It began as a prayer, from deep in the heart of a great poet. Out of his contemplation of Haggai 2:7, the words first began to take root:
and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts
Then, out of his work with orphans, out of his concern for those in prison, out of the great divide between the rich and the poor, out of the darkness that surrounded so many people, who needed so much, the words poured forth as prayer from a heart that was aching for this world:
“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.”
This prayer of his heart must have resounded in the soul of the poet, Charles Wesley, and from the prayer came the Advent hymn that sets our longings into words. The mid 1700’s, as Charles Wesley lived and worked, was much different than our world today, but there is at least one thing that we have in common: in the midst of a troubled world, we are yearning for the long-expected Jesus, born to set us free from our sins, from evil in this world, from strife, from hatred, from war and persecution, from injustice, from darkness, from despair.
“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.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989)
We stand at the beginning of another Christian year. While the rest of the world seems to be caught up with the sparkle and glamour of the season, in the church we begin this season in a, somewhat, stark atmosphere in order to focus our attention on the contrast between God’s reign of love and peace and what the world thinks will bring security. The sharp contrast is more of a chasm and despite the reality that we are preparing for the Christmas celebration of a baby born in a stable, Mary and Joseph, cattle lowing, stars shining, angels singing, shepherds kneeling, and wise men gathering, despite the reality that our attention is caught by lights and baubles and songs and traditions, the people of faith are called to stand at the beginning of Advent and consider why we need a savior.
Like Charles Wesley, we are called to stand and think about the fears of this world. We are called to think about the injustices of this world. We are called to think about the shadow places of this world that need the light of grace and mercy. And in the midst of this we are called to be brave and to long for and look for the “dear desire of every nation and joy of every heart,” knowing that it is God that:
will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I (God) will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts.
So why do we need Advent, the time of the year for waiting? Why do we need to wait for a savior?
In the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, there is an Apocalyptic discourse of Jesus. There are others that are also found in the Gospels. These texts are to impress upon us—the church—that the coming of our Lord includes much more than the Christmas story. There are no characters of the Nativity found in this part of the Gospel. Indeed, the words can be quite scary.
I remember as a child, sitting in my grandfather’s church and hearing these words. My grandfather’s preacher had a big booming voice and I think he actually liked to scare people.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. . .
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. . .” (Luke 21)
In this passage, Jesus harkens back to the prophet Jeremiah, who was speaking to the Hebrew people out of the midst of just such a time. Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians and the people would be taken into exile—removed from their land, their homes, their places of worship, their security. They would be taken into a place far removed from the land of promise that had come from God. Would God even be in that place of exile?
Jeremiah was shut up under guard. There was fear all around and the situation appeared hopeless. Would they live? Would they ever see this land of promise again? Would they ever feel the mercy and security of God?
The prophet Jeremiah spoke out of a place of fear and distress covering the earth and the lives of the Hebrew people. Jesus spoke of a time when fear and distress and foreboding will come and cover the earth and envelope all the people and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And yet, neither of these passages is condemning us to fear and darkness. Both Jeremiah and Jesus are calling us to watch and wait, to lift up our heads and be alert because in the midst of fear and darkness there is the coming of justice and righteousness.
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
Jeremiah and Jesus speak of a time of saving the people, the nations, the world.
Within the words of the prophet are two very important words that echo throughout Advent. These words—justice and righteousness—are words of our longing. They are words of security, words of hope.
Jeremiah understood that these words were the words of longing in the hearts of the people who were about to be taken away from their homes and placed in a foreign land, under foreign rule to do as foreign leaders bid them. There was no justice or fairness in their experience at that moment. Only fear. There was no righteousness or mercy. Only fear.
Jesus also understood that these words—justice and righteousness—were words of longing in the hearts of the people who heard him. Justice and righteousness dispel fear and offers hope.
Justice and righteousness are words of longing in our hearts, in our lives. Justice and righteousness can dispel our fear and offer us hope.
And this is what the long-expected Jesus brings to the world.
The Advent that I was 22 years old is the year I finally understood Advent and what it means to long for Jesus and for peace. I had grown up celebrating Advent as the season of preparation for Christmas—lighting Advent candles each week and counting down to Christmas. But I did not fully understand the longing that accompanies Advent. I did not understand what Charles Wesley meant by Jesus being the dear, desire of every nation.
That year I had moved to Washington, DC and I was in seminary. The fall had been a tense time. We were still in the midst of the Cold War. Nuclear War was a topic that was discussed quite often.
In November of that year, just before Thanksgiving, a made for TV movie called “The Day After,”aired. It was about a nuclear bomb hitting Kansas and the pain and anguish and death that followed. Many students at the seminary were required to watch the movie for class and so there were lots of watch parties going on.
I suppose I was quite sheltered in NC because I knew very little about the nuclear arms race until that fall and I exposed myself to every piece of information about it that I could.
I don’t mind telling you that my anxiety and fear grew that semester as I researched the Cold War and thought about the arms race.
When the movie was aired, I could not watch it. I was scared. I spent that night all alone, pacing and praying.
At the beginning of Advent that year, I was still scared. One night I was walking with my friend Clark to get ice cream. We were talking again about the arms race and about how frightened I had become. My heart was so heavy that night, I began to cry. I remember stopping in the middle of the side walk on Connecticut Ave., stomping my foot and saying, “I want Jesus to come and fix this world. I want to feel safe. I want all people to feel safe.”
The longing of my heart, that night, is the longing of our hearts for Advent. There is so much trouble and strife in this world. We need Jesus to come—Emmanuel—God with us. We need justice. We need righteousness. We need hope. We need peace.
That night I learned that Advent is more than purple candles in a wreath of green. It is about the deep longings of our hearts. It is about the long-expected Jesus born to set the people free, from sin and fear.
It is about justice and righteousness, hope and peace, in our world and in our souls.
It is about restoration, returning this world to a place where all people live without fear and foreboding.
“In those days and at that time will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
The restoration of the world to a place of justice and righteousness, where all people can thrive, is what we long for in Emmanuel—God with us. As we continue to explore the Advent passages over the next few weeks, I think that we will discover the longing of God’s heart as well—that restoration occurs with all of us working for what Emmanuel brings to us—justice, righteousness, restoration, love, beauty, and peace.
Soli Deo Gloria!