I just came home from singing a very abridged sing-along version of Handel’s Messiah. It’s an annual event, accompanied by the Conservatory Orchestra of Student Orchestras of Greater Olympia (Washington state). The conductor remarked that the full Messiah is about three hours and that he’d conducted it once. I have sung the full version as a tenor chorus member at least ten times.
As I was singing tonight, I was remembering the last sermon I preached, at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Lacey, WA, during Easter season on Earth Day in 2010. Handel’s Messiah is the organizing illustration. It’s based on my recollection of singing the full version at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, MA during the 1990s
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 25, 2010
Psalm 23 (1)
Good morning. My name is Paul, and I’m a sinner saved by God’s grace.
I’m standing dead center in the front row of the choir loft, surrounded by singers, the orchestra in front of me. We’re in a huge old church on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College in Qunicy, Massachusetts. Every pew is jammed with people, even in the wrap-around balcony. This is the third or fourth year; I’ve lost track. It’s the dead of dark winter, freezing and treacherous outside, near Christmas.
We’re nearly three hours into the concert. We’ve sung the entire gospel, from the tenor soloist’s proclamation of the words of Isaiah, “Comfort Ye, Comfort ye, my people,” and, “Every Valley shall be exalted.” We’ve gloried in the birth of Christ, we’ve sorrowed our way through his suffering and death. We’ve proclaimed the resurrection, and I have been careful not to allow the Hallelujah Chorus to shred my voice, because I know that in this piece the climax comes at the end. The musical genius, George Frederick Handel, follows the Hallelujah chorus with what now seems the only thing possible: the beautiful, lilting soprano melody of “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth,” a verse from the book of Job, of all places, in which the devastated farmer, having lost family and fortune to a seemingly capricious act of God, answers his critics in the only way he knows how. The piccolo trumpet has flawlessly overshadowed the bass soloist in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” and we have struggled through the purposefully anticlimactic “But Thanks Be to God.” We’ve paper-clipped the soprano solo “If God Be for us, who can be against us?” because everyone knows that no one ever sings that.
So now, just having sung a resounding E-flat major chord, with the tenors on a B-flat, we’re trying to imagine what a D-major chord will sound like, because we have to pick it instantly from the air. Somehow, I and the other tenors pluck our F-sharp from the ether, and we begin the final movement, “singing with full voice”:
Worthy is the lamb that was slain,
and hath redeem-ed us to God by His blood,
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength,
and honor, and glory, and blessing.
And we repeat this in the dominant key. Then the basses and tenors take over, in booming unison:
Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him, be unto him, that sit-teth upon the throne, and unto the lamb, for ever and ever, etc. etc. etc.
On the last Forever and ever we are blasting the five chord, A major, in a suddenly slow tempo with a great fermata (pause). As the basses begin one of the greatest Amens in all of music, followed in fugue fashion by the tenors, I’m still having to pace myself, because I know what’s coming. I have always been convinced that this was why my friend Lois kept hiring me to help out the Eastern Nazarene tenor section year after year. On page 252 of the choral score, eight measures before the end, the tenors have to sing a fortissimo A above middle C, matching the same pitch the altos have just sung. So I’m pacing myself, making sure that I have just enough left in the tank to direct every muscle in my body and all my breath and strength into that A. When it finally comes, miraculously, it’s there, and we soar through the last six amens of Handel’s Messiah.
The congregation, having dutifully sat on their hands for three hours, now leap to their feet with shouts and applause. And I and all the other musicians drink in this reward, physically and spiritually exhausted.
For singers and other musicians, this image of eternal bliss, with saints robed in white joining the angels in singing God’s praises, is not half bad. It’s one of the few heavenly things we get to do on earth. If you’re not particularly musically inclined, however, I can see how this might not be an image of heaven that works for you. It would be like me playing left tackle for the Seahawks. And although our translation says the heavenly host was “singing,” the Greek word is “saying.” So let’s lay aside for the moment the musical dimension of this vision from John of Patmos, and reflect on his message. Just what might it mean to proclaim blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might to God, to God-as-lamb? Now it’s not hard, for me at least, to attribute to the lamb ideas like blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, and honor.
John uses the humble image of the lamb as a symbol of Christ, who was slain for our sins. John is clearly referring to the ancient law of the Hebrews, in which a sinner is to take an unblemished lamb and offer it to God in payment for his or her sins. In that case, the lamb has little to do with the transaction. It’s bred, chosen, fattened, and slaughtered. But if the lamb is a person without sin, who willingly offers himself in sacrifice for the sins of others, surely such a person would be worthy of blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, and honor.
Where we might run into trouble is in the idea of attributing to such a person “power” and “might.” Yes, there is “power” in the forgiveness of sins, no question about that. But something even greater than this is in view here. This divine lamb-who-was-slain has the power of dominion, of rule, of governance. This vision of a governing lamb-who-was-slain is in full and utter contradiction to the world in which we find ourselves today. Here is cognitive dissonance, something that does not compute.
Our society is at war over power. To say that our society is divided is like pointing out that a nuclear bomb makes a loud noise. Our society is rent asunder, increasingly polarized, with the opposing poles of the magnet gaining in strength, drawing everyone further toward the extremes. As some of you are aware, I have political opinions, and from time to time I try to articulate them. I try to be reasonable. But what invariably happens is that I get drawn into the vortex. Trying to be calm and reasonable in our political climate is like trying to sail a paper airplane straight through a hurricane, or like trying to paddle a kayak up Niagra Falls. I try to remain calm, and pretty soon I’m raising my voice, even if it’s through a keyboard. My very highly educated friends say things that I think are infantile, and I HAVE TO RESPOND! And other people have the same reaction to my very reasonable, thoughtful observations.
The Internet comic strip XKCD has a panel in which a harried man is sitting at a computer. A voice from another room says to him, “Are you coming to bed?”
“I can’t. This is important.”
“Someone is wrong on the Internet!”
Fed up with my rants, a Facebook friend wrote to me: “Paul, you are an intelligent and well informed man. Your recent status updates and posts are disappointing to me. This is a form of commentary well below your usual standards.”
She appealed to my better nature, which is cheating. But this, along with Holy Week at St. Mark, began to bring me out of my trance of political polarization. So do you think you’re immune, completely reasonable? Let’s test this. I’ll say four names, and I’ll bet two of them make you uncomfortable. Ready? George W. Bush. Barack H. Obama. Sarah Palin. Nancy Pelosi. Still feeling calm and comfortable?
Here’s the problem: Rabbi Edwin Friedman once observed that there are three systems of salvation in America: Religion, politics, and therapy. Most of us can’t afford therapy, and we like to keep religion personal and concerned with the afterlife, so that leaves politics as our only practical system of salvation. We think we can save ourselves, the planet, and the human race, through politics. And because these are the stakes, the very salvation of humanity and the planet, we become very serious about our politics. We begin to imagine that there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” We portray our political opponents in terms of a nearly metaphysical evil, and we reject any suggestion that the people in our party have anything but the most noble and righteous aspirations. We lose the capacity to communicate; we paint “the others” with a broad brush, wiping out all nuance and difference, except that they are the enemy: the blues or the reds. And we hurl the most heinous accusations against them, often without a shred of evidence or a twinge of conscience. And when we do this, we are playing in the devil’s playground.
Remember the last temptation of Christ? “And the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan, for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
I believe that Friedman was wrong. Politics is not a system of salvation. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one has pure motivations. No one is good, said Jesus, except God alone. God does not identify with any human political ideology or party. No political or economic system or leader can save us. John writes in chapter seven verse 10, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the lamb.” Only God can save us. If we think that the human exercise of worldly power can save us, then we have struck our bargain with the devil.
I have to laugh every year when, in the aftermath of great demonstrations in public parks across this nation in honor of Earth Day, the cleanup crews have to come in and haul away the mountains of trash, heaped over garbage cans and strewn across the flattened grass. I imagine that the portable toilets are in similar condition. This is so typical of us humans, that in spite of our best intentions we wind up wreaking havoc and destruction.
You want to honor the earth? Check out Revelation: 5:13:
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing (or saying),
To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb-who-was-slain be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
I hope someone has the courage to stand before a microphone and proclaim this in an Earth Day celebration today.
The followers of Jesus were begging him to take the path toward the acquisition of earthly power. But this was not the path he chose. He chose the path of the lamb. He saw that the people were not responding to his teaching in the way that he had hoped. He set forth the catastrophic consequences for humanity should we continue to reject the reign of God. Seeing that the people were demanding a scapegoat, and refusing to be complicit in the sacrifice of another, he allowed himself to be led to the slaughter, so that through his resurrection he could finally undo the pretensions of the powerful. And we are the saints whose robes have been washed in his blood. It is our pretensions of power and our pretensions of righteousness that he has undone. Our righteousness is in him alone. When we hurl those accusations of communism, of hitlerism, of racism, and all the other -isms toward our political opponents, we only heap condemnation upon ourselves by rejecting the lamb-who-was-slain. And I confess that so doing, I have heaped mountains of condemnation upon myself. But thanks be to God, it takes but a sincere confession with repentance to cast this mountain of sin and condemnation into the sea.
The only way that the polarization of this country can be reversed is if the people of God will allow the power of the lamb-who-was-slain to disengage us from choosing among evils. The right, the left, the capitalists, the socialists, the pundits, the columnists, the spin-meisters, the talk-show-hosts, the newscasters, the politicians, are not worthy of our faith and our trust. It is the lamb-who-was-slain who is worthy to receive blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might! For that one rules with the greatest power in the universe: the love of God, which issues forth the forgiveness of sins, and live everlasting. Amen and Amen.