Handel’s Messiah Christmas 6

Title: Biblical Passages in Handel’s Messiah 6

Text: Isaiah 25:5,6, 40:11, Matthew 11:30

Time: January 4th, 2013


This is the sixth and final sermon in the Handel’s Messiah message series. I’ve decided this year to try something I’ve never done before – parse the famous and popular classical Christmas musical verse-by-verse. I got the idea for this a few years ago when it was pointed out to me that Handel’s masterpiece uses only scriptural quotations throughout the entire work, from start to finish. I hadn’t realized that, even though I’ve been to a couple of performances of Messiah and heard it countless times on CD. I was very familiar with it, although I have to admit that I hadn’t realized that it was so entirely biblical. That got me thinking that one day I’d like to go through it and explain the meaning of the verses. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to doing it, only I’m not covering the entire Messiah but only the first section, the Nativity Christmas part.  Handel divided his work into three parts; all related to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ the Messiah. The first part deals with Christ’s birth, so it naturally fits in well with the Christmas holiday season. I plan on completing the rest of Messiah around Easter time. But for now, today, I’ll finish up the Nativity section of it. I hope that by going through Handel’s first section of Messiah we’ve all grown to appreciate the Christmas holiday celebration a little better. There are forces at work in our secular society today that seek to strip every holiday – every “holy day” – of its original spiritual meaning. Christmas is no longer all about the birth of Christ, and thus a type of “Christ Mass” – a reference to the church’s celebration of the birth of Christ; but instead, Christmas today is about so many other things as well. For example, it’s about shopping and gift-giving, it’s about Santa Clause and reindeer, it’s about Christmas trees and decorations, it’s about social gatherings and seasonal activities, and so forth. Buried underneath it all is the original meaning of the holiday somewhere. The same thing is happening with the Easter holiday, with the Easter bunny and candy. Now in the midst of this spread of secularism and the de-spiritualizing of society, it does the soul good to return to the true spiritual meaning of holiday. When we examine something like Handel’s Messiah we are returning to the true meaning and purpose of Christmas, because it tells the true story – the real story – of the Nativity by centering on Jesus’ birth. Like I’ve said before, the true spirit of Christmas is safe as long as Handel’s Messiah remains popular during the holiday season. If we ever reach the point in our culture where Handel’s Messiah falls out of favor, then we can know we are truly in trouble. Hopefully, that will never happen. So with that in the way of introduction, let’s finish our review of Handel’s first section of Messiah.


First, there’s “Then shall the eyes of the blind.” Isaiah 35:5,6, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.”  Here’s one of the shortest verses and musical parts that Handel includes in this first section, the Christmas selection, of Messiah. It takes less than a minute for a female vocalist to sing this biblical passage. It immediately follows the verses proclaiming the great joy of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Then this short verse comes as a brief summary description of the consequences of the Christ’s birth – the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf shall hear, the lame shall leap, and the dumb (those who can’t talk) shall sing. Now this verse is a prophetic verse looking forward into the healing ministry of Jesus, because of course the birth of the baby Jesus didn’t accomplish these things immediately. At least we don’t have any record of the baby Jesus healing people by his mere presence, although I’m sure there was plenty of emotional and spiritual healing taking place through the blessed knowledge that the Messiah had been born to begin his great work. But the actual healing ministry of Jesus didn’t begin, according to the Bible, until his thirtieth year, three years before his suffering and resurrection. So we see in this verse that the prophetic foretelling by prophets like Isaiah didn’t stop at the birth of Jesus, but also continued to prophesy into the life and ministry of Jesus as well. Again, this underscores the fact that the entire life of Christ is surrounded by the Old Testament prophetic Word of God. It’s how the Jews – the one’s who believed – knew that Jesus was the Christ (Christ being the Greek word for Messiah). They simply applied the many Old Testament prophecies to the different aspects of the life of Christ and came to realize that this had to be the one and only Messiah. No other person could be so surrounded by prophecy. It’s also how we can know without a shadow of doubt Jesus is who the Bible claims him to be, because no other historic figure is so surrounded by so powerful prophetic witness. There could conceivably be other historical persons where a few of the Old Testament prophecies might possible apply out of pure chance, but there’s no way that they could all apply to anyone other than Jesus Christ. This is a great tool for evangelism, and something that’s been used by Christians throughout the ages. Biblical prophecies are very impressive because of the incredible odds against any other historical figure fulfilling them the way Christ did. That pretty much proves the case.


Second, there’s “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.” Isaiah 40:11, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” And Matthew 11:28, 29, “Come unto (him) me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and (he) I shall give you rest. Take (his) my yoke upon you, and learn of (him) me; for (he is) I am meek and lowly of heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” These verses are dealt with at length by Handel through word and music, unlike the previous verse that was mentioned quickly and passed over rapidly. These verses are some of the more popular and most famous ones found in Handel’s work. They are a combination of both the Old Testament prophecies concerning the ministry of Jesus and the actual words of Jesus inviting lost souls to come unto him for salvation. Again, as we’ve seen before, the old and new are brought together seamlessly. God’s previous Word is brought together with God’s present Word. The age of the Jews and the age of the Christians are joined. This is basically a description of the gentle shepherd. The picture is one of a shepherd carrying for his flock. He carries the weak in his arms, holds the vulnerable close to him. What a great spiritual image, because after all, we are such sinners and so selfish that we are prone to go astray into sin and evil. We need the shepherd, the Savior, to draw us close to himself spiritually and keep us from the wrong path. It’s a great image, and so true. I remember the famous, now deceased, atheist Christopher Hitchens talking about the imagery of sheep and shepherd as it applies to Christian believers and Christ. He came out and flatly stated that he didn’t like or want to be a sheep. He didn’t need a shepherd, but rather instead wanted to think for himself and carry out his own self-will. He thought it disgusting that anyone would want to be counted among sheep, because, after all, he said, they are dumb animals and can’t think for themselves, and who blindly follow not only the shepherd but other animals that happens to be in front of them. Well, if we wanted to, we could all talk about how pathetic sheep are, and it is not a very flattering picture of humanity either to link ouselves with these weak animals. But the truth is, we are like sheep, as Isaiah 53:6 says, who’ve all gone astray. We are very much like sheep if you step back and make the comparison between man and this animal. We need help from God as shepherd. That’s the point of sending a Savior – because we all need saved! So the imagery, although unflattering, is accurate. Don’t feel bad about being a sheep in Christ’s flock; be proud of it. Thank God for it. Count yourself blessed because of it.


Third, there’s the “His yoke is easy.” Matthew 11:30, “(His) My yoke is easy, and (His) My burden is light.” Now you’ll notice that the lines in Handel’s Messiah are in parentheses, while the actual scripture quotation is a different tense. That’s because Handel took quotes from the actual words of Jesus and turned them around into descriptions of Jesus, so naturally he had to change the first person to the third person. He did this in the previous verses also, but it’s a minor change that doesn’t add to or subtract from the pure Word of God. What is remarkable, like I mentioned before about Handel’s Messiah, is that it’s totally one hundred percent Bible quotations. That probably wouldn’t be the case today if such a musical work were created. Why not? Because the world is a lot prouder place, a more vain place today than in ages past. We’ve accomplished a lot and we know it! We think we are so clever and wise and accomplished. So it would make sense that if such a musical masterpiece as Messiah were created today by some hypothetical composer that he’d probably include a lot of human commentary while maybe including a few biblical verses in order to show continuity with the past religious traditions. Our modern age is so full of itself. Just take a sample of the many sermons that are typically preached on Sunday mornings in churches. You’ll probably find very few that actually let the biblical texts direct the message. Instead, you’ll most likely find a strong human element controlling the conclusions based on what is popular and faddish in society at the time. That’s what we see a lot of today. But let us thank the Lord that Handel lived in a time when people actually respected God’s Word as the Word from God – and didn’t elevate their own opinions above it! We need to return to this more humble approach to the Christian faith, that is, letting God speak for himself, instead of editing and rewriting the revelation to suite our own needs and desires today. The verse here speaks of Christ making our burden light when we come to him. What burden is he referring to? In a general sense, the burden of life as a whole. We live in a day and age where the meaning and purpose of life is often clouded over or even covered up completely. This is especially observed among the young people. We just saw in the news the terrible shootings that took place in New England. What makes young people shoot each other? Isn’t it because meaning and purpose in life are being stripped away from them by a secular, godless society? That’s what happens when we try to bear the burden of life by ourselves.


Jesus as the good shepherd offers us leadership in life. He invites us to come to him for help, generally and specifically. Not only do we find meaning and purpose in life by coming to Christ, but we also find the specific solutions to our problems in life. Whatever the problem might be, Christ is able to help us either solve the problem directly, or help us go through the problem with his assistance. Have you made the great discovery of how much Christ loves you and offers to lead you through life. Don’t be like the atheist Hitchens who refused Christ’s invitation. He didn’t want to be a sheep so he foolishly followed his own limited ability. Atheist Hitchens suffered and died a terrible death through cancer, and he did it alone because he refused to turn to Jesus for strength and comfort. His pride kept him from the peace and security that God offered him. Let not your pride keep you from anything good God has for you. Handel’s Messiah is a great way to put ourselves in the Christmas spirit. It starts in the Old Testament by quoting the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. It dwells on all the many signs and clues that God gave the Jews about Messiah’s appearance. Then it deals with the actual birth itself and the blessed consequences of it. From start to finish it speaks of faith. There isn’t any hint of sarcasm or skepticism, things that so much characterize our secular and unbelieving age. Handel’s Messiah doesn’t contain any mocking or condescension towards Christianity or faith in God in general, like we might find in a contemporary description of anything religious. We find from beginning to end faith, and not just general religious faith but specific Christian faith – and not a hint of shame in that or no apology for it. We need not only to understand the content of Handel’s Messiah, but also take on the pious attitude of it as well. Handel, no doubt, was a believer, not a skeptic. He presented God’s Word unedited. He expressed it matter-of-factly, with no reservations. How often we Christians come across as apologetic or even embarrassed for our faith in respect to expressing it in our secular culture. We need to take on the attitude of Handel as he expresses his faith in the Messiah. He isn’t cocky, yet he isn’t shy or bashful. He’s full of faith and confident that what he presents is the truth. Do you have that kind of faith assurance? Do you conduct yourself with a quiet confidence in God and God’s Word, like we see in Handel’s Messiah? Let’s remind ourselves this Christmas season, as it comes to an end for this year, let’s remind ourselves to look to God for confidence in the coming year and trust that in the end we will be victorious in all things, when all is said and done.


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