Ascension – May 10, 2018
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” 9(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. (Ephesians 4:7-12)
Scripture has four gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We call them the “Evangelists.” Now, you probably knew that. But did you know there is a fifth evangelist? No, it isn’t the false gospel of Thomas or Mary or Judas. This man wrote 1700 years after Christ. He isn’t known for his words at all. He is known for his music.
You see, the nickname of “the fifth evangelist” is another name for the brilliant composer Johann Sebastian Bach. His music was considered so revolutionary, so brilliant, and so beautiful that even though God didn’t have him write a gospel book, he is nicknamed an “evangelist.”
Johann Sebastian Bach has gone by other names, too. Beethoven called Bach “the immortal God of harmony.” Wagner called Bach “the most stupendous miracle in all music.” Brahms advised music students to “Study Bach” because “there you will find everything.” Even unbelievers have marveled at Bach’s ability to put God’s Word to music. Roger Fry admitted, “Bach almost persuades me to be a Christian.” One man went further than anyone else. He said, “Bach is the beginning and end of all music.”
So what made Bach so special? For some it is the mathematical precision of his compositions. Others say his harmonies passionately strike the center of one’s soul unlike any other composer. Yet the most transcendent aspect of Bach’s music might just reside in its timeless, deeply meaningful voice. While most music sings of the love between two people, Bach’s melodies sing the love of God for all mankind.
Bach sounds this eternal message in such delightfully unusual ways. His humility shines as he uses unconventional, sometimes forgotten instruments. One instrument that Bach picked off of the trash heap was the cello. Before Bach arrived, a cello was considered clunky, unwieldy, and ugly. Bach brought the instrument to the center of the stage and turned the downtrodden instrument into one of the most recognized musical mechanisms in the world.
It seemed Bach’s humble nature delighted in shining light on music’s most humble instruments. He isn’t the only one. More than Bach, or anyone else, the Lord delights in using humble, forgotten instruments. But in order to use believers as his instruments, Jesus first had to ascend into heaven. “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”
Scripture is a veritable history of the Lord finding humble, forgotten people to use as his instruments. He called old, forgotten men like Abraham and Moses to be his beautiful instruments. Time and again he used women that were cast off by society because they couldn’t have children to be his instruments in the line of the Savior. God found kings, who themselves had become broken instruments, and fixed them for his good purposes.
And then there was Saul. For much of his life, Saul had been a destructive instrument of the devil, as he hunted down Christians. On the road to Damascus, the Lord took the instrument that Saul was and did something only God can do – he turned him. Instead of playing the destructive, hell-bound tones of the devil, Saul now was Paul, God’s instrument of music to the Gentiles.
However, not everyone understood that yet. Immediately after the Lord turned Saul’s life around on the road to Damascus, he spoke to a faithful believer named Ananias. The story didn’t make much sense to the Christian. Who could blame him? The Christian persecutor, Saul, had been breathing out murderous threats against Christians! Now the Lord was telling Ananias to go right up to this man? It would take every ounce of trust he had.
To further ease the fears of the anxious Ananias, the Lord revealed his intentions for the new Christian convert. “The Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.’” What a beautiful image! Saul, formerly a persecutor of Christians, would now be God’s gospel instrument. What an instrument he would turn out to be.
It is with his ascended Lord in mind that the Apostle Paul writes this evening, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” All different instruments playing their different symphonic tones in the Lord’s orchestra.
But the devil has a purpose for instruments as well. We saw how Saul, in his former life, embodied Satan’s scheme. His well-intentioned, zealous persecution of Christians sounded the strongest note in Satan’s symphony of sin. The devil always delights in twisting instruments meant for Godly music into useless, harmful gongs and clanging symbols of hatred, ignorance and apathy.
And if the devil cannot use an instrument against the Lord, he puts his efforts into shelving it completely. “Better for an instrument of the Lord to gather dust than to play even one note for his glory.” The temptation to refuse to play the Lord’s melodies in our lives, especially when those tunes bring hurt upon ourselves, can overwhelm us.
How much more satisfying it feels for us to become our own instrument! I play when I want. I function only for myself. Such instrumentation not only epitomizes selfishness, it unwittingly plays Satan’s song!
Imagine Bach’s cello sitting in the midst of an orchestra. Every instrument plays their individual notes at the right time, in the right way, forming beautiful chords and themes. Then the cello goes rogue! It plays its own notes, at its own time. What a disaster!
But if there was ever an instrument who played beautifully perfect music, it was Jesus. The instrument of our salvation allowed himself to be destroyed by the devil’s instruments: the Jewish leaders, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, the soldiers. Jesus was the instrument who allowed himself to be crushed. He stopped playing his music, to win for us the sweet symphonic sounds of salvation.
The instrument of your salvation has chosen you to be his instrument. The Lord has always delighted in weak, forgotten instruments. And, no offense, we are no different. Like Paul, we are those weak, lonely, naturally pathetic-sounding instruments. Like Paul, the Lord plays beautiful law and gospel music through us, his instruments.
We aren’t all the same. After all, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” But we join together with our various talents and abilities to harmonize together to make the Lord’s music. No one sits and does nothing in God’s orchestra. It is the job of those pastors and teachers “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” Nor is this a solo performance. We are instruments made to make the Lord’s beautiful harmony.
Johann Sebastian Bach wasn’t a perfect composer. However, he knew that it was by God’s grace that he was able to be God’s instrument. That is why, when you look at the beginning of every composition he wrote, Bach inscribed the initials “J.J.” Those weren’t his initials. It stood for “Jesu Juva” which means “Jesus, help!” As instruments of our risen and ascended Lord, we cry out the same. And remember your Great Conductor’s eternal promise, “Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” Amen.