Meherrin Presbyterian Church
December 7, 2014; Advent 2B
Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Mark 1:1-8
As a former music history scholar, I confess I get excited when a scripture reminds me of or evokes my former career. When one sermon text I preached over the summer was on a scripture set to music in one of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorios, I got so excited I actually sang the relevant tune. During the sermon.
So at first glance at today’s text from Isaiah, it would seem to be a musician’s dream. A significant portion of this chapter was appropriated by George Frederick Handel for some of the early solos and choruses of his oratorio Messiah. It’s one of those pieces of music that’s almost impossible to avoid this time of year. If it’s not being performed live somewhere, it’s probably going to pop up on your TV or radio if you happen to watch or listen at the right time. It’s a Christmas tradition, as they say.
It can be inescapable this time of year.
Seriously, I’ve sung these portions of the work so many times as to have large chunks of them memorized.
You get the idea. Handel mined this chapter very heavily in writing the first portion of his oratorio – “Part the First,” in the ornate language of some of the early published editions. And it’s not hard to get why. It’s a beautiful, hopeful text. Unlike so much of what prophets like Isaiah had to say much of the time, it provides reassurance to a people, whether in Isaiah’s direct audience or to us today, that are rather in dire need of some form of reassurance. Where much of the prophet’s task was to call out the people for their sins, and last week we had the prophet basically suggesting that God should just blow in and knock everything over and push the restart button, here the message is much more gentle and accessible.
Much the same message is found in today’s psalm. It offers us some beautiful, if rather curious, images – “righteous and peace will kiss each other” might take a moment to sort out in the imagination – but it, like most of Isaiah’s chapter, provides hope, comfort, and even a kind of joy in its evocations of righteousness and peace, love and faithfulness.
The trouble is, when we leave here and go home, perhaps with the radio on in the car or the TV on when we get home, or perhaps when we look at the newspaper we didn’t finish this morning, it becomes very hard to remember all this stuff about comfort, or love and faithfulness, or righteousness and peace kissing. Another hostage killed in the Middle East. Another shooting in another American city, with nobody held responsible. Another oil spill. Another typhoon in the Philippines. Governments of small Pacific islands planning to evacuate their citizens, not because of a typhoon or another storm, but because sea levels are rising so fast the islands are truly sinking into the sea.
There’s a disconnect between what we see around us, what we know and observe about humanity, including ourselves, and what promises we hear in these bits of scripture from Isaiah and Psalms. We feel it as much as know it. Peace is nowhere to be found; righteousness seems an illusion; faithfulness and love sound like pipe dreams.
If a modern-day psalmist were to describe our contemporary culture, he or she might pen lines like “…steadfast hate and vindictiveness will meet; abusiveness and greed will high-five one another…” Promises of comfort, as Isaiah proclaims, sound hollow, more like fantasy than real, earthly possibility. How can we possibly look for that?
But Isaiah has more to say, something more that makes clear that these promises are not fantasy, and that they are promised even in the face of the human frailties and faults we know all too well. And the musician who communicated this best of all – who “preached” this message far more effectively than I could ever hope to do – was not Handel, but Johannes Brahms.
In the second movement of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, that composer appropriates a piece of Isaiah’s chapter 40 as well, but he avoids the passages made famous by Handel’s settings, choosing instead from the central movement of this text in verses 6-8. Like many psalms and like last week’s passage from Isaiah 61, this first portion of Isaiah 40 has three mini-sections that move in contrast to one another. Verses 6-8 provide a kind of reality check after the effusive promises of verses 1-5. With a tone a bit more pessimistic and maybe even a little cynical, this passage provided plenty of reasons for Handel to skip it in creating Messiah. On the other hand, it was perfect for Brahms.
Verse 6 echoes verse 3 and its language of one “crying out.” But where verse 3 doesn’t exactly make clear who is crying out (we’ll see who gospel writers thought it was in a little bit), in verse 6 the prophet is positioning himself as the object of the command: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’”. But somehow the prophet isn’t impressed. Psalm 81 and its promises seem far from his mind.
What does come to his mind is the very thing that seemed to be missing from our psalm excerpt and from the beginning of this chapter; the frailty, faultiness, and outright disobedience of humanity. The prophet’s reply “What shall I cry?” would probably benefit from a little slang interpretation here;
Cry out? Cry out what?
What can possibly be said to these hateful, faithless people?
These people are like grass. They have all the faithfulness and constancy of the grass in the field – looks pretty now, but withers and dies when the heat comes on. What’s the point of prophesying to such a faithless, worthless bunch?
Now there’s some stereotyped Old Testament prophet talk.
For all the inconstancy of the people, though, there is one thing that is sure. And Brahms says it much better than I.
What you are about to hear begins about seven minutes into the second movement. This is the fourth time Brahms repeats the prophet’s weary claims. It’s in German (this is the German Requiem, after all) but you can keep track beginning in the second half of verse 6 – “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” and then skipping to verse 7 – “the grass withers, the flower fades…”
(Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, track 2, begin at 7:00) [NOTE: in the linked video the section starts around 7:34, lasting to a little before 9:40. In my humble musical opinion the "Aber des Herrn Wort" needs to be a lot faster.]
“Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.” “But the word of our God will stand forever.”
But! Never has so much power and hope and attention been musically invested in that little conjunction “but”! Okay, in German it’s actually “aber,” which translates as “but.” Here those three little letters are packed with so much hope.
Our inconstancy, our faithlessness, our hatefulness, our spitefulness, all of those horrible things that we see in ourselves as a species and as a human race cannot outlast the promise of our Lord. Our failure cannot be the final word; it will always be trumped by the “word of the Lord” that endures through all eternity. Brahms, who if anything would probably fit within the modern category of “spiritual but not religious,” nonetheless saw the hope in that little German word “aber” and found a way to express it with a power and a joy and an exuberance that maybe we can learn from and hold on to in our own reflection on this passage.
"Spiritual but not religious," or simply "None"? Can't decide.
Something a little similar happens in our gospel passage for today, from Mark 1, although no composer has emerged to set it in such an effective way. In verse 4 we are introduced to the character John “the baptizer,” whom many early Christians quickly decided was the one crying out in the wilderness early in Isaiah 40. If we take verse 6 seriously then “character” seems a pretty accurate description of the man. The gospel writer wastes little time in introducing us to John and his message – “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But by verses 7-8 it becomes clear that John’s message is less about himself than about The One yet to come, One who is going to bring something new and different:
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
There’s that word again – “but,” or in this case the Greek word “δε.” Here, though, while it is a word that signifies hope, there’s also maybe a little danger with it, maybe a little disruption.” What does it mean to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit”? Sounds a little scary.
It’s no longer about God doing something in the abstract, no longer about God’s faithfulness outlasting our sinfulness and faithlessness. Now, that little conjunction “but” is introducing a far more challenging promise; God isn’t just going to do something, God is going to do something to us.
It isn’t about God out there in the distance being all Godly and powerful. It isn’t even about God tearing open the heavens and shaking things up as in last week’s scripture from Isaiah. It’s about God getting inside us and shaking us up. And maybe that’s … well, not exactly scary, maybe, but … okay, maybe it is a little scary. It means we might change. It means we might not be able to kick back in our own comfort zone and leave all the work to God. This One who is to come baptizing us with the Holy Spirit is hope, yes, but hope that comes with a little bit of threat, a little bit of an edge.
That’s the thing about Advent, if you take it seriously. It’s not quiet. It’s not passive, really. It is charged with the energy of a God whose faithfulness will outlast all of our faithlessness, yes. But it’s also charged with the energy of a God who doesn’t feel like waiting that long, a God who chooses to break in now and turn us inside out and upside down with the Holy Spirit, a God who instead of tearing open the heavens and starting earthquakes invades humanity in the form of a human who turned over tables, and healed the sickest of the sick, and turned the heads of the religious leaders inside out with his challenge to their stock theology, who exalted the poor and told the rich to give it all away, and who didn’t even have the decency to stay dead when humanity finally killed him. And that, friends, is the power and the challenge of Advent.
“But,” for three little letters packed with hope and danger, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (PH 9), "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (2), "Lord Christ, When First You Came to Earth" (7)