As a musician, my first thoughts when reading these passages are of a musical setting of verses 19-23 by the English composer, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). That piece is in the form of a verse anthem, a genre popular with English composers of the Reformation period, in which passages for a soloist alternate with passages for a choir. The choir simply repeats the last few words of the soloist, using the same melody but adding some harmony. (You can give it a listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_e-fRq4vBA.)
As I re-read these passages, I began to focus on how John the Baptist, like a soloist, steps out ALONE, preaching and baptizing in the wilderness and then facing the questions of the sanctimonious Pharisee Priests and Levites. His responses to their questions culminate in a description of Christ as similarly singular (there is ONE standing among [all of] you) and the passage also references the prophet Elijah, who stood alone against the followers of Baal.
Over the past year I have seen many personal acts of bravery; individuals speaking or acting out against hate and injustice. Their “No!” has been echoed by two then ten then sometimes even hundreds or thousands. Speeches and marches that sought to glorify intolerance and separate people have been drowned out, dissolved or cancelled. Individuals who abused the power they held over others have been called to account. Because someone had the faith, courage, and conviction to start the solo, a choir then formed and the message was amplified.
Returning to Gibbon’s verse anthem, there is one other group at the performance. The audience. They sit, they watch, they listen, and when all is done, they applaud and say, “good work.” Fine for a concert but these are troubling times. A famous quote is sometimes ascribed to the anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil…Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
As we close a year in which we celebrated our Protestant Reformation while also seeing much hate, intolerance, and selfishness emerge from the darkness, it would be good to remember that Luther wanted all of us to sing.