A Musical Advent Calendar – 9.This is the Record of John

In style, this piece for Advent is not a carol at all. It’s a verse anthem by the great Elizabethan and early Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons, alternating tenor or alto soloists and choir. It was written sometime before 1620 for Archbishop Laud and his college, St John’s, Oxford – the college being dedicated to John the Baptist.

Gibbons sets verses from the gospel of John (John 1:19-23) from the Geneva Bible – a translation widely used at the time while the Authorised Version was still in its infancy.

This is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed and denied not, and said plainly, I am not the Christ.

And they asked him, What art thou then? Art thou Elias? And he said, I am not. Art thou the prophet?  And he answered, No.

Then said they unto him, What art thou? that we may give an answer unto them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.

The text is a simple, almost prosaic narrative as the Jewish priests seek to find out and challenge who John the Baptist really is and why he is out in the desert doing what he is doing.  The setting is straightforward although beautiful and very effective, not without the odd moment of near comedy (“and he answered, ‘no’!!”), and it’s not until the climax of John’s declaration that he is “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” (taking his cue from the prophet Isaiah) that the the piece really takes flight and Gibbons shows his true genius. That moment really makes the piece for me – making it probably my favourite Advent anthem.

In this version it’s performed with tenor soloist and a consort of Viols rather than just organ.




A Musical Advent Calendar – 7.Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day

You might not immediately think of this carol as one that belongs in your Church’s carol service,  whether with the traditional tune, or in my favourite arrangement by John Gardner, which dances along with the words. The refrain seems to reflect feasting and merry-making, rather that the real Christmas story. But as I have rehearsed it and sung it with choirs over the years it’s changed for me from being the sort of carol which you might want to sing at a carol concert, to one which encapsulates the heart of the gospel.

You might be familiar with the words…

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play
To call my true love to my dance.

What on earth does that mean? What is the dance?


The dance is, I think, a picture of what the Revelation calls the marriage supper of the lamb – you can read about it in Revelation chapter 19:

 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out “Hallelujah! 
For the Lord our God 
the Almighty reigns.
 Let us rejoice and exult
 and give him the glory, 
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
 and his Bride has made herself ready;
 it was granted her to clothe herself
 with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

And again in Rev 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

You’ll remember perhaps another parable in Matthew where we are called to be ready for Jesus to return, as a Bridegroom for her husband. I’ve already written about that when we listened together to Bach’s cantata Wachet Auf on Day 2. It’s a recurring Advent theme.


So it’s clear that each of us, as part of the Church as a whole, is called to be the bride of Christ, and one day we will be united with Jesus at his second coming. That’s the dance that we are being called to – the dance of Jesus’ second advent when we will be with him for ever and those wonderful promises of Revelation 21 will be fulfilled.

But back to our song. The original song Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day has eleven verses, which tell the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.  We’ll only hear the first four in this arrangement, but each concludes with the refrain.

Sing Oh! My love, oh! My love, my love, my love. This have I done for my true love.

Who is singing?  Well what immediately springs to mind for me is that beautiful passage in the Song of Songs chapter 2 which over the centuries has been interpreted as being the song of Jesus calling his bride the Church.

 My beloved speaks and says to me:
 “Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, 
and come away.

What moves me so much each time I sing this, is the wonderful news contained in this simple (and seemingly rather unspiritual) refrain, that everything in Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection and ascension was done for the glory of God and for his true love – and that’s us.   This is truly the heart of the gospel – God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Now we can know that truth in part (and how we need to keep reminding ourselves of it) and one day when He comes again we will see him face to face.

A Musical Advent Calendar – 2. Sleepers Wake!

While not strictly written for season of Advent (it’s actually for the week before), Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) BWV140 is always closely associated with Christmas.

It’s a relatively late addition to his incredible set of over 200 (surviving) church cantatas, written as part of his project to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” As a man of deep Christian faith, Bach felt strongly his calling from God as a musician, and so as soon as he arrived in Leipzig in 1723, where he was to spend the rest of his life, he started on a bout of furious cantata composing. For three years he came up with a new work for the church service every Sunday, as well as several Passions and a variety of other music. It was an unprecedented creative burst which left a lasting legacy.

For this cantata Bach turned to a hymn from the theologian Philipp Nicolai. The epistle for the day – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – is about preparation for the Last Judgment, but the service focusses on the Gospel reading from Matthew 25:1-13, and the parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids, with Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that they should be ready and waiting for his coming again in glory.

The parable concerns a wedding and ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, who take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom – a picture of Jesus himself. The foolish ones take their lamps, but no oil – a mistake the wise ones don’t make.  The bridegroom keeps them waiting; they all grow tired and fall asleep.  Around midnight there is a shout: “Look, the bridegroom comes.” The foolish bridesmaids’ lamps have burned out and they have no oil to fill them. So while the foolish girls set off to buy more oil, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom himself. Only the five wise ones remain to join the feast, and for the rest the door to the Kingdom of Heaven remains shut.

Bach’s librettist expanded Nicolai’s three-verse hymn by adding recitative and aria texts. After the opening chorus, where we are invited to wake up, prepare, and search for the bridegroom’s return, Bach leads us in a dance with two of the most beautiful love duets in music – not between couples united in earthly love, but rather with Jesus as the bridegroom (bass) and the faithful Soul as the bride (soprano).  These beautiful movements, really trios for two soloists and instrumental obbligato, draw from the Song of Solomon, considered in Lutheran and Puritan tradition as an allegorical love song between Christ and the Church. The final chorale combines praise of God with a vision of the joy that awaits the faithful in the heavenly Jerusalem – complete with twelve pearly gates!

Truly in this cantata Bach provides us with some of his most wonderful music -and from what we know the cantata is one of the few that continued to be popular immediately after his death. It’s inspired by the Joy of Christmas, where we celebrate God with us, Jesus, Emmanuel, and the hope of his return in Glory, when his invitation to His true love to join the dance is finally fulfilled. With Bach, as it can with us, the dance starts now.

This performance is from eminent Bach interpreter Ton Koopman, and you can follow text and translation here. Worship with Bach’s congregation this Christmas (but in the warmth of your own home and without the lengthy sermon in German that would have followed this!)

Bach later took one of the movements and arranged it for organ, as he did with 5 other cantata movements to form the 6 Schubler Chorale Preludes.


God as our Father, the privilege of Adoption

Recently I have been greatly helped by a blog series on Adoption from C J Mahaney and particularly the chapter on Adoption  in J. I. Packer’s book, Knowing God.

Packer says this:

Our first point about adoption is that it is the highest privilege that the gospel offers. (J. I. Packer, Knowing God)

J. I. Packer considers adoption the highest privilege of the gospel—higher even than justification—because of the richness of the relationship with God with which it is associated.

In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge [justification] is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father [adoption] is a greater.

Some time ago I started reading Thomas Watson on the Lord’s Prayer alongside a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer we were having at church and noted the following in answer to his question, “Wherein lies the happiness of having God for our Father?”  Privilege indeed.

(1) If God be our Father, he will teach us (Is 48:17)
(2) If God be our Father, he has bowels of affection towards us
(3) If God be our Father, he will be full of sympathy (Ps 103:13)
(4) If God be our Father, he will take notice of the least good he sees in us
(5) If God be our Father, he will take all we do in good part
(6) If God be our Father, he will correct us in measure
(7) If God be our Father, he will intermix mercy with all our afflictions
(8) If God be our Father, the evil one shall not prevail against us
(9) If God be our Father, no real evil shall befall us
(10) If God be our Father, we may go with cheerfulness to the throne of grace
(11) If God be our Father, he will stand between us and danger
(12) If God be our Father, we shall not want anything that he sees to be good for us
(13) If God be our Father, all the promises of the Bible belong to us. Pardon…Salvation…Healing. A Child of God may go to any promise in the Bible, and pluck comfort from it
(14) God makes all his children conquerors
(15) If God be our Father, he will now and then send us some token of his love
(16) If God be our Father, he will indulge and spare us
(17) If God be our Father, he will put honour and renown upon us at the last day
(18) If God be our Father, he will settle a good inheritance on us. ‘It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom’
(19) If God be our Father, it is a comfort in case of the loss of relations
(20) If God be our Father, he will not disinherit us

Word and Music – taking it forward

It is a long time since I blogged here and I was inspired to have another go after seeing my former minister Michael Quicke a week so ago. Michael was the person who started me on my Christian music and worship journey.  He gave me the opportunity to play the organ at my home church in Blackburn when I was only a teenager. He gave me a job as music director at St Andrew’s Street Baptist in Cambridge when I was only 18. He set me on a course to understand that excellence in music in worship was a great thing, that music and indeed worship as a whole should reflect above all the glory and majesty and beauty of God.  He was and is an amazing preacher and communicator, and lover of all that is best in music.

Those were the days when I practised hymns on the organ over and over to get the speed just right, tried to illustrate the words with differing registrations for each verse, collected last verse harmonisations to provide a thrilling conclusion to the great hymns of praise, wrote trumpet descants for my friend Jackie to play.   I used also to choose organ voluntaries for after the service that were (for the most part) loud and triumphant – to send people out confidently to “live and work for His praise and glory.”

Those services of worship were ones where preaching and worship went hand in hand.

As an aside, even now as well as still loving great hymns and organ pieces, I get most excited at church in worship when we sing joyful gospel music, or loud songs of praise, or beautiful quiet songs, and struggle most to engage during times of “intimate” worship or response times when the focus seems to be all about me and how I feel about God, how I am going to respond, how He might want to fix things that are wrong with me, and less about who God is.   Rather than build confidence and faith in God, for me these times seem to undermine that.  I am not saying they are wrong, but I certainly struggle hugely with them.  Am I the only one?

The last time I blogged, it was about my Bach studies and how Bach’s music, particularly, is a medium for letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us.


Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

The other passage that has been of great significance to me over the past 20 years is Psalm 40.

He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3 ESV)

Here the Psalmist talks about music as a medium for proclaiming the works of the Lord, above all proclaiming the salvation of God and the truth of the gospel.

So I am taking up the computerised pen again, and will use this blog to keep exploring how music can best proclaim the truth of God and help his Word well in us as richly as possible.

I want to try and look at this from an historical and contemporary perspective.  No doubt Bach will feature, but I want to see how other composers over the centuries approached this task, or failed in it.  I hope that regular blogging will gradually cause some key ideas to surface which may point to how, in our day, our worship can enable the Word of Christ to dwell in us as richly as possible.

I hope that if these ideas interest you, you will respond, comment, point me to different avenues of exploration. I am excited about how music, actually ALL music, can point to God and how all theology can and should elicit deeper worship.



Applying the Precious Promises of Scripture

I offer the following somewhat speculatively, as a work in progress and would welcome engagement with it. I long to understand more about how God speaks through his Word to us, and to build my faith in his promises and my life on his Word. But something recently has caused me to wonder if I am approaching this the wrong way.

For probably 20 years now I have been reading through the Bible each year, and gaining great benefit from it. I don’t know about you, but as I go through my Quiet Time, the way it often goes for me is that I try and find verse that really speaks personally, and, if I honest, emotionally to my situation.

That might be a promise from scripture (I love Isaiah for that!), or perhaps something which reveals a truth from God’s Word in a new way.  But I try to find something to apply personally using an excellent model that our church is very committed to:


I was reading Isaiah 61 this morning and trying to see what God was saying and something new struck me. Was I moving to Application too quickly? I was looking for something that would speak to my heart that morning. Something that would get me through the day. What I wasn’t doing was seeking to understand what the passage was really saying, what it was saying about who God is, what he does, and (particularly in the context of Isaiah 61), who Jesus is and his work on earth for me. I was trying to get the passage to engage directly with my emotions and feelings, and bypass my mind.

This verse perhaps illustrates the issue:

to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:3 ESV)

That day (and most days if I am honest) I wanted to hear God to say me, “I’m going to do that for you, Andrew. I’m going to give you the oil of gladness today. I’m going to give you a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit today.”

So my Bible study becomes an exercise in hoping, believing and trusting perhaps that God has given me a specific promise from His Word for that day an holding onto that.

Nothing wrong with that, you might say.

But Jonathan Edwards in his work “The Religious Affections” has some very illuminating thoughts about how we should approach Bible Study, which I discovered the other day. He is talking about how our emotions and feelings (what he calls “affections”) are moved to understand the things of God:

The child of God is graciously affected because he sees and understands something more of divine things that he did before, more of God or Christ, and of the glorious things exhibited in the gospel…Knowledge is the key that first opens and hard heart, and enlarges the affections…[1]

It seems from what Edwards is saying that we must spend time in observation, in understanding, and that in turn will move our hearts. But what really struck me was this next passage which is worth quoting more fully

It appears also that the affection which is occasioned by the coming of a text of Scripture must be in vain, when the affection is founded on something that is supposed to be taught by it, which is really not contained in it, nor in any other Scripture; because such supposed instruction is not real instruction, but a mistake and misapprehension of mind. As for instance, when persons suppose that they are expressly taught by some Scripture coming to their minds, that they in particular are beloved of God, or that their sins are forgiven, that God is their Father and the like. This is a mistake or misapprehension; for the Scripture no where reveals the individual persons who are beloved, expressly; but only by consequence, by revealing the qualifications of persons that are beloved of God: and therefore this matter is not to be learned from Scripture any other way than by consequence, and from these qualifications; for things are not to be learned from the Scripture any other way than they are taught in the Scripture.

Perhaps at first this seems harsh, or even wrong. Surely God can speak to me directly from Scripture and tell me that I am loved, that God is my Father?  For all my life, I have leaned on promises that I believed God had given me directly, from even a small child.

But think again. Jonathan Edwards is giving us perhaps instead a much firmer place to stand that trusting that a special impression that Scripture has made on us means that God has promised this directly to me. He is saying, don’t rely on feeling that God has spoken to you directly. Look instead on what the whole of Scripture says and you will see if you can apply those promises to your life and situation or not.

Let’s look at that practically by applying this to a few of my favourite promises from Scripture. Does this validate them, strengthen them, or undermine them?

An easy one to start with

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

(Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV)

The writer of the Proverbs is stating a general truth here. If we truly put our trust in God and not in our own understanding, working things out by ourselves. If we seek to glorify Him in all we do, then this general principle applies: He will direct our paths. We don’t need to wonder if God has spoken this directly to us. It’s clear that the “qualifications of persons” whose paths will be directed by God are those who trust and acknowledge Him in all they do.

What about another favourite of mine:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

(Isaiah 43:1-3 ESV)

This is trickier and demands a little more thinking I think. First of all, who do these wonderful promises apply to? They apply in this context to Israel in exile who God has called by name and created and formed and chosen. Do they then apply to me? Paul in Romans 9 says that indeed the “the adoption…the promises” belong to Israel. But he adds that

not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Romans 9:6-8 ESV)

So the general promises like this one, that were to Israel in the Old Testament can be mine if I am a child of promise. And of course we know that we are children of promise if we have trust Jesus to save us, if we have called on the name of the Lord.

So I don’t need to worry that this promise might not be for me. It IS for me, if I am trusting only in Christ.

There’s not room to expound this any more here, but I wonder if this gives me a stronger basis for my Bible Study going forward. I’ll try it and let you know.

A good walk

…none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

Who is the man who fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. (Psalm 25:3-8, 12 ESV)

The picture at the top of my blog is from the top of Causey Pike, overlooking Keswick in the Northern Lake District. It is Elizabeth’s and my favourite walk and we have walked up there almost every year since our first trip together 30 years ago.

It’s a nice mix of steep and gentle walking, with a rest at the col as the vista over Newlands opens up, which also lets everyone catch up, before a slog and a scramble to the summit.

There is a lovely balance of walking and resting in this Psalm too, or walking while waiting; and of looking back and looking forward.

I observed four things as I read it this morning.

1. Waiting on and waiting for God is normal Christian experience
2. No one who waits for God will be put to shame. Resting on God and his salvation is certain
3. While waiting we should remember all God has done, and all that he has saved us from
4. v8 seems to say that as we wait God will show us the way to go, but also that as we walk he will instruct us.

Jesus promises to teach us as we walk with him. Follow in his steps. We take his yoke upon us and LEARN from him

So perhaps it’s like a good walk in the Lakes with a good friend. Having an attitude of waiting and listening and teachability while walking, chatting sometimes, just pushing forward together when its steep, stopping to check the path against the map, catching breath not forgetting to  look back to from where you have come and admire the view, and looking up to where we are headed and our ultimate goal of the summit.