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First Thoughts

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Now that the Advent Season is upon us, it is our challenge to slow the pace of our lives enough to acknowledge it and then enjoy it. However, the busyness of our ordinary lives abruptly resumes following the Thanksgiving holiday, and a new but familiar tyranny descends upon us with the approach of December. The calendar fills quickly with celebrative events, and the task list explodes.

It is the most wonderful time of the year… but will we take the time required to enjoy it?

Singing Christmas carols is a wonderful way to pause and reflect. During a much simpler time, at least from our perspective, Charles Wesley, one of the most prolific hymn writers in history, wrote special Christmas hymns for the church to sing during this special season. Wesley loved celebrating Christmas, and singing was one of his favorite ways to celebrate. In 1744 he wrote four new Christmas hymns and had them published in a collection entitled, Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord. One of those was “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

The mood of the first verse of the carol is one of longing in anticipation.

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.

The plaintive cry arises from weary people who need rest and captives longing to be freed. They have reached the end of themselves, and they are looking outside of themselves for help. They are looking upward for a Deliverer. They are waiting for a Savior.

Wesley wrote this hymn from the perspective of the people of Israel waiting for the promised Messiah.

And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts (Malachi 3:1).

 Advent is a season of replicating the waiting that Israel experienced over 2,000 years ago. It is not time yet for the Messiah’s arrival. We will celebrate that on Christmas Day! He is coming, but he is not here yet! When he comes, all the promises will be fulfilled, and the fullness of joy will finally be ours. But now, we wait.

Our waiting should not be done in idle boredom, though. It is not like waiting in the doctor’s office for an overdue appointment or in an airport for a delayed flight. And it should not be in distracted ignorance like the foolish virgins who did not save their oil for the bridegroom’s arrival (Matthew 25:1–13). The anticipated outcome of our waiting defines the manner of it.

It is like waiting for a much-anticipated guest to arrive from a long journey. When he arrives, it will be an unparalleled delight. We have longed for his appearing. And when he comes, he will not just visit with us awhile and then leave us again in our burdened lives. He will make his home with us, relieve us of our burdens, and then take us back to his home from which he came, and we will never be separated again. These are the promises of his coming, and his arrival is the guarantee that these promises are true and will be fulfilled.

The mood of the second verse is one of an announcement. He has come just as promised!

Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King,

Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.

This is what Wesley wants us to do with his hymn. He wants to imagine what it was like to be in Israel for centuries of prophecies yet unfulfilled. He wants us to ache for a long-awaited Messiah that was foretold long ago when it was unclear when he would arrive. Then he wants us to celebrate his arrival! The difference between Old Testament Israel and us is that we have the benefit of knowing that he has come. We know what we are waiting for. We know what it means to have those promises kept.

We know why we have hope, and that is how we can make time to wait and enjoy this Christmas.

Use these words as a prayer this week:

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.

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.

Scott Connell (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Worship Pastor at First Baptist Church Jacksonville.

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