December 12

Bach and Advent

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 11: 2-11


Much of our life is consumed by what can quickly and readily be said. Or texted. We do need to apply for jobs, pay bills, find information, reply, reply all, and reply all’yall (a form of computer speech limited to southern regions). Sometimes, as the sermon three weeks ago addressed, the gospel in which we stand may cause us to stand apart from new and untested forms of communication. Sometimes, as the newspaper reported this week, we as a University community are challenged to find our way forward through new and untested forms of internet communication, which may bruise, harm or hurt our neighbor. Email in broad use is less than 15 years old. Facebook in broad use is less than 5 years old. Twitter is a tiny tot. Text an infant. We need not fear the future, as long as with honesty, on an hourly basis, we squarely face the future.

Which brings us to the sermon for today, 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 minute 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 found yourself here on a Saturday in November, listening to the BU chorus sing R Thompson’s Frostiana, and you were glad to be in the balcony, alone with heavy tears and light heart and soul filled with the radiance of the words made lasting by the music. 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:

Our readings are Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11:2-11. 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.


This morning’s cantata, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,’ brings music for our words. *Here is expectation, in the text of the fifth movement:

We honor this glory
and approach Your manger now
and praise with joyful lips
what You have prepared for us;
the darkness does not confuse us
and we see Your eternal light.

* Here too is prophecy, the pregnant promise foretold of old, which itself, as promise does, holds us up and holds us steady: Hear the text of the third movement.

The hero out of Judah breaks forth
to run His course with joy
and to purchase us fallen ones.
O brilliant radiance, o wonderful light of blessing!

*Here too is a new wonder, a fuller grace, from Him from Whom we receive grace upon grace: The words of the cantata’s second movement:

Marvel, o humanity, at this great mystery:
the Supreme Ruler appears to the world.
Here the treasures of heaven are uncovered,
here a divine manna is presented to us

Today if we listen with care to Bach’s musical sermon, our own expectation and prophecy and trust may be further enhanced. In the first movement listen to the way in which Bach balances the joyful exuberance of the Messiah’s coming with the gravity of the great mystery – the word made flesh. This is the music of the refiner’s fire. Written for the first Sunday in Adve
nt in 1724, Bach must have been aware that Luther penned his famous chorale exactly 200 hundred years before in 1524. We will sing together Hymn 214 in just a moment, deepening our morning’s connection to Luther, Bach, and the centuries of Advent celebration and observance. The opening movement of the cantata brims with jubilant, if a little anxious expectation. And from the third measure of the cantata, we hear Luther’s famous tune. Moreover, Luther’s text is quoted directly in the outer movements and is freely adapted in movements two through five. The cantata is full of happy dissonances – darkness to light in the fifth movement, joyful exuberance checked by gravitas in the first, the sweet babe in the manger who will route the foe and forge the new way, a Virgin unspotted – die Keuschheit nicht beflekket. Advent is a season of penitence and preparation, renewal and redemption. Luther by way of Bach seems to say, “Sit up, Christian! The Bride-groom comes! Make your house ready! Prepare a room for him in your heart!”


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.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel Choir

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