Everybody is singing at Christmas! It seems like no matter what you believe about Jesus, everyone sings at Christmastime more than any other time. We love the familiar songs of Christmas even if we have sung them a million times. But what are they really about? Why did the folks who write these songs feel compelled to write so much about the birth of Jesus? Do they mean anything more for us today other than providing some sentimental warmth? This Sunday we begin a new preaching series for the month of December called Let Heaven and Nature Sing. This series will use our new hymnal to examine some classic Advent and Christmas songs, discover their biblical roots, and explore their powerful relevance for our lives today.
This Sunday we begin with the Advent hymn “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” This hymn was written by the great hymn writer Charles Wesley in 1744. As he meditated on the phrase in Haggai 2:6, “…and the desire of the nations will come,” he was moved and inspired to write these words. The hymn is brimming over with biblical references from Old and New Testaments, including Luke’s phrase that Jesus was “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25).
One of the reasons I love this hymn is because it so beautifully and succinctly summarizes what the season of Advent is all about. I think you can describe these themes with two pairs of phrases: Backward and Forward, Inward and Outward. First, Advent focuses us backward and forward. Advent literally means “coming.” We first reflect back on how Jesus’ birth to Mary was a fulfillment of the ages of waiting and longing of the people of Israel. As Wesley calls Jesus in the first verse, “Israel’s strength and consolation.” He was the realization of the hopes and dreams of God’s people for a Messiah King. On the other hand, we are also looking forward to the second coming of Jesus, when he comes again to establish his Kingdom reign. That’s why Wesley writes that he is “the hope of all the earth” and “the desire of every nation.” We anticipate the day when Jesus comes again, the city of God is established, and by the light of the Lamb the nations will walk (Rev. 21:24). So in Advent, we look both backward and forward. Jesus came and Jesus is coming again.
Second, Advent has both an inward and outward dimension. Inwardly, we remember that Jesus is the fulfillment of all our deepest longings and desires. “Let us find our rest in thee…joy of every longing heart.” We are all burdened with fears and worries, yet Jesus has come to set us free. He comes to set us free not just from our worry but from sin itself, uniting us to God, restoring us to our true home. Every person on the planet is invited to trust in Jesus and find their rest. On the other hand, there is an outward dimension. We are reminded that Jesus is born a King– to reign not only in us personally but publicly in the world: “now thy gracious Kingdom bring.” Wesley was moved to write this hymn when he saw the plight of many of the poor and orphans in his 18th Century British society– and he longed for the true King to come to set all things right. So when we sing this song, we are not only asking Jesus to bring us personal rest, but to bring rest-oration to the world. We sing a cry of hope for Jesus to come and make all things right, and we are moved again to be a part of what he’s doing.
As you prepare for worship this week, meditate on the words of this amazing hymn and ask Jesus to fill your heart with longing for him and his Kingdom.
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 forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.
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6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.