After a long time away from the blogosphere, during which much has changed in my life, I am returning to public writing with renewed vigour, praising God for His work in my life. And while I have no intentions of hamfisting my way through rose-coloured notions of ‘new beginnings,’ I do want to ‘pick up my pen’ with regards to the idea of ‘newness’ – and this Biblical notion of a ‘new song.’
Earlier this year I was given a challenge – to preach a sermon on the ‘song ideas’ of Revelation chapters 5, 15 and 19. I hung the sermon on a peg – the peg being an exploration of the notion of ‘doxology.’
This is one of my favourite words in the whole world, but one which I do not plan to unpack right now…
As ever, there are a lot of things we juggle in reading the Bible. John the author of Revelation is telling us about something the he saw happening in heaven. Chapter 5 is SUCH an important chapter for all those in worship ministries – and in verse 9 we are told that a ‘new’ song is sung unto the Lamb – for He alone is worthy.
Although I grew up with classical music and as a classical musician, it was my own choice to side-step to jazz and gospel music at the age of 19. However, earlier in my teens a certain ground-breaking gospel album had been released – this one:
I had always wanted to stage a performance of this entire album one day, as some of the musical thinking exhibited was quite fantastic and in some ways this album would prove to be ahead of its time. But this is where things get interesting: of the 53 ‘movements’ in Handel’s original, this album contains just 16 – and if you don’t know the album, guess what the final track is:
That’s right, the Hallelujah Chorus.
Forget contemporary gospel re-arrangements of sacred European baroque music – pretty much all of the Messiah lovers right across the cultural/racial spectrum that I have met think that this really should have been the final movement of this oratorio. Whatever you believe, this piece is massive. And for the producers and visionaries behind the Soulful Messiah, this was the only way they were going to close out that album.
But when you think that way, you miss something.
One of the most formative moments in my conducting studies came when we were studying and rehearsing this work in class. Our Grammy Award-winning teacher Simon Halsey explained to us how, as the years had passed, he had finally reached the conclusion that Part 3 of Messiah was the most important part of the whole thing. Here’s what you (may) need to fill in the blank: Messiah is in 3 parts (surprise, surprise) and the Hallelujah Chorus is no. 44 – the final movement of Part 2!
But it gets more interesting. On Soulful Messiah, no. 15 is I Know that My Redeemer Liveth – unquestionably one of the most famous arias of the work. And where is that Handel’s original? No. 45, the first movement of Part 3.
Now, some of you may be wondering what the point of all this actually is. OK, so these gospel guys, working almost exactly 250 years later than Handel decided to swap a few things round in their gospel version. So what? It’s still really respectful, innit? Does it matter? The point is that Jesus lives and achieved the victory over sin and death! That’s the point! We want people to go home with that message, don’t we?
This may seem like a digression, but I assure you it is not. Stay with me. So, growing up and getting into music and going to more and more classical music concerts as a schoolboy, whenever there was an encore, it was often much more laid back and introspective than the final tempestuous, virtuosic shakedown that often characterised the final piece of the programme. Orchestral and choral concerts would not feature encores, but chamber music concerts would, especially solo recitals.
For some reason, as I began to become professionally established as a bandleader and music director, I began to make a habit of not making my final piece big, bold and brassy. Before I even knew how to articulate this fact, I was trying to leave my audience with something to think about as they left the venue. And as time passed, I realised what the instinct within me (for which I can only credit the Almighty) was pointing me towards and as I morphed from being primarily a jazz pianist into being primarily a gospel choral director, I was building sets where the last piece was a serious reflection on the incredible goodness of God, and not a fast-moving gospel romp with ‘phat’ harmonies and heavy action from the rhythm section. And lots of black Christians really did not like this – including in my own church!
Handel really was a genius. I’m a dude with some serious talent, but no genius. But I believe that the same instinct calls all earnest musicians to the best level of thought – right across genres and cultural boundaries and anything else that divides space and time. And when I look at the theology in the texts and musical settings in Part 3 of Messiah, I see something much more profound than could ever be the case if we ended with the Hallelujah Chorus.
Forgetting music for a second – the gospel message is frequently sold as a groove in which Jesus’ death on the cross means that we don’t have to die for our sins. So yeah, we should try to be good and all, ’cause sin’s not cool. But if you sin, it’s not the end ’cause God’s grace is amazing.
And all too often, that’s where it stops. But the gospel does not end with a lovely panegyric on God’s grace – it ends with the truth that Jesus is coming back one day and when He does, SIN will END!
This is the message of the book of Revelation. The Second Coming of Jesus is only possible because He came the first time and succeeded in His mission of redemption for the entire human race! And so it is all the more serious that the theological journey in that original Messiah takes us beyond the Passion and Resurrection to the supreme manifestation of worship and praise to the Son of God in Revelation Chapter 5. What is the final movement of Part 3 entitled? Worthy is the Lamb – with text from Revelation Chapter 5.
The redeemed of the Lord will sing a new song, a song of Moses and the Lamb. But here’s the thing: do we need to wait to get to heaven to sing a new song? Or can we begin to sing some new songs of our own here on earth – a ‘rehearsal’ for heaven, if your mind can handle that idea?
I’m sorry, but the fact that there is a greater reality beyond the Cross itself – but one made possible by what happened on the Cross – that is just the biggest idea ever. And that’s why Handel recognises this by blowing up the show with the Hallelujah Chorus, only to then immediately use that famous Joban text I Know that My Redeemer Liveth (from the KJV of course) and take us to the book of Revelation, and a deeper, more subtle and more glorious praise ending. And this theology is just lost when you follow the Soulful Messiah programme!
And this is why to do the work of a Levite requires that you know your Bible as well as your life allows and be as theologically literate as is feasible…
I know this much – as I stand on the threshold of the most serious ministry project I have ever been asked to undertake due to the fact that it requires me to drive the agenda for music and worship for an entire church conference spanning half a country, I am not planning to work to the musical standards of what has become the norm in that conference. I am refusing to allow the limitations of our church musicians and singers to dictate the standard I should be aiming for in my own musical practice. In fact, I have never been more determined to make the most of the musical talent that God has given me and some of what I intend to do even in the next twelve months – including conducting my very first full-length Messiah with choir, soloists and orchestra – simply cannot be achieved with my own church members, because we have not sown seeds that make such a harvest possible. But inspired as I am and will continue to be by the great master composers of both past and present eras, I also know that I am called to express and articulate the gospel in my own compositions and arrangements, many of which will require performing abilities that very, very few people in my church conference possess.
But I also see young people whose talent for music may not be especially immense, but they are singing their own songs and people are being blessed. Just because you’re not a world-class composer does not mean you cannot sing a new song unto the Lord. And that fact extends right across generations.
My fellow Levites, let us pledge to honour our Redeemer with the best level of musical service that we can offer. Handel believed in God, but did not make a commitment to follow Jesus like many of us have done. So if he could write such an incredible piece of music, what will your faith experience inspire you to write?