David Johnson

(Transcribed from a message delivered at the Sellersburg Church of Christ)

You know, every time that we meet, it is an opportunity for worship. We do worship in many different ways, but perhaps you haven’t thought about it. When we have a song service we spend more time in congregational, audible participation in worship. We sing more. We have more hymns. We are worshipping the Lord. We are lifting up our voices, our hearts and we should also be focusing on the messages of the hymns. They have content and their context is primarily from Scripture.

And as I was thinking about this and this opportunity to worship once again together in a congregational way and with more of us participating in that we spend more time audibly praising the Lord in case of worship, you can praise the Lord in prayer. You can praise the Lord in other ways, but also with these beautiful hymns you have to have a real relationship with the Lord before you can truly worship whether in song or in any fashion or way.

So, as is my custom, we are going to do a devotional on a hymn in our song book, a hymn that, perhaps, means a lot to us. We shall see this hymn. The message based on Scripture and a hymn of worship. No one knows about that day. There is a hymn in our song books that perfectly fits this theme of no one knowing about that day and, in fact, it is based on Mark chapter 13 and verse 35 specifically, which illustrates this.

In Mark chapter 13 verse 35 Jesus said, “Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back, whether in the evening or at midnight or when the rooster crows or at dawn,” illustrating that no one knows the specific time, the specific hour, whether it is evening, midnight, when the rooster crows, or at dawn. Do you know which hymn it is? The title of the hymn is It May be at Morn. We also know it as Christ Returneth. Do you remember that hymn? It is a beautiful hymn with a wonderful message. There is an amazing thing about this hymn as we shall see, and hopefully we will sing this with heart and with passion whenever we sing it and others will join us. All things are possible with God.

Mark chapter 13 and verse 35 in the King James Version which is closer to what the writer of the hymn probably had in mind when he wrote this and we will see something about that in a minute, but in the King James Version it goes like this, that one verse, Mark 13:35. “Watch ye, therefore, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even or at midnight or at the cock crowing or in the morning.”

The hymn begins, “It may be at morn when the day is awaking, when sunlight through darkness and shadow is breaking.” The words are really beautiful words, beautiful phraseology, a poetic way—obviously in English—a poetic way of saying much the same as we don’t know about that day, whether it is at evening, at midnight, when the rooster crows or at dawn, because the second stanza says, “It may be at midday, it may be at twilight. It may be, perchance, that the blackness of midnight will burst into light,” meaning that the master’s return, the Lord’s return can happen at any time according to the will of God the Father, according to God the Father’s time table.

And notice an interesting thing here, that in Scripture whether you are reading from the NIV version or from the King James Version, whichever translation you use, it refers to four specific times as possibilities of that time when the Lord will return, when the master will come. No one knows about that day, but it refers to four specific times, illustrating, of course, that no one knows exactly the hour or the day, the specific time of the second coming of Christ, which is what we are talking about.

But the gospel writer, in this case, the evangelist Mark, is referring to and illustrating four different times and he is using the four watches of the night used by the Romans. The Roman guards, when they had guard duty during the hours of the darkness, the first watch was called evening and was six to 9 PM. The second watch was called midnight and that was from 9 PM to midnight. The third watch ended when the rooster crowed, which was midnight to 3 AM, and the fourth watch, referred to as dawn, was from 3 AM to 6 AM. These were the four Roman three hour watches of the night in totality from 6 PM to 6 AM, four three hour watches. And the names of these times by Mark are identified at the ends of each of these three hour watches, evening, midnight, when the rooster crows, and at dawn.
You understand the Jews only had three watches during the night. So what is the point? It is illustrating from Mark and it is brought through also in the hymn, It May be at Morn, by the writer, that the master’s second coming can happen at any time, suddenly. And, therefore, Christ said, “I say to everyone…” What? Watch! Now that includes us. Has he come back yet? Absolutely not. So we are still waiting and we are still watching. And we are not only waiting and watching, what are we doing in the meantime while we are waiting and watching? Worshipping. We worship him.

And so we wait, we watch, we continue to worship him. They hymn Christ Returneth specifically refers, if you look at all of the words in all of the stanzas, to the returning of Christ in the air. We believe that there are two phases of the second coming of Christ. If you read all of the verses, all of the words of… notice, when Jesus receives his what? His own. He is talking about when Jesus returns in the air and catches up his saints. Jesus is going to come in the air first and he is coming for his saints and then some time later Jesus is going to come back with his saints and come to the earth. Remember, there are two aspects of the second coming of Christ: He returns FOR the saints before he returns WITH his saints. This should not be something that is hard to understand. How can the second coming have two phases to it? Because that is what Scriptures indicate. That is our interpretation of it. And it is an interpretation. It is what we call the pre-tribulation, pre-millennial return of Christ. When Jesus was raised from the dead he went to the Father and then he returned and he was with his own for some 40 days and then he left again. There were two phases of that. There was his resurrection. There was a period of time and then there was his what? His ascension. There were two aspects, his return to life, or his resurrection from the dead. then he spent some time with his people and then he ascended to heaven and so there were those two aspects. So having two aspects of his coming again should not be all that alien to our minds.

But there is a most interesting back story which fittingly is connected to this hymn which none of us would know unless we really dug and looked this up. If you look in your hymn book under the number on the left hand side it gives us the author of the lyrics, or the words, of the hymn. On the right hand side at the top of the page is the author of the tune, of the melody, of the music. They are obviously different in this case. Sometimes they are the same. But here we see that the words, the lyrics are attributed to H. L. Turner. Here is the interesting thing. Nobody knows exactly with any verification who H. L. Turner is. That is why we know hardly anything about this hymn. There are a lot of guesses as to who H. L. Turner is. But nobody knows for sure. It is an unknown author by this name or these initials, H. L. And it may even be, some surmise, it may even be a pseudonym for someone, someone well known, but using a pseudonym that is not his actual name. No one knows. We do know that the words to this hymn were copyrighted in 1877. We also know that the song was first published in 1878, but notice the intriguing irony here, which was perhaps intended, no one knows the precise time, about that day. It may have been at morn. No one knows the precise date of origin. I am not talking about the copyright date or the publishing date of this hymn. I am referring to the original origin when it was written and no one knows who penned the words, just as no one knows the date or time of the return of Christ, whether it will be at morn, at evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows at dawn. Was this perhaps intended by the writer?

And yet this hymn and Scripture, obviously, does cause us to think seriously regarding the reality of the second coming of Christ. We need to be watching. Jesus admonishes believers to be watching, to be waiting, to be worshipping.

David Johnson is minister of the Sellersburg Church of Christ, Sellersburg, IN

1 It may be at morn, when the day is awaking,
When sunlight through darkness and shadow is breaking,
That Jesus will come in the fullness of glory,
To receive from the world His own.

O Lord Jesus, how long, how long
Ere we shout the glad song,
Christ returneth!
Hallelujah! hallelujah!
Amen. Hallelujah! Amen.

2 It may be at midday, it may be at twilight,
It may be, perchance, that the blackness of midnight
Will burst into light in the blaze of His glory,
When Jesus receives His own. (Refrain)

3 While hosts cry Hosanna, from heaven descending,
With glorified saints and the angels attending,
With grace on His brow, like a halo of glory,
Will Jesus receive His own. (Refrain)

4 O joy! O delight! should we go without dying,
No sickness, no sadness, no dread and no crying.
Caught up through the clouds with our Lord into glory,
When Jesus receives His own. (Refrain)