The other Sunday morning we sang the well-known hymn ‘O Jesus, I have promised’, and to my utter embarrassment I found tears coming to my eyes. Over the years I must have sung this hymn scores of times. In Baptist churches it is a hymn often sung at baptismal services, yet never before I have found myself so deeply moved. Why then did I find it so emotionally disturbing that Sunday?
It was the very first line which ‘got’ to me: “O Jesus I have promised to serve thee to the end”, a line which in the version we sang appears again in the third line of the fifth verse. It reminded me of the day of my own baptism when at the age of thirteen I ‘nailed my colours to the mast’ and publicly gave my life to Jesus, who had given his life for me. That was a deeply significant occasion. At the time we were as a family living in Switzerland and I was baptised in the main Baptist church in Zurich, not far from the river Limmat in which the great sixteenth-century Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli had drowned hundreds of Anabaptist women and on whose shores he had burnt hundreds of Anabaptist men. I was very conscious that in being baptized I was joining a company of Christians of whom many had suffered dreadfully for their faith.
Yet why did the words of the hymn affect me so deeply? Was it because I had been deeply upset by the appalling suffering of the people of Ukraine? Was this which gave the hymn a surprising potency? Or was it that I had been reflecting on the many people who had suffered during the two years of the pandemic? In the days leading up to the Sunday I had been writing about how so many had yet to properly grieve. Or was it because at the stage of life I have reached I am now more conscious of my own mortality – and that ‘the end’ is now so much nearer than when I first promised to serve Jesus? Or it may have been a combination of all three factors.
Significantly, the word which jumped out in particular for me was the word “serve”. I was reminded that the promise I had made over 65 years ago had still to be kept. Over the years I had put my heart and soul into serving Jesus: as a missionary in the Congo, as a minister of two local churches, and as a principal of a theological college. But retirement marks not the end of active service, only a new phase. In that regard I remember a former church treasurer who in the context of a Sunday morning service of all places stood up and said that now that he had retired, he had done his ‘bit’ for Christ! Poor man, he was totally mistaken. However, to return to my experience the other Sunday, I found myself reflecting on how I might continue to “serve” Jesus “to the end”. The promise I made in baptism to die to self and live for him still needs to be kept.
Since that Sunday I have ‘researched’ the hymn and discovered that it was written by John Ernest Bode (1816-1874), who at the time was vicar of the small Anglican parish of Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire. He wrote ‘O Jesus I have promised’ in 1866 for the occasion when his daughter and two sons were to be confirmed. He told his children: “I have written a hymn concerning all the important truths I want you to remember”. It is said that they never forgot that service nor their faither’s concern for their spiritual well-being. Two years later the hymn was published as a leaflet by SPCK with the heading, ‘Hymn for the newly Confirmed’. It became so popular that in 1933 Percy Dearmer, editor of the English Hymnal, noted: “Bishops have been known to implore their clergy that this hymn should not be sung at all the confirmations they attend”!
I also discovered that the hymn is based on John 12.26 where Jesus following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem said to his disciples: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will be my servant also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.” As my own father wrote in his Word commentary on John: “Christ draws men [and women] to fellowship with himself, alike in suffering and in fellowship with God”. Following Jesus can be tough – but as the hymn reminds us, Jesus has also made a promise to those who promised to follow him to the end:
O Jesus, those hast promised to all who follow thee,
that where thou are in glory there shall they servant be.
Would that all of us were more moved by the wonder of Jesus’ amazing promise!