Watching With The Prophets - Advent Retreat 2
“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God. … They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell. … God is a great deal more angry … with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell”.
These charming warnings are among the opening lines of one of the most notorious sermons ever preached, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by the British Theologian Jonathan Edwards, in Enfield Connecticut, on the 8th of July 1741. This sermon became the catalyst for the so called First Great Awakening, the series of revivals that swept Britain and North America in the middle of the 18th century and marked the birth of Anglo-American evangelicalism as a trans-denominational movement within the Protestant churches.
“The pit is prepared - Edwards added - the fire is made, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them”.
For one full hour (at the time church goers did not seem to mind lengthy sermons), the eager preacher led his increasingly distraught audience through the consideration of God’s wrath, its fierceness, inevitability and everlasting character. Having unleashed wave after wave of similar rhetoric for most of the sermon, it was only 5 minutes before the end that he introduced the pivotal “and now” which was destined to have such a great impact on his audience and more generally all over the English speaking world:
“And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God”.
The comfort coming from the gospel, for Jonathan Edwards, can be appreciated only when contrasted to angst and fear of damnation. Grace can be truly valued only against the keenest awareness of the reality of God’s anger and of the possibility of hell.
Only two days after this sermon was delivered, on the 10th of July of the same year 1741, George Frederic Handel received a letter from Charles Jennens containing the libretto of what was going to become one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music, the oratorio HWV 56 also known as the Messiah. Remarkably, the libretto is entirely composed of sentences drawn from the King James Bible and the Coverdale Psalter and evidently the result of deep acquaintance with Scripture.
A sermon and a libretto are vastly different literary genres. In the case of Edwards’ sermon and Jennens’ libretto, however, the comparison is rewarding because of the opposing ways in which they attempt to bring “comfort” or “consolation” to their audience.
Whereas in Edwards’ sermon the comforting moment only comes at the very end, Charles Jennens famously chose to inaugurate the oratorio with it: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God”. This was a strategic move meant to cast a specific light over the whole piece and which denotes an approach diametrically opposed to Jonathan Edwards’ rhetorical strategy in the sermon.
Jennens knew that angry, vengeful, and menacing depictions of God are not absent in Scripture, especially in prophetic literature. Moral awakening was the prophets’ crucial mission and they fulfilled it by reminding the people of Israel of the tragic consequences of their betrayal of the covenant with God. They kept the people watchful and ready to detect the signs of the coming of the ‘messiah’, that is of the mysterious character destined to be the instrument of God’s decisive intervention in history.
Both Jewish and Christian traditions, however, increasingly came to realize that threats, complaints, and warnings are not the most representative traits of God’s character, so to speak. They understood that some scriptural passages capture God’s deepest intentions more than others, especially the oracle from Isaiah which Jennens chose as the opening lines of the Messiah and Handel made uniquely memorable with his accompagnato. It is the same passage which recurs so frequently in the liturgy of Advent, especially in the well-known hymn Rorate Coeli (“Drop down, ye heavens, from above” in the English version):
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.” (Is 40.1f)
Jennens’ organisation of the excerpts from the prophets and Haendel’s musical setting were crafted precisely with this intention: bring comfort to people by “speaking (or rather singing) tenderly to them”, so as to encourage them, soothe their pain, and awake their hope. Indeed, what more encouraging thought than the assurance which immediately follows these lines, in which God promises that he himself will make the hearts of his people willing to acknowledge and welcome the day of his coming:
“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight and the rough places plain”.
Only after having emphatically conveyed this joyous assurance, the libretto introduces the gloomier note of God’s anger which Haendel entrusted to a bass. To represent this theme, Jennens selected texts from the minor prophets Haggai and Malachi which state that God will “shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and all nations” (Haggai 2.6-7), that nobody will be able to abide the day of his coming because he will come as the “refiner's fire” to purify the sons of Levi (Malachi 3.2f)
From this sombre scene, however, the oratorio quickly reverts to Isaiah’s ‘comforting’ promise that in fact God will come not as fire, but as Emmanuel, that is as “he who wants to be with us” (Isaiah 7.14), that he will not shake us, but proclaim such good tidings to us (Is 40.9) that we will arise and shine (Is 60.1). Then, once again, a bass broadcasts the threat that “darkness shall cover the earth” (Is 60.2), but immediately moves on to the comforting promise of a great light, and more specifically of the child to come, “wonderful, counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Is 9.2,6).
As always with Scripture, interpretation of a text or a theme can change almost beyond recognition depending on which passages are prioritized. Edwards chose those from Isaiah which announce that the Lord “will repay fury to his adversaries” (Isaiah 59:18), that he “will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. (Isaiah 66:15)”. Jennens, instead, chose the lines we have quoted above because he thought that they epitomize the three benchmarks of authentic prophecy, that is of any form of true preaching or proclamation of God’s intention for humanity - namely first “Give comfort to my people”, second “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” and third be a “herald of good news” (Isaiah 40.1,2,9).
We know whether preachers, spiritual counsellors, theologians, and musicians, are actually speaking, singing or acting in God’s name only if their words and acts allow listeners to experience God’s comfort, tenderness, and joy – to hear the unmistakeable tone of God’s real voice, not only in Scripture, but also in the many other ways in which it tries to speak to us. God speaks everywhere: through people, other religions, nature. music and even where we less expect to find him, through our secular culture. In his immense eagerness to bring us consolation, to let us feel his tenderness and to give us joy, God keeps speaking to us “many times and in many ways” (Hebrews 1.1).
There is one important reason why, out of Isaiah’s copious collection of prophecies, it is the oracle contained in chapter 40 in our modern bibles that came to embody the spirit of Advent and became the lens through which the rest of the prophets and of Scripture were interpreted in Christianity from the very beginning. The reason is that this oracle contains the following sentence:
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! (Is 40.9)
The expression ‘good tidings’ became the name of the new literary genre created by the first disciples to describe Jesus’s words and deeds, the gospels, which in Greek is euaggelion that is ‘good news’. The evangelists understood that the whole message and life of Jesus were good tidings, that is the way in which the Father had intervened in history to come to our help and give us the joy that nobody can take away from us (cf. John 16.22).
A charming philological detail in the first line of Mark’s Gospel confirms this point and gives an even deeper insight into the real nature of ‘good news’: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mark 1.1). The second genitive (“of”) in this sentence is deliberately ambiguous. It can either mean “the good news under the form of words which speak of Jesus Christ” or “the good news which is Jesus Christ”. We can welcome God only when, through Mark’s words, we meet Jesus himself, we hear the Father’s voice in him, and thus we are given access to the life transforming experience of God’s tenderness.
This should invite us to question our relation to Scripture and whether we resort to it just to prop up doctrine, establish ethical principles, or seek for practical guidance. This is legitimate of course but it is not enough. Scripture gives us access to God’s truth only insofar as we let ourselves to be touched by God’s tenderness, forgiveness and love. Whenever Scripture has been mined for God’s truth as if it were separable from God’s love, this has yielded pathological versions of Christianity and become a cover for infighting and discrimination, killing and war.
Jesus promises us the whole truth. Not, however, as something that we can repackage into sentences or ideas once and for all. Just as the gospel is not only the written text but Jesus himself, so is truth: “I am the truth” – the truth is Jesus himself (John 14.6). This kind of truth will never be entirely at our disposal. Jesus’ sentence: “The Spirit of truth will guide you into all the truth” (John 16.13) means that coming into God’s truth is the work of a lifetime for each of us and a task that will occupy churches and humanity until the end of times.
Interestingly, this role is attributed to the Holy Spirit who also is the Comforter (John 15.26), the ultimate bearer of the comfort Isaiah refers to in the opening lines of Haendel’s Messiah. The Spirit introduces us to God’s truth by persuading us that neither the desert of our forgetfulness, nor the valleys of our doubts, nor the mountains of our pride, nor the rugged lands of our suspicion (Isaiah 40.4) - nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (cf. Romans 8.39).