Soli Deo Gloria

A Sermon for Classical Music Sunday, August 5, 2012, presented at Resurrection by Pastor Jim Kniseley.


Dear Friends in Christ,


Each year in the middle of summer we have “Classical Music Sunday” at Resurrection.  We do this for two good reasons: First, it is a way of encouraging some of our folks who have musical talent to use that gift in a way that glorifies God.  Second, this gives us the opportunity to remember the glorious musical gifts that God has given to certain talented musicians in the history of the Church.


In the service today we’re hearing marvelous music from the likes of Giuseppe Verdi and Franz List and Peter Tchaikovsky.  I want two lift up just two great musical talents from the past:

Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.


These two men with amazing musical talent grew up in the Lutheran Church in Germany.  The Lutheran Reformation opened the doors of the church to new musical  forms and we are the richer today because of this breath of fresh air.  You’ll remember that previous to Luther, most singing in church was done by a choir and was done in Latin.  Luther said that music and singing must be in the hands of the people.  Some of the Church Reformers unfortunately banished musical instruments and new musical forms like cantatas and oratorios from their churches.  So even today, some denominations in Christendom either forbid or greatly restrain what you are experiencing here today in our music for worship.


Johann Sebastian Bach was born in the year 1685 in Eisenach, Germany.  That’s near the town where Martin Luther had  been born 200 years earlier.  On every piece of music he ever created, Bach wrote a Latin phrase somewhere on the page: Soli Deo Gloria or SDG, “To God alone be the glory.”


I wonder how your work (and mine) might be affected if on everything we produced we put that phrase…


Bach’s parents encouraged to study violin and organ.  He was a choirboy for his church.  At a young age, he determined to serve God through his music and when he was an adult he served as organist for several churches before securing the position of “cantor” at the large St. Thomas Kirche in Leipzig in 1723.  Here’s a little remembered tidbit: Bach came in #3 in the interviews to be cantor and was hired only after the first two choices declined.  His position as cantor really meant he was the minister of music.  He taught in the school, orchestrated all the music for the worship service, was the organist, and was on call to the Town Council since they paid his salary and not the church.


Bach produced a lot of music.  He wrote nearly 200 cantatas.  He would look at the lessons coming up for Sunday and then write the words and music for the various parts of the liturgy and make sure it all happened at worship!


Today J.S. Bach is generally considered to be one of the finest musical talents who has ever lived.  Some have recognized his amazing understanding of Holy Scripture and his ability to put rich theology into words and music.  He is sometimes called the “fifth apostle” because he has reached so many people through his music with the gospel.


The most amazing thing is that Bach was not really recognized as great during his lifetime.  He was certainly thought of as a well-respected church musician with special skills as an organist.  He was in his 27th year as cantor at St. Thomas Kirche when he died in 1750.  His body was buried without ceremony in a nearby church graveyard.  One the 100th anniversary of his death they finally put a tablet commemorating him in the church.  One the 200th anniversary of his death in 1950, his remains were moved to a resting-place within St. Thomas Kirche.


In many ways, then, Bach exemplified that phrase, Soli Deo Gloria.  The praise went to God and not to him…


Ludwig van Beethoven lived later than Bach.  Bach died in 1750 and Beethoven was born in 1770 and died in 1827.  30,000 folks were a part of his funeral procession.  He was immensely popular and his music was well known during his lifetime.  He was not a church musician, but instead wrote and performed in the secular world.  Some of his music, especially from his later days, has been adapted as hymns.


He was born in Halle, Germany.  Halle should sound familiar to you since we had the Muhlenberg Exhibit from the University of Halle in our Fellowship Hall last week.  Beethoven had a hard life.  Like a lot of our musicians here today, he took piano lessons as a child.  The difference with Beethoven, though, was his father “beat” music into his son.  The father was musician who drank a lot and had a violent temper.  He demanded his son play the violin and piano.  It is amazing that young Ludwig would learn to love music through all that.  But he did.  Then he was given proper music lessons and b the age of seven he was advanced enough to appear in public.  At the age of 10 he even had a piece of music published.  The title of his music is “Nine Variations for Piano in C Minor.”

He was really a talented pianist and that is what brought him fame and recognition.  He had some wealthy patrons whose funds allowed him to practice and write music.


One of the worst things that can happen to a musician is to lose your hearing.  That is what happened to Beethoven.  It was devastating to his career as a concert pianist.  He began noticing this loss age the age of 28.  He gave up playing in public and turned to composition.  By the age of 50 he was completely deaf.  Yet, he was able to hear the music in his head and his creativity continued.


There is a poignant story that comes from the last year of his life.  The Ninth Symphony was completed in 1823.  Our closing hymn today, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, comes from that symphony.  Beethoven was completely deaf at the time he wrote that beautiful music and words.  Despite his deafness, he insisted on ducting, but unknown to him the real conductor sat out of his sight beating time.  As the last movement ended, Beethoven, unaware eve that the music had ceased, was also unaware of the tremendous burst of applause that greeted it.  One of the singers took him by the arm and turned him around so that he might actually see the ovation.


It was just 4 years later that Beethoven died at the age of 57.  30,000 mourners were present for his funeral procession and many people were saddened by the passing of this musical talent.


There is a contrast between Bach and Beethoven that I have never heard expressed before.  It has to do with the acclaim that they received in the earthly lifetimes.  Probably Beethoven never once performed without having loud applause with hands clapping as the response.  For he performed in theaters and chamber halls and ballrooms.  Probably Bach never received applause in the form of hand clapping after he presented his music in Church.  But that is what he wanted.  He wanted his work to glorify God and not himself…


It is my hope and prayer that some of our young musicians today will be the church musicians of the future.  One generation needs to pass on to the next generation the love and appreciation for worshipping God with all of our artistic senses and musicianship.  If classical music is not to your liking, we will be hearing God’s praises expressed next week in gospel music form.  How great it would be if all of our musicians here at Resurrection would do so in worship SDG – for the glory of God.


Let me end with the words of one of the hymns in our Lutheran Book of Worship.  It is Hymn #555:

When in our music God is glorified

And adoration leaves no room for pride,

It is as if the whole creation cried, Alleluia!


Let every instrument be tuned for praise!

Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!

And may God give us faith to sing always, Alleluia.


You response and praise to God now is the singing of a hymn which sounds and feels like Christmas.  It was written by a contemporary of Bach, George Friedrich Handel.    Let us sing now “to the glory of God.”