Yesterday I took the kids to go visit my Granny, since she’s not able to get out as much. I’ll have to tell you more about her soon, but I went to visit her yesterday because it was her husband (my Papaw’s) birthday. He would have been 89. As we were walking toward the door, I saw the sign next to the house that has been up for years, which inspired me to post the picture below of it on facebook. The word ‘friendship’ is under-rated. There’s something irreplaceable about having friends in our world, and this thought brought to my mind a hymn by Charles Wesley…

The sign outside my Papaw & Granny's house. Having known the gift of the surrounding community who helped in my family's time of need, Papaw and Granny know the invaluable gift of friendship.

The sign outside my Papaw & Granny’s house. Having received generous aid by the surrounding community who helped in my family’s time of need, Papaw and Granny came to know the invaluable gift of friendship.

Among the thousands of hymns and sacred poems that Charles Wesley penned in his lifetime is a collection of 18 “Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord”. The lyrics of the hymns in this collection beautifully portray the mystery of the Incarnation pointing out that it was not just the death of Christ that brings salvation but that the entirety of the life of God becoming human (conception, birth, childhood and development, teaching, miracle-working, suffering, dying, being raised again, ascending, and his impending return) that reconciles the world to God and one another. One hymn in the collection that has continued to resound in my remembrance of the Advent of our Lord is the fourth hymn, the first verse of which says this:

Glory be to God on high,
And Peace on Earth descend;
God comes down: He bows the sky:
He shews himself our Friend!
God the Invisible appears,
God the Blest, the Great I AM
Sojourns in this Vale of Tears,
And Jesus is his Name.

The first time I was exposed to this hymn was in 2003, when I took a class in seminary taught by Lester Ruth. He admitted his favor of this hymn over the others in the collection and drew our attention especially to the middle of this verse: “God comes down; he bows the Sky: He shews himself our Friend!” The end of the verse elaborates on this identity when Jesus is proclaimed to walk with us “in this vale of tears.” This is precisely why these lyrics fit squarely in Advent and is appropriate in light of events that bring us to tears, because in this thought, Charles was addressing Jesus’ identifying with our suffering, sojourning with us as we ache for the fulfillment of the creation’s redemption.

What is the Incarnation if it is not God empathizing with us? A friend is one who knows how to empathize with others in pain. The second verse of “What a Friend we have in Jesus” assists here: “Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness…”

Abraham was called a friend of God (James 2:23). Moses was said to have spoken face to face with God “as a man speaks to his Friend” (Exodus 33:11). Proverbs remarkably claims, “Faithful are the wounds of a Friend” (27:6).

And of course we have these words of Jesus spoken on the night he was betrayed:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15).

Laying down his life for friends…How does one reconcile that with Paul’s words in Romans 5 which declares that God demonstrates his love for us in that “while we were still sinners (can we substitute ‘enemies’?), Christ died for us.” Does God, in Christ, befriend the enemy? Is that how to bring these together? It seems so.

Friends, in this sense, are those who don’t turn their back when the ones they loves turn away, but pursue them in merciful love, seeking reconciliation anyway. Before he died for a world which had set itself at enmity with God, Jesus learned to walk in the vale of tears that were poured out in grief over the slaughtering of infants and children, the loss of life when a tower fell, by a widow who lost her only son, by two siblings who lost their loving brother… In this way, he “shews himself our Friend.” His befriending of the world began in Bethlehem. And when we become turn to receive his friendship, he invites us to join the mission of God in befriending our neighbors and enemies, indeed, the whole world.

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For several years now, I’ve been drawn mostly to Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’ during Advent. I’ve tried to suggest that it’s the best hymn of Advent, but Jerry Walls, my philosophy professor from seminary, has rebutted that while Charles’ lyrics are rich in theology, it does not carry quite nearly the narrative richness nor the robust pathos as his favorite, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel.’ And I’m beginning to be convinced that he might be right.

I was so looking forward to preaching this Gaudete Sunday. The third Sunday in Advent, whose candle is typically pink, or rose colored, contains the theme of joy, and usually sparks a little more of an upbeat than the other themes. After all, joy is a hallmark of the season that focuses on happiness: it brings a smile to our faces as we share beloved memories with our faith and biological families, as we say ‘CHEESE!’ for family photos, and receive more mail (i.e., Christmas cards) during any other time of the year. (Who doesn’t love getting good mail like that?)

Joy filled the air with the evangel message brought by a host of angels to a group of lowly shepherds, saying, “I bring you good tidings of great JOY, which shall be for all the people…”

This Sunday, I was ready to burst out singing ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’ at such a volume that would’ve put to shame Clark W. Griswold’s prelude to his first failed attempt at turning on the lights on his house.

My heart and mind were tuned to the songs of joy, the notes were lined up, the outline was all typed out. I was ready to preach by mid-week. Then…Connecticut…

How am I supposed to talk about joy in a world, in a time, like this? It would come out rather hollow, it seems. And if I had talked about joy the way we tend to think about it, then yes it would have.

But then I realized that the joy that we discover in Advent is not a happy-go-lucky type of joy that ignores evil and darkness that exist in our world. Nor does this joy focus on us “holding on” long enough until God takes us out of this seemingly crappy world so that we can enjoy heaven on the other side. For as I read the pages of Scripture I find that the curse (Genesis 3 and thereafter) is not the beginning; that something joyful existed before then; that the world wasn’t originally crappy, but good, “very good” in fact; that the Advent of Christ’s Incarnation has begun the work of undoing that curse

I realized that ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come’ are not the only lyrics of the hymn, but that it also proclaims that Christ “comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found“…and might I add, “and even farther”? Isaac Watts, in penning these lyrics, knew that the curse was hanging around. And so do we. And it hangs around by paralyzing and captivating its victims with fear.

In the final stanza (3:14-20) of his book, Zephaniah gave us a melody of hope, and it found itself in the image of God singing over God’s people with joy, removing disaster from them (note: NOT removing them from disaster). But this final stanza is really the only bit of good news that Zephaniah offered the people. The rest was just bad news upon impending judgment upon bad news upon…well, you get the picture. Upon hearing all this, it would seem to be rather easy to be held captive by a fear that they (or we) wouldn’t be able to make it. But even this final stanza still wasn’t the fulfillment of that joy…just an invitation to believe that disaster would not ultimately be victorious over them but would be removed one day.

Musically, it would be like that moment when, in a song filled with dissonance yet concludes with a consonant chord, the instability is just about to be overcome by the final note, which provides the stable resolution we most long for.

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

When I first heard ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ as a child, there was something, musically, I didn’t like about it. It sounded dissonant to me. Like it didn’t seem to fit one of the few lyrics I then understood in the song: “Rejoice!” How could a song telling me to “Rejoice!” sound so…off? But perhaps that is why it is so appropriate, because the feeling is so familiar to our world, which is still cursed with dissonance…with evil that often holds us captive in fear. But this ‘joy’ we talk about, especially in Advent, is not identified with hollow happiness nor shown by fake smiles. Instead, it is of an expectant variety that in recognizing evil, is not held captive by it, for we believe that evil’s defeat has been guaranteed, and that we can pave the way (tune our instruments?) for the harmony to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s not escapist theology…because if it was about going away from the earth, then the music would stop. God created the world in harmony with the creation responding appropriately. And God intends to take the dissonance away, so that beauty prevails. That’s what we long for.

As a later verse of (maybe) my new favorite Advent hymn says, “O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Why Winter and Advent belong together. I took this pic of the bare maple leaf in front of the parsonage this afternoon.

Why Winter and Advent belong together. I took this pic of the bare maple tree in front of the parsonage this afternoon.

Empty trees. Bare branches. Dead stumps. Not exactly the sorts of images you expect during what is supposedly this season of hope, but that’s the mystery of Advent…they really are. One song says that what God wants of us is holiness, righteousness, and brokenness. If I could add a verse, I would add one for the season of Advent…Emptiness. Emptiness is what I long for…what I need…what God wants of me.

What if what we need this season is not more, but less? Not just “less” in the commercial terms of what is said by the Advent Conspirators, though we need that, too. But less of what I have filled my life with, good things though they may be, but the things, sometimes even the gifts and graces in which my trust has begun to become (mis)placed, rather than the One who gifts and graces.

I spoke this morning about a song by David Wilcox that I have ruminated on from time to time. It was a song he wrote in the aftermath of his touring of the Biltmore mansion, where he was bothered to discover that the man whose dwelling was the mansion was lonely, and the ostentatious size of the house must have driven home that point rather well to the man. The story behind the inspiration of the song is on his live album ‘Songs and Stories’ but here’s a video and the lyrics to the song that hits home with me during this season of longing and aching. This season of emptiness and loneliness that just may be what we need to find the fullness that is on its way to adorn and fill us.

The depth of your dreams, the height of your wishes
The length of your visions I see
The hope of your heart is much bigger than this
For it’s made out of what might be

So now picture your hope, your heart’s desire
As a castle that you must keep
And all of its splendor, it’s drafty with lonely
This heart is too hard to heat

When I get lonely, now that’s only my sign
That some room is empty in me, and that room is there by design
If I feel hollow, well that’s just my proof that there’s more
I need to follow
And that’s what the lonely is for
That’s what the lonely is for

But you could seal up the pain
Build walls in the hallways, close off a small room to live in
But then those walls would remain
And keep you there always
You would never know why you were given,
Why you were given that lonely
Why you were given that empty in your heart
Why you were given that hollow
That’s just your proof that there’s more you need to follow
That’s what the lonely is for

Feels like a curse, not a blessing
This palace of promise
When the empty chill makes you weep
With only the thin fire of romance to warm you
These halls are too tall and deep

When I get lonely, well that’s only my sign
Some room is empty in me and that room is there by design
If I feel hollow, well that’s just my proof that there’s more
For me to follow
And that’s what the lonely is for
For me to follow, that’s what the lonely is for.

In Romans 8 St. Paul intimates that creation is achinggroaning as a woman in labor (appropriate for Advent, is it not?) and he says this not only of creation but also of God’s children groaning for the redemption of our bodies, which points us toward Christ’s return and the resurrection of the body.

Aching, groaning, longing. That’s how I have pictured Advent thus far this year. And maybe the first part of that aching is to long for emptiness. So perhaps emptiness seems like an odd word to convey the meaning of hope, but perhaps it is the most appropriate for now. After all, emptiness is one of the benchmark terms we associate with the Incarnation, right? (See Philippians 2:7: “but he emptied himself…”).