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7 February, 2016

“’Tis Good, Lord, to Be Here” This is the quintessential Transfiguration hymn, literally retelling the historical event of Matthew 17 in which Jesus, taking His disciples to the mountaintop, is transfigured and stands with Moses and Elijah for whom Peter helpfully suggests he might build a tent! The Father then speaks, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him,” reminiscent of the Father’s revelation only three years early when Jesus is baptised in which He states, “This is my beloved Son; with Him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3: 17b) In a sense, then, God the Father marks both the commencement and the culmination of Jesus’ ministry with His approbation. Only a few weeks ago the Christian Church celebrated Christmas and Epiphany, yet today we begin the Lententide journey which was the reason for Jesus’ incarnation, without which the baby in the manger is mere shallow sentiment. In stanza three we sing, “Fulfiller of the past, and hope of things to be! We hail Your body glorified and our redemption see.” A few chapters earlier Matthew had summarized the prophecies of the Old Testament when he had written of Jesus’ incarnation that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” We continue the narrative of the hymn by singing “Before we taste of death, we see Your kingdom come, we long to hold the vision bright and make this hill our home.” This writer is reminded of the final hymn in The Lutheran Hymnal, “Heaven is my Home,” which perhaps too-sentimentally reminds the Christian that all on earth and in this life is mere ephemera.
The sermon from last week is reiterated in this hymn-- “How good, Lord, to be here! Yet we may not remain; But since You bid us leave the mount, come with us to the plain.” There is something ultimately satisfying about gathering together to worship in Word and Sacrament, to be where God dwells. There is something unique about gathering at church together which is different than sitting at home practicing one’s own pipe organ, or sitting under a tree on a lazy summer’s morning, or fishing in a lake on an autumn day. Sure, we can see God’s presence in music or in nature. Art, science and humanity all testify to the fact that there is a Supreme Being who had something to do with our existence, which only the most ignorant and narcissistic of people would deny. Yet, as rewarding as it may be to read our Portals of Prayer at home or to discuss the latest Christian book in our small groups, nothing can replace corporate worship, centered around Word and Sacrament, under which we gather every seven days (and more frequently during Lent.)
Jesus transfigured and became something foreign to the apostles; He no longer looked like the man with whom they had traveled for almost three years. And Moses and Elijah were certainly no everyday sight! We, too, can encounter Christ in a special way in church. The first table of the law tells us to honour God by having none other beside Him, by honoring His name, and by keeping the Sabbath holy. God calls us together to worship Him because He knows there is nothing that can replace corporate worship. Worship is uniquely focused on the Holy Trinity and Christ’s sacrifice and redemption as outlined in Holy Scriptures. Worship is not like Christian radio or television. The pastor is not a motivational speaker. We don’t assemble to execute a Broadway production. We could get all of that by listening to the radio or television, going to a motivational speech, or paying exorbitant fees to attend a play. None of those things are Christocentric, and when our identity as Christians becomes too absorbed around these things—even in their Christian guises—we run the risk of not recognizing Christ when He comes again. “It is good to be here” this Sunday morning because we receive at corporate worship absolution, the sacrament, and fellowship with others, confessing together the “one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.” If we lived stranded on a desert island, we’d have to make do without such things, yet still having faith in God’s promises. But most of us are fortunate to be able to gather to worship, being constantly reminded of law and gospel, sins and forgiveness, in order to be able to deal with the realities of life. As we live out the centrality of worship in the words of the writer of Hebrews, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another,” we can joyfully exclaim anytime we are gathered under Word and Sacrament, “’Tis good, Lord, to be here!”


Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

Third Sunday of Epiphany


            This Sunday’s music notes will deal not with a specific hymn but instead deconstruct this particular service in order to note how all the constituent elements relate to one another. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to tell the relationship between, for example, the Hymn of the Day and Gospel lesson, or the sermon, or the hymns. But today it is not!

            The liturgy always proceeds from the lectionary (readings) for the day. In this case, the OT and Gospel are closely related. In Nehemiah, the activity conveyed seems very similar to our current liturgical practice—Ezra the scribe brings the Book of the Law of Moses (the Torah, or the first five books of our Old Testament) before the people, to whom he read from it “from early morning until midday. . . And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” After Ezra raised the Book, he blesses the people, to which they respond with a covenantal “Amen.” We learn from this that “the people understood the reading.” The Gospel lesson from Luke 4 similarly finds Jesus in the synagogue where He reads to the people from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind. . .”  He then remarks that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The contrasts between these two readings are obvious—Ezra did not fulfill the Law himself, but merely presented it to the people. Jesus, however, not only reads the Law, but fulfills it. Jesus indeed is a prophet, bringing “good news,” but He is also priest, offering Himself as a propitiation for humanity’s sin.

            The Epistle, from I Corinthians, is not related to the OT or Gospel; rather, it is a part of the lectio continua—we are in the process of consecutive readings from I Corinthians. Next week will be the famous “love chapter” of I Cor. 13. If you do note a connection within the Epistle to the others, it is purely coincidental!

            Psalm 19 is chanted in the midst of these readings in which we likewise sing of the sufficiency and power of God’s Word—“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandments of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” Lutherans are proud of their concept of sola scriptura—scripture alone. Our liturgy that is not verbatim scripture is at least inspired directly by scripture. Yet, this writer has been to some “Lutheran” services in which there was minimal scripture reading, and that which was present simply served as a “proof text” to the pastor’s sermon (ie., the “worship leader’s message”). The lectionary and liturgy doesn’t work like this. It doesn’t ask the pastor what topic he feels most comfortable to address, nor the musician which hymn he’d like the congregation to sing. It presents God’s Word in an orderly, but sometimes confrontational, way. Next week we read of demons and sing about their exorcism! This week we read of the Law, comparing it to “drippings of the honeycomb.” This is not necessarily the lingua vulgate of twenty-first century America, but it behooves us to learn the vocabulary of scripture. The lectionary ensures we are occasionally confronted by topics which make us uncomfortable. After all, Jesus not only came to bring comfort and salvation, but prophetically to overturn the money changers in the temple.

            Our hymnody and choral music emphasizes the lectionary theme. In our entrance hymn, “O Christ, Our True and Only Light,” we pray not only that Christ “enlighten those who sit in night,” but that He “shine on the darkened and the cold.” The choral anthem between the readings is taken from Psalm 119: 33-40 in which we pray, “Teach me, O Lord, to follow Your decrees then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding.” Just as Ezra brought the Word of the Lord to the people and explained it to them whereby “the people understood the reading,” we pray likewise for the same understanding. The Hymn for the Word before the sermon comes from Martin Luther himself, first published in the Klug Gesangbuch of 1543. We pray along with Luther that the Lord “keep us steadfast in Your Word,” to “curb those who by deceit or sword would wrest the kingdom from Your Son and bring to naught all He has done.” Luther was not one to mince words. Even LSB, not a hymnal to cave to political correctness, omits (as most hymnals have the last several hundred years) Luther’s stanza that refers to saving us from the “Pope and murderous Turk.” (“Turk” being sixteenth-century vernacular for the Moslems.) Yet, these were his concerns—a Church which had largely obscured the Gospel with its idolatrous accretions, and a hostile religion of Mohammedans who were threatening Europe and had gotten as far as Vienna and Malta before being stopped heroically by Christian soldiers. How are these concerns substantively different from our concerns today? The characters may have changed, but the situation is strikingly similar!

            The musical offering is taken from Isaiah 52, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace that publisheth salvation, that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” In our Gospel reading, Jesus reads from Isaiah 62, but the spirit is the same. Both prophecy as to the presentation of the Gospel. In Isaiah 52, we are reminded of the Christmas season, only recently-past, in which the angels bring good tidings to the shepherds. But this could also be a prophecy for Christ who is not only the Messenger but the Gospel Himself.

            The final hymn comes from John Newton, an important hymnwriter who did much more than simply write “Amazing Grace.” This hymn speaks of the surety of the Church Universal, that “New Jerusalem” or “Zion” whose “words cannot be broken” and “on the Rock of Ages founded.” The Church is characterized by the presence of Word and Sacrament, our liturgy and hymns today focusing on the importance of the Word, through which the Holy Spirit works to create faith.

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