I recently finished reading a collection of sermons by John Newton on the subject of Handel’s Messiah. As I finished the last sermon the thought went through my head that I should write him a letter to tell him how much I appreciated his efforts. Then I remembered he is dead. Well, I was encouraged to write the letter anyway, and here it is. So thankful that in the Kingdom friendship isn’t bound by time and space!
Dear Pastor Newton (for “pastor” you have been to me this several months),
I was fortunate to marry a man who loves the work of Handel’s Messiah, not so much for its musicality, but for its theology. While I had heard (and sung) portions of it in my life, I had never before read through the progression of Scripture that made up the lyrics of this work. How thankful I am for my husband helping me to see its value, and also making a beautiful tradition of attending productions nearly every year of our married life.
Often, as I sat in large crowds watching the story of God’s plan of salvation unfold amidst the beauty of voice and instrument joined together, I wondered if the people around me truly comprehended the profound message they were listening to. Or were they just coming to hear a classical “Christmas” production for the sake of culture? It became my habit to pray that even in this setting God’s Word would open hearts and minds.
While reading a biography about your life, I found that you had once published what was referred to as a commentary on Handel’s Messiah. You were concerned, like me, that people were listening to it without really hearing it. I knew that I had to find this commentary and read for myself what you might have to say. After some research, I found that in volume 4 of your complete works are a series of sermons that you preached on the texts used in the oratorio. I have spent the past several months reading through these sermons, often with the London Symphony Orchestra playing along in the background. I enjoyed them all. However there were some that were particularly helpful to me.
When you addressed Isaiah 53: 4,5 in your sermon entitled, “Messiah suffering and wounded for us” I was struck with how thoroughly our Savior understands our sufferings, because of all that He suffered on our behalf. Your description of how complete His suffering was for the sake of His children, comforted me in my own struggles. In addition I was awed by His willingness to endure so much more than ‘just’ the cross (as if that weren’t extreme in itself!). I was amazed at His grace, if you know what I mean.
Several sermons were committed to understanding all that he went through, “Messiah unpitied, and without comforter” opened up for me the realization of what a wonderful gift we have of the Comforter that Christ sent to us to be with us in all that we experience. He did not have a comforter to help him.
“No sorrow like Messiah’s sorrow” spoke of all that we gain as believers because of his passing from death to life, from suffering to glory: His atonement, His love, His example in our own trials. And from that, the transition to the glory of a risen savior seated at the right hand of God the Father, our high priest and intercessor. “Because I live, ye shall live also” John 14:19.
Pastor Newton, this is an age in which thousands of babies are slaughtered every day in the name of choice. On top of that, many more lose their lives through miscarriages, natural disasters, war and pestilence. Because of this, I loved your suggestion that when Jesus admonished the disciples to let the children come, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven”, he wasn’t so much talking about an attitude as he was indicating that His kingdom was largely made up of infants who had passed through this world only briefly before coming to be among the multitude that worships around the throne – from every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation. Beautiful!
I won’t go on to review every sermon. Just know that I was not sorry for the time I have spent reading through them. Especially at the end when the multitudes are standing around the throne singing to the worthy Lamb of God. “Hearing” you expound on these verses made me anticipate with great joy that time to come when I will join in the throng singing, “Blessing and honor, and glory and power be unto him that sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever!” And meanwhile, I am among those who, ” during their present state of warfare, are taught to sing, in feebler strains indeed, but the subject of their joy, and the object of their praise are the same which inspire the harps and songs in the world of light.” You say that this is our time of rehearsing, and so I rehearse. Thank you, dear pastor for having the heart to comfort believers, and bring warning to those unbelieving in our midst. You have blessed me long past your days, and have become a friend who helps me get by.