, about what his name means for Christians. And in this respect, I find myself thinking of the words of one of John Newton’s hymns. I give them as Newton originally wrote them; today we most often sing a slightly amended version.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

These verses are a wonderful statement of Newton’s faith in Jesus. Newton was an 18th century evangelical, which meant among other things that he had a strong belief in the utter lostness of humanity apart from God, and of the need for atonement for human sin to be made on the Cross of Jesus. One of the sayings of Newton’s old age was ‘I have forgotten many things, but two things I have not forgotten: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.’

So the Jesus in whom Newton put his faith was not so much the wise teacher, the disciple maker who led his followers into a new way of life. This was not a strong emphasis of the 18th century evangelicals, who tended to get their ethical teaching from the epistles rather than the gospels. No—Newton’s Jesus was the Saviour, the one who died for his sins, the one who brought him forgiveness and strength and comfort and peace, the one who soothed his sorrows, healed his wounds, and drove away his fear.

In recent years I’ve often thought that this 18th century evangelical Christ is a severely truncated version of the New Testament original. He tells people to come to him when they are burdened, so that he can give them rest, but he doesn’t very often tell them to sell their possessions and give to the poor, or to love their enemies, or to avoid storing up for themselves treasures on earth. Evangelical Christianity talks about accepting Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, but to be honest, in most cases, the emphasis is on the ‘Saviour’ part.

This may be a weakness, but on the other hand, as we turn the page on 2020 , I find myself thinking that it may be exactly what we needed to hear in this year of pestilence and plague. Most of us went through our days in a constant state of fear. Most of us were carrying much heavier burdens than we were used to. Most of us, when we stopped and took internal stock, discovered a low-level sense of sadness and grief that had become our constant companion, even when we weren’t dominated by it. Many of us were familiar with sorrow, many were tired, and the thought of death was hard to ignore.

So maybe this could have been the evangelical movement’s big moment. Sadly, of course, much of the evangelical movement in North America was paralyzed by several decades of culture wars, leading up to the presidency of Donald Trump. They were obsessed with the appointment of right-wing judges, more restrictions on abortion, restoring school prayer, and the preservation of America’s so-called ‘Christian heritage’ in the face of ever-increasing immigration. There wasn’t much bandwidth left for Jesus the lifter of burdens, the provider of rest for the weary, the healer of wounds and the driver away of fear.

But there’s still time. Vaccines are trickling in, but it will take many months for them to reach enough people to begin to provide herd immunity. There are many months of fear and loneliness and Covid protocols still ahead. So maybe, as we go into this year of our Lord 2021, my evangelical sisters and brothers might consider giving the culture wars a rest, and spending some time with the Gospel message that has historically been the heart of our tradition: that Jesus is the Saviour who soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away our fear, and that the music of his name has the power even to refresh our souls in death.

So let’s sing with John Newton (see below for the very slightly amended words).

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
And drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.