Saturday, December 24, 2016

"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 ev'ry nation,
Joy of ev'ry 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.

This is one of Wesley's better known hymns. Whether or not he was specifically thinking of Christmas when he wrote it, it has become associated with Christmas and with good reason though--as with nearly all Christmas songs--it would be equally appropriate at any time of the year. As always with Wesley, it was the personal application of the doctrine that was most interesting. It is not enough that Jesus was born once as a Child--interesting as the story is, it has not real relevancy to our lives unless we add that He was also born a King "to reign" not just in the world but "in us forever."

This hymn is shorter than the average Wesley hymn but still contains a good deal that is interesting. The essence of Wesley's poetry is a power of compression which rather dazzles the modern reader. Wesley sometimes says more in a line than a modern poet would say in an entire poem. This is not meant either as praise or blame. The thing is merely a difference in style and both styles have their merits and their disadvantages. But unless we recognize this characteristic of Wesley's poetry, it will seem dull or pointless to us.

The first thing to notice about this hymn is the emphasis it gives to the person and work of Christ. He is the "long-expected" one, he "Israel's Strength and Consolation," but not of Israel only for He is the "hope of all the earth" and the "desire of ev'ry nation." And lest this talk of the earth and nations seem too impersonal, He is also the "joy of ev'ry longing heart." Notice the all-inclusiveness of this. Jesus is not merely one great man as other great men, for the greatest man could only have relevancy to a fraction of humanity. But Jesus is both a man and something more than a man and so is the central pivot and meaning of the universe, as Paul argues in Colossians 1 and elsewhere. Moreover, there is something else about Jesus to notice in the first stanza of this hymn. Jesus was a teacher, but there have been many other teachers. Jesus was both a saint and a sage, but there have been other saints and sages. If he were no more, His work might be somewhat better than others, but it would be no different in its essential character. But Jesus did not come merely to teach, or reform, or "tell everyone that it might be a good idea to be nice to each other."  Above all other things, He was a super-hero--that is, He came not to talk or suggest, but to act--He came to save the world. He was "born to set [His] people free." He was a liberator. What did he liberate people from? "From our fears and sins." Sin is what caused a breach between God and man in the first place; it is the sand which clogged and corroded the clockwork of man's moral nature; it is the cause of everything bad that has happened since. And once evil entered the world through sin, fear also appeared as a byproduct. There is a fear which is the natural byproduct of evil or danger and there is also the fear of God which comes from guilt (see Genesis 3) and it is hard to say which Wesley had in mind here--probably the latter. In any case, Jesus came to free humanity from that. But His work was more than merely negative, more than merely destroying some danger. He also made it possible for us to "find our rest in Thee." He not only frees man kind from death but gives a new life and meaning in Himself.

This positive side of Christ's work is taken up more in the second stanza. Jesus is more than a savior in the passive sense--He is a conqueror. He was "born a Child and yet a King." He did not come merely to slay the monster of sin and then return to Heaven and leave the world as it was. He was not merely born to end sin but he was "born to reign in us forever." What God's original plan for mankind was cannot now be known with certainty, but we do know that now, He has chosen to make Jesus Christ the pivotal point, final end, and essential meaning of all things. He has conquered the world and made it His own, so that He may His "gracious kingdom bring." This was the message of Jesus, that He was bringing a kingdom, that it was very nearly there in His lifetime if not already present (a, message by the way, that makes little sense if this "kingdom" would not appear for another two thousand or more years). Wesley's concept of the kingdom, at least as outlined in this hymn, has to do purely with Christ's reign within the hearts. It is "in all our hearts" that He shall rule alone or unrivaled. But how is this possible? How can Christ be literally present in the souls of all His followers? Through the medium of His "own eternal Spirit." (See Romans 8 and the Pascal Discourse.) It is the Breath of God which is always sent to bring the Word. It is the Spirit that makes the Son present in the soul.

Finally, Wesley makes the point that through Jesus exaltation is at least a possibility for man. He may "raise us to [His] glorious throne." Though the possibility may or may not be actualized in any individual life because of their own particular choice, the possibility is settled. As another Christmas song has it, "Man shall live forever more,/Because of Christmas day." But how is this possible? How could any one assure the possibility of such exaltation for any member of the human race? Only someone who had "all-sufficient merit." And it is for that reason, and that reason alone, that Jesus is the long-expected One who could deliver His people.

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