November 20

The Bach Experience- November 20, 2022

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 23:33–43

Click here to hear just the sermon and cantata


SAJ: In September, we opened our Bach Experience series with Cantata 147. Along with with Cantata 10, and of course Bach’s magnificent Magnificat setting, the first chapter of Luke has provided centuries of musical creativity and inspiration. The parables of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels are the departure point for many cantatas, but Luke’s voice is prominent in the liturgical schedule of readings for Bach. Of the cantatas Bach wrote in 1723 for the 26 Sundays after Trinity, nearly two-thirds are based on lessons from Luke —  the Sermon on the Mount, Zechariah’s benedictus, the parables of the unjust steward, the good Samaritan, the pharisee and the publican, prophesies of the great tribulation, and Jesus’ raising from the dead the young man from Nain. 

And once more, we interweave the power of Scripture with the glory of music, the word spoken with the word sung. Bach and Luke meet today in Cantata 70 Wachet Betet Betet Wachet, as Jesus foretells the second coming. Before Bach, help us regard St Luke. His voice has guided our Sunday by Sunday experience this past year. On this final Sunday of the liturgical calendar, Dean Hill, help us look forward by looking back to a year wherein we have heard the voice of St. Luke, Sunday by Sunday?  

RAH:  Yes, Dr. Jarrett, we indeed have spent the year with St. Luke, and conclude our conversation with him this morning.  There are some outstanding features of the Lukan biblical theology, which we may simply name as we set sail for other shores. On this Sunday which honors the reign of Christ, especially, this is most fitting. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that.  Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. In fact, Luke has his own schemata for sacred history, in three parts: Israel, Jesus, Church: the time of Israel, concluding with John the Baptist; the time of Jesus, concluding with the Ascension; the time of the church, concluding with the parousia, the coming of the Lord on the clouds of heaven, at the end of time.  Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history.   Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds.  The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church.   History, theology, compassion, and church are hallmarks of Lukan biblical theology, and signs of the reign of Christ, and emphasize the promise of what God has done, in the indicative mood, over what we can do, in the imperative mood. 

SAJ: Indicative and imperative. Pluperfect. Subjunctive. Declension, conjugation. I can almost smell a pencil sharpener nearby, and I bet if we’d diagram a sentence or two, we might even recall the smell of the mimeograph machine!   

But back to our grammarly moods – indicative and imperative – In the eleven movements of today’s cantata, I count 23 imperative verbs: Rejoice greatly, Celebrate with the Angels, Triumph eternally, Lift up your heads, Be of good cherr, Tremble, o sinner, Sound the last trumpet!, Flourish in Eden. Serve God eternally. Lead me to the gates of heaven. Lead me to promised rest, lead me to everlasting joy. Cantata 70’s title has is entirely imperative verbs – Wachet betet betet wachet. Watch pray, pray watch.  

Bach and his librettist are creating a musical sermon, a theology of which is likely downstream of the great Lutheran preachers and teachers, all of whom are downstream of Luther himself, continuing all the way to the Ursprung – the evangelist’s record of the life and teaching of Christ.  

Is this river cruise similar to a pure science flowing downstream to its related applied disciplines? Philosophical or practical? Ideal or pragmatic? Visionary or realistic? 

RAH:  Just so, Dr Jarrett.  That is, indicative precedes imperative.  Indicative precedes imperative, in history, theology, compassion and church. The gospel is about what God has done, first, not about what we might do, a distant second, if that.  JS Bach, a good Lutheran, would heartily agree.  What God has done outlasts, outshines, overshadows, outranks, outdoes what we might do, or not.  That is what makes the gospel good news, rather than just news. What God has done! And let us hold most closely the divine compassion in Luke.  At every turn, there is a return to the least, the last, the lost; those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life.  

Further, Dr. Jarrett, over 16 years we have endeavored to render the good news in a bi-lingual manner, on these Bach Sundays, Scripture and Cantata together, juntos, conjoined.  For those of us today, especially, who are listening from afar, who hear but do not see, what are two of the themes of this particular Cantata to which we should caringly attend, in the dialogue of the soulful song and sacred page? That is, first, what in the music should most listen for?   

 SAJ: Today’s images are exciting and dramatic, and Bach manages to cover all the ways in which one can be excited and dramatic. The second coming, in many ways, represents the ultimate test of faith. If we acknowledge that faith is that fuzzy intersection of doubt and certainty, here, the believer (also a sinner) is at once terrified of the day of judgement, then finds a deep breath an enough confidence to sustain their faith a longer. Repeatedly, at macro- and micro-levels, Bach meets us in a crisis of faith, neutralizes our fear through Christ’s love, giving the needed strength and confidence to match Christ loving embrace for eternal pardon and peace. The arias take this tri-partite journey individually and cumulatively.  

 Two extraordinary moments from the baritone bring us to the edge, a terrifying foretaste of the final destruction of heaven and earth. But the second instance might just model how each of us could meet that moment when it comes.  

RAH: And then, second, what in the word, in the words sung, is most telling for us this morning, listening to Bach?  

SAJ:  The signal of the last day, the day of judgement is the trumpet. “Behold I tell you a mystery, we shall be changed in a moment in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. Bach features the trumpet throughout the cantata, in chorale tunes and in the triumphant arpeggio that is the motto heard in the first measure of the piece. Geoff Shamu is out trumpeter today – Geoff will you play the motto for us??  

SAJ: So, Dean Hill, in conclusion this morning, how shall we think about what he have heard, and shall hear? 

RAH:  Well, it may be, Dr. Jarrett, that our living of these days, and our life in Christ this day, carry both a dimension of practice and promise.  

In practice, our envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is be a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.  Our use of President Merlin’s epigram means city as the global city, and service as worship and work.   Our foci guiding this envisioned mission are voice, vocation, and volume.  One aspect of this today is the work of sermon and cantata. 

Twice a term, you engage our collegium, choir, community and listenership in a full morning of teaching about JS Bach, and enjoyment of a Bach Cantata in worship.  This Bach Experience, lecture, gathering, brunch, worship, and sermon, are novel and experimental advancements, in learning and performance, a part of our practice of faith. 

SAJ:  And regarding promise? 

In promise, we turn to Holy Scripture. Our conclusion in the reading of St. Luke comes today with Jesus upon the cross.  Every benediction in ending for a service of worship, including this morning, carries a sense of an ending at hand.  Our own mortality, our own full physical limitation, our own death, at some unforeseen point, is both shadowed and overshadowed, just here in Luke 23, just now on Calvary.  Perhaps more than anything else, our own mortality, our limited humanity, dust art thou and to dust thou shalt return, call us to faith, and awakens us to faith.  Our Christ and his final consort address us, with a promise, a promise that in life and in death and in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone, thanks be to God.  Jesus even promises paradise in that hour, in that liminal moment.  The reign of Christ, somehow, says our Gospel, and somehow, sings our Cantata, continues and conquers, though how and how so who can say?  It may be that the single purpose of Sunday worship, every seventh day, every Lord’s Day, is a clinging to the ringing of this dominical promise, our own everlasting hope.  The Lukan Jesus has the last word, and offers that word a lasting promise, a last word in lasting promise…today you will be with me in paradise. 

We are given and receive in faith the divine promise: He keeps them in His hands, and places them in a heavenly Eden.  May it be so! 

RAH: We are given and receive in faith the divine promise: You shall flourish in Eden, serving God eternally. May it be so! 

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music


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