Author Henri Nouwen recalls his visit to a museum in St Petersburg, Russia, where he spent hours reflecting on Rembrandt’s portrayal of the prodigal son. As the day wore on, changes in the natural lighting from a nearby window left Nouwen with the impression that he was seeing as many different paintings as there were changes of light. Each seemed to reveal something else about a father’s love for his broken son.
Nouwen describes how, at about four o’clock, three figures in the painting appeared to “step forward.” One was the older son who resented his father’s willingness to roll out the red carpet for the homecoming of his younger brother the prodigal. After all, hadn’t he squandered so much of the family fortune, causing them pain and embarrassment in the process (Luke 15:28–30).
The other two figures reminded Nouwen of the religious leaders who were present as Jesus told His parable. They were the ones who muttered in the background about the sinners Jesus was attracting (vv. 1–2).
Nouwen saw himself in all of them—in a wasted son, in the condemning older brother and religious leaders, and in a Father’s heart that is big enough for anyone and everyone.
What about us? Can we see ourselves anywhere in Rembrandt’s painting? In some way, every story Jesus told is about us.
The ad brought a smile to my face: “The most comfortable socks in the history of feet.” Then, extending its claim of good news for feet even further, the advertiser said that because socks remain the most requested clothing item at homeless shelters, for every pair of socks purchased the company would donate a pair to someone in need.
Imagine the smile when Jesus healed the feet of a man who hadn’t been able to walk for thirty-eight years (John 5:2–8). Try to figure the opposing look on the faces of the Temple officials who weren’t impressed by Jesus’s care for the feet or heart of someone who had gone without help for so long. They accused the man and Jesus of breaking a religious law that allows no work to be done on the Sabbath (vv. 9–10, 16–17). They saw rules where Jesus saw the need for mercy.
At this point the man didn’t even know who had given him new feet. Only later would he be able to say that it was Jesus who had made him well (vv. 13–15)—the same Jesus who would allow His own feet to be nailed to a tree to offer that man—and us—the best news in the history of broken bodies, minds, and hearts.
The name of Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) is legendary in the world of music. His violins, cellos, and violas are so treasured for their craftsmanship and clarity of sound that many have been given their own names. One of them, for instance, is known as the Messiah-Salabue Stradivarius. After violinist Joseph Joachim (1831–1907) played it, he wrote, “The sound of the Strad, that unique ‘Messie,’ turns up again and again in my memory, with its combined sweetness and grandeur.”
Even the name and sound of a Stradivarius, however, doesn’t deserve to be compared to the work of a far greater Source. From Moses to Jesus, the God of gods introduces himself with a Name above all names. For our sake, He wants the wisdom and work of His own hand to be recognized, valued, and celebrated with the sound of music (Exodus 6:1; 15:1–2).
Yet this deliverance of strength in response to the groans of a troubled people was only prelude. Who could have foreseen that, by the weakness of crucified hands, He would one day leave a legacy of eternal and infinite value? Could anyone have predicted the resulting wonder and grandeur of music sung in praise of the Name of One who died—bearing the insult of our sin and rejection—to show how much He loves us?
On the streets of Los Angeles, a homeless man struggling with addictions stepped into The Midnight Mission and asked for help. Thus began Brian’s long road to recovery.
In the process Brian rediscovered his love for music. Eventually he joined Street Symphony—a group of music professionals with a heart for the homeless. They asked Brian to perform a solo from Handel’s Messiah known as “The People That Walked in Darkness.” In words written by the prophet Isaiah during a dark period of Israel’s history he sang, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isaiah 9:2
The gospel writer Matthew quoted that same passage. Called by Jesus from a life of cheating his fellow Israelites, Matthew describes how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy by taking His salvation “beyond the Jordan” to “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:13–16).
Who would have believed one of Caesar’s tax collector thugs (see Matthew 9:9), a street addict like Brian, or people like us, would get a chance to show the difference between light and darkness in our own lives?
During the Welsh Revivals of the early 20th century, Bible teacher and author G. Campbell Morgan described what he observed. He believed the presence of God’s Holy Spirit was moving on “billowing waves of sacred song.” Morgan wrote that he had seen the unifying influence of music in meetings that encouraged voluntary prayers, confession, and spontaneous singing. If someone got carried away by their feelings and prayed too long, or spoke in a way that didn’t resonate with others, someone would begin to softly sing. Others would gently join in, the chorus swelling in volume until drowning out all other sound.
The renewal in song that Morgan describes has its story in the Scriptures, where music plays a prominent role. Music was used to celebrate victories (Exodus 15:1–21); in worshipful dedication of the temple (2 Chronicles 5:12–14); and as a part of military strategy (2 Chronicles 20:21–23). At the center of the Bible we find a songbook (Psalms 1–150). And in Paul’s New Testament letter to the Ephesians we read this description of life in the Spirit: “[Speak] to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19).
In conflict, in worship, in all of life, the music of our faith can help us find one voice. In harmonies old and new we are renewed again and again, not by might, nor by power, but the Spirit and songs of our God.
According to the U.S. National Census Bureau, Americans move from one address to another an average of eleven to twelve times during the course of a lifetime. In a recent year, 28 million people packed up, moved, and unpacked under a new roof.
During Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, the cloud of God’s presence led a whole family nation to make one move after another in anticipation of a new homeland. The account is so repetitious, it reads almost like a comedy. Over and over the huge family packed and unpacked not only its own belongings but also the tent and furnishings of the tabernacle, where the “God of the cloud” met with Moses (see Exodus 25:22).
Many years later, Jesus would give fuller meaning to the story of Israel’s moving days. Instead of leading from a cloud, He came in person. When He said, “Follow me” (see Matthew 4:19), He began showing that the most important changes of address happen on roads of the heart. By leading both friends and enemies to the foot of a Roman cross, He showed how far the God of the cloud and tabernacle would go to rescue us.
Like changes of address, such moves of the heart are unsettling. But someday, from a window in our Father’s house, we’ll see that Jesus led us all the way.
Caesar Augustus is remembered as the first and greatest of the Roman emperors. By political skill and military power he eliminated his enemies, expanded the empire, and lifted Rome from the clutter of rundown neighborhoods into a city of marble statues and temples. Adoring Roman citizens referred to Augustus as the divine father and savior of the human race. As his 40-year reign came to an end, his official last words were, “I found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble.” According to his wife, however, his last words were actually, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”
What Augustus didn’t know is that he had been given a supporting role in a bigger story. In the shadow of his reign, the son of a carpenter was born to reveal a glory far greater than any Roman military victory, temple, stadium, or palace (Luke 2:1).
But who could have understood the glory Jesus prayed for on the night his countrymen demanded His crucifixion by Roman executioners? (John 17:4–5). Who could have foreseen the hidden wonder of a sacrifice that would be forever applauded in heaven and earth?
It’s quite a story. Our God found us chasing foolish dreams and fighting among ourselves. He left us singing together about an old rugged cross.
In 1936, songwriter Billy Hill released a popular hit song titled “The Glory of Love.” Before long a nation was singing about the joy of doing even little things out of love for one another. Fifty years later, lyricist Peter Cetera wrote a more romantic song with a similar title. He imagined two people living forever, knowing together, they did it all— for the glory of love.
Revelation, the last book in the Bible, describes a new love song that will someday lift the voices of everyone in heaven and earth (Revelation 5:9,13). The music begins, however, in a minor key of mourning. John, our narrator, cries, seeing no answer to all that has gone wrong with the world (vv. 3–4). But his mood brightens and the music builds to a crescendo (vv. 12–13) as John learns the real glory and story of love. Soon he hears all creation praising the powerful Lion-King of Judah (v. 5), who has won the hearts of His subjects by lovingly sacrificing Himself, like a Lamb, for our rescue (v. 13).
In the most moving lyrics ever sung, we see why even simple acts of kindness rise on the wings of a song. The glory we sing about reflects the heart of our God. We sing about Him because He gave us our song.
“See our city the way we do.” A Detroit, Michigan, urban development group used that slogan to launch its vision for the city’s future. But the project came to a sudden stop when members of the community noticed something missing in the campaign. African-Americans make up a large majority of the city’s population and workforce. Yet people of color were absent from the crowd of white faces that showed up on signs, banners, and billboards urging all to “See our city the way we do.”
The countrymen of Jesus also had a blind spot in their vision for the future. As children of Abraham, they were primarily concerned about the future of Jewish people. They couldn’t understand Jesus’s concern for Samaritans, Roman soldiers, or anyone else who didn’t share their family roots, rabbis, or temple worship.
I relate to the blind spots of Detroit and Jerusalem. I too tend to see only people whose life experience I understand. Yet God has a way of bringing about His unity amid our diversity. We are more alike than we realize.
Our God chose a desert nomad by the name of Abram to bring blessing to all the people of the world (Genesis 12:1–3). Jesus knows and loves everyone we don’t yet know or love. Together we live by the grace and mercy of One who can help us see one another, our cities, and His kingdom—as He does.