This lovely hymn comes from the Lutheran tradition: the text was first published in Germany in 1651 to a tune published in 1623 and arranged by Bach in the 1630s. The melody is also used for a Christmas text, and its lullaby-like character makes this hymn one of the gentlest invocations of the Spirit that we have. That very gentleness gives the hymn its power.
--Donna Wessel Walker
O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God, in every need thou bringest aid;
thou comest forth from God’s great throne, from God the Father and the Son;
O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God.
O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God, increase our faith in our dear Lord.
Unless thy grace the power should give, none can believe in Christ and live;
O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God.
O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God, make us to love thy sacred word.
The holy flame of love impart, that charity may warm each heart;
O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God.
O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God, enlighten us by that same word.
Teach us to know the Father’s love, and his dear Son, who reigns above;
O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God.
- Johann Niedling (1602-1668), translated by John Caspar Mates (1876-1948), alt.
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Lord, you have been our refuge *
from one generation to another.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.
3 You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."
4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.
6 In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.
13 Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry? *
be gracious to your servants.
14 Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; *
so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.
15 Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us *
and the years in which we suffered adversity.
16 Show your servants your works *
and your splendor to their children.
17 May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; *
prosper the work of our hands;
prosper our handiwork.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
There has been a lot of talk recently about people who say they are “Spiritual, just not religious.” That is, they have an interest in God and holiness and amorphous mystery on a personal, individual basis; but they are not at all interested in communities of people with similar interests because that would require them to take these other people and their opinions and problems seriously, and really, who has time for that? Put another way, they are happy to love the God whom they cannot see but they do not wish to get too involved with the neighbors whom they can see.
This is, unsurprisingly, not a new problem in the history of humankind. We have always had a self-justifying desire to decide exactly who it is we are obliged by God to be nice to; and how nice, exactly, we have to be to get credit. In today’s Gospel lesson, we read the end of a long section in Matthew where the Pharisees and Sadducees conspire to trip Jesus up and get him in trouble with the Romans.
Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows; the Pharisees and Sadducees cooperating makes absolutely no sense at all; but these folks are determined to keep Jesus from upsetting their very settled and profitable way of life. In the few verses prior to our text the Sadducees had tried a silly question about the Resurrection which Jesus easily rebuffed and now the Pharisees take their turn with a poser about the commandments.
This is not a question about the Ten Commandments; they are talking about the ongoing Hebrew theological tradition that numbers the commandments in the hundreds, some say 613, and then argues about which is the most important or most pivotal commandment. In response, Jesus does two things. First he answers their question with a very serious theological opinion, siting Deuteronomy 6:5 and our lesson from Leviticus, 19:18, tying them together as the greatest commandment. Then he politely shuts them up with a riddle from Psalm 110. “If the Messiah is David’s son (descendant), how can he also be David’s master?” is an unanswerable question, somewhat akin to “which came first, the chicken or the egg.” The crowd is delighted with Jesus’ wit, realizing he has just told the Pharisees, “Look, two can play at this game, and this time, I win.”
G.K. Chesterton once joked: Jesus commanded us to love both our neighbors and our enemies because they are generally the same folk – this is not at all easy. It is not simply a matter of being nice and getting along. It is hard work. It involves getting beyond our likes and dislikes, it involves hanging in with individuals and communities when the going gets tough, it involves self-sacrifice and devotion even you’re not “getting anything out of,” the relationship. It involves taking the neighbor seriously as a child of God who deserves our respect and care. It involves being religious as well as spiritual.
This is why Jesus hangs loving God together with loving the neighbor. Loving God can be easy. God is away off there somewhere. We can define God in such a way that God is not responsible for any of the pain of discomfort we experience in life. That way, we don’t ever have to be angry with or resentful of God.
We can love God with an easy conscience because we don’t expect anything from God and God doesn’t expect anything from us and such a spiritual love will never intrude upon the very earthly, confusing messiness of our lives.
But if, as Jesus says, loving God and loving our neighborly enemies are tightly bound and inseparably linked co-commandments; then we are forced to deal with love in the real world of people who are imperfect and incomplete, people who are at times undeserving of our affection or unresponsive to it; people who are sometimes incapable of loving us back. And, we have to live out our love for God in a world of people who also sometimes care about us when we don’t really care to be cared about. It is, as I said, a bit confusing and messy.
The people who say they are spiritual but not religious have spoken more truth than they realize. “Spirit” is formless, wispy, barely there. It is so indistinct and disembodied that one doesn’t really have to deal with it. It is more feeling and impression than anything else. On the other hand, the root of “religious” is ligare which is also the French root of ligament. You can’t get much more earthy than that. Ligare mean to tie to or to tie back. Ligaments connect muscle to the bone; religion ties us to God and one another.
Those who seek to be spiritual without being religious believe they can float free of the ties that bind, feel good about God and be confident that God feels good about them. A willingness to be religious indicates an awareness that an amorphous, spiritual Godlikeness would not have plunged interferingly into the midst of our pain and suffering. Rather, it took a God of compassion to, quite mysteriously and inexplicably, give up whatever it means to be divine and plunge headlong into the muck of our lives.
God in Christ took on ligaments and sinews and walked among us and suffered among us and died among us and with us and for us. God in Christ was raised from the dead and draws us together, ties us together, as the Body of Christ, held together by ligaments of love and sinews of service. And we, the tied together Body of Christ in the world, are called to the task loving God, most especially by loving our neighbors and enemies in God’s stead and in God’s name.