Advent Hymns (8)

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Catherine Winkworth (Translator)

1 Comfort, comfort ye my people,
speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
comfort those who sit in darkness,
mourning ‘neath their sorrow’s load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem
of the peace that waits for them;
tell her that her sins I cover,
and her warfare now is over.

2 Yea, her sins our God will pardon,
blotting out each dark misdeed;
all that well deserved his anger
he no more will see or heed.
She hath suffered many a day,
now her griefs have passed away;
God will change her pining sadness
into ever-springing gladness.

3 For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
bidding all men to repentance,
since the kingdom now is here.
O that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him,
and the hills bow down to greet him.

4 Make ye straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain;
let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits his holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now o’er earth is shed abroad;
and all flesh shall see the token,
that his word is never broken.

This is an old Advent song penned by Johannes Olearius  who was born early in the Seventeenth century into  a family of Lutheran theologians, and studied at Luther’s own Wittenberg University, later teaching theology there. He had a distinguished career and  produced a commentary on the entire Bible, published various devotional books, and provided a translation of the Imitatio Christi by Thomas a Kempis.  But more than all this, he compiled one of the major German hymn-books of the 17th century, the Geistliche Singe-Kunst, with over a thousand hymns, including  302 hymns by Olearius himself. They are mostly short, many of only two verses, simple and easy of comprehension, often happy in expression and catching, and embodying in a concise form the leading ideas of the season or subject. Many are still in use.

But they would probably have remained unknown to an English audience apart from the amazing translation skills of Catherine Winkworth in the nineteenth century.

Catherine lived with German relations when she was only 17, but developed such a mastery of the language and a love of its hymns that she single-handedly set about translating them -with minute precision- into English. The Advent song above is one of her early efforts. Her work was published in two series of Lyra Germanica (1855, 1858) and in The Chorale Book for England (1863), when she was in her mid-thirties. Each included the appropriate German tune with each text as provided by Sterndale Bennett and Otto Goldschmidt.

Her personality makes an intriguing study. She was a pioneer in promoting women’s rights, and put much of her energy into the encouragement of higher education for women in the places where she lived as an adult – Manchester and Bristol.

But the song picks up on something of her own life-journey. It anticipates the coming of the Messiah – the expectation of Christmas – as the breaking down of centuries of injustice, of the recovery of justice. The words echo the introduction to the account of John the Baptist and the prophecies of Isaiah, of rough places being made smooth, and valleys being “lifted up.”

There is a prophetic edge to her translation. In her life that meant justice -or at least a fairer deal- for women. Her life in Manchester and Bristol witnessed some of the early excesses of the Industrial Revolution, political upheaval and the ending of the slave trade. Bristol was a world centre of the slave trade and it was only abolished in the UK and its territories in 1833. All of this is behind the words of the song:

“Comfort those who sit in darkness,
mourning ‘neath their sorrow’s load….”

But what has that to do with Christmas? Not much in the flurried rush of excess shopping, ridiculous film narratives and jolly jolly tomfoolery. But in the real world of darkness and pain:

“the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
bidding all men to repentance,
since the kingdom now is here.
O that warning cry obey!”

That is the genuine voice of Advent. God is stepping in and you better get ready. The incarnation is the first coming, but it sets the style for a second one where God’s rule will be evident and eternal.

Make ye straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain;
let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits his holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now o’er earth is shed abroad;
and all flesh shall see the token,
that his word is never broken.

God has promised and God will keep his promise.

 

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Advent Hymns (7)

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We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Earth to heav’n replies

 

Wikipedia explains: “We Three Kings“, original title “Three Kings of Orient“, also known as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” or “The Quest of the Magi“, is a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857. At the time of composing the carol, Hopkins served as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and he wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City. Many versions of this song have been composed and it remains a popular Christmas carol.

This paragraph shows something of an ambiguity about this Advent song: were they kings or were they “wise men” because the one does not equal the other! I include it here in the run up to Christmas because it reminds us that they were already on the move, seeking something that they didn’t fully understand… Who does, really, in the final analysis? When we seek God, do we know what we mean by that verb? We are looking for answers when all we have are questions. The Bible is full of questioners, like the entire book of Job, like the little book of Lamentations, like the story of Abraham, like the folks listed in Hebrews 11 who sought but did not receive, seeing something afar off but not seeing it realised in their own life and experience.

So were they kings? The Bible uses the word “Magi” which is generally translated “wise men.” The word crops up three times in the Bible. Daniel is described as one of the Magi of the royal court, by which we understand that he was an official adviser. The Magi appear a second time in Matthew’s account of the nativity to which this song refers. And the third mention? It’s in Acts 8, when we are introduced to a charlatan who is called Simon Magus. And in popular terminology, the word forms the root of our word “magician.”

So there’s a sliding scale of godliness in the word. Daniel demonstrated what godly intellect looked like, even in the service of a secular king. The Magi of this carol show something different- following their understanding of the star system, identifying something new in the history of the world, and yet applying to Herod for help. There’s something astray in their use of intellect. God warns them off, but Herod moves in – the very picture of a godless king – in an attempt to exterminate a rival. It’s a horrible picture of power in the wrong hands. And then Simon Magus further exemplifies what godless intellect and power without God looks like. Church history tells of massive evil sprouting from this one man.

And however you respond to the word “magician” – whether it evokes something like a conjuror, a trickster, or something darker – something demonic- it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with responsible Christian living.

But the song reaches back, further upstream, to where the water is much purer: to a time when intellect is submitted to God. And the first people who came seeking the Messiah were intellectuals. The shepherds came from their work, but the Magi came from their books. They studied science – or at least the science of the day – and it set them on a journey to find meaning, to find God.

And they brought gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for a prophet. The gifts were symbolic of the inner meaning of the One to which they were given. Did they themselves understand what they were doing? Probably not. They were like the prophets whom Peter refers to in 2 Peter 1:10-21:

“As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look….

“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Isn’t that an incredible picture? We look, we seek, and God is at work in our seeking, our questioning, our fears and doubts…. Maybe we get it wrong (the Magi went terribly wrong in applying to Herod for help – it’s like setting a wolf to guard the sheep! ) but God is in charge and He knows what He’s doing. And the Magi -though human- were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

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Advent Hymns (6)

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Mary, Did You Know?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God
Mary did you know? Mary did you know? Mary did you know?
Mary did you know? Mary did you know? Mary did you know?
The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb
It’s a song made famous by Kenny Rogers and later Pentatonix. It belongs in a series of Advent devotionals because it’s about expectation and consequence. The truth was that Mary didn’t know. She trusted, she believed but she didn’t know. Who does? Who knows the future apart from God?
But she knew enough. The headlights of a car don’t show you the whole way home; only a small section in front where you can drive. Little by little we uncover the journey, but the whole plan is only seen in retrospect. Mary didn’t know anything apart from…. Apart from what? Three simple things that Mary came to know:

 

1. Devotion is about obedience

Too often, we mistake religious feelings with devotion. But real devotion is about obedience. It’s about being faithful to God and our conscience. We see this clearly in Mary’s story:

“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’

‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’

The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.’

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her” (Luke 1:26–38).

Despite being greatly troubled at the words of this angel, Mary’s response shows great  faithfulness. She’s not afraid to voice her questions, but in the end, she chooses obedience.

Like Mary, we don’t need to have all the answers to say, “I am the Lord’s servant.” In fact, faith is all about stepping out in obedience even when we don’t.

2. Sometimes obedience requires sacrifice

Mary was betrothed to Joseph when the angel, Gabriel, visited her. Her pregnancy caused some static with her fiancé. Joseph was considering sending her away when God intervened with a vision (Matthew 1:18–25). But this was only the beginning of the difficulties Mary would face.

When Joseph and Mary take the infant, Jesus, to be presented at the temple, they met a man named Simeon. God had promised this righteous man that he’d live to see the Messiah, and because the Spirit prompts him, Simeon appears in time to hold Jesus.

Simeon prays a prayer of thanksgiving, and then he addresses Joseph and Mary:

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too'” (Luke 2:34–35).

As Simeon prophesied, Jesus’s ministry turns Jerusalem (and eventually the world) on its head. But his last comment hits close to home. For Jesus to fulfill his destiny, Mary would have to suffer.

Mary may have understood the role Jesus was meant to play, but she didn’t understand the script. She probably heard the angel’s words about all that Jesus would be and would accomplish, and presumed she knew what that looked like.

She probably didn’t understand that Jerusalem’s religious elite would turn against Him. She couldn’t have guessed that what awaited Him was a cross and a borrowed grave. To her credit, Mary was there for her child’s crucifixion—but, as Simeon told her, her soul was pierced through.

Sometimes walking with Jesus means walking down some scary paths. And it almost always requires some form of sacrifice—even when that sacrifice is simply giving up on the expectations you’ve been carrying.

3. Have faith that Jesus will come through

Before Jesus officially kicked off His ministry, Mary, Jesus, and some of His disciples went to a wedding in a town called Cana. The wedding ran out of wine early (a massive faux pas for a wedding reception), and Mary turned to Jesus.

Jesus’ response was a noncommittal, “Why do you involve me? My time has not yet come” (John 2:4). But that didn’t seem to trouble Mary. She just went to the servants and told them, “do whatever He tells you.”

John explains what happened next:

“Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

“Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they filled them to the brim.

“Then he told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.’

“They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, ‘Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now'” (John 2:6–10).

Sometimes you hear Jesus’ response to Mary interpreted with a little bit of annoyance, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It reads more like he’s testing her. But there isn’t a moment when her faith that he’s going to save the day falters.

This wine situation is important to the bride and groom, and it means a lot to Mary that they not be humiliated. She trusts that it’s important to Jesus, too.

We should demonstrate the same trust that what’s important to us is important to Jesus, and have the faith to ask Him to intervene.

Simple obedience and faith

Mary demonstrates the power of pure faith. When you look at her accomplishments, it might not seem like she did very much. But her obedience changed the course of history. Sometimes the most profound thing we can do with our lives is to wholeheartedly say, “I am the Lord’s servant.”

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Advent Hymns (5)

Martin Leckebusch’s rather quirky song about Joseph is a fitting addition to a list of devotionals based on Advent songs. Not that it’s well-known, but its subject matter and style sets it apart. Here’s the lyric:

Joseph, what news has brought such gloom?
Are all these rumours true?
Whose is the child in Mary’s womb,
and in your turmoil, who
can say what you must do?

Joseph, recall that special dream –
remember all you heard!
Things are not always what they seem,
and Mary has not erred:
obey the angel’s word.

Joseph, go home to David’s town,
for Caesar wants your gold;
there, as the names are written down,
God’s promise will unfold –
a birth so long foretold.

Joseph, beware: for close at hand
is Herod, mad with spite!
Flee with the child to Egypt’s land,
beyond the tyrant’s might –
guard well God’s infant Light!

I find this song full of penetrating insights about Advent. First, it speaks of expectation, future hope and longing – all the themes of the pre-Christmas build-up. But it does so from a particular perspective – that of the interior life of one of the main players: Joseph.

We are told very little about this key figure. Most of the extant information comes from the Gospel of Matthew. It is probably not a simplification to say that Matthew tells the birth from Joseph’s perspective and Luke tells the same story from Mary’s viewpoint. So in Luke’s account, for example, we read details of Mary meeting Elizabeth, and the angels meeting Mary; but Matthew’s account focuses on three key dreams that God gave to Joseph.

Isn’t it interesting that the two Josephs in the Bible are both dreamers? Jacob’s son dreams about future grandeur and power, but Mary’s husband dreams on one specific thread three times. First he dreams that he should marry the girl; second he dreams that he should flee to Egypt and third, he dreams that he can now return from Egypt. So the one pervasive thread of all these dreams is to keep the baby safe. That’s how the song works. It picks up the three dreams – or rather the first two – and encourages Joseph to see his mission through.

Who is it that is narrating the song? It sounds like a wise friend, or a godly ally, someone who loves and believes in Joseph and who trusts in the promises of God. We could all do with friends like that. Or maybe it is the encouragement of the angels, repeated through the mouths and hearts of friends.

This is the reason I find the song so compelling. The first verse reminds us of the moral stigma of Joseph’s position. In the Gospel narrative, we are given one vital clue about the character of the man. It is that he is dikaios. That’s the Greek term for “righteous” but it means quite a bit more than moral rectitude. It means he was a devoted Jew, with a Pharisaical determination to live according to the Law. It means that he was a stickler, an OCD law-man. So any breath of scandal, any whiff of impropriety, and he would be gone, out of there. The rabbis taught of “setting a hedge around the law.” That was a way of saying that you shouldn’t even go near the boundaries of impropriety: if in doubt, get out. The prime example of that, of course, was Joseph’s famous namesake, fleeing temptation in the house of Potiphar. So shouldn’t our Joseph do the same?

Yes, clearly so. But the first verse tells us of the God of surprises who calls Joseph in a dream to stand by Mary against all the “rumours” and to believe her story of an angelic visit. That was a huge step for a man like Joseph to take.

The third verse picks up on the trip to Bethlehem but there are two curious pieces of subtext: the first is what the political Powers-that-Be demand: “Caesar wants your gold.” The second is what God is doing through those very circumstances: “God’s promise will unfold.”  Only someone like Joseph could hold those two things in tension and “get it.” Years later, Paul was to write: “All things work together for good for those that love God and are called according to his purposes.” (Rom 8:28) Well, here is Joseph, a righteous Jew who loves God and who sees the rule and promises of God over and beyond the politics of a powerful Caesar. “Things are not always what they seem!”

The last verse sounds a warning.

Joseph, beware: for close at hand
is Herod, mad with spite!
Flee with the child to Egypt’s land,
beyond the tyrant’s might –
guard well God’s infant Light!

It’s a picture of human tyranny, and this is where Joseph comes into his own. This was the focus and purpose of his life, but in order that that life make sense, it meant one thing: Joseph had to be obedient to the heavenly calling. He had to believe Mary, and scorn the scandal; He had to trust the promises of God, and to go with it, no matter how crazy it sounded. And when the time came, he had to run for his life and keep his family safe.

I like this song because I think that Joseph is one of the unsung heroes of the Bible. He performed a thankless task and exhibited courage and faith not only in the face of powerful enemies but also, day by dreary day, in front of gossiping friends.

Lord, grant us a heart like that, strong and true, and determined to do your will, whatever it looks like to other people. Let me be true to the Christ that is being birthed in me.

 

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Advent Hymns (4)

The proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” is more than a catchy religious phrase. It is a declaration of our submission to the rule of the Crucified Christ in every aspect of our life.

And this is the theological foundation of that familiar hymn; “Crown Him with many crowns” and the reason why it belongs in a devotional series of Advent Hymns. There are multiple Biblical references in the lyric, but the main one is undoubtedly Revelation 19:12-13: “His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns . . . He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and His name is the Word of God.

The One Who bore the crown of thorns while on the cross is now crowned with ‘many crowns’ as the reigning monarch of heaven. Each crown in this hymn text exalts Christ for some specific aspect of His person or ministry: stanza one for His eternal Kingship; stanza two for His love demonstrated in redemptive suffering; stanza three for His victorious resurrection and ascension; stanza four as a member of the Triune Godhead, ever worthy of worship and praise.

It’s a marvellous paean of Christocentric praise. Here’s the lyric – or four verses of it:

1 Crown Him with many crowns
The Lamb upon His throne;
Hark how the heavenly anthem drowns
All music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing
Of Him who died for thee
And hail Him as thy matchless King
Through all eternity.

2 Crown Him the Virgin’s Son,
The God incarnate born,
Whose arm those crimson trophies won
Which now His brow adorn;
Fruit of the mystic rose,
As of that rose the stem;
The root whence mercy ever flows,
The Babe of Bethlehem.

3 Crown Him the Lord of Love.
Behold His hands and side,
Rich wounds, yet visible above,
In beauty glorified.
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his wondering eye
At mysteries so bright!

4 Crown Him the Lord of Life
Who triumphed o’er the grave
And rose victorious in the strife
For those He came to save.
His glories now we sing,

Who died, and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring,

and lives that death may die.

This powerful lyric is the combined effort of two distinguished Anglican vicars, each of whom desired to combine both the suffering and the glory of our risen Lord.  Matthew Bridges’ version first appeared in 1851 with six stanzas. Twenty-three years later, Godfrey Thring wrote six additional stanzas, which appeared in his collection, Hymns and Sacred Lyrics. The hymn’s present form includes stanzas one, two and four by Bridges and the third verse by Thring. The tune Diademata (the Greek word for crowns) was composed especially for this text by George Elvey, the organist at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor,England, where British royalty often attend. It must have formed a powerful reminder that behind every human throne there is a heavenly one. It was “in the year that King Uzziah died...” when earthy kings failed, that Isaiah “saw the Lord high and lifted up.” (Isaiah 6) Behind human authority stands the authority of God.

Crowns have long been worn by monarchs as a symbol of that authority, -of power, and legitimacy to rule. So Jesus is crowned as the Lord of love, life, peace and years. But if you were to write additional verses to this hymn, what types of coronation could be added?

Crown him the Lord of work! How would Jesus’ rule of love impact your daily work?

Crown him the Lord of parenthood! How would Jesus’ rule of love inform your parenting?

Crown him the Lord of leisure! How would Jesus’ rule of love govern your unstructured time?

So we say: “Jesus is Lord.” We remind ourselves at Advent, that He reigns, and rules and “the government shall be upon his shoulders…” (Isaiah 9)

And as we look towards Christmas, we ” Crown Him the Virgin’s Son,
The God incarnate born… The root whence mercy ever flows, The Babe of Bethlehem.”

It all begins here.

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Advent Hymns (3)

In the first years of the Methodist revival, Charles Wesley was almost singlehandedly responsible for setting the move of God to music. He used popular songs, ditties, dance tunes and used their very familiarity to further the gospel. Altogether he wrote over six thousand lyrics, many of which are still sung today.

In 1744, Charles Wesley was considering Haggai 2:7 in the light of the situation of orphans in the areas around him. He also looked at the class divide in Great Britain. Through this train of thought, he wrote “Come, Thou long expected Jesus” based upon Haggai 2:7 and a published prayer at the time which had the words:

“Born Your people to deliver, born a child and yet a King, born to reign in us forever, now Your gracious kingdom bring. By Your own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone; by Your all sufficient merit, raise us to Your glorious throne. Amen.”

Wesley adapted this prayer into a hymn in 1744 and published it in his “Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord” hymnal. Wesley wrote “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” with the intent for people to remember Advent and Christmas as commemorating the Nativity of Jesus and preparing for the Second Coming.

Curiously, the hymn only came into popular usage across Christian denominations in England via the popular Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon made a Christmas sermon in London in 1855 when he was 21 and included sections of “Come thou long expected Jesus” in it. He did this to illustrate his point that very few are “born king” and that Jesus was the only one who had been born king without being a prince. As a result of the hymn’s growing popularity, including in the Church of England and American hymnals, the hymn was first published in the Methodist Wesleyan Hymn Book in 1875 after having previously been excluded.  

The lyrics of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” focus on God choosing to give a Messiah to the world in the form of Jesus. It also focusses on the Old Testament Israelites longing for the Messiah to come and take the burden of sins from them to take them upon himself. The last line of the first verse may have come from Wesley being inspired by 17th century philosopher; Blaise Pascal’s claim that “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every person that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator.

Here’s the lyric:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free,
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee:
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art,
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us for ever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring:
By Thy own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone,
By Thy all-sufficient merit
Raise us to Thy glorious throne. Amen.

The prayer wonderfully epitomizes the thematic diversity of Advent. In this hymn, we put ourselves back into the place of the Israelites, hoping for God to send a king who would bring freedom, strength, and consolation. Yet, we also sing this song as people who know that Jesus was the promised Messiah, that he came to set us free from our sins, that he is the Desire of every nation, not just the Jewish people. Because we understand that his work on earth is not finished, we ask Jesus, “Now thy gracious kingdom bring.” We hope for the time when Christ will return, establishing fully and finally the kingdom of God.

It’s the Lord’s Prayer, set to music:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.”  (Matt 6: 9-10)

But “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” doesn’t only express an ancient hope for the Messiah and a contemporary hope for the Messiah’s second coming. This hymn rightly assumes that Jesus also comes today, in a sense. One day, he will come and bring the kingdom. Today, Jesus can begin to “reign in us for ever.” One day, Jesus will “raise us to [his] glorious throne.” Today, he can “rule in our hearts alone” through his “eternal Spirit.”

We ask for the coming of God’s kingdom in the future. Yet, we also ask that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven…right now.

In Advent, we long for the second coming of Christ and for the fullness of the kingdom. Yet, in our yearning we also open our hearts to him, inviting him to fill us and use us through the power of his Spirit. Thus, as we pray, “Come, Thou long expected Jesus,” are are asking him to come into our hearts afresh, to rule over us today so that we might serve him in everything we do.

In what ways do you need the power of the kingdom of God today? Are you ready to ask the Lord to come and rule over your life?

 

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Saul & Sheol (1 Sam 28)

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The picture looks rather like a theatre trap-door, and there is something strangely theatrical about Saul’s encounter with Sheol.

Saul and Sheol – the two words, curiously- come from the same Hebrew root. “Saul” is “the asked-for one” and “Sheol” means “the asking place.” The former phrase connects with the people’s choice for Saul to be king, and the latter-possibly- to death’s greed for more and more victims. The irony is that the asking place will soon have its request (“the asked for one”) fulfilled. So Saul and Sheol are inseparably linked semantically and spiritually.

1 Samuel 28 is a curious and difficult story to interpret, occurring just one day before Saul’s tragic death on Gilboa.  Saul is desperately resorting to witchcraft -something that he knows to be wrong since he himself has expressly prohibited it- but he does so in order to discover the future beyond the imminent battle.

  • So did the witch have the ability to bring the departed spirits of the dead back to predict the future for the living, or was this simply a demonic delusion? 
  • Does not only God have the power to predict the future? 
  • Or do departed spirits or evil spirits? What about other sources of revelation besides the Word of God? Does this text not prove that such exist?

As has been the case ever since the Spirit of God departed from Saul when he disobeyed the Lord, he has tried to find  the way ahead, but to no avail.   He simply refuses God’s silence for an answer, and now crosses the line to get guidance from a medium, a woman called a “mistress of necromancy.”

He is openly defying the word of the Lord, and by consulting the medium effectively pronounces his own doom.

There’s an attempt at deception but it is uncovered. When Samuel finally speaks he tells the king what he already knows, that God has judged him for his disobedience and has given the kingdom to another. In fact, the dead Samuel is no different from the live one!  Finally, the news comes that Saul’s line will fail on the following day.

And int he event, the grim prophecy comes to pass.

So what is going on here? This particular story is an example of God bringing up the dead from Sheol (Samuel) and bringing down the living to Sheol (Saul), exalting the humble and abasing the proud. In the Song of Hannah with which the first book of Samuel begins, Hannah sings about Yahweh’s power: “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6). The second book of Samuel essentially begins with David’s lament for the fallen dynasty of Saul, and its refrain reminds everyone of Hannah’s song: “How are the mighty fallen!

The story reminds us of a dark spirit world. All the demonic powers behind the Canaanite Baal cult were no match for the prophet of God on Mount Carmel during the time of Elijah. But in this example in 1 Samuel 28, it is only fitting that because Saul continued to defy God to the end, his end was brought about through his own rebellion, which was the result of disobedience. The depths to which Saul had sunk in seeking counsel from a witch prove Samuel’s prophetic words when he was alive and first condemned Saul because of disobedience: “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.

Saul probably dismissed this, but how wrong he was! God brought the prophet back from the dead to remind him of this truth. The fact that Saul went out to battle the next day proves the truth of father Abraham who speaks to all of us from the afterlife: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, then they will not be convinced even if someone rises up from the dead.” The story of Endor reminds us all of the importance and clarity of the divine word. He who speaks to the dead soon joins them.

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