Glory To God Alone (Johann Sebastian Bach's S.D.G.)
Our theme for the Easter season Wonder, Surprise and New Possibilities, as stated on the front of your bulletin, started on Easter Sunday morning when I mentioned to my surprise I saw Wonder Woman in our midst as she bent down like Jesus and washed a fellow member’s feet during our Maundy Thursday worship. And then, with wonder, we pondered new possibilities and ways to share God’s super natural power of love with those around us on a daily basis.
Since that opening Easter Sunday, Corey, Deb and I have been discussing with you stories from the book of Acts about the ways Jesus’ early disciples experience wonder, surprise and new possibilities after they encountered Jesus’ resurrection. We also talked about the wonder, surprise and new possibilities we too experience when we engage the risen Christ in our lives both personally and communally.
Today is the last Sunday of our Easter season, but it is also a special day, Ascension Sunday, when we make the transition between the Easter season and the Pentecost season. Pentecost season being the time after the gift of the Holy Spirit is bestowed up on the disciples. This is the event we will celebrate next week when we confirm our youth to be full members of the congregation and welcome new members to the congregation – all of whom like us –are here to use our gifts and resources to share the word of God’s love both in action and in proclamation.
In order to get there (Pentecost Sunday) from here (Ascension Sunday) we annually read the end of volume one and the beginning of volume two. More specifically, in your bulletin, and in your bibles, we enjoyed the beginning and an end of one author’s contributions to our Holy Scriptures.
For those of you who may not know, The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were written by the same author. Volume one is the life, death and resurrection of our incarnated God Jesus, and volume two is the life of the disciples, their actions and proclamation after Jesus’ resurrection with the help of God’s presence in the Holy Spirit.
These two books, unique and wonderful in their own ways, are tied together by the last line of the first volume, the Gospel of Luke. Here it is again, found on page 8, starting in vs 50 with vs 52 being most important:
Then he (Jesus) led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.[p] 52 And they worshiped him, and[q] returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.[r]
The key word is worshipped. Worship is what we do here on Sunday morning, but it is also the foundation of our faith and life. More so, worship is the foundation of everything we do.
But what exactly is worship? What are we doing here on Sunday morning? What are these acts, gestures and communal activities? For greater clarity I went to our denominational website and found the following for you:
Connected with and central to everything we do, worship unites us in celebration, engages us in thoughtful dialogue and helps us grow in faith. It grounds us in our Christian and Lutheran roots, while demonstrating practical relevance for today’s world. Through God’s word, water, bread and prayer we are nurtured in faith and sent out into the world.
While some of the approaches to worship may differ from one congregation to another, we hold certain things in common. Central to our worship life is the presence of God through word and sacrament. The word proclaimed and the sacraments —both Holy Baptism and Holy Communion — are called the means of grace. We believe that Jesus Christ is present in these means through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we describe worship as a “gathering around the means of grace.”
There is also a basic pattern for worship among Lutherans. We gather. We encounter God’s word. We share a meal at the Lord’s table. And we are sent into the world. But we do not think about worship so much in terms of what we do. Worship is fundamentally about what God is doing and our response to God’s action. Worship is an encounter with God, who saves us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When we come together and worship, we encounter God. God is active in grace, by providing for us signs and symbols that point to God’s love for us and creation. In grace, God uses water and a promising word to give baby Kai the faith and trust that God is near both now, in life and in eternal life. By grace, God uses bread, wine and a promising word to say that by no action of our own, but by the simple loving action of God in Jesus Christ a new covenant, a promise, is made for all of us. This promise is the forgiveness of all mistakes – the perceived small ones and big ones. We are reconciled to God.
The elements of what we do in this hour on Sunday morning are all ways we point to God’s presence in our lives, and how God is at work in our creation.
But here is the dangerously tricky part. In all things worship, we are able to point to God doing the work, God’s love and gifts, God’s action and grace. But, when we leave here, and sometimes when we are still here too, the pointing shifts from what God is doing in the world to what we are doing in the world.
Our increasingly social and connected culture, like everything, has wonderful pros and concerning cons. While it is great to be able to post to the world what we are doing or even the ways we are trying to make a positive change in the world, the channels and funnels we use to share that information is largely personal. When we post, like, or share, we can regularly feel as if we are the agents at work, we are the one who deserves the accolades and likes, and we are the ones who are growing a following or creating an influence.
But as Christians, what we do, as a response to God’s grace, love and forgiveness, made real in our time of worship, is not our own. In truth, we can claim none of our accomplishments, achievements or successes. No, like the music we hear today, like the flowers and candle on the altar, and the contributions we put in the plate – these are all God’s gifts that are here as a work of the Holy Spirit and given to the Glory of God.
This is the truth, while the world may take credit for things is has done, and regularly passes the blame on the pain it has caused – we Christians point to God. It is God’s work, it is God’s action. It is God’s love and it is God’s grace. The fact that something special is done by us, some special gift, some special charitable act, is made manifest in the world – our first reactions should be – its all God.
There is no better example of this pointing to God in action, and especially appropriate on this Music Sunday, then the life and work of what by all standards was the greatest composer and musician of all time: Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach, a devout Lutheran Christian like us, loved to read scripture. Bibles from his estate have copious notes he made in the margins of the text. He pondered Christ, and Luther’s teachings about a new life and freedom given in Jesus’ death and resurrection. A new freedom in the Holy Spirit to respond with our fullest selves back to the world. For Bach, that response to God’s grace was in the gift of music.
Bach viewed all of his music—whether sacred hymns or secular cantatas—as a calling from God. He believed his work had two purposes: “The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than (1) the glorification of God and (2) the refreshment of the spirit.” Thus, he signed all of his church music and most of his secular music with the letters “S.D.G.”— Latin for: Soli Deo Gloria, translated: Glory to God Alone.
For Bach, the prayerful meditation to come up with the music: Glory to God Alone. The time writing and practicing: Glory to God Alone. The playing and editing: Glory to God Alone. The completed project: Glory to God Alone. The hearing of music and appreciation since 1600s to today: Glory to God Alone. Over 1000 compositions: Glory to God Alone.
Now, we could say Bach was a genius and an extra ordinary composer and musician, and that may be true. Or we could say the depth of God’s love, the power of God’s grace and forgiveness Bach experienced had such an impact on his life, he chose to live no other way than a life of: Glory to God Alone.
You, gathered people of Holy Trinity, you are not Bach. You never will be Bach. Let’s just accept that fact. You are something even better. You are you. Only you, in your own faith and life, can express Glory to God Alone in its most authentic way. It’s a mindset that is made manifest in offering. Think of it this way: if what we do in this life is Glory to God Alone – what does that perspective on life look like?
Well, for those of you playing and singing today – what is your mindset – and even the condition of your heart knowing what you do is Glory to God Alone? Does that motivate you, encourage you, strengthen you, empower you? For those who made desserts for the auction to support our youth or food for lunch after worship today: do you see your finished product differently knowing it is: Glory to God Alone? And for those who are auction winners and all who are going to enjoy the food, do you eat and appreciate the dessert or lunch even more knowing it was made with Glory to God Alone in mind?
And finally, for all of us who are here, who work hours upon hours at a job, or who are retired now and have completed your work and then come and bring an offering to God in the form of a monetary gift, do you see all that you do, and all that you have done as: Glory to God Alone?
For Bach, composing was his day job, but ultimately what he accomplished was done for Glory to God Alone. Your work, your life, and your time is important. What you bring back to the church as an offering is important. It is not just money or donations, it is the byproduct of a life in response to God. Your offering, as a part of worship, is probably the most sacred element of this hour together, because it is when the byproduct of a Glory to God Alone life and our giving to God are united as one. It is a Holy Moment, and we get to experience every week.
Knowing full well you will go back to work and social media tomorrow – or even today, God willing with a new perspective on life, you are going to need a reminder. You need a little something to be prompted of God’s work in your life and see God in the life of others. In the same way Bach wrote S.D.G. on the bottom of each of his compositions, why not write #G2GA on the bottom of your social media posts, you work calendars, your offerings and above your door frames.
For it will be a reminder, and in a reminder, it will be a mindset, and in a mindset is will bring change of action, and in change of action it will be change of attitude, and in a change of attitude it will be a vision and the vision will be a of a worshipful life. A worshipful life that is experienced here on Sunday morning and is then lived out there in the world: Glory to God Alone! Amen.