The sermon for today is lifted up and out of Our Bach Experience. In worship and life at Marsh Chapel we engage all the newest forms of communication (see today our website), and we desire to do so with a cloud of witnesses, with the wisdom of the ages, with the faith once delivered to the saints, with words and songs and prayers that last, through the ages. The high Gothic nave here is meant to affirm what lasts. The beautiful windows here are meant to enshrine what lasts. The historic enchanting liturgy of the service is meant to spell out what lasts. The deliberate preparation and pacing of the sermon are meant to announce what lasts. We have about 8000 Sundays in a lifetime, 8000 moments in word and music to experience God. We dare not waste one or one minute of one in pandering, in entertaining, in minimizing, in doodling. In this 59 poem of worship each week, the 16 musical moments and the 11 spoken moments are offered in the praise of God. Remember your mortality. Remember your fragility. Remember your imperfection. Remember who you are. And so remember that you are happily a child of the living God.
John Wesley, chiseled in stone above our Marsh Chapel portico, taught Greek, evangelized Native Americans, rose daily at 4am to preach at 6am and throughout the day, changed the course of English and American history, and founded Methodism which itself gave birth to Boston University. He claimed to be a man one book, ‘homo unius libri’. For all this we do rightly honor him. We cherish him. We revere him. But, truth to tell, it is brother Charles, the musician, the hymnist, whom we love, especially as we come toward the caroling hour. Martin Luther, enshrined in stained glass near and far, splintered the church on the anvil of truth, recalled us to salvation by faith alone, withstood physical ailments, mental trials, political clashes, and religious hatreds. He founded a movement that became the Lutheran church, and gave us the Protestant Principle of the necessary rigorous self criticism of all religion. We honor him. We cherish him. We revere him. But, truth to tell, it is his musical great grand child, J S Bach, whom we love, especially as we ready ourselves to hear an Advent cantata.
We need both the words and the music. But music lasts even when words fail. That tune you heard on the radio that took you forty years back in time. That hymn whose melody was lifted in a high or hard moment, a wedding or funeral. That new experience—as Bach is for many young adults and others today—that took you by the hand and led you out into the ineffable, the serene, the beautiful, the heavenly, the high and holy. One of you may have found yourself Thursday listening during the memorial service for Dr. John Silber to the beauty of Brahms. We need both words and music, but the music sometimes finds an opening in the heart, a little crevice into which to maneuver, which would be too small and too angular for the word alone. “I come mainly to sing the hymns”: one of you might have said that. I think one of you did.
Our words and music today are folded around several expectant themes. The themes therein include expectation, prophecy, the coming reign of God, times and seasons, and the emerging recognition of Jesus as Messiah, all good Advent fare. *Expectation puts us on his shoulder when experience lays us low. Our undergraduates teach us this, for even when they are brought down by one or another standard young adult trial, and as hard as they fall, they just as strongly get back up, dust off, come to church, and live to write another day. *Prophecy has kept the darker ranges of apocalyptic and Gnostic fears at bay, or at least has kept them company in the Bible. Isaiah week by week has been singing you a song your mother taught you as well. Where there is hope there is life. *Jesus means more to us now then when we first believed. In that evolution we have company in the ancient writings and the saints of the primitive church. We are more aware as we grow, or grow older, that we are in good hands and so we can risk a bit to bear one another’s burdens. *So this season of Advent surrounds us with expectation and prophecy and trust. In a wee moment we will hear this Advent gospel sung.
Today’s cantata is indeed one of joyful expectation. One of the happiest cantatas I know, Cantata 140 depicts the Christian soul as a bride awaiting her promised Bride-groom, Christ. Drawing on imagery from the Gospel of Matthew, with text from the Song of Solomon, Bach sets the stage for a beautiful wedding feast. The three verses of Philip Nicolai’s famous chorale punctuate the cantata and establish the structure. There are three soloists: the tenor in the typical role of evangelist, the soprano as the voice of the Bride, and the baritone as the voice of the Bride-groom, Christ Jesus.
From the start the festive nature is apparent with the French overture styled rhythms in the strings echoed by the three oboes. One of the best examples of this cantata style, the chorale tune is set in the soprano part in long tones, doubled by a French horn. You won’t miss it! The chorale tune appears again the central movement, this time sung by the tenors of the choir in unison. You’ll likely recognize this material as ‘organ music’; Bach adapted this movement in 1748 for inclusion in the set of chorale preludes for the organ known as the Schübler Chorales. Nicolai’s third verse concludes the cantata in the familiar four-part setting as found in your red Methodist Hymnal, No 720.
Between these bright movements, Bach unfolds the drama of the woman awaiting her bride-groom. As it says in the Gospel of the day, ‘Watch, therefore; for ye know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of man cometh.’ The tenor evangelist calls to the daughter of Zion, “Macht euch bereit. Er kommt, er kommt! Make yourself ready, He comes! He comes!”
The first of the two love duets follows. Listen for the deeply expressive violin solo, the longing of the woman as she awaits her bridegroom – in the background the calming voice of the baritone assuring her that he comes.
After the familiar second verse of the Nicolai chorale, the groom arrives to profess his vows. The words of Christ are accompanied by strings, an aural halo familiar from the same practice in the Matthew Passion. These words offer comfort and assurance, and at the end, even the promise of a kiss!
Perhaps the most famous of all Bach’s duets, ‘Mein Freund ist mein’ is completely delightful. With obbligato oboe, parallel thirds and sixths, the frolicsome interplay of melismas, this is one of the best love duets in the entire repertoire.
Vows exchange and love professed, we are invited to join the heavenly banquet with Nicolai’s final verse.
The longing, uncertainty and expectation are present, but this cantata’s focus is much more on the joyful moment when Christ comes to redeem the world. Watch, pray. Pray and watch. Trim your lamps. He comes, he comes!!
May the rigors of Advent continue to prod and challenge us. May this not be an easy season. May this season unfold with moments in which we are brought up short, put on notice, called to account, and changed.
You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of expectation. You do not drop your chin at the first mention of bad news. You do not fold your tents at the first sign of giants in the land. You stand your ground, singing the music of expectation.
You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of Prophecy. You do not lie down and weep, only awaiting an unknown and unseen future. You accept the unforeseen as part of the future, and you take up arms against a sea of troubles, hoping to end them. You let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day, remembering ‘sufficient to the day is the evil thereof’. You live your eyes, singing the music of prophecy.
You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of Trust. You know that for anything to get done, trust is the coin of the realm. You have learned in your experience that the good future requires us not only to work hard but also to work together.
Bonhoeffer loved Bach too. He wrote,
Tolstoy once said that the czar would have to forbid Beethoven to be played by good musicians, for he would excite the passions of the people too deeply and put them in danger.
Luther, by contrast, often said that next to the Word of God, music is the best thing that human beings have. The two had different things in mind: Tolstoy, music to honor people; Luther, music to honor God. And regarding music, Luther knew that it has dried an infinite number of tears, made the sad happy, stilled desires, raised up the defeated, strengthened the challenged, and that it has also moved many a stubborn heart to tears and driven many a great sinner to repentance before the goodness of God.
‘O sing the Lord a new song’ (Ps 98). The emphasis is on the word new. What is this song, if not the song that makes people new, the song that brings people out of darkness and worry and fear to new hope, new faith, new trust? The new song is the song that God himself awakens in us anew—even if it is an ancient song—the God who, as it says in Job, ‘gives songs in the night’ (Job 35).
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music