You’ve seen all of these, but they are still funny. These are actual signs posted in store windows.
- In a dry cleaner’s emporium:
“Drop your pants here.”
- On the side of a garbage truck:
“We’ve got what it takes to take what you’ve got.”
- On a display of ‘You are my one and only’ Valentine cards’:
“Now available in multi-packs”
- In a Florida maternity ward:
“No children allowed”
- In the offices of a loan company:
“Ask about our plans for owning your home.”
- On a New York convalescent home:
“For the sick and tired of the Episcopal Church”
Every year, we sing the same Christmas carols; and every year, they’re great! In fact, some people look forward to the coming of Christmas just because of the Christmas carols. And why not? Christmas carols fill us with feelings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy (and maybe some anticipation and hope and wonder). But I wonder if, after all these years of singing the same old carols, we even think about what we are singing anymore. I don’t have to wonder about that because I know I don’t think about these words any more. I just sing them. I just get caught up in the moment, and I bet you do, too. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s a wonderful moment (in fact, it’s a Christmas moment!), but some of these carols are worthy of some thoughtful consideration; and it would be a shame if we went “Fa la la la la, la la la la” all over them and missed out on what makes them remarkable hymns of the church.
Hence, the reason for this series. I would like for us to take four Christmas carols and just stop and think about them for a few moments. That’s right, here comes pondering, here comes pondering right down pensive lane. And while these are my thoughts about these songs (except where I am stealing from the thought of others wiser and more jolly than I am), I hope you will join in the fun and think about what these carols mean to you.
Today, let’s look at Charles Wesley’s “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”*
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. Amen.
When you read this carol slowly, you can’t help but to feel it is best described as a prayer as opposed to a song or a poem. It is a prayer for deliverance, for God to act, and for God to hear our cries and move in response to our prayer. Specifically, the prayer asks Jesus to come and to set us free from our fears and sins. It asks that we would find our rest in God alone. It asks that God’s kingdom would come and that Christ would rule in our hearts and that by his all-sufficient grace we would live now as his resurrection people. To further substantiate this claim, look at the number of imperatives in these two verses that add urgency to these requests. There are three in each verse. In the first verse we see, “Come, thou long expected Jesus” and “From our fears and sins release us” and “Let us find our rest in thee.” In the second verse we see, “Now thy gracious kingdom bring” and “Rule in all our hearts alone” and “Raise us to thy glorious throne.”
And since we are talking about the structure, note also the strategic repetition of the word, “born.” Four times Wesley utilizes the word so that we come face-to-face with all that Jesus has done for us. These are the reasons why Jesus came to earth. He was born to set us free. He was born to deliver his people. He was born a child and yet a king. He was born to reign in us forever. Don’t miss this. Wesley is carefully linking his requests to God’s character and purposes in the world. He is saying, “If Jesus came to do these things, if he came to set us free from oppression, if he came to deliver us from sin and death, if he came to establish his kingdom, then let us see his victory and power today.” Yes, he joyfully acknowledges all that Jesus has done, but begs God to come again in power to establish Jesus’ kingdom on earth so that there will be an end to all oppression and suffering and heartache.
Now, you may be thinking that I am reading too much into this, but Wesley left us a diary that recorded his thoughts as he wrote this hymn. It tells us that Wesley’s concern as he wrote this carol was for the orphans, homeless and poor in Great Britain. It was more than concern. Wesley was heartbroken over the plight of the poor in his country. And as he was thinking about this, he began to read his Bible and came upon Haggai 2:6-7 (“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. 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.”). As he read these verses, he began to long for the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness and compassion; and he longed for the day when all things would be put to rights once more and these people would no longer have to suffer. He also remembered the longing of God’s people in the Old Testament as they waited in their distress for God to deliver them. It was as if Wesley was there with them, listening to them cry out to God; and he echoed their longing as he wrote this carol. It is this rich Old Testament perspective that makes this carol so meaningful.
But what I love most about this carol is the juxtaposition of perspectives. As we just said, it starts off from the point of view of the Old Testament people of God pleading with God to send the Messiah to set his people free (“Come, Thou Long expected Jesus”). He is Israel’s strength and consolation, and he is the hope of all the earth. But then, the perspective switches; and now, we are seeing Jesus not as the one who will come, but the one who came to release us from the consequences of our sin and fears. We are the ones who are rejoicing in Christ Jesus, the Messiah, the King (“From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee”). But then, the perspective changes again. Now, our longing comes into focus. We long for the day when Jesus will return and bring his gracious kingdom to us so that justice and peace and grace will flood over all the earth (“Born to reign in us forever, now Thy gracious kingdom bring”). But there is still one more perspective: “now.” It is asking that Christ will come to us now and rule in our hearts and that by his all-sufficient merit, raise us to his glorious throne so that we will be defined as a people by our faith and by our hope (“By Thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone, by Thine all-sufficient merit, raise us to Thy glorious throne”). It’s one thing to acknowledge that Jesus came, and it is another to broadcast that he saved us from our sin, and it is still another to look forward to the day when Jesus returns in glory; but none of that really speaks to us if we do not allow Jesus to rule in our hearts today so that our lives reflect his character, love and will.
As carols go, you won’t find many like this one that have such incredible theology, deep spirituality and engaging meaning. It is common for God’s people to recite together, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” That’s good theology. Here we cry out, “Christ has come. Christ is coming. Christ, rule in our hearts today.” Now, that is worth singing about over and over again.
*If you’re looking at a hymnal and see four verses, don’t you believe it.
These are the only two verses that Wesley wrote. Any other verses are later additions.
(I would be remiss if I did not cite my sources: Dr. Hawn of Discipleship Ministries of the UMC; the Theology of Work Project;
and study of this hymn by Dr. J. Ligon Duncan. Credit also should be given to British hymnologist J.R. Watson in helping me understand the structure of this carol;
and yes, I am as surprised as some of you that there is such a thing as a hymnologist!)