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…
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.