(a sermon for May 31, 2021, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on John 3:1-17)
Specifically, that is a piece from the Cantata numbered 147, entitled (and forgive my pronunciation here), “Herz Und Mund Und Tat Und Leben,” composed in 1723 by Johann Sebastian Bach. We know it, of course, as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a tune I dare say that most of us have heard a great many times, perhaps performed by a great symphony orchestra or sung by a chorale or church choir. It’s always possible, I suppose, that some of you “tuning” in this morning are hearing this piece performed for the very first time; but even then, I’m guessing that you recognized the melody even if you didn’t know where it came from. Because regardless of your particular knowledge of the piece, there was probably something about it that made you stop, however momentarily, maybe smile a bit and say to yourself, “I know that song.”
That’s what music does, you know: it touches us emotionally, spiritually, even physically; even if sometimes it happens in a fleeting kind of way. In other words, it’s here and then it’s gone; recognized for an instant and then relegated to memory until that moment when the same melody passes by you on another occasion when the experience happens all over again. You see, sometimes we think of “songs,” in whatever shape or form they happen to take, as just being there; as part of some kind of aural landscape. But, in fat, as any musician, singer or composer will tell you, thinking of songs merely in that fashion is to miss the fullness of the music; it is to deny ourselves the whole experience of what that piece of music is all about… and that would be a shame.
Take, for instance, “Jesu, Joy,” that Sue just played for us, which is much more than a simple melody. It is, in fact, a Masterwork: a full and glorious piece of music that encompasses at least three separate and unique personalities, each of which represents a special contribution to the whole, each one different than the others. And yet, when each of these personalities are joined together, what’s created is one, full, memorable expression of beautiful music… Bach!
Let me explain what I mean. To begin with, we have to realize that Bach was, shall we say, the “father” of his music. By that I mean that the ideas for Bach’s music came from his own head, his own heart. In other words, the melody, harmony, tempo, and rhythm of a particular composition… all of these are created out of the vision of a composer and arranger. What’s interesting here is that throughout his life, Johann Sebastian Bach often built his chorales from the songs, hymns and melody lines that he knew from childhood, or that had been a part of his musical training; and “Jesu, Joy” actually started out as jig tune he’d heard at a dance somewhere! That song, like so many others, had rolled around inside his head and had become such a part of him that he was moved to recreate those songs around a seemingly infinite series of harmonies and variations! And then, of course, there would also be melodies and song fragments that just seemed to come out of nowhere and literally begged to find form, substance and its own one-of-a-kind beauty; and that’s just what Johann sought to create.
And that’s what I mean when I say that Bach was “father” to his music.
But… then there needed to be an expression of that creativity, the realization of that one-of-a-kind musical beauty. All of the literally hundreds of chorales, cantatas and motets that were composed by Bach needed to be written down and recorded in just the way he intended for them to be. So Bach, who was the father of his music, brought forth a score. He put down on paper a pattern of notation describing the music he had in mind: musical notes, key signatures, words and symbols to remind us of proper tempo, intonation and style. I suppose one could say that score was the child of Bach’s ideas, the embodiment of his vision for the music his created. So now, when we look at a score of a work that was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, we know that this is as close as we can come to knowing what he must have been thinking and felling when he created this idea of musical beauty.
Bach was the father to his music… but the score, the full and complete expression of that idtea, might well be thought of… as the Son.
But… there’s still more if we’re to truly understand the fullness of Bach’s music; and that has to do with its spirit… that is, the energy, excitement and utter beauty that’s revealed when musicians of every stripe pick up their instruments and proceed to coax out of those instruments the sound which the composer intended; thereby linking audiences to composers. It’s there in the skill, care and love that we feel from Susan she sits down at the keyboard to play; it’s what happens to us as singers and choir members when a song or a hymn or an anthem comes together in just the right way. You see, every time we hear “Jesu, Joy” played, in some small way we become united with Bach’s vision: even 300 years later, we are given an inkling of what Bach was feeling about this piece; about the emotions this music raised in his heart. Bachhimself is revealed to us through the medium of musicians playing, interpreting the score of his works.
You know, I’ve heard “Jesu, Joy” performed on pipe organs and grand pianos, played by symphony orchestras and sung by choirs of just about every shape and size; but I’ve also heard it played by steel drum bands and bluegrass groups full of fiddles and guitars (or, as they say in Nashville, git-tars!). I’ve seen it performed classically and reverently, but I’ve also heard soaring renditions that literally leave you breathless at the end! The bottom line is that there’s no way you can truly appreciate the musical score without hearing that score performed by the musicians, singers and conductors who themselves have been inspired by their own glimpses at the score and the vision it contains. And in some small way, I have to say that every version I’ve ever heard of this song provided some insight as to Bach’s vision and intent for his work.
So you see… there ends up being three separate and unique personalities that when combined make up this full and beautiful moment of music we know so well; so well that the music immediately becomes something personal to us, something so lovely and melodic that even after the song is done you’ll hear the melody in your head and your very breathing takes on its rhythm. The song, in its fullness, becomes a part of you.
And if you think of this as parable, friends, then perhaps this becomes a way of understanding the experience of God in our lives. For central to our faith is the idea of God as three persons – the “blessed trinity,” as the hymn refers to it: God the Father, Creator; God the Son, Redeemer; God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier. Separate parts and personalities of One God: One God who comes to us and is always, always as close to us as our very breathing.
The doctrine of the Trinity is probably the most feared and misunderstood parts of our Christian theology; and indeed, to wrap one’s mind and heart around the concept of a God in three persons is confusing, to say the very least! But I also have to tell you, friends, that I’ve long found the Trinity as a comfort, for it’s one way that my puny little mind can even begin to grasp the full and all-encompassing grace of God. Without the Trinity, God would seem as far-off as a distant star in the dark blue of a cold night sky: education and logic might tell us that the star is hot, but it’s so far away from us that the heat of that star comes off as imperceptible to us, making it nearly impossible to warm up in its light.
But thanks to the doctrine of the Trinity, we understand that God is not a distant and far-removed deity, but rather the God who lives very, very near to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Ours is the living God who contains within himself the kind of communion we seek; ours is the God of power and love who continually brings himself ever closer to his creation. And we are warmed by the light of that constant and abiding presence that’s as close as our very breathing.;
YES. God is our Father (or Mother, for that matter: our words and our names are meant to help us understand; God cannot be adequately described by our gender language); God is the ONE who is the very source and origin of our existence. Our living, our breathing, our laughing and crying, our times of waking and sleeping: all of this and so much more bears the mark of God’s vision for the universe, for our world, for our very lives, yours and mine. We are God’s creation, a creation that is set and motion with a purpose in our heart and mind; we are created in God’s image, and it is the image of LOVE.
But YES, as the saying goes, we’re only human… and the truth of our existence is that more often than not, we stray far from God’s vision and purpose. We need a model for our life and living as God intends… and so God also came to us in the Son; in Jesus, our Emmanuel, God participated in our lives. Jesus was the truest expression of how life is to be lived within God’s vision and purpose even amid all the struggles and difficulties of life. In life and in death, without compromise, Jesus brought us closer to God and what God intended for us to be, while offering forgiveness for the times we fall short of the vision. In the words of our text from John’s Gospel: “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
And YES… God is also Spirit. For God promised us in Jesus Christ that we would never, ever be alone, and that we should know a peace that the world can neither give nor take away. God’s presence and the divine life in Christ flows constantly in and through our lives in this and every generation: sheltering us at times, moving us along new pathways at others but always giving us the energy and strength to keep living; always picking us up when we stumble; providing us the courage to stand and walk. It is by the Spirit, blowing where it will, that God’s full purpose and intention is revealed to you and to me.
In our reading today, John speaks with Nicodemus about being born from above… that is, born again, born of the Spirit. It’s a concept that Nicodemus can’t yet begin to understand, but it’s actually pretty simple: it’s Jesus promise of a Spirit that brings forth the fullness of God’s blessing to the world that he has loved from its very creation, a blessing signed and sealed by the giving of his only Son Jesus. And when we are born of that promised Spirit, our lives cannot help but begin anew; redirected now toward God’s vision, God’s own kingdom. It’s the Spirit, you see, by its divine inspiration and truly holy movement that leads us there.
Our God… our ONE God – God the loving Father, God the Redeeming Son, God the ever-present, ever-leading Spirit – is always with us; always as close to us as our breathing, nearer to us than anything and anyone in this world.
Our God knows and shares the fear and pain that we assumed that only we could know. Our God is so close that God understands even when we can’t. Our God is nothing less than comfort and consolation itself.
We don’t understand it… I surely don’t… but then, to try and capsulize or contain it would only be to limit God; and God is so much bigger and greater than our human ideas and perception. We can’t explain it, much as we might try… but we can cherish it, for it is God’s incredible and continuing gift of love. And we can proclaim it unto the world; for truly, as Jesus himself said it, “We only speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen.”
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen, and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.