This is the opening of Bach’s cantata for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (BWV 132). The video shows Bach’s own score. I love that it takes up to ten measures to sing the word Bahn—that’s like 85 notes. The road that John the Baptist comes to prepare seems to be a long and bumpy one.
By the end of December, I will have prepared and delivered fifteen sermons or devotions for services during this month. These are for our Sunday Divine Service, as well as Matins and Vespers services for Advent and Christmas.
But in the midst of a month of near constant preparation to preach, a preacher needs a few sermons, too. I have been able to find those in the church cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. I have become particularly attached to two cantatas for Advent, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Savior of the Nations, Come) BWV 61 and Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! BWV 132. The librettos for these works, one by Erdmann Neumeister (God’s Own Child I Gladly Say it) and the other by Salomo Franck are just incredible.
Both cantatas are on volume 7 of the collection of church cantatas by the Bach Collegium Japan. I highly recommend these recordings of all of Bach’s cantatas. [If I can figure it out, I’ll add a widget to this post that will allow you to preview this album.]
I just love the last Sundays of the church year. I am especially fond of the texts from Matthew 25 that bring the year to a close and point us to the end. The Sheep and the Goats. The Wise and Foolish Virgins. And on top of it, we’ve been given hymns that illustrate and illumine these texts. I’m thinking especially of Philipp Nicolai’s Wake, Awake, “The King of Chorales”. This Sunday I’ll be spending the Bible class hour leading people through the scriptural references and historical background of this hymn. I initially thought it wouldn’t nearly take up the whole hour, but now I’m wondering how we’ll get it all in.
But there’s another hymn that has become just as meaningful to me. “O’er the Distant Mountains Breaking” (CW 220) also refers to this week’s Gospel in the final stanza:
With my lamp well-trimmed and burning,
Swift to hear and slow to stray,
Watching for your glad returning,
Waiting for the blessed day.
Come, my Savior, Come, my Savior,
O my Savior, quickly come!
I just love that phrase, “swift to hear and slow to stray.” So often we have it the other way around. And we always want to emphasize the “watching” for Jesus. But does it look like he’s coming? When the night of watching day waiting grows long and it seems like he may never come, then we can do nothing but cling to his word, his promise that he will indeed return. Hurry up and listen.
In Bible class at church we just finished up a course on Christian vocation. Last week as we were wrapping it up I mentioned the third stanza of this hymn which has also been very dear to me over the past few years:
Nearer is my soul’s salvation;
Spent the night, the day at hand.
Keep me in my humble station,
Watching for you till I stand,
O my Savior, O my Savior,
In your bright, your promised land.
I just discovered today that the author of this hymn, John S. B. Monsell, died from injuries he received while watching or inspecting workers who were repairing the roof of his church. Either he fell off the roof, or he was hit by a falling object. Maybe he would have been better off staying in his study (in his “humble station”) and not crawling around on the roof. That may be a reminder I need from time to time. I’ve been known to do dumb things like that which I have no business doing. It’s a reminder that the station(s) in life into which I have been placed is the best place for me to be while I wait for Christ’s return. Even though it might not always be the place I want to be, or it might not always be the most comfortable place to be, it is the place where I will find “one of the least of these brothers of mine” (Mt 25:40) behind whom Jesus promises to hide himself. I would always like to take the shortcut to get my life more like it will be when Jesus returns, but no, not yet.
Another favorite phrase from this hymn is in stanza two:
Come, O Long-Expected; weary
Waits my spirit anxiously.
Life is dark and earth is dreary
Where your light I cannot see.
O my Savior, O my Savior,
When will you return to me?
It reminds me of Psalm 73: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (vs 25). And then that last phrase shows a trust that the Lord Jesus is not just coming back to raise everyone and judge everyone, but I’m looking for when he is coming for me. As though he would go through all the trouble of coming back even if it were only for me.
And then there’s the delightful image in the first stanza of the return of Jesus like the dawn of a new day:
O’er the distant mountains breaking
Comes the redd’ning dawn of day.
Rise, my soul, from sleep awaking;
Rise and sing and watch and pray.
’Tis your Savior, ’Tis your Savior,
On his bright returning way.
So I think of that every time I see the sun pushing up over the mountains to the east. Each new day is a day to rise and ready ourselves for Jesus’ return. I snapped this picture one Sunday morning out the car window (I stopped first) as I was on my way to church.
All of these thoughts and images fill my mind during these last days of the church year. They all lead me to one unending cry, which the Church has been crying for nearly 2,000 years. “Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.”