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Jesus, Refuge of the Weary

Pastor James F. Wright


St John Lutheran Church  
Champaign, IL

Wed, Mar 10, 1999 

Sermon on Hymn 90 in Lutheran Worship, written by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1458)

This hymn was written by a Dominican monk who lived a generation before Martin Luther. His name was Girolamo Savonarola. He was a bold preacher of repentance. He rebuked the people for their sins, and even those of the extravagant popes. It is said that he preached that men are not saved by their own good works or by indulgences, but by the grace of God, through Christ, and that really good works are found only where the heart has been regenerated.

He also held that he was a special divinely inspired prophet. He believed he was chosen by God to reform not only the church, but also the government as well. These beliefs went beyond the command of God, and led to his demise and death.

Through his preaching his popularity grew. A rich man named Lorenzo de Medici brought him to the church in Florence, Italy. Michaelangelo, the great sculptor, often listened to his sermons there.

People began to put into practice his moral, religious, and political ideals. He urged that the city of Florence be made a theocracy and that Jesus Christ be proclaimed King and ruler of the city. Teenagers followed him in mobs and crusaded against luxury and immorality. It is said that they would search homes for expensive items, even musical instruments, which they confiscated. People read the Bible and went to church instead of the usual entertainment of sports and theater productions. Business people returned what they had gained illegally. Cards, dice, jewelry, cosmetic, wigs, and lewd pictures were gathered and burned.

His popularity did not last, however. When some of his predictions failed, public tide turned against him. He denouncements of the papal excesses made enemies with the pope. In the city people rioted and eventually a mob took him prisoner. He was condemned to be tortured, hanged and burned.

He wrote this hymn, Jesus, Refuge of the Weary.

In the first verse we are introduced to Jesus, who is a refuge to which we can always turn. We think of the psalms which proclaim God as our refuge and strength, an ever present help in time of trouble. Jesus is a fountain to which people wander out of the desert to find, their mouths parched with thirst. Jesus is the object of our devotion and love, for he is love made perfect. Jesus is our Savior, one who comes down from the world above.

Many religions speak of enlightened individuals who make journeys to heaven and there see wonderful things. They come back down to earth and relate these heavenly visions. This is common to the teachings about Mohammed, Buddha, and other religious prophets. Here Christianity is different. Christians do not turn their attention to a human being who goes to heaven and then returns with special knowledge. Christians worship the God who comes down from heaven to do something, that is, to be a savior. He teaches us not so much about heaven, but about himself and what he will do for us. He saves us.

The verse goes on to imagine the eyes of God looking down on us. His eyes see the sinnerís fall. God sees our failures. He sees the sins we do in private. He sees the evil thoughts in our minds that no one else can see. We can hide nothing from God.

Imagine how you might react if you could see every thought about those you love. Your spouse, parents, children. How offended we would be if we knew all the bad thoughts people may have about us. We filter these out and we learn not to say them to other people, but we do think them.

God sees all these thoughts in us. He knows us better than we know ourselves. How does he react when he looks upon us in this sinful and broken condition? This does not cause him to leave us, offended and angry. He wants to help us. He comes down to the cross and dies there, bearing the pain of death we all deserved. How truly loving God is. He loves us enough to help us. No price is too high for him to pay for us. We sing verse 1.

Jesus, refuge of the wary, Blest redeemer, whom we love,

Fountain in lifeís desert dreary, Savior from the world above:

Often have your eyes, offended, Gazed upon the sinnerís fall;

Yet upon the cross extended, You have borne the pain of all.

Seeing how much God loves us, how do we react to that? When you look up here to the altar and see the love of God depicted in the crucifix, what do you think. A nice decoration? Many people find the death depicted there offensive, depressing. So crosses have been removed from many churches. But God would have us see something different. We see there not just suffering and death, but love. Jesus loves us enough to die for us.

What happens to us when we see this symbol of Godís love for us. Do we pass the cross unaffected? Many wear crosses and crucifixes as just decoration today, from rock stars to professional wrestlers. The cross seems to have no effect on what they do.

When we see the cross we ought to be overcome with humility. This is what it took to make us right with God. We see Jesus wounded, bleeding. We see the crown of thorns on his head, the mockery of his executioners. We ought to breathe a repentant vow. We say to God, "Lord, I am truly sorry at what my sins caused you to do, but I am thankful that you did it for me."

This is no ancient medieval symbol of a faith forgotten. This crucifixion is our only hope for eternal life, for peace, and for rest from our labor to meet Godís standard of perfect holiness. When we are troubled by our sins, the only thing that can ease our anxiety about our guilt is this picture of Jesus dying for us.

No amount of counseling, exercise, spiritual centering, or any of the latest stress reduction technique can give us the peace that the crucifixion of Jesus imparts. For this we are eternally thankful. We sing verse 2.

Do we pass that cross unheeding, Breathing no repentant vow,

Though we see you wounded, bleeding, See your thorn-encircled brow?

Yet your sinless death has brought us Life eternal, peace, and rest;

Only what your grace has taught us Calms the sinnerís deep distress.

When Jesus met with two disciple who were walking on Easter day to a little town named Emmaus, he withheld his identity from them until the moment he departed. Later they remarked, "Didnít our hearts burn within us as he spoke with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?"

We get that same feeling when we think about and meditate on what Jesus did for us. Our hearts burn with love for a God who loves us more than we love ourselves. When we read the Bible and see first of all how short we fall of living a holy life, the law works on us to make us sorry for our sins. We also see in the Bible the picture of this loving God, who sent his beloved Son to death rather than send us.

In the third verse Savonarola teaches us to pray to Jesus that he may cause our hearts to burn with love for him. God, make our eyes always turn to look at your cross, the symbol of perfect love. Keep doing this until our dying day, and then bring us through death to be with you. Let us stand next to Jesus, our savior. Let the cross be not merely a symbol on the covers of our Bibles, a decoration hanging on the walls, dangling as jewelry from our ears lobes and around our necks. Donít let your holy cross be just a statue on our altars, without having a deep impact on our hearts. Put your cross in our hearts. The word graven means an engraving, a sculpture. Weíre asking God to carve the cross right into our hearts. Donít let there be a moment in our lives where we are not looking to the cross. Let everything we do, think, feel and say be directed by the love of God made known in the cross of Calvary. Let us live in the love of Jesus, and never take it away from us. More importantly, never let us live without your love, O God most holy. We sing verse 3.

Jesus, may our hearts be burning With more fervent love for you:

May our eyes be every turning To behold your cross anew

Till in glory, parted never From the blessed Saviorís side,

Graven in our heats forever, Dwell the cross, the Crucified.

Hymn text copyright 1981 Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, used by permission.



Copyright © 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.



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