The following is from a devotion I shared during a recent ladies’ Christmas party at my church.
What kinds of traditions have you had throughout the years during Christmas? Do any special memories stand out to you when this time of year comes? For me, there are so many! Decorating the house with Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald playing on the record player, hanging up the green and red chain made of construction paper above my bed to count down the days until Christmas, going to the fabric store to pick out a pattern for my mom to make my fancy Christmas dress for the church service on Christmas Eve, Wednesday evening Advent service at church with soup dinner after, practicing for the Christmas pageant every Sunday after church and wondering who would be chosen to play Mary or one of the angels, going over the river and through the woods to Grandma and Grandpa Elsner’s house for Christmas Day dinner and presents. Yes, we really did go over a river and through the woods to get there. Going through the Montgomery Ward (did anyone else call it monkey ward?) Christmas catalog and Sears catalog, circling all the things I wanted for Christmas and then writing my list for my mom to give to Santa. I could go on and on and on but there is one special tradition that stands out the most. And that was baking the famous Elsner rolled Christmas cookies. Okay, they aren’t (weren’t?) really called that but everybody looked forward to our Christmas cookies. My mom would be in the kitchen making the dough, and I would help cut out the shapes with the cookie cutters. In the oven, they would go, and the fragrance of freshly baked cookies would fill the house. Then on to racks, they would go to cool off for my dad and me to decorate with frosting and sprinkles. It was quite the assembly line of prepping, rolling, baking, and decorating. Soon, there would be tubs of cookies ready to be packaged up and given to friends and family. Each year was a bit different for me – sometimes I was excited to help in making them and then there were days when I could think of a gazillion things to do. But I sure do treasure the memories of something that brought my family together for an entire weekend (sometimes longer) to make these cookies. I loved watching my dad purse his lips together as he frosted each cookie to perfection. I wanted to help sometimes but that was HIS job. So, I got creative with the sprinkles. To this day, these cookies get baked every year and they are just as delicious now as they were over 40 years ago. While we work away baking and decorating the cookies, we would listen to Christmas music on the record player. Even when we upgraded to the 8-track and cassette player, the record player was my favorite way to hear this music.
In addition to all the traditions listed above, I also loved listening to Christmas hymns. One that has become a favorite of mine is the hymn Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. As a child, I loved picking out the harmony line in the hymnal but never totally paid attention to the lyrics. It was just one of those hymns we sang every year at church and, whenever it came on the radio, I had to turn it up to practice that beautiful harmony line. This leads me to ponder something that seems to happen when it comes to traditions. The rituals we do and songs we sing every year because “it wouldn’t feel like Christmas if we didn’t” can easily lose their purpose and meaning. A common result for many of us is we lose sight of why we celebrate this time of year. When these traditions were birthed, what was the reason? And I think a wise response is to truly stop and ponder that question.
Yes, traditions are a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday, but I have wanted to be intentional about remembering why we have and celebrate Christmas. This includes the days leading up to Christmas which is known as the Advent season. At first, I thought Advent was just an old-fashioned tradition, but I have learned there is a really special significance to Advent. And, I promise, it relates to the cherished Christmas hymn I mentioned above. Advent is anticipating Jesus. In the Old Testament, it was the waiting for the Messiah to arrive as prophesied by Isaiah, Haggai, Jeremiah, and God Himself. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, I love to read from the major and minor prophets, like Isaiah, as they foretold Jesus’ coming. The miraculous birth of God, as a man, from a virgin. I mean, can we just take a moment to ponder that? This is actually what I love about the Advent season – taking a break from the hustle and bustle and taking the time to understand the significance of why we celebrate Christmas.
Back to the Christmas Hymn. As mentioned earlier, in my youth, I wasn’t so much aware of the lyrics, even though I sang along but it was the melody and harmonizing along with it that I just loved. Now, as an adult, these lyrics have become so very meaningful, and the hymn is my #1 favorite to listen to and sing during the Advent and Christmas seasons.
Something that I love to do is learn more about who wrote a hymn and why. Of course, I did just that with this hymn. It was written by Charles Wesley and first published in 1744. He originally wrote a prayer that was inspired by a verse in Haggai.
And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. Haggai 2:7
The footnotes of my ESV study Bible say this about this verse:
God promises to shake all nations (as well as “the heavens, and the earth,” v. 6). The result of this shaking will be that the treasures of all nations will be yielded by the nations to adorn the temple; but the result will also be more than this, for the Lord will fill His house with glory – that is, with his own presence. The focus of Haggai’s oracle in its context is specifically on the immediate fulfillment of this prophecy. In addition, from a NT vantage point, many would see a foreshadowing of events unfolding in the incarnation of Christ and ultimately in His second coming at the of the age (e.g., when Jesus spoke of His body as “this temple” in John 2:20-21; and when the book of Revelation speaks of the day when the whole city of Jerusalem will be filled with the presence of God, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb…and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it,” Rev. 21:22, 24).
The prayer that Charles Wesley published had the following words:
The prayer was turned into a song, by Wesley with the intent for people to remember Advent and Christmas as commemorating the birth of Jesus and preparing for the second coming. In 1855, Charles Spurgeon made the hymn more well-known in a Christmas sermon, when he was 21, and included parts of the hymn to illustrate his point that very few are “born king” and that Jesus was the only one who had been born king without being a prince.
Knowing the history of this hymn makes it even more meaningful. In fact, each line of this hymn is a reflection of scripture. When we read scripture, our focus is turned to the One this time of year is all about. The reason we celebrate!
I’d love to go through each line of the song with you and show how each word and stanza relates to scripture.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
When Jesus was presented at the temple and the prophetess Anna met him her response in Luke 2:38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Hebrews 2:14-15 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood (humans), He (Jesus) Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Hebrews 4:3, 10 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘they shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. Quoted from Psalm 95:11 – rest is enjoying God’s presence forever.
v. 9-10 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Speaking of Simeon who was watching for the Messiah when Jesus was presented at the temple, in Luke 2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. Consolation is the hope that God would come to rescue and comfort his people.
Joel 3:16 The Lord roars from Zion, and utters His voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But the LORD is a refuge to His people, a stronghold to the people of Israel. (amid the cosmic and military confusion, the people of God are held secure and spared destruction.)
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Isaiah 42:1-3; Matthew 12:18-21 after Jesus heals the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees went out to conspire against Him. Jesus knowing this, withdrew from the synagogue and continued to heal those who followed him ordering them not to make him known which fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 42:1-3 Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon Him, and He will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets; a bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not quench, until He brings justice to victory; and in His name the Gentiles will hope.
Dear desire of every nation,
Haggai 2:7 And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts.
Joy of every longing heart.
1 Peter 1:8-9 Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Isaiah 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace, there will be no end, on the throne of David and over His kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it. With justice and with righteousness from this forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
John 18:37 Then Pilate said to Him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
1 John 4:9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.
Revelation 11:15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.”
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
Jeremiah 31:33 when God is speaking of the new covenant (Jesus) For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my new law within them, and I will write it on their hears. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Colossians 3:15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Ephesians 2:4-7 But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
This is a beautiful hymn for Advent that expresses deeply the two-fold purpose of the Advent season – we remember the birth of Christ, and fiercely desire His coming again. Perhaps more than some Advent hymns, this text especially expresses our longing for Christ’s second coming.
After crying out and naming our concerns and heartbreaks before God, how beautiful to close with this simple prayer of longing that also speaks of our hope. Even as we express our need for consolation, we do so in the knowledge that our God is a God who consoles.
I find it fitting that we sing this song together and truly ponder the words, and the prayer and enter into this Advent season with hope and faith in Jesus who has come to set His people free and will come again in glory.
*As a group, we sang this hymn together. But you can find several versions of this song on YouTube and streaming services like Spotify. My most favorite arrangement is by Shane and Shane which you can find at the link below.