The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11 (KJV), Psalm 77, Philippians 4:4-7, St. John 1:19-28
Her Iniquity Is Pardoned
London was treating its adopted luminary rather shabbily. George Frideric Handel had left his native Germany to study and work in Italy for five years. When he moved on to London, where he would spend most of his life, he packed his love of opera for the journey.
Already an accomplished composer, he found a warm welcome in England and the operas he wrote there played to large and enthusiastic audiences. In time, however, the English appetite for a foreign art form sung in an unfamiliar tongue began to wane.
They liked their bangers and mash and they liked lyrics in their own language. What’s more, they were weary of the low morals and all-too-public scandals of some of the foreign artists who seemed to lead steamier lives than the characters they portrayed. An opera house Handel had founded and supported went bankrupt.
So it was that Handel accepted readily the invitation of an Irish aristocrat to compose an oratorio for the Dublin stage. Handel had already begun to explore this new form, which used solo parts, chorus and orchestra to tell a tale without costumes or acting. Most importantly, it used English lyrics.
Most oratorios set to music an Old Testament story, and Handel, a Christian, would write a number of them based on the lives of Esther and Samson and other biblical characters. This one, though, would be different.
A librettist – one who writes the words for an extended musical composition – had assembled a number of Bible verses relating to Jesus Christ. This would not be another passion narrative, however, but a meditation on the life of Christ grounded in the Old Testament and particularly in the Book of Isaiah.
It would be called “Messiah.”
The first part foretells the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalts His sacrifice for mankind, and the third heralds His Resurrection. The librettist, Charles Jennens, wrote to a friend, “I hope (Handel) will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject.”
It seems safe to say, lo these many years and thousands of performances later, that Handel lived up to that hope.
One reason he accepted the commission was that the debut would be a fund-raiser for Dublin hospitals. Handel was already wealthy and already deep in good causes. In London, he gave to hospitals, paid off the debts of those confined in debtors’ prisons and helped to establish the Fund for the Support of Decayed Musicians.
This altruistic impulse bears directly on his music, as we shall see.
In a furious spasm of three to four weeks during the summer of 1741, working daily from sunup to sundown, Handel composed the work for performance at the next Easter. When he got to the Hallelujah chorus, his assistant found him in tears saying, “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.”
“Messiah” opened on the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and attracted the largest audience ever in that auditorium, 700 patrons. Ladies had graciously heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” to save space.
Handel’s celebrity was not the only draw. Some came to gawk at the contralto, Susannah Cibber, who was embroiled in a salacious divorce. Near the midway point, she sang, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
The Rev. Patrick Delany was transported. He sprang from his seat and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
The oratorio opens with a mournful string overture. For 39 chapters, Isaiah has thundered judgment against the nations, and in particular against God’s rebellious people Israel, now in bondage in Babylon.
In chapter 40, the mood swings abruptly, beginning in the first 11 verses, our Old Testament lesson for today, to one of hope in the salvation God will deliver. Handel’s heart must have fluttered as rapidly as his hand as he set to music these thrilling verses, for his giving spirit flowed out of a deep love for God’s image-bearers.
His contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote music that celebrated the majesty and glory of God; the philanthropist Handel focused on God’s magnificent grace upon His people and their response to Him.
Burning this passion for fuel, Handel ascended to such heights that, in the words of Ludwig van Beethoven, he became “the master of us all . . . the greatest composer who ever lived.” Beethoven said, “I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.”
In Dublin, the audience sits spellbound through the overture as in Babylon the exiled Jews strain to hear a word of hope from their God. It comes in the piercing opening line of His prophet Isaiah who, we now learn, is a tenor. Listen again to the opening verses:
THE FIRST PART (vv 1-3)
“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 iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Perhaps Isaiah is a tenor because he is singing the song of salvation that will burst forth from the gospels in a brighter, higher key. The prophet introduces in these verses the themes he will weave into his message of restoration through the remainder of the book:
Atonement, the way of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, the power of the word of God, the city of God, the Savior’s strong arm for the defense of His people and His tender touch in caring for them.
And in the gospels, as we have heard already this day, John the Baptist will reach back into this passage to declare himself the embodiment of Isaiah’s message, the herald who proclaims the coming of the Savior.
The comfort of God’s touch begins in verse 1. He has afflicted Israel with banishment and bondage for their sins . . . but He has not abandoned them: “My people . . . your God.”
How is it that they remain under His watch and care? They have received pardon. “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her . . . her iniquity is pardoned.”
Has Israel paid off the debt of her centuries-long rebellion against God with several decades in exile? Indeed not. Here commences a mystery which will not be resolved until chapter 53, where we learn that God Himself, the suffering Servant, is the One who satisfies the debt of sin.
For now it is enough to know: You have won the royal pardon! God has flung open the doors of your prison.
And the people of God will not be left to their own devices to make their way home through the wilderness. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” His way is their way, for He shall be with them on their homeward journey to Zion.
THE SECOND PART (vv 4-5)
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”
“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” He is Lord of all. The nations shall know Him as Savior, and not of Israel alone. “And all flesh shall see it together.” He performs His wondrous works of mercy that all peoples may know Him for who He is.
The next section is not included in Handel’s masterpiece. A voice commands Isaiah, “Cry!” The prophet is receiving his second commission. The first came in chapter 6, when God prepared him to deliver the oracle of judgment. Isaiah asked, “How long, Lord?”
God replied, “Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate . . .”
That curse has come to pass. God’s people have gone into bondage, have served their sentence. Now, Isaiah receives an anointing as a messenger of mercy. He asks, “What shall I cry?” The voice supplies the message of salvation, not for Israel alone but for the nations. “All flesh is grass . . . the grass witherith, the flower fadeth . . .”
Put not your trust in the flesh.
“But the word of our God shall stand forever.” Put your faith in God alone, God who shall save you by His word. His word is made of the same eternal stuff as its Author.
We return to “Messiah” for two of the final three verses.
Here are all three:
THIRD PART (vv 9-11)
“O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”
It is desolate Jerusalem who will hear first the glad tidings and proclaim the news to those who remain in the cities of Judah: “Behold your God!” Their Lord is returning to Zion!
“His arm shall rule for Him” – no enemies of His people will be able to resist Him. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and shall gently lead those that are with young.” He shall not leave the weak behind.
David’s illustrious Son, like His father before Him, is both a warrior-king who rules on Mount Zion, fiercely protecting His own by His strong arm, and a gentle shepherd, tenderly gathering His lambs to Him with that same arm.
His reward will be with Him, this gift of grace and love so great that the people’s torments in exile will shatter and drift away on the breeze, never to be thought of again.
Beloved, we, too, are His people, living in exile in a sin-wracked world, longing to go home with Him. And so we will, for He is come to save us, and our heavenly Father will remember our time of exile in sin no more.
Because of what our Lord Christ has done, He will look upon us as though we had never sinned. Sing hosanna to His name. Amen.