Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sermon on the Messiah by Handel

Choices, the choices we make each and every day have an impact on how our lives are shaped, and how our lives impact the lives of others. As the shopping frenzy reaches its climax at sundown on Christmas eve, I realize the most anxiety producing, heart racing, brain freezing, action procrastination decisions I make to get the right present are at Christmas. No matter how much time I have, no matter how early I start, I always feel I have fallen short of the perfect gift choices! But choices are what I have to decide on, no one wants the excuse that you could not decide. The choices we make are important in our journey of faith as well. In today’s scripture, we learn our Messiah will choose good over evil, and will be a light for the nations. In our moments of indecision we need this light to guide us in the difficult times, in the ordinary times, in the joyful times of our lives.
This week I did some research on the life of George Frideric Handel , who composed the masterpiece being performed today by the Claremont Symphony Orchestra, Messiah, . This music which has become a tradition at Advent time, almost would not have been written Handel had made different choices.
If Handel's father had had his way, the "Hallelujah Chorus" would never have been written. His father was a "surgeon-barber," a no-nonsense, practical man who was determined to send his son to law school. Even though Handel showed extraordinary musical talent as a child, his father refused for several years to permit him to take lessons.
When George was eight or nine years old, a duke heard him play an organ postlude following a worship service. Handel's father was summarily requested to provide formal music training for the boy. His father chose to follow the summons of the duke. By the time Handel turned 12, he had written his first composition and was so proficient at the organ that he substituted, on occasion, for his own teacher.
Although Handel would go on to write great music in England, he suffered personal setbacks. Falling in and out of favor with changing monarchs, competing with established English composers, and dealing with fickle, hard to-please audiences left him on the verge of bankruptcy more than once.
Audiences for Handel's compositions were unpredictable, and even the Church of England attacked him for what they considered his notorious practice of writing biblical dramas such as Esther and Israel in Egypt to be performed in secular theaters. His occasional commercial successes soon met with financial disaster, as rival opera companies competed for the ticket holders of London. He drove himself relentlessly to recover from one failure after another, and finally his health began to fail. By 1741 he was swimming in debt. It seemed certain he would land in debtor's prison.

On April 8, 1741 he gave what he considered his farewell concert. Miserably discouraged, he felt forced to retire from public activities at the age of 56. Then two unforeseen events converged to change his life. A wealthy friend, Charles Jennings, gave Handel a libretto based on the life of Christ, taken entirely from the Bible. He also received a commission from a Dublin charity to compose a work for a benefit performance.
Handel set to work composing on August 22 in his little house on Brook Street in London. He grew so absorbed in the work that he rarely left his room, hardly stopping to eat. Within six days Part One was complete. A few days later he had his mystical experience of seeing heaven and wrote the concluding piece of Messiah, called Hallelujah! This was his attempt to express the joy of seeing heaven, and the witness of Jesus of life conquering death.
I have been to see or sing in Messiah, about 20 times in my life time, ever since I first learned the score in college choir. The words to the music always hit my heart so I would like to highlight a few choices Handel made from the Old Testament to introduce us to the expectations to who this Messiah would be. In doing so, perhaps we can also catch a glimpse of what inspired Handel. I do not include all the verses, only my favorites I will use to share my love of this music with you.

1.Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplish'd, that her Iniquity is pardoned. 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. (Isaiah 40 : 1-3)
The first word is comfort: a word that will create in us a sense of peace, of contentment. We live in troubled times, when war is claiming the lives, when hunger and poverty still have not been conquered, a time when the world seems to have lost its way. It is good to know that the expected Messiah, will first bring a word of comfort to our troubled souls.
2. Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, and ev'ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
In my last visit to my hometown, Chicopee Mass, I went to a picnic at Look Park in Northampton, a really neat outdoor park where you can build a campfire, throw rocks in the stream, rent a paddle boat. However, the skies darkened and we had a severe thunderstorm, a real down pour, and the winds knocked trees down, and the thunder made you jump! We ran back to our cars and then decided after a waiting until the crowd had left, and the rain lessoned to leave. However, in getting back to our hotel, I had to drive around downed tree branches, pools of water, and traffic that had slowed down to 25mph. All the time we huddled together, the heater doing its best to dry us out, until we could reach the warm safe room where we could change. There are times in our lives when we are trying to navigate through storms, of loss, of financial crisis, of a health problem when we wonder if we will safely arrive on the other side. Isaiah tells us that the Messiah will help us through the rough places of our lives.
(Isaiah 40 : 4)
3. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
(Isaiah 40 : 5)
When we turn to Jesus, we will see the glory of the lord, the light will shine and guide us, comfort us.

Challenges: The Messiah does not only offer comfort, but challenges us to make right choices throughout our lives.
1.Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts; Yet once a little while and I will shake the heav'ns and the earth, the sea and the dry land: And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come.
I went to Danny’s Kosher Pickle for some good chicken noodle soup! The bonus was a guy playing the piano, and he played, “Shake Rattle and Roll”. One line of the lyric says: well you never do nothin' to save your doggone soul. The Messiah does shake up the world, the life and message of Jesus is all about saving your soul, which means you may need to make choices that willl shake you up, make you uncomfortable.
(Haggai 2 : 6-7)
2. The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.
(Malachi 3 : 1)
Often when we try to change our ways, we might want more time, next Christmas I will make better choices, I will not wait until the last minute etc. But the moment in which Jesus enters into our lives will be a sudden and unexpected. We celebrate both the birth of Jesus into the world in Bethlem so many years ago, and the birth of Jesus in our souls which does not just occur once but in every moment and in every day.
3. But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.
The Messiah comes to purify our lives, all the impure will be burned away, and our hearts will be renewed.
(Malachi 3 : 2)
Handel chooses then to move us from comfort to challenge to how we can respond to the challenge. The most important message is that God is not a distant God.
1. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, GOD WITH US.
(Isaiah 7 : 14)
God is with us, in every step, in every breath in all our lives. The presence of God makes all the difference as we travel through life. As I think about all the wonderful holiday memories I treasure, it is not what I received, or gave that really stays with me, what stays with me is who was there, who I spent the time with. This is my seventh Christmas with you here in Walnut, and you need to know I cherish the time we have spent together. I especially value the way you give to others at this time of year, through donations of food for Toberman Settlement house, gifts for those in foster care, time and effort in feeding the homeless, to giving for special offerings, you are surely a small membership church with a giant heart!

2. O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain. O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God! O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, Arise, shine, for thy Light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
Good tidings come in many forms, we proclaim the good tidings by choosing good over evil, by doing good works, by worshipping and singing, by sending cards and gifts. All of this work in whatever form we choose, gives us and those who receive strength.
(Isaiah 40 : 9; Isaiah 60 : 1)
3. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
(Isaiah 60 : 2-3)
In the moments we become lost, God’s light leads the way.
4. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9 : 6)
This is one of my most favorite pieces of the Messiah music, the infant who comes into the world in a hushed manager, goes on to be all of our dreams come true. A wonderful counselor, the prince of peace.

The most famous movement is the "Hallelujah" chorus, which concludes the second of the three parts. The text is drawn from three passages in the New Testament book of Revelation:
1. And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. (Revelation 19:6)
The reign of God is what rules the world, and in this reign we can take comfort, we can celebrate, and we are challenged to be faithful followers.
2. And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)
Christmas comes and go, but the work of the Kingdom continues on, every day of our lives, every moment of our faith.
3. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. (Revelation 19:16)
As we make our final preperations for Christmas, as we anticipate the new year, let us continue to sing this song of promise. As we make choices, as we live, let us do so singing to the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings!

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