The songs of Christmas have floated around us since late November. And, (putting on my curmudgeon’s hat) most of them drive me to distraction. However, this is not about the merits or otherwise of “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” or “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Instead, I want to look more closely at “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, which has been running through my mind for weeks.
Charles Wesley wrote this song in 1744 and it, along with his “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” has become a classic Advent and Christmas hymn. The melody is lilting, haunting, plaintive. The lyrics manage to be both bold and pleading:
“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.”
After 400 years of silence, where was the Messiah? Surely no one expected the answer to be “born to a peasant girl in Nazareth by the power of the Spirit of God.” From the moment of the angel’s visit to Mary, we are reminded that God moves in His time and His way, and it’s often not in the way we imagine. Mary’s trust and faith must, in some way, become my own as I wait for God in the circumstances of life.
Why did Jesus come to earth as God incarnate? Very simply, he was born to “set Thy people free.” In his first sermon, in Luke 4, Jesus stood up in the Nazareth synagogue, found a passage in Isaiah, and read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus then proceeded to roll up the scroll, sit down, and say “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus came to set us free from “our fears and sins.” Sometimes we don’t even know we’re captives, but He sees right through us. And Jesus, in His great love and compassion, doesn’t tell us that we need to stay in our sufferings alone a little longer, that we need to grit our teeth and plod through, or that we should just “try harder.” He knows that ultimately it is only His power that can release us from our chains, and He invites us to surrender to His will and His rest. His power and presence can be our constant strength.
This process may be halting and life long. Trust is hard. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do His best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Surrender and trust, like so many other things, come in layers. We work through an issue, and all seems well….until another layer reveals itself months or years later. Like the nesting dolls, we continue to unpack our surrender, only instead of finding smaller and smaller objects, we open larger and larger gifts of God’s grace.
And oh, how we (I) need God’s grace and rest. To come to the place of quiet, near to the heart of God. Jesus called, throughout his time on earth, to every person who is weary and burdened: “Come to me…and I will give you rest.” And all over Judea, men and women heard this call of hope and followed Him. The people who most rejected Him seem to be the ones who were confident in their own self righteousness and saw no need for rest and rescue.
The very idea of finding rest with God is revolutionary. When I think about the times I feel at rest in someone’s presence, it means that they are my friend. They know and accept me, and it’s a comfort to be with them. This reality is now available to us with God, thanks to Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. His redemptive work means that He is indeed a “friend of sinners”, and that Christians can rest, justified and accepted, in His presence.
May we trust and rest in Jesus now and throughout the year, and may the gift of God’s grace speak to us in fresh ways this Christmas season.