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Vagabonds

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Hardly anybody writes songs from the synoptic gospels. I don't know if you'd noticed that. Christian hymnody has known what to do with the Psalms, the prophets, the epistles and even apocalyptic writings, but rarely with narrative, and historically that has included the synoptic gospels. How do you write a song about a story, a particular miracle, or even a parable? If you do find a Christian song or hymn about the life of Jesus - which, one might have thought, ought to be a fairly central theme in our worship - it is almost certain to be about the first two years or the last two days, or perhaps one of the "I am" sayings in John (which are far more explicitly theological, and hence easier to sing about). Other than that, though occasional mentions will be made of what Jesus did or said, the story of Matthew, Mark and Luke has been virtually untouched by most Christian songwriters.

This only occurred to me recently, however, while listening to an album which bucks this trend completely. From a musical point of view, Stuart Townend’s The Journey is a slightly eccentric, eclectic mixture of folky pipes, drums and fiddles, hymns reinvented, church bells, and a delightfully lilting, Kate Rusby-esque guest vocalist. But from a lyrical perspective, it does something that almost no other album I have heard does, or even tries to do. It brings the story of Jesus - the story of the synoptic gospels, the parables and riddles and miracles of Jesus in first century Galilee and Jerusalem - to life, in beautiful and poetic colour.
 
How many songs, for instance, have the calming of the storm or the healing of Jairus’ daughter as their centrepiece?

See the stricken boat as it is tossed upon the sea;
Hear the fearful cries that wake the man from Galilee.
He stands before the raging, speaks peace and harmony;
Wind and waves obey - he is the man who calms the sea.
 
Out among the crowds, hear a father’s anguished plea:
“Heal my dying child!” he begs the man from Galilee.
With words that banish sorrow, “Don’t fear, but just believe!
Daughter, live again!” commands the man who calmed the sea.
And as she stands before him, what joy from agony!
He’s the master and the maker, he’s the man who calmed the sea.

 
There’s something deeply worshipful about that. Or how about the story of the rich young ruler? Somehow, this next song captures the radicalism of Jesus the man, and the sacrifice he demanded of people, in a way that few songs do:

A rich young man came to ask of Christ,
“Good teacher, will you tell me:
What must I do for eternal life?
I’ve kept your laws completely.”
“Sell all you have, give to the poor,
And heaven’s treasure will be yours.”
How hard for those who are rich on earth
To gain the wealth of heaven.
 
Now Jesus sat by the offering gate
As people brought their money.
The rich, they filled the collection-plate;
The widow gave a penny.
“Now she’s outgiven all the rest:
Her gift was all that she possessed.”

 
And then the kicker:

Not what you give, but what you keep
Is what the king is counting.

 
But pride of place goes to the song “Vagabonds”, which is an extraordinary exposition of the parable of the wedding feast in Luke 14:15-24. It might be the most inclusive song I’ve ever heard, in the best possible sense of that word:

Come all you vagabonds, come all you don’t-belongs
Winners and losers, come people like me;
Come all you travellers, tired from the journey
Wait a while, stay a while, welcome you’ll be.
Come all you questioners, looking for answers
And searching for meaning and sense in it all;
Come all you fallen, and come all you broken,
Find strength for your body and food for your soul.
 
Come, those who worry about houses and money
And all those who don’t have a care in the world,
From every station and orientation
The helpless, the hopeless, the young and the old.
 
Come all believers, and dreamers, and schemers,
And come all you restless and searching for home;
Movers and shakers, and givers and takers,
The happy, the sad, the lost and alone.
Come self-sufficient with wearied ambition
And come those who feel at the end of the road;
Fiery debaters, and religion haters,
Accusers, abusers, the hurt and ignored.
 
Come to the feast, there is room at the table!
Come, let us meet in this place
With the king of all kindness who welcomes us in
With the wonder of love and the power of grace.

 
I love that the writer of “In Christ Alone”, which proclaims a thoroughly biblical exclusivism (that is is only through Christ that we have hope), also wrote “Vagabonds”, which proclaims a thoroughly biblical inclusivism (that absolutely anybody is welcome). And my suspicion is that he only managed to do this by writing songs from the biblical texts which are simultaneously the most inclusive (“go out into the highways and hedges”) and exclusive (“Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?”) in the canon: the synoptic gospels.
 
Any other good examples?

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Andrew Wilson’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, is out now, published by IVP who are offering a generous discount for readers of this blog.

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