Baptism and Adoption

jordan

Last April, I was standing in the River Jordan, at the site not far from the Judaean desert, where Jesus was baptised (if it wasn’t there, it can’t have been far away). The Jordan is not the mighty river it must have been in Jesus’ day.  Nevertheless, of the places I visited on that particular trip, it was one of the most moving.

I am reminded of that event as I reflect on the Collect for Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday where Anglicans remember the Baptism of Jesus.

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. [1]

One of the great things about being a Baptist, newly come to Anglican liturgy and Evensong, is the opportunity which that service gives to listen to Scripture read without distractions, and knowing that no-one will expound it for you later: it’s down to you (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to apply it to your heart. Another is hearing the great collects of Thomas Cranmer – often, for me, for the first time.  Matthew tells the story in this way:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptised, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13–17 ESV)

In the Anglican service for the Baptism of Jesus we are asked to remember the significance of Jesus own baptism and to answer the question that John poses too: why does Jesus come to be baptised?  There are many threads to draw from this event, but to highlight just two: Jesus identifies himself with humanity and in this event is numbered with the transgressors, freely, in obedience, even though he is not a transgressor himself; and Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism to be led into the wilderness to be tempted just as Israel came through the waters of the Red Sea and then wandered in the desert. Gordon Fee writes:

Jesus [is] stepping into the role as God’s Son, going through the waters, followed by forty days in wilderness, but succeeding precisely at the points where Israel failed when they were tested forty years in the wilderness. [2]

So, as Trevor Burke points out:

the climax lies in the declaration of Jesus’ identity, who he is, namely, God’s unique Son…Here his filial identity is explicitly and overtly brought out into the open.  [3]

As I listened to the collect (on this occasion being ably intoned by my fellow chorister, Adam, standing next to me!) I was struck by the parallel Cranmer draws between Jesus baptism and our own, especially what Burke calls the climax of His baptism: the Father affirming the Son. I had never thought before that my baptism was a sign of my adoption as a son and that in baptism God was saying to me: you are my son, I am pleased with you.

Tom Wright has clearly read Cranmer’s collect, and is perhaps drawing on it when he writes:

The whole Christian gospel could be summed up in this point: that when the living God looks at us, at every baptised and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day…

Reflect quietly on God saying that to you, both at your baptism and every day since.[4]

He goes on to say:

Any early Christian reading this passage would also, of course, believe that their own baptism into Jesus the Messiah was the moment when, for them, the curtain had been drawn back [i.e. seeing the heavens open] and these words had been spoken to them. We need to find ways, in today’s church, of bringing this to life with our own practice of baptism and teaching about it. [4]

Whether our own experience of Baptism was exactly like this or not, a moment of revelation, when the curtain is drawn back, we surely need to hear today, and every day, those words which the Father spoke to the Son, and speaks also to us: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”


[1] Collect for the Baptism of Christ from Common Worship. Church House Publishing, 2006.

[2] Fee, Gordon D. Pauline Theology: An Exegetical-Theological Study, Hendrickson, 2007. p.542

[3] Burke, Trevor J. The Message of Sonship. IVP, 2011. p.106

[4] Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone. SPCK, 2004. p.5-6

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Healing with Authority

rembrandt_the_hundred_guilder_print

I was reading Matthew’s gospel recently as part of reading through the Bible in a year in 2019.

After the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 to 7, there are two chapters (8 and 9) where Jesus travels around Galilee and the Gentile area of the Gadarenes healing “every disease and every affliction.” (Matthew 9:35 ESV). These chapters include ten specific stories of healing in quick succession. Interspersed among these are some specific incidents where Jesus begins to explain more about his ministry, and also one other miracle of the calming of the storm on Galilee.

We are so familiar with these stories it’s easy to miss what’s going on and the remarkable nature of what Jesus is doing.  What’s perhaps surprising, though, is that the disciples seem to miss some of this too.  Other gospels record the amazement of the crowds and how Jesus’ fame spread “so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” (Mark 1:45), but in Matthew’s gospel the amazement is reserved at first for the calming of the storm: “And the men marvelled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him’ ” (Matthew 8:27)

This got me thinking. Why were the disciples not more amazed by the healings? Surely that was marvellous enough?

Further research reveals that in fact “The retelling of biblical narratives in postbiblical Jewish texts indicates that magic and miracles permeated the world of the Jews in the second temple period” [1].  There were several miracle workers operating at the time of Jesus, for example Honi the “circle drawer” and his grandchildren, who made it rain and healed the sick [1].

Of course I’d forgotten too that Jesus himself refers to other healers. When accused by the pharisees of casting out demons by the “prince of demons” Jesus reminds them that their sons cast out demons too – so how are they doing it? (Matthew 12:24ff). The pharisees could see that something more was going on.

Nevertheless the disciples and the crowds were amazed (and frightened sometimes too) by what Jesus was doing.  Something unique was going on, that was for sure. But it wasn’t simply that Jesus was healing the sick.

It will take more than a short blog post to unpack all of that, but here are few bullet points which I noted across these two chapters:

  1. Jesus heals remotely – he doesn’t even need to be there (Matthew 8:13)
  2. The healings are radically inclusive, the outcast, tax collectors, sinners, even the gentiles – not just those worthy (9:10-13)
  3. Nothing is impossible – the blind, mute, utterly demon possessed, even the dead –  all cured!
  4. Many of the healings introduce an element of faith, in Jesus himself (e.g. 8:13, 8:26, 9:22, 9:28)
  5. The pharisees are scandalised by Jesus linking healing to forgiveness of sin (9:6)

All three of the synoptic gospels include the story of fasting and new wineskins among these healings, which indicates that something completely new is happening. Mark records that the people marvelled at “a new teaching with authority.” (Mark 1:27) Matthew reports that the crowds “marvelled, saying, ‘Never was anything like this seen in Israel.’ ” (Matthew 9:32)

Yes, there had been teachers and healers before. But never like this…


 

[1] Gideon Bohak and Geza Vermes, Jewish Miracles Workers and Magic in the late Second Temple Period in Levine, Amy-Jill. Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2017, p.680ff

New Year Services in Vienna

Stefansdom outside

This year we decided that rather than sit at home and complain about Jools Holland on the TV, we’d celebrate New Year in Vienna, home of the famous New Year’s Day Concert at the Musikverein. Although tickets for that were an impossibility, we watched several events on big screens around the city and in two of the many cafés for which Vienna is so well-known.

But the highlight for me was being able to attend two New Year services at the main Cathedral in Vienna, the Stefansdom.  I’d remembered reading that it was in the Stefansdom that Pete Grieg’s 24-7 prayer movement celebrated their 15 year anniversary, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn.

On New Year’s Eve the cathedral was standing room only for the Gottesdienst zum Jahresschluss (end of year service) led by the same Cardinal Schöborn who projected a real warmth (even though I don’t speak more than two words of German).

The music was led by a choir of perhaps 30 and small orchestra, both of a very high standard, which performed two pieces from Mendelssohn (his Christmas piece, Vom Himmel Hoch, and the final chorus from the Lobgesang, Hymn of Praise), Mozart’s Laudate Dominum and finally Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus (in excellent English).

I couldn’t really follow much of the service, but there was something very moving about joining in with the congregational hymns Now Thank We all our God and O Come all Ye Faithful in German – and it was rather nice to hear the Willcocks’ arrangements given an outing for the latter, almost a thousand miles from the chapel where they were originally performed.

But most special of all for me was the reading from Isaiah (which I could follow courtesy the ESV app on my iPad)

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;
my Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.
Your builders make haste;
your destroyers and those who laid you waste go out from you.
Lift up your eyes around and see;
they all gather, they come to you.
As I live, declares the Lord,
you shall put them all on as an ornament;
you shall bind them on as a bride does. (Isaiah 49:14-18, ESV)

The remainder of the service was a bit of a mystery to me, although it included a sermon, and prayers for the world, Europe, Austria and our families amongst other things. But that did at least give me space to thank God for the past year and to pray for the new. And the sense of God speaking through his Word to me was tangible and very moving.  Feeling sometimes very far from God, this was a wonderful reminder and promise for the New Year.

Feeling very blessed I was determined to return the next day for the New Year’s Day Hochamt (High Mass) and Elizabeth very kindly got up early so we could. A smaller orchestra and (surely professional) choir led the music with Haydn’s Little Organ Mass.

Although as an Evangelical Baptist I am not a fan (I guess that’s an understatement) of the Catholic mass, there are always three readings (plus Psalms on occasions) and since everything else was in German there was time to focus again on Scripture, which we can so easily lose in the busy-ness of a typical Evangelical Sunday morning service.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

“So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27, ESV)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4-7, ESV)

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:16-21, ESV)

Again I felt that God was saying I should take these passages and treat them as promises from God for 2019.

  • God will NEVER forget me. How could He?
  • God will bless us in 2019, with all the change that it’s already scheduled to bring (retirement, a first grandchild),
  • God has called me His son, however hard that is to accept sometimes,
  • He calls us to believe the Word spoken to us, ponder these things, and praise God publicly for them.

It’s hard to understand how God works and speaks sometimes, not least within a service from a denomination where I would have some VERY fundamental doctrinal differences! Nevertheless, He does. And so I can truly say:

Der Herr krönt das Jahr mit seinem Segen

The Lord crowns the year with his blessing

Stefansdom Inside

 

 

Christmas, Genealogies and Adoption

I have written about the doctrine of adoption before and how in his book, Knowing God, Jim Packer considers adoption the highest privilege of the gospel—higher even than justification—because of the richness of the relationship with God with which it is associated.

In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge [justification] is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father [adoption] is a greater. [1]

At St Mary-le-Tower in Ipswich (where I count it a great privilege to sing evensong fairly regularly) members are reading Paula Gooder’s book, Journey to the Manger. I am a little late getting started and so only today read the first few chapters. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find the doctrine of adoption in the Christmas story, and especially not in the genealogies from the beginning of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The point has been made plenty of times that the genealogies in the gospels hold such encouragement for us, that fallen men and fallen women can still be part of God’s plan. Paula Gooder puts it like this:

Whoever we are, however ramshackle and dubious we might be, the God who needed Judah and Tamar, Rahab and Salmon, Boaz and Ruth, David and Bathsheba and Mary and Joseph needs us to be part of his plan [2]

I would quibble at the use of the word “need” (see for example Acts 17:25) and prefer to use the much richer and more biblical thought that God actively chooses us to be part of his plan, and of course that’s what the doctrine of adoption talks about too as Ephesians 1 makes clear.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1:3-5, ESV)

Returning to the genealogies, one issue some people may have with the genealogies is that Jesus’ ancestry is traced through Joseph, who, as the gospels make very clear, was NOT Jesus’ biological father.  Paula Gooder explains one way of looking at this, which was a delightful surprise to me, as she talks about the “great cultural clashes that from time to time to time disrupt our ability to understand what is going on in a biblical passage.” [3]

The key here is adoption in the ancient world. Adoption was widespread within both Roman and Jewish society. The difference between Roman and Jewish adoption was that…in Jewish society adoption of babies was more common… For both societies adoption was absolute, and the adoptee was to be treated as though they were the biological child of the new parents. Legally and formally, then, they were treated as part of that new family. [3]

At Christmas Jesus is born for us so we ourselves can be born anew:

Come to be born, to bear us to our new birth [4]

In the same way, perhaps, Jesus is adopted into an earthly family, irrevocably, securely so that we too might receive adoption as sons and daughters.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4–7, ESV)


References:

[1] Packer, J. I. (1975). Knowing God. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

[2] Gooder, P. (2015). Journey to the manger: Exploring the birth of Jesus. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 10-11

[3] Ibid. p.9

[4] Guite, M. (2015). Waiting on the word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 87

 

“Heaven and earth are full of your glory”

Last week at my church, Burlington Baptist Church, in Ipswich, I led worship with our small worship band, and opened with the 19th century hymn “Holy, holy, holy” by Reginald Heber, leading straight into Nathan Fellingham’s setting of the same words, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty…Lift up his name with the sound of singing. We have done this often and it works really well. I talked about the worship of heaven, using words from Revelation 4 (how else was anyone supposed to understand all that stuff about the ‘glassy sea’!?).  I also talked about the communion of saints, something we sing about in the Hillsong song, This I believe (“I believe in the saints communion”) although I can’t help imagining the saints sitting in pews with halos,  while St Peter and the rest of heavenly deacons bring the trays of individual communion glasses around with little bits of bread on silver trays sat on top.

Yes, I do often talk too much in opening worship.

This week someone mentioned on twitter the wonderful recording by Paul McCreesh of Michael Praetorius’ Mass for Christmas Morning 1620, which I discovered last year – and so I listened to it again.  I know it’s too early, but it’s almost Advent and I can get away with it at home as long as the tunes are not too obviously Christmassy.

Of course to the worshippers in 1620 the tunes were very obviously Christmassy, and McCreesh has assembled a congregation to sing the Lutheran Christmas hymns (Vom Himmel Hoch, Puer natus and the like) with gusto and enthusiasm. Wonderful congregational worship – you have to admire Luther’s ability to get his congregation singing with marvellous words grounded in scripture aimed at catechising his congregation, set to really singable tunes.  Contemporary song writers could learn a thing or two here!

Trying to find out more, I discovered a set of slides explaining more about the CD [3]  In my listening I had reached the Sanctus motet in the Christmas morning mass setting, setting words of Martin Luther, Jesaja, dem Propheten das geschah, the German Sanctus, and as I read the words, and listened to the music I was overwhelmed.

First some history and context.

This paraphrase of Isaiah 6:1-4, in rhymed couplets for ease of congregational singing, was first published in Luther’s Deutsche Messe of 1526 entitled “The German Sanctus.” [1].  In Luther’s German Mass, it was set to a modified version of a Sanctus plainchant, and although intended for congregational singing, it seems that choral performance even of the German version was still favoured by many churches [2].

Here is the full text with a translation/poetic rendering by George MacDonald

Jessia, dem Propheten, das geschah,
Unto the seer, Isaiah, it was given
Daß er im Geist den Herren sitzen sah
That, in the spirit, he saw the Lord of heaven
Auf einem hohen Thron in hellem Glanz,
Up on a lofty throne, in radiance bright;
Seines Kleides Saum den Chor füllet’ ganz.
The skirt of his garment filled the temple quite;
Es stunden zween Seraph bei ihm daran,
Two seraphs at his side were standing there;
Sechs Flügel sah er einen jeden han:
Six wings, he saw, each one of them did wear:
Mit zween verbargen sie ihr Antlitz klar,
Two over their bright visages did meet,
Mit zween bedeckten sie die Füße gar,
With two of them they covered up their feet,
Und mit den andern zween sie flogen frei.
And with the other twain abroad did fly.
Genander riefen sie mit großem G’schrei:
Each to the other called with a great cry,
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth! 
Holy is God, the Lord of Zebaoth!
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth! 
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth!
Sein’ Ehr’ die ganze Welt erfüllet hat.
His glory great the whole world filled hath.
Von dem G’schrei zittert’ Schwell’ und Balken gar,
At the loud cry the beams and threshold shook,
Das Haus auch ganz voll Rauchs und Nebel war.
And the whole house was full of cloud and smoke

Praetorius’ version is based on Luther’s plainsong adaptation and starts simply enough. But soon rises to some magnificent word painting, as Dave Kriewall explains the presentation I was following as I listened [3]:

“hohen Thron” (lofty throne) – high note
“sie flogen frei” (they flew freely; aloft they soared) – soaring high notes
“gegenander ruften sie” (one to the other called) – echo effects
“mit großem Geschrei” (with a great cry)
“Heilig ist Gott der Herre Zebaoth” (Holy is God, the Lord of Hosts) – starts simply, increasing complexity of the angels’ song as more and more join; can be in 3/4 (indicating Trinity)
“Sein Ehr die ganze Welt erfüllet hat.” (His Glory has filled the whole world.) – always in 4/4 (indicating the earth); massive sound to fill the space.
“Von dem Geschrei zittert Schwell und Balken gar” (Threshold and rafters shake with the cry) – massive sound to fill and seemingly shake the church. Similar to treatment of “mit großem Geschrei”
The tongue-twister:
“Das Haus auch ganz voll Rauchs und Nebels war.” (The house also was full of smoke and fog [haze].)
First, a rapid-fire overlapping repetition of the phrase; effect: musical smoke and fog!
Then, an awesome picture of the grandeur of the vision and the glory of God in his temple

One is truly left with a sense of joining with the worship of heaven in the most immediate way.

We rarely talk about heaven and earth joining together in worship, or the communion of saints, or indeed of the music of heaven, and yet this seems to me to be a wonderful truth, worthy of greater exploration. I wondered if Lutheran theologians of Praetorius’ time had a view on this. Praetorius was known as a deeply religious man who regretted not taking holy orders. The introduction to part III of his Syntagma Musicum II: De Organographia begins as follows:

There are those who believe it proper and right that, next to theology, the highest place should be accorded to music, since it is a beautiful and splendid gift of God, and provides an image of music in heaven, where God’s holy angels together with the entire heavenly host praise their creator without ceasing in gentle harmony, and sing “Holy, holy, holy is God, the Lord of Hosts.” [4]

Having started with the music of heaven, he goes on to talk about the music of the Old Testament, especially the music of David and Solomon, and concludes:

Thus church music, as a service to God, ought properly to be held in great esteem today as well, and to be celebrated with all due reverence.  [4]

Praetorius then, in writing his music, was conscious of both the music of heaven, and following in the traditions of the great Biblical musicians, especially King David himself.

Almost a century later, the debate continued, with a famous conflict between Mattheson and Buttstett over heavenly harmony which started in 1713 [5].

But, as Ruth Tatlow says:

The conflict over Harmony went far deeper…At stake was whether the earthly efforts of the Christian composer…would survive eternally, and how they might do so. [6]

While there was debate as to what music might be played in heaven, some at least believed that there would be music in heaven, possibly even the very music being written by the composers of the day.  That being the case, Ruth Tatlow is surely right:

That perfectly constructed and harmonically proportioned vocal and instrumental compositions would survive the Rapture and be played in the new heaven and new earth would have been a powerful motivating belief for the Lutheran composer [6]

Believing this, there would be a strong desire and drive to write music fit for heaven, using all the musical language of the day to embody as fully as possible, and perhaps even participate in, the heavenly worship.  The music would need to reflect and magnify as perfectly as the composer was able the Word Incarnate, i.e. both Jesus Himself, and his Word in the language of the people, in this case German.  For the composer to truly write Soli Deo Gloria with integrity at the end of his work, every note would need to intentionally celebrate the Glory of God, and not simply the glory of music. [7]

Where a composer aspires to this, as I believe Praetorius is doing here in this motet, using all the skill at his disposal, creating something for eternity itself, it is little wonder we feel something of the worship of heaven?

I wonder if our modern songwriters feel that they are creating music with eternal significance in this way, and what difference it would make if they did?


[1] Leaver, R. A. (2017). The whole church sings: congregational singing in Luther’s Wittenberg. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p.158-9

[2] Herl, J. (2008). Worship wars in early Lutheranism: choir, congregation, and three centuries of conflicts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.61

[3] Kriewall, D (2011).  Lecture/demonstration on Michael Praetorius’ “Mass for Christmas Morning” https://prezi.com/klhj29w7dzom/praetorius-mass-for-christmas-morning-1620/ Retrieved 26 Nov 2017

[4] Praetorius, Michael and Faulkner, Quentin trans. & ed. (2014). Syntagma Musicum II: De Organographia, Parts III – V with Index. Zea E-Books. Book 24, p.82. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/zeabook/24

[5] Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge University Press. p.78

[6] Ibid. p. 82-83

[7] See for example Bokemeyer in Johann Matheson, Critica Music, ‘Canonischen Anatomie’ (Hamburg: Matheson, 1722), cited in Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge University Press. p.380, 1723-III

Isaiah by the day

Recently in my bible readings I have been greatly enjoying Isaiah by the Day by the late and great Alec Motyer.  Dr Motyer made the study of Isaiah his life’s work, and this book takes you through 71 daily readings. Each day has a short introduction, his own translation of the passage, with notes on the text, finished off with a short devotional.

This is no dry study, but rather a translation and commentary informed by years of pastoral work and teaching, and above all love of the Word, and the Saviour of which it speaks. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Here is one thought on Isaiah 51:17 – 52:12 from recent days which I found especially helpful.  Read it, and be encouraged and inspired to search Isaiah for yourself.

The great objective — fight, too — of the Christian life is to be what we are. Not seeking or striving after some future blessing but exploring and experiencing ever more fully the complete salvation given to us in Jesus. Does not the Bible call him our ‘righteousness, sanctification and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30)? What more is there? Does not the Bible say that the Father has blessed us (past tense) with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3)? So what more is there to give? Salvation is like a great hamper filled full of every possible blessing of God, and our task is to discover — personally, progressively, ceaselessly —what has thus been given to us once for all. Suppose someone is pronounced ‘cured’ after a long, weakening illness. Convalescence lies ahead with the constant choice between acquiescing in the body’s experienced feebleness, or acting resolutely, maybe even painfully, certainly progressively on the expert diagnosis, and slowly entering into new-found health. That is where we meet Isaiah today. In effect he is saying wrath is over (v. 17), holiness is yours (v. 1), new life awaits (v. 11), so wake up to what you are and have, and gird your loins for a new Exodus. Believe that his wrath is a thing of the past, dress yourself in your new robe of righteousness, start walking the separated pathway. Yahweh has himself taken away his wrath (v. 22), himself accomplished the total work of salvation (v. 10), and himself will accompany you protectively on your journey (v. 12). Let us ask ourselves why Romans 8:30 says that the Lord ‘glorified us’, using the same past tense as when it says he ‘justified’ us? Or why does Ephesians 2:6 speak of us as already seated in the heavenly places? Or Colossians 3:1 that we ‘were raised with Christ’? This is a divine expert diagnosis like the doctor’s pronouncement ‘you are cured’. We feel our weakness; we are summoned to lay hold on our strength.

How shall I give thee up Ephraim. Cantata 89

I am pretty sure our minister, Claire Earl, didn’t know that the text she preached on this morning, Hosea 11, is used as the opening chorus of one of the Bach Cantatas for this very Sunday (the 22nd after Trinity)

Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim, How shall I give thee up Ephraim? takes up the theme of judgment from the gospel of the day, the parable of the unjust steward in Matthew 18:23-25.

As in so many cantatas, the journey from law and judgment to grace and gospel leads to this wonderfully joyful aria. At the least the music is joyful. At first glance, perhaps the words less so.

Righteous God, ah, do you judge?
Then for the salvation of my soul
I will count the drops of blood from Jesus.
Ah! Reckon the total to my account!
Indeed, since no one can fathom it,
it will conceal my guilt and sin.

In his liner notes to his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage records from 2000, John Eliot Gardiner has this to say:

Given the seriousness of the text – a balance sheet of sins committed against the drops of Jesus’ redeeming blood – the ensuing aria for soprano and oboe seems astonishingly secular in it gaiety. [1]

But Gardiner has misunderstood the nature of the balance sheet. Jesus redeeming blood is, as Isaiah says in Isaiah 40:2, a complete match (doubled over as an exact covering) for all our guilt and sin. There is no possibility of a deficit.

The message of Hosea is stark. Israel (like us) was “bent on turning away” and deserved death for rebellion and sin. This is portrayed the starkest of terms. And judgment does come. And yet God says in Hosea 11:9, “I will not execute my burning anger.” How can God keep his covenant of love and grace, and at the same time show his justice and righteousness? Kevin Logan comments:

When Hosea first received this message from God, a huge question mark must have hovered in his mind. His faith in the justice of God must have been tested to the outer limits. Nevertheless he passed on the message…God had made his decision. There was no more to be said . . . at least not for another 700 years [2]

Here’s the answer. Bach understood this, and so does the incomparable Joanne Lunn in Gardiner’s recording from his cantata pilgrimage.  Jesus paid it all. No wonder this aria is so joyful. Nothing secular here. Bach didn’t understand the meaning of the word. This is Jesus calling his true love (as he does in most of Bach) to join us in the dance.

You can watch the movement here (sadly not with Joanne Lunn singing though)

[1] Liner notes to SDG171, Bach Cantata Pilgrimage volume 12. p. 8
[2] Logan, K. (1978). What is love?: Hosea. London: Fount Paperbacks.