Hymn: “Ring the Bells of Heaven” – William O. Cushing (1823-1902)
Tune: RING THE BELLS
|"The Return of the Prodigal Son" - Rembrandt|
This is a fine example of a good old gospel song – a peppy, fun-to-sing one at that! We have sometimes separated our congregational songs into hymns, gospel songs, praise choruses, scripture songs… and now, even rap. But this is truly a “gospel” song because it is based from one of the great stories told by Jesus from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, that section which features the three parables of ‘the lost’: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son – all three of which are eventually found, making them parables with happy endings!
There are several songs based from stories in the Gospels: “Master, the Tempest Is Raging” tells of Jesus’ calming of the sea, and “The Ninety-and-Nine” recounts the first of these parables from Luke 15. “Ring the Bells of Heaven” alludes to all three of the lost-parables, but it is mostly about the story of the young man we have always called the Prodigal Son… the weary, wand’ring child, a soul returning from the wild, a soul rescued from his sinful ways, a precious soul who’s born again.
We’ve all heard plenty – maybe too many – sermons and Bible studies based on this story of the son who demands his inheritance only to waste it on ‘riotous living’ which includes all those sins we were instructed to stay shy of in the beginners Sunday School class. He comes to his senses and heads home, unsure of how he will be received. It is upon his trip home that the “surprise” of this short story happens. The rising action turns to the father and his over-the-top re-acceptance of the long-lost son who has been incommunicado.
In the Bible story, my favorite line is “And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him…” That sentence speak volumes about the nature of God’s relationship with us; even when we wander off as far as we’ve ever been, when we turn toward home, God sees us… and is “filled with compassion for” us. (v. 20) This is why many people now call this the Parable of the Loving Father instead of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Today's hymn-line begins with the word ‘see’ – as if to say "notice." It’s kind of like when something turns out the way someone else said it would, they say to you, “See, I told you so.” If the line didn’t have to be so poetic as to fit a 18.104.22.168 metrical scheme, it could have been, “Get this! The father meets him…”
Perhaps too much has been made of the father’s un-Jewish-man-like uncharacteristically running down the long dusty driveway, but he certainly wasted no time meeting the wandering child --arms stretched wide open, offering a strong hug -- and walking him the rest of the way to the house.
We’ll get to "see on the portals he’s waiting and watching" in another hymn-line later, but bring that picture to mind. Got it? Now see him jump off the porch… probably avoiding the steps… and rushing toward the now-happy wanderer – knapsack on his back – singing “Val-deri, val-dera.”-- Oops. Sorry. Wrong song! In this case, he may be singing “Glory! Glory! How the angels sing. Glory! Glory! How the loud harps ring.”
Weary, wand’ring child: turn toward home. It will be worth the trip.