“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” — Isaiah 9:2
We often think of Handel’s Messiah as an oratorio for Christmas, but it was in fact written as a commentary on the birth, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The libretto was written by Charles Jennens and the music was composed by George Frideric Handel.
The libretto was taken from the King James Version and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The libretto is taken from 81 different Bible verses, most of them from the prophet Isaiah.
This masterpiece has nurtured my Advent meditations for years. We can be a part of God’s redemption of time and space as we relive the expectation of Israel, longing for the Messiah and His Kingdom here on earth. As we rehearse Israel’s wait, we also expectantly wait for Jesus’ second coming when He will come to judge the living and the dead.
Here are the Scriptural citations for the Advent part of Handel’s Messiah if you would like to spend more time in the biblical text while listening to their musical interpretation.
Scene I: Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation
Overture Comfort ye my people — Isaiah 40:1–3 Ev’ry valley shall be exalted — Isaiah 40:4 And the glory of the Lord — Isaiah 40:5
Scene II: The coming judgment
Thus saith the Lord of hosts — Haggai 2:6–7; Malachi 3:1 But who may abide the day of His coming — Malachi 3:2 And he shall purify the sons of Levi — Malachi 3:3
Scene III: The prophecy of Christ’s birth
Behold, a virgin shall conceive — Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23 O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion — Isaiah 40:9; 60:1 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth — Isaiah 60:2–3 The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light — Isaiah 9:2 For unto us a child is born — Isaiah 9:6
For a greater understanding of Advent, I recommend the following books:
Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.
Fleming Rutledge. Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book on the Hebrew prophets tells us about the importance of not only translating the prophets correctly, but understanding the power of their words both emotionally and spiritually.
Hear the Word of the Lord from Isaiah 58
“Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back — a trumpet-blast shout! Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives, face my family Jacob with their sins! They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me. To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people — law-abiding, God-honoring. They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and love having me on their side. But they also complain, ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way? Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’
“Well, here’s why:
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground. Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?
“This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places — firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.
“If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there — Then you’ll be free to enjoy God! Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all. I’ll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob.” Yes! God says so!
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
“So let’s run the race marked out for us (Hebrews 12:1). Let’s fix our eyes (12:2) on Old Glory and all she represents (Christian Nationalism), fix our eyes (Hebrews 12:2) on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire (Christian Nationalism). And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and freedom (Christian Nationalism) and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). That means freedom always wins (Christian Nationalism).” — V.P. Mike Pence
In the next to last paragraph of Pence’s speech, he marries Christian Scripture and nationalist sentiments much like the Emperor Constantine or the Catholic kings and queens of medeival Europe.
For those of us who worship Christ as King, for those of us who pledge allegiance only to the Kingdom of God, for those of who understand our citizenship to be with God in heaven, this shameless and blatant mix of Holy Scripture and Christian Nationalist tropes is very disturbing. Why? Christian Nationalism is an affront to God. Christian Nationalism must always talk vaguely about God and Jesus and precisely about country, or in this case, the flag and what she represents. Christian Nationalism calls us to worship country and not Christ or at least to divide our loyalties and worship both.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews calls us to “fix our eyes on Jesus” not on a human empire like so many that have come and gone throughout history. I will not look to country for meaning, purpose or my identity — for these things I will look to Christ and to Him alone. The courage that inspires me to give my own life in sacrifice for others was not displayed on the battlefields of Korea, Vietnam or in the Middle East but on a hill called Golgotha.
The author and perfecter of my faith does not give me freedom in order to begin an uninhibited pursuit of happiness but the freedom to answer freely His call to discipleship. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “when Christ calls a man, he bides him come and die”. Christian Nationalist freedom is without loyalty to the ethic of the crucified Christ, whereas the responsibility to freedom in Christ is freedom to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him every day.
American politicians know that many Americans are deeply religious. But they’re counting on our religiosity, our “cultural Christianity” and a vague commitment to Christ and the Scriptures in order to rouse us to the cause of country. In other words, they want to tap into a power greater than politics (faith and worship) in order to mobilize a people for their own ends.
American politicians have always feared Christians with a higher calling, one that surpasses country and bows only to Christ. Christians who pledged their only and undying allegiance to the Lamb and who rose above partisan politics were put on the FBI watchlist. Why? They cannot be bought or driven by fear.
What I have been written today is not a call for Christians to vote one way or another but to wake up to the dangers of the bastardization of the Christian faith for political purposes. Christianity is a politic, it is an interpretation of human history, it is a coherent vision for human life and society. You should pray and agonize when contemplating who to vote for but please, I beg you, do not think that God is bringing His Kingdom or the world that He wants through the top down, through the power brokers, through the Republican Party. He’s reserved that privilege for the poor, the poor in spirit, the meek and the lowly (Matthew 5:1ff).
I highly recommend the following book in order to understand these issues from a biblical and theological perspective:
My first all-time favorite book is the Holy Bible. It is made up of Old and New Testaments that give testimony to God’s redeeming action on behalf of all creation. It is the account of God’s love and mercy with a rebellious people who do not deserve His grace. It is through the Scriptures that I can hear God’s voice, learn who I am, what my vocation is and what it means to be like Jesus in His Kingdom while I anxiously await His second coming.
My second all-time favorite book is my passport. It is small but it allows me countless adventures that have shaped who I am today. This book has taken me places I never dreamed of going – rural towns in the Andes Mountains, indigenous villages in the Brazilian Amazon, South American shantytowns, gigantic Latin American capitals. Thanks to this little book, I have learned to communicate in four languages. I have met and interacted with people from literally all over the planet.
I will continue to give away copies of the Bible whenever I can. But sadly, I cannot give anyone a copy of my passport – it would useless to anyone else.
Thanks to my reading of book 1 and my frequent use of book 2, I have spent much time reflecting on what it means for Jonathan Hanegan to be Jesus in today’s world. This Spirit-guided reflection is born out of the reading of Scripture and an experience-with-God. It is also shaped by the living testimony of other brothers and sisters in Christ.
Some people I dearly love have shown some concern regarding the way I see the world. For the moment, we have arrived at different interpretations of Jesus’s exhortation to love our neighbors. We disagree on what it means to pledge allegiance solely to God’s Kingdom. We understand differently our call to be peacemakers in a war-torn world.
I appreciate your concern. I appreciate your patience with me. And I solicit your prayers as I continue to wrestle with what it looks like to be Jesus to everyone I meet.
My website and my Facebook profile are a microcosm of what I think “the good life” is. I share pictures of my family, friends, church activities, books I am reading as well as essays and news articles that I think are important. If you disagree with what I write or post, I ask that you comment respectfully and help me understand what you believe and why it is important to you. If at all possible, let’s do it over coffee!
My prayer is that all I say, do and represent rings true with Jesus’ person, ministry and message of peace, love and reconciliation that our world desperately needs.