by Dr. R. Reed Lessing
The ‘jazz song’ Christians sing—the Gospel—preaches a more powerful sermon than any silver-tongued orator ever could.
When it comes to jazz, I can count what I know on one hand.
First, jazz began in the early part of the 20th-century among African Americans in places like New Orleans, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Second, jazz arises among people whom society has disenfranchised and marginalized. Third, jazz music keeps moving, keeps surprising, and keeps shocking with one melody that recurs over and over again. And fourth, that one melody is played out with endless variation and enormous freedom, but the core always stays the same.
That’s the sum of what this lead-footed, middle-aged, white man knows about musical jazz.
I do, however, know a bit more about another kind of jazz. It’s the kind of jazz that really jazzes me up. I call it Hebrew jazz.
Like the praises of Jehoshaphat when he defeated the Moabites and Ammonites—“Give thanks to the Lord, for His love endures forever” (2 Chron. 20:21 NIV). Like the cadence that David danced to in Psalm 23—“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Like Deborah’s thanksgiving when she defeated Sisera—“The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel” (Judges 5:5).
To find some of the first Hebrew jazz we need to go back to Ex. 15:1, where marginalized Moses says, “I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. The horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea.”
But even Exodus 15 doesn’t get to the root of all thisjazz. To find the beginning of the beat, we have to go backto Exodus 1, where in verse 8 the scene is set: “Now therearose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph”(KJV). We don’t remember the name of this Pharaoh, butwe passionately remember the names of our two women who started the melody that has since jazzed up everything.
Down in the slave huts in Goshen in Ex. 1:15 we meet them—Shiphrah and Puah. These Hebrew midwiveswere called to stand before the most powerful man in theancient world. In his madness this monarch wanted the midwives to assist him in a genocidal policy that wouldkill Hebrew baby boys. A wave of Pharaoh’s hand couldmean continued life or instant death. But Shiphrah and Puah defied Pharaoh and resisted his infanticidalpropaganda. In doing so they began the defiant dance of deliverance.
Soon the land of Goshen began tapping to a future and swaying to the Lord’s beat. The song picked up momentum when, with the second plague, Pharaoh was so shook up he told Moses to remove the plague of the frogs “tomorrow” (Ex. 8:10). Tomorrow? And by the third plague the empire’s magicians couldn’t make gnats (Ex. 8:16–19). The cadence got louder as the Lord climactically brought Israel out of the house of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Exodus 14).
When they reached the other side of the Red Sea, Miriam and the women, with their tambourines in hand, also began dancing to the beat—“Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. The horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea” (Ex. 15:20–21).
This is the primal melody of the entire biblical score. Against all odds, the Lord helps those who cannot help themselves. Every believer in every godless ghetto after Moses and Miriam knows that this core always stays the same.
And the empire can’t take it, so it does whatever it can to silence our swing of salvation. And it succeeds when we
- reduce the dance of deliverance to the staleness of slogans and the carelessness of clichés;
- are smug enough to “sing” Sinatra: “I did it my way”; cling to treasured controls, nourished angers, and lustful looks;
- return to those things that bind and enslave;
- just like Pharaoh, harden our hearts.
But listen. Can you hear it? There it is, in the distance. The lyrics of life! “The Lord has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider He has hurled into the sea!” No more brick quotas, no more straw and mud, no more fear, and no more empire!
Our God has more craftiness than the empire’s magicians, more compassion than the Hebrew midwives, and more might than all of Pharaoh’s horses and chariots. He is the doorway to deliverance, the pathway to peace, the gateway to glory. His mercy is matchless. His goodness is limitless. His love never changes. His grace is sufficient. His Word is enough. And His reign is righteous forevermore!
God’s people have been dancing to this beat ever since, jazzing it up with endless imagination, daring cadences, astonishing surprises, but always returning to the basic score.
Hannah sings: “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength” (1 Sam. 2:4). The psalmist celebrates: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses; but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7). David gets it: “It is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle belongs to the Lord” (1 Sam. 17:47). Mother Mary adds her own version: “He has brought down the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:52). St. Paul made it into the Jazz Hall of Fame with this one: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39).
We have a name for this beat that keeps moving, keeps surprising, and keeps shocking. We call it the Gospel, for the Gospel boldly announces to the empire, “The Lord has triumphed gloriously, your horse and your rider He has hurled into the sea!”
But the most joyful jazz came out of a situation when the empire marshaled all its horses and chariots to bring on its version of the sounds of silence. To do so it enlisted betrayers and deniers and slappers and beaters and spitters and whippers and mockers. And there were nailers. It jerked the jazz from every station. For three days all the powers of the empire thought they had won.
But on the third day the swing of salvation was amped up for the entire world to hear! “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” “The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done.” “O Sons and Daughters of the King.” “This Joyful Eastertide.” “Jesus Lives! The Vict’ry’s Won!” And through the Church this song goes on!
On its last breath, the empire still seeks to silence those of us who live for all this jazz. It rejoices when ministry is frustrating and overwhelming. It cheers when we lose money and go through depression and doubt. It laughs when we stare into the caskets of our children, our parents, our spouses. But just there, in those places, the song we sing preaches a more powerful sermon than any silver-tongued orator ever could.
Have you lost the beat? Forgotten the rhythm? Misplaced the lyrics? Don’t remember the melody? Then listen again to Moses and Miriam. And as you do, don’t forget the final refrain composed by the King of Jazz: “I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” (Rev. 1:18).