Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Are You Coming to Jesus Tonight?

Praise for the Lord #61

Words: Jessie Brown Pounds, 1889
Music: James E. Hawes, 1889

This is certainly one of Jessie Brown Pounds's most widely known hymns, since it has been a staple of the practice of the "invitation song" among the Churches of Christ in the U.S. (For a brief discussion of Jessie Brown Pounds, see the post on her text, "Am I Nearer to Heaven Today?".) In discussing her writing, I mentioned that "Are you coming to Jesus tonight?" is a better text than I realized; just because it has been sung so often (and because the music is rather lackluster) is no reason to dismiss its value.

Stanza 1:
The voice of the Savior says, “Come”;
The cross where He died is in sight;
E’en now at the cross there is room;
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

Perhaps Jesus' most famous invitation is found in Matthew 11:28, "Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." There are few verses in Scripture that give a picture of more perfect peace and comfort. But Jesus also said, "Come, follow Me," to the rich young ruler, whom He admonished to give up the riches that were entangling his soul. Mark 10:41 even records that Jesus said, "Come, take up your cross, and follow Me." Accepting that invitation is a release from the burdens of sin and despair, but it is also taking on a much more far-reaching commitment than we may even understand at the time. Did the apostles know what they were in for when they answered that call, "Come, and I will make you fishers of men?"

If the word "Come" is in our ears in this verse, the visual motif is certainly the cross. Only the inscrutable wisdom of God could have taken a symbol of suffering, the most shameful death one could die, and turn it into a thing of beauty. "Unto us who are being saved it is the power of God."(1 Cor. 1:18) If the cross was powerful enough to "reconcile both [Jews and Gentiles] into one body,"(Eph. 2:16) is it not powerful enough to overcome the divisions of race, language, and class in our time? Is it not powerful enough to overcome the division that has come up between one individual soul and his or her God?

Are you coming to Jesus tonight?
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?
The Bride and the Spirit invite;
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

The simple refrain pleads with the sinner to take advantage of the time. In 2 Cor. 6:2 Paul quotes Isaiah, "For He says, 'In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I helped you.' [Isaiah 49:8]" Paul then hammers home his application: "Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

The third line is an overt reference to Revelation 22:17, "The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.'" In extending an invitation the church--the Bride of Christ, Eph. 5:25-32--joins with the Spirit, who through his living words entreats us, "piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart."(Heb. 4:12)

Stanza 2:
The voice of the Father implores
From mercy’s most wonderful height;
His love in that call He outpours:
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

The summit of Mt. Everest is 29,028 feet high, almost five-and-a-half miles above sea level. The deepest known spot in the ocean is even more impressive--the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is 35,840 feet deep, more than six and three-quarters miles to the bottom. From the lowest spot on earth to the highest is a staggering 64,868 feet, more than twelve miles. But even this is surpassed by the inconceivable height of Olympus Mons on Mars, the tallest mountain in the solar system--69,649 feet, over 13 miles above the surface.

How far did God have to reach down to offer salvation to a lost humanity? There is no unit of measure we can apply, because our measurements compare to things we know--a "foot" originated as the average length of a man's foot, and a "mile" was made up of eight "furlongs" or "furrow's lengths." But how do we measure the distance between holiness and unholiness? Between sinlessness and sinfulness? As the psalmist says, "Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens; You who have done great things, O God, who is like You?"(Ps. 71:19)

Isaiah 55:8-9 says, "'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,' says the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.'" It is true of God's knowledge, and power, and justice; fortunately it is also true of His mercy. Psalm 103:2 assures us that "as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us."

Stanza 3:
The voices of loved ones entreat:
You know in your heart they are right;
Then list, for the moments are fleet!
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

Stanza 4:
The voices of friends gone before
Seem floating from regions of light;
They tenderly say o’er and o’er,
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

The third and fourth stanzas enlist the encouragement of friends, both here and those gone on to their reward. In this the author does seem a little maudlin; but does not Hebrews 12:1 say the same thing? "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." Often I have found myself considering, at the memorial service of a dear older brother or sister in Christ, that the best memorial we could give to that person would be to honor the example he or she set in faithfulness. In this same manner I believe we all are at times spurred on to greater zeal, or picked up when we are discouraged, by the knowledge that we have a charge to keep on their behalf.

Stanza 5:
O who to himself will be true,
Of all whom these voices invite?
Who answers, my brother, do you?
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

This stanza brings the question to the point. God has done all that could be done (short of overruling your free will), Jesus gave all He could give to redeem you, and the Spirit has called you in unmistakably clear terms to obey. The church, Christian friends and family both here and above are encouraging you to join them. But only you can make that decision!

About the music:
This is the only music in Praise for the Lord by Hawes, and I have been unable to find out even the barest details about him. His music for this text is extraordinarily simple. The music of the refrain is virtually the same as the music for the stanza, with only a slight bit of elaboration. The first three phrases are variations on the same melodic idea. It is music that is easily learned and sings well enough, but is rather pushing the limits of simplicity; the repeated beginning of the melodic phrases, "SOL-SOL-MI-RE-DO-MI...", gets pretty tiresome by the time you have sung it thirty times (three times in the stanza and three times in the refrain, for five stanzas of text).

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