Songs of Christmas
1. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor
Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:30-33 5 December 2021 A Deep Longing / Expectation
So if you have been at this church for any amount of time, you’ll probably know that I’m a great lover of Christmas. It goes back to my childhood, back to the 1970s, back in Australia when every December my family would go to Carols by Candlelight.
Is that a thing here? Now Christmas in Australia happens in the middle of summer, so bear that in mind. Carols by Candlelight would usually be an outdoor concert, held in a park or on a school playing field. Families would sit on picnic rugs and, because it was the 1970s or early 80s, there were real candles. They used to poke the candle through a paper plate so that the wax didn’t melt onto your hand.
And even though my family didn’t go to church, we went to Carols by Candlelight every year. That’s where I learned all the Christmas carols. So carols hold a special place in my heart, because they’re how I first heard the story about Jesus. They’re probably how God first captured my heart, as a tiny kid holding a candle and singing...
So all this December, I’ve decided to speak about Christmas carols, and the lessons they teach us about Jesus. I’m calling the series: Songs of Christmas. We’ll look at one carol each week, culminating in (possibly) my favorite carol on Christmas Eve – but I’m keeping that a secret to be revealed on the 24th.
Now I thought today we would try for a bit of audience participation before we get into the sermon. While Laura comes up, I’m going to give you 30 seconds to turn to the person beside you and share your favorite Christmas carol of all time.
/// Come Thou Long Expected Jesus ///
Our heavenly Father, as we take this time to reflect on Christmas and your son Jesus, please teach us through the Bible and through your Holy Spirit. Help us to know the hope and joy of Christmas. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen
December in the church calendar is known as Advent. Advent means arrival. The advent season is all about waiting for the arrival of Christmas morning, and the arrival of the baby Jesus. Advent is a season of expectation.
And I don’t know about you, but in our household there is a lot of expectation when it comes to Christmas.
We have expectations about what our decorations will look like. (BTW do you like the Christmas tree? I think we could have gone bigger *wink*) We have expectations about what our Christmas lunch will look like. I’m sure the kids have expectations about what presents they’ll get. I know because we’re starting to get hints and suggestions and nudges to go shopping, or to look at products online. You might have expectations about what the day will mean for your family. Or you might know that Christmas will mean unfulfilled expectations for you, a season that fills you with dread rather than excitement.
Christmas is a season with lots of expectations put on it.
And expectation is the context for the Christmas carol that we are looking at today – Come
Thou Long Expected Jesus.
This carol was written by Charles Wesley in 1744. Charles Wesley and his brother John Wesley were the founders of the Methodist Revival movement in England. The two brothers along with another famous revivalist, George Whitefield, preached in open-air settings, often preaching to crowds up to 10,000 people. They were part of a bigger phenomenon we often call the Great Awakening, or the Evangelical Revival that swept through Britain and North America in the mid 1700s. The Wesleys were influential figures in their time.
These days, Charles Wesley is best known as the author of something like 6,500 hymns, including And Can It Be, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, and today’s hymn, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.
It starts like this:
Come Thou long expected Jesus Born to set Thy people free
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus takes us back to the centuries before Jesus’ birth. A period of expectation for God’s people. A period of waiting for a promised savior who would set them free from the oppression of foreign rule. Because for more than 700 years, Israel had been occupied by empire after empire – the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Seleucids and finally the Romans. God’s people had been denied sovereignty in their own country – the land that God had promised them through their father Abraham.
They had been beaten down and oppressed, but there was one promise that kept them going. The promise of a savior, a king, God’s anointed one who would restore the royal throne of King David. An anointed one, the messiah.
And God had made that promise to his people right at the beginning of their long period of suffering. Through the prophet Isaiah, God promised that the dark period would one day end:
2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders. (Isaiah 9:2,6)
It’s the classic Christmas reading, isnt’ it? The birth of a royal prince, and the promise of a king.
I know that Australians and Americans have a different relationship with the British royal family, but I hope you’ll indulge me with a story that might illustrate the point.
When Prince William married Kate Middleton back in 2011, almost immediately the question came – when do you think they’ll have children? Prince William is directly in line for the throne, and so that would mean his firstborn would be the future king. There was lots of anticipation, lots of expectation, lots of speculation every time a photo was taken of the Duchess where her royal tummy looked even slightly bigger than normal. Is Kate pregnant with the future king?
That same expectation was there for the Jewish people in those centuries, as they waited for the royal baby to be born, their future king. The only difference was, there was no royal family for them to eagerly watch. Instead, they relied on words of prophecy to keep their expectations alive. They relied on God to be true to his promise.
They were waiting for the darkness to end, and the new light to dawn. There’s a line in the hymn halfway down v1 that calls Jesus:
Israel's strength and consolation
This promised King would console God’s people. He would comfort them and heal their wounded nation. In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, there is a man named Simeon who was ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25). That’s where that strange phrase comes from.
So that’s the historical context of the carol. God’s people were waiting for a royal birth, waiting with great expectation, waiting for a national savior.
But the birth of Jesus is not just about a historical people waiting for a historical king. The point of the song, and the point of Christmas is that Jesus has ongoing relevance for every generation.
I said before that Christmas often comes with lots of expectations. I don’t know how you’re feeling about it right now. Every year I remember on about the 22nd of December that I should have started thinking about Christmas gifts much sooner. You’d think I would learn my lesson, but I haven’t yet. Christmas can be a stressful time. There’s the gifts. The food. You might be traveling, so there are the logistics of travel. COVID has possibly added complications to your Christmas.
And then there’s the family stress. Christmas isn’t always easy, especially if there are strained relationships within your family. You might have shared custody of kids, or you might just be trying to juggle seeing everyone’s family and meeting their expectations. You might be struggling with ill health, or looking after someone who is unwell. You might be feeling the loss of a loved one. The holidays are especially difficult for those who are grieving.
We might have expectations of a Hallmark Christmas, but it doesn’t always work out like that. And that’s the second big idea I want to take from the song. The birth of Jesus was about fixing
everything that is wrong with our world.
So come back to the hymn with me and look at the third line – it says:
Come Thou long expected Jesus Born to set Thy people free
From our fears and sins release us
Jesus didn’t just come to set his people free from Roman oppression. He came to deal with a more fundamental human problem, which is the problem of sin.
The Bible talks about sin as the root cause of everything that is broken about our world.
Right from the third chapter of the Bible, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate the forbidden fruit, humans have been characterized by the same rebellious nature. And not in a fun, rebellious way. More like the kind of rebelliousness that is self-destructive. We do things that hurt the ones we love. We do things that hurt our own bodies. We do things that exploit others. Each one of us participates in what is wrong with this world. We all contribute to the problem. And we can’t stop ourselves.
But Jesus can.
And that’s where Jesus’ birth is a light in the darkness, and the dawn of a new day for us. Because Jesus wasn’t just born to be a historical king. He was born to be the king over creation for all time, the Son of God who rules forever with righteousness and justice.
Look at Isaiah 9:7 with me:
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:7)
With the birth of Jesus, God revealed the beginning of his plan to restore justice on earth. To re- establish righteousness, that is, to make a new way for sinful people to approach the holy God. It was the beginning of our liberation, and our deliverance from our deepest problem.
And I love the way the song puts it in the second verse:
Born Thy people to deliver
Born a child and yet a King
Born to reign in us forever
Now Thy gracious Kingdom bring
If the spirit of sin is rebelling against God, then allowing Jesus to ‘reign in us forever’ is the way that we return to God, isn’t it? Instead of building our own kingdoms, we ask Jesus to bring his kingdom into our lives, to bring his grace into our lives, to bring his forgiveness into our lives. We ask Jesus to direct our lives, to ‘rule in all our hearts alone’ as the song says.
And here’s the paradox of the Christian life – when we live according to God’s rule in our life, it’s actually how Jesus sets us free. He sets us free from the fear of what happens when we die, he sets us free from the consequences of our sin, he sets us free to live a new life now that anticipates the eternal life we will enjoy when his kingdom comes eternally.
In the gospel we learn how to restore broken relationships by extending mercy and grace. By choosing love, rather than holding grudges. By doing what is good, not just doing whatever we feel like. The way of Jesus brings healing, and hope, to a hurting world.
And that brings me to the final idea from the song, which is that the birth of Jesus is the hope that every human is looking for.
I suspect one of the reasons that I loved Christmas so much as a child was the presents that I received. My brother and sisters and I were spoiled at Christmas, and so there was always great anticipation for what we might get, and I loved the surprises that my parents came up with.
Now here’s the sad part of the story. As I got older, I appreciated the surprise gifts less. Probably because every year there was a particular gift that I wanted. And I didn’t always get what I wanted. As you get older, the gifts you want often get more expensive (or that was my experience anyway...)
And that same desire continues into adulthood. I’ve always been drawn to shiny things. And the little voice inside my head says: if you had one of those, your life would be better, wouldn’t it?
You might not be into material things like me, but you will have at least one deep longing, a prize that promises you fulfilment, something that if you had it, then you would be satisfied (at least that’s what you tell yourself)... It might be a relationship, a financial goal, or a position of status or influence. We all have that one thing that says, if you achieved this, if you owned this, then you would be truly happy...
As you look ahead to Christmas this year, what would make you truly happy?
Around the time that Come Thou Long Expected Jesus was written, philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said:
"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."
In other words, we all desire something, but ultimately only God can fill the void. The song picks up on this idea at the end of the first verse:
Hope of all the earth Thou art Dear desire of every nation Joy of every longing heart
I’m always jealous of songwriters who can summarize deep truths in just a few words. But these three lines capture some of the deepest truths we could hear as humans. We spend our lives pinning our hopes on plans and projects and people. We go after our desires hoping for happiness. We long for joy.
What if you could find the answer to them all in one place? Or in one person? Jesus is that one person. For this lifetime, and for all eternity.
Because Jesus’ kingdom is not just about the here and now. It’s not just about this lifetime. If it was, then you could be excused for thinking it’s a bit disappointing. After all, Christians still find themselves entangled in sin – myself included. And we still live with the consequences of hurting those we love. And we still live with the pain of death.
But Jesus’ kingdom is not just about the here and now. Listen to what Jesus said to Pilate, the Roman governor who questioned Jesus right before his crucifixion. (from John 18:36-38)
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:36-38)
Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, not principally anyway. His kingdom rules in our hearts right now. But one day his kingdom will be revealed in its fullness, physically, in the new heavens and the new earth, when the Creator makes all things new and perfect again, and where sin has no place. In that kingdom, every tear will be wiped away, every injustice will be righted. No more crying or mourning or pain. Just the joy of being in Jesus’ kingdom, your hope and desires fulfilled.
That’s the promise that was born on the first Christmas morning. The long expected child and King. May his kingdom come...