Tonight we are doing what God intended us to do since before the world began, and that is to praise him.
The poet Christina Rosetti wrote this prayer:
Tune me, O Lord,
into one harmony
With thee, one full
responsive vibrant chord;
Unto thy praise, all love
Tune me, O Lord.
If that is your prayer, if your heart’s desire is to be tuned to God’s praise, then what better harmony to sing than the Te Deum, one of the best and oldest hymns of the church? The Te Deum was first composed in the 5th century, or perhaps earlier. Its glorious theme is stated in its opening line: “We praise Thee, O God.”
The Te Deum has a long and noble history in the church. Its precise origins are shrouded in mystery, but by Medieval times it had become a familiar hymn all over the Christian world. Although it was written to be sung daily in church, it was often sung on auspicious occasions like the coronation of a king. It was sung, for example, when Richard II was crowned King of England, and William Shakespeare included it as part of the victory celebration in Henry V.
During the last millennium, many great men have tried their hand at writing music for the Te Deum. Some have been great composers, like the musicians who wrote the music the choir is singing tonight: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and John Rutter. Others have been famous hymn writers, like Charles Wesley and Augustus Toplady. Still others have been theologians like Martin Luther or preachers like George Whitefield.
But what makes the Te Deum a great hymn is not its history, but its text, which comes from the Bible. The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck observed that “All of Scripture is a Te Deum.” In other words, the whole Bible is written to the praise and glory of God. Everything in the Old and New Testaments shows that God is worthy of our highest praise. All of Scripture is a Te Deum.
We might also say, however, that all of the Te Deum is Scripture. For nearly every phrase in this great hymn comes from the Bible, either directly or indirectly. Some of the biblical texts are familiar, like the “Holy, holy, holy” from the prophet Isaiah; or the verse about Christ removing death’s sting, which comes from 1 Corinthians 15; or the last several lines of the piece, which all come from the Psalms. One of the best ways to praise God is to use his very own words to do it, which is what we do when we sing the Te Deum.
The text of the Te Deum is drawn from various parts of the Bible, sewn together in such a way as to summarize the whole of Christian doctrine. The hymn falls into three major parts, which can be seen most clearly in the translation from the Book of Common Prayer, which is printed on the second page of tonight’s program.
The first part is a hymn of praise to the Triune God. Praise is given to “the Father everlasting,” to the “true and only Son,” and to “the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.” Angels, apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all Christians everywhere join in a crescendo of praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. This is the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, that the one true God exists in three persons. It is impossible for us fully to explain that mystery, but we can believe it, and we can praise God for it.
The second part of the Te Deum is a hymn of praise to God the Son, “the King of Glory,” also called Jesus Christ. It is appropriate to single him out for praise because he is the Savior, the one who came into the world to save fallen humanity.
The hymn mentions nearly all the important doctrines about Christ: his incarnation, crucifixion, ascension, and second coming at the end of the world. For in these lines, Jesus is identified as both God the eternal Son and the human son of the Virgin Mary. He is described as the giver of eternal life and the King of heaven. It is promised that he will come again to judge the world. Best of all, it is remembered that Jesus redeemed his people by his own precious blood, the blood he shed when he was crucified.
The Te Deum then closes with a series of petitions, asking God for his salvation, praying for his deliverance and begging for his mercy. These petitions probably were the last lines added to the Te Deum. They include the verse I want to focus on tonight, which comes from the psalm we read earlier. Psalm 33:21: In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. This verse shows that praise for God comes from those who trust in God.
Without this verse the Te Deum would be incomplete, for in it God is personally embraced. The first two parts of the hymn explain who God is and what he has done in human history. He is the one true God, who made the world and everything in it. He sent his only Son to become a man, to die for sins, and then to rule over heaven and earth. These facts are all true; yet they make no difference to me unless I come to God directly to receive the gift of his salvation.
That is why the end of the Te Deum is so important. For it is in the closing lines of the hymn that we come directly to God and ask him to save us: “O Lord save thy people… . Lord, have mercy upon us. O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us, as our trust is in thee.”
There is a great difference between acknowledging that God exists and knowing him in a personal way. Most people believe in the existence of God. There is a billboard out on the Schuylkill Expressway that says, “I don’t question your existence.” The billboard is signed by God. The point is that there is no good reason to question God’s existence, as people sometimes do. Deep down, whether they admit it to others or not, and whether they like him very much or not, most people believe that there is a God.
Believing in the mere existence God is not enough, however. It is not enough to give meaning to life. It is not enough to bring joy and peace to my heart. It is not enough to heal the wounds of my soul. It is not enough to bring me into a living relationship with God. And it is certainly not enough to assure me that I will live with him forever in heaven.
Perhaps an illustration will help. I happen to believe in the existence of Wolfgang Sawallisch, the famous conductor of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra. I have read about Mr. Sawallisch in the newspaper. I have heard him on television. I have even seen him in person, conducting concerts at the Academy of Music. I have no doubts whatsoever about the existence of Wolfgang Sawallisch.
What I do happen to doubt is whether my firm and heartfelt belief in his existence would do me very much good if I were to show up on his doorstep. “Wolfgang!” I would say. “Lovely to see you!” Would Mr. Sawallisch invite me into his home? I doubt it. Instead, he would politely but firmly send me on my way. And rightly so! Nor would it do me very much good to protest that I believe in his existence. The fact is that Sawallisch and I are not friends, so there would be no reason for him to welcome me into his home.
It is the same with God, of course. Do you think that he is pleased with the bare acknowledgment of his existence? He is the God who made the universe out of nothing. He rules over the heavens and earth. Of course he exists!
But it takes more than simply believing in God’s existence to have a relationship with him. God wants to have a friendship with us. That is why he has reached out to us in love through Jesus Christ. Now he invites us to respond to his love. He offers friendship to all those and to those only who trust in Jesus to save them.
That is why the Te Deum would not be complete without its closing prayer, especially in the translation by Walter Rodby: “We praise thee, Lord, and put our trust in thee.” When I put my trust in the Lord Jesus, then the God of creation and salvation becomes my own God.
I mentioned earlier that this verse comes from Psalm 33. Like the Te Deum, that psalm begins with God’s praises:
Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the LORD with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy (Ps. 33:1-3).
We learn from this that praising God is a noisy business, involving all kinds of instruments, singing, and even shouting. The psalm calls for something more than noise, however. It calls for music. Those who play must play skillfully, tuning their instruments to God’s praise.
It would seem that this song is for everyone. It is for musicians, obviously, who know how to coax a melody from a harp or lyre. It is for singers, too, for anyone who can carry a tune. But even if you are tone deaf, you can probably at least shout. So everyone is invited to join in God’s praises.
But understand that the only people who praise God properly are those who trust in him. By the end of the psalm, we discover that it is explicitly for those who have come to God in faith. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you (v. 21-22).
Anyone can sing the words, “We praise thee, O God.” But if you actually want to praise God, you have to know who God is, and you have to know him as your God. Those who praise God best are those who trust him most.
Tonight I want to ask how things stand between you and God. Are you praising him? Do you trust him?
One way to figure out if you have a saving relationship with God is to answer one very important question: Imagine what would happen if you were to die tonight (it could happen, you know) and to meet God face to face. If then he were to ask you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say? “Why should I let you into my heaven?” If God were to ask you that question, what answer would you give?
You might tell God that you have tried to live a good life. You love your family. You’re kind to animals. You do volunteer work. You’re nice to strangers. You go to church, sometimes. You’ve never committed a felony. You’re a pretty good person… a lot better than most people, in fact.
The problem with that answer is that God does not grade on a curve. His standard is perfect obedience, not only in outward actions, but also in inward thoughts. By that standard, you do not measure up. No one does. We are full of pride, greed, lust, anger, envy, and a hundred other deadly sins.
If you want God to let you into his heaven, what you really need is a perfect life, which, unfortunately, you do not have. Your own life, as good as it may seem, just does not measure up.
So what can you say to God? What answer will satisfy him?
There is only one answer God will actually accept. It goes something like this:
Lord, I’m not sure why you should let me into your heaven, or even if you should let me in at all. The truth is, I’m not a very good person. I’m not even as nice as people think I am. I’m what you call a sinner. But I’ve heard that you sent your Son—the one they call Jesus—to save sinners. And I believe that he died on the cross for my sins. Will you please accept his perfect life in the place of my imperfect one?”
God’s answer to that prayer is always “Yes!” The way to get into God’s heaven is to confess that you are a sinner and to believe in Christ as your Savior. If you have faith in Jesus Christ, then you are God’s true friend, and he will welcome you to his eternal home.
And if you have faith in Jesus Christ, then the Te Deum is your song. It was meant to be sung on grand occasions, like the one we are having tonight.
Tonight is a grand occasion for the choir, to be able to sing such wonderful music accompanied by such fine musicians. It can be a grand occasion for you as well, if only you will say, “I praise Thee, O God,” and then make this prayer your own:
Lord, have mercy upon me.
O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon me, as my trust is in thee.
Lord, in thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded.
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