Preaching in Cramer Chapel, Ft.Wayne on J.S.Bach’s memorial: What a delight!

Johann Sebastian Bach – one of the greatest composers and one appropriately called the 5th evangelist – died 260 years ago.  With music he underscores the good Lord’s story. A feast for hungry ears! “Made in heaven!” is a fitting label even as he signs off his inspirational work: Soli Deo Gloria. This grandmaster of music composed at least 3 cycles of cantatas for every Sunday in the year and an oratorio for most Christian holidays – thus preaching the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ with music close to perfection. A musical banquet prepared for those with ears to hear: “Glad tidings of great joy I bring, whereof I now will say and sing…

Isaiah – one of the most gifted sages of old, a top evangelist of the ancient times, truly inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that he preached him who was to come: Jesus Christ. It was given to him to see what was to finally come about – the last things – happy ending of God’s story with his people. This eventually culminates in an exuberant celebration, a festival of divine abundance and the best of the best in food and drink. Everybody has a super seat prepared, is clothed with celestial garb in the latest divine fashion, drinks heavenly nectar, enjoys food fit for the Gods and probably listens to music even better than Bach + Beatles!  It’s the stuff feeding human myths like those describing revelry down in the magnificent mines of Moria or the partying at Hogwarths when all is done or even “Babettes feast.” Out of this world stuff really – hardly experienced, but longed for by people on their way there, who have not quite forgotten, that this is not everything yet – not by a long shot. It is part of God’s way of keeping his people dreaming of the better world out yonder – the promised land flowing with milk and honey.

The refugees fleeing the drought gripping the Horn of Africa would know, don’t you think? They too are striving for a better land, they know it’s not back home, but ahead, still out of reach, but by the grace, mercy and calling of God they will finally get there – just like good summer rains are not up to us to make, but only to receive; just as the good life in God’s sight remains a gift from him, never just product of our skills, ingenuity or planning. Overcoming misery, grief, tears, pain and finally death – God’s doing, not ours. So also getting into God’s kingdom is God’s business. Thankfully he does that too – just as he promised through Isaiah – even for poor, miserable sinners, undeserving, but admitted by grace as the watchword for this week underlines: “For by grace you have been saved through faith…” Eph.2,8f.

See, this evangelist of the Old Testament is enabled to see what the Lord of Hosts is up to. The Holy Spirit shows how the Lord himself is preparing a feast for all people –  a feast of rich food, well-aged wine, marrow, well refined. That’s the feast of feasts, the culmination of all parties and wedding celebrations the final banquet after the last judgment, the wedding of the bridegroom with his bride the church when finally all sin is forgiven, guilt redeemed and reproach vicariously removed – the burden is lifted. Time to celebrate!

Jesus Christ already fulfilled this messianic prophecy in his time. He provided heavenly abundance to 4-5 thousand in the desert, changed water into best wine, brought outsiders like Zachaus and Magdalene back into God’s family and demonstrated how the prodigal son is reinstated by the father and the elder brother is invited to join the celebrations as the angels intone the glorious Hallelujahs in heaven. Yes, Jesus brings the dead like Lazarus back to life and restores joy, bliss and salvation to the mourning and opens heaven’s doors for poor miserable sinners: Come taste and see, how friendly your God is. His final testament given in the night, when he was betrayed remains our highest good and most precious treasure: for us and our salvation!  

Here and now even these divine things are a yet but a foretaste of the eschatological things to come. Realized yes, at least partly already, but still somewhat “not yet”. Only little portions of heavenly bliss for now, just a sip of most precious divinity out of silver chalice and only morsels from golden plates, but don’t despair there’s more to come in good time, better still in God’s time! Here and now the Church resembles more a hospital or dispensary than a festive dance- and banquet hall. The abundance, exuberance and even excess of the church triumphant is still beyond our reach, we are still caught up in the militant one: sobriety and temperance, moderation, fasting and restraint are called for. Therefore liturgy is more appropriately Gregorian chant than playful tunes and rhythmic vibes; church buildings resemble waiting-stations more than cozy homes and that’s probably fitting for migrants, refugees, people on the move; dress more that of pilgrims, athletes or even soldiers than of fancy wedding guests; prayers still abounding with Kyrie eleison and include numerous litanies, petitions and lamentations even if hallelujahs are in good order and resound here and there; suffering, hardship, even persecution might be our lot still – and not yet the divine celebration without end.  Still the vision is given, never to be recalled. We are on our way and by God’s grace we will see, what was promised and already believed.

In contrast to J.S.Bach Max Reger consciously included inharmonious and dissonant parts in his musical compositions like a hick-up. In that way he emphasized our human limitations and imperfections and pointed faithfully to the one mediator and savoir, who alone is able to finish and perfect the good work in us and bring it to immaculate completion there, where all discordant melodies will finally be harmonized in faultless perfection:  “What joy to know, when life is past, the Lord we love is first and last, the end and the beginning! He will one day, oh, glorious grace, transport us to that happy place Beyond all tears and sinning! Amen, Amen! Come Lord Jesus! Crown of gladness! We are yearning for the day of your returning!” 

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
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