Music is a key part of the life of faith—a truth powerfully expressed by the music of Advent and Christmas. How blessed we are to have the music of the organ played by Kathy in this holy season. Millions of Christians cannot hear the poetic words of the Prophet Isaiah as recorded in Chapter 40, verses 1-5, which I just read without thinking immediately of music, specifically, Handel’s Messiah.
As you know, Messiah, is one of the most famous oratorios ever composed and George Frederick Handel was a musical genius and a man of deep faith. Beethoven once said of the 18th century musician: “Handel was the greatest composer who ever lived. “I would uncover my head, and kneel before his tomb.”Wow, if Beethoven says that about you—you’re pretty good. King George III called Handel “the Shakespeare of Music—and the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once commented, “Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution. What is more, he is a sacred institution.”
Friends, Messiah is one of my favorite pieces of sacred music and I have enjoyed hearing it performed live many times over the years during Advent. One of the most memorable performances was in December of 1987 at the Riverside Church, in New York City. I was 28-years-old. Riverside is a liberal activist church with a membership around 2000 which sits next to the Hudson River and is two blocks from the apartment in which I lived and the office I worked in as part of the National Staff of the PCUSA in the late 1980’s. The performance in Riverside church of Handel’s masterpiece was truly a spiritual experience for me.
Many people who have enjoyed this oratorio through the years may have suspected, but not known exactly what a religious person Handel was. The Rector of St. Simons Anglican Church in N. Vancouver, Canada, Edward Hird, commenting on Handel’s last days on earth once wrote this: “In 1759 the almost blind Handel conducted a series of 10 concerts. “After performing Messiah, during one of the last performances, Handel, in poor health, told some friends that he had one desire. saying: ‘I want to die on Good Friday in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Saviour, on the day of his resurrection.’”
Hird concludes: “On Good Friday, April 14, 1759, 74-years-old, Handel bid goodbye to his friends and died the very next day, Holy Saturday. He almost got his wish.
A close friend speaking of him remarked: “Handel died as he lived—as a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and man, and in perfect charity with all the world…”
Friends, in his musical work, Messiah, Handel brought together inspiring selections of Scripture with unforgettable musical arrangements, and created a masterpiece that has inspired Christians for over 270 years. Handel himself saw the hand of God at work in its creation. In his later years he refused to take any credit or praise for Messiah’s composition saying: “Not from me—but from heaven—comes all!”
In his later years, Handel once described Messiah’s profound impact on him, even as he was writing it, saying: “I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself.”
Interestingly, Handel wrote this inspiring oratorio during a very difficult period in his life. He was in his mid-50’s, nearly broke and constantly hounded by bill collectors. His health was very poor—he had had had a stroke and was suffering from a deep depression.
Prior to this challenging time of his life he had been on top of the world. In the mid-18th century Handel was considered London’s leading composer and he was the Director of the Italian opera. An historian of classical music writes: “Handel had known what it was to be popular! For 30 years he had entertained Lords and Ladies with his opera. But those days seemed long past. Creditors were at his door. He was melancholy. He could not sleep and he was plagued by rheumatism.
The 56-year-old composer feared that if he did not come up with a musical success soon he would finish out his days in London’s debtor’s prison. “But, two letters arrived that fateful summer of 1741 that would change [everything] for Handel. The first letter was an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire inviting him to the Irish capital, Dublin, to produce a series of benefit concerts [for the relief of men in jails and in support of a well-known hospital.]” “Handel thought that the change might do him good, and besides, he was eager to be out from under the persistent threat of his creditors.[i.e. They’ll never find me in Ireland!]
“Shortly thereafter, a second letter arrived from a wealthy but somewhat eccentric English landowner named Charles Jennens. “Handel quickly opened the letter for Jennens had written some nice lyrics for him in the past. To Handel’s amazement the letter was a compilation of Old and New Testament scripture passages. “[Handel] read the Bible verses again and again. He was greatly moved and felt [inspired] to put them to music in oratorio form. “[The story goes] Handel locked himself in his study…and composed the entire oratorio of the Messiah in 24 days without leaving his house. “Early to mid 20th century [Author] Newman Flower, said of Handel’s achievement in writing the Messiah: ‘Considering the immensity of the work, and the short time involved in putting it to paper, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of musical composition.’”
Friends, one of the most moving moments in any live performance of the Messiah is near the end when everyone in the audience stands, usually without prompting, for the climax of the oratorio, the Hallelujah chorus. The tradition of standing at this point in Handel’s brilliant work goes all the way back to its London premier in 1743 in the presence of King George II.
The story goes that as the Hallelujah chorus began the King came to his feet, and the people in attendance did likewise, out of respect for him. Why he stood at that moment has been a subject of curious debate but one theologian surmises that the King stood for he knew he was in the presence of the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”Today, some 276 years later, people still come to their feet—not in remembrance of King George—But because they sense, thanks to Handel, that they are spiritually on Holy ground.
Now most of you know that my parents were missionaries in Thailand in the early 1960’s. This was my first Thanksgiving without mom or dad. I thought about them a lot as we sat around the table on Thursday. They were always so thankful for their years in Thailand. It, for them, truly lived up to its nickname: “The land of smiles.”
One of the highlights for mom and dad during their years there was hearing the performance of Handel’s Messiah by the 200 voice Bangkok Combined Choir accompanied by the primarily Buddhist Royal Thai Navy Orchestra. It would be my first chance to hear Messiah at the age of four. Yes, my mom took me everywhere!.The choir was composed of Thai, Chinese, and English singers and the whole production was directed by a dear friend of my parents, Mary Chaffee. Mary and her husband, Cliff, were also Presbyterian missionaries, and Mary was a lead singer in the Bangkok Opera Society. Mary’s productions of the Messiah were treasured throughout Bangkok’s Christian and Buddhist communities including members of the Thai Royal Family.
Friends, why all this talk of Handel and of his masterpiece, Messiah, this Advent morning? It is because the very first lyrics in Handel’s Messiah were the words of our scripture lesson this morning from Isaiah with just a slight variation in the translation: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God; Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem; and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her inequity is pardoned.”
Friends, with these compassionate words, which come from the King James translation of the Bible, Isaiah wants to communicate to his Jewish brothers and sisters living in exile in Babylon, the good news that very soon they will be returning home to Jerusalem.
The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple, in 587 BC and had forced 10,000 of the most educated and skilled Jews to go with them back to Babylon. The exile would last 70 years. It was an unimaginable national tragedy of the worst sort which almost destroyed the heart and soul of the Jewish people. It was to this heartbroken people who felt, at times, deserted by God, to whom Isaiah directed his prophetic poetry of comfort and hope.
While we may not fully agree with the theology of Isaiah who believed that it had been God’s will that Jerusalem had been violently destroyed and its people taken into captivity, due to their sin-- We can certainly appreciate the faith and compassion of a courageous prophet, who is determined to instill hope in his people and the truth that God is a loving, forgiving, God who desires to lead his people home.
Indeed the prophet Isaiah, in Chapter 40 and following, speaks of a new exodus wherein a people’s national pride, their traditions, their temple, and their homeland will be restored.
Whereas Moses, in the 13th Century BC, led the first exodus of God’s people out of their bondage in Egypt…now, Cyrus the Persian, in 539 BC, conquers the Babylonians and allows the Jews to experience a new exodus out from under the captivity of Babylon, and enables them to return to Jerusalem and Judea. It was around the time of Cyrus’ decree to free the Jews from their captivity that Isaiah wrote those now classic words embraced by Handel: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term…”
Friends, what always moves and inspires me in this passage from Isaiah is the poetic announcement that God comes to God’s people in the challenging desert of their lives in the wilderness of exile. To a people living in the desert and hopelessness of exile in a foreign land under foreign occupation, Isaiah says that God is a loving, strong, compassionate, God. A God who sees all you have been through, all you are currently struggling with, who has heard all your tearful laments and prayers, and is now preparing to bring you home.
Friends, we are invited this First Sunday of Advent to hear and believe that the good news which Isaiah proclaimed to his people is good news for us as well. For we too are in need of “a new exodus” out of the spiritual exile and captivity in the desert wilderness of our own lives. Yes, Advent, can be for us, a season of hope. We are to trust that such an exodus has begun not due to the fact that we are suddenly getting our act together but because it is God’s will for us—God’s will for humanity. I believe a true exodus, a meaningful transformation of our lives, from captivity to freedom and new life, is always initiated, and made possible, by the grace of God. Our call is to respond.
What is the nature of our captivity in this Advent Season from which we require exodus?
For some of us, this Advent, it is the exodus out of a persistent feeling of frustration and discouragement due to our nation being steeped in corruption at the highest levels of government. Others of us here this morning are in need of an exodus out of the fear and depression which illness or injury can bring. Some of us are beginning or continuing an exodus out from the wilderness of drug, alcohol, or tobacco addiction.
From the words of the poet and prophet Isaiah, we each are called as God’s people to a new exodus:
to a journey from despair to hope;
from doubt to trust;
from sadness to joy;
from anger to forgiveness;
from apathy to activism.
Advent, Isaiah teaches us, is a season of Exodus—a journey to a future which is initiated by God and brought to a glorious climax at Christmas. A journey which does not end at Jesus’ birth—but which goes on and on for the rest of our lives.
Everything, says Isaiah, is transformed when God brings exodus into his people’s lives.
Indeed, when God’s transforming power is present: “Every valley is lifted up…every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground becomes level and the rough places a plain…and the glory of the Lord is revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Friends, George Frederick Handel believed when he wrote his musical tribute, Messiah, that this One who comes at the culmination of Advent, is the “King of Kings” and the “Lord of Lords”. Handel believed, that we all can trust deep in our hearts, that He, the Christ, “shall reign forever and ever… Hallelujah.”