Don’t you find that Christmas carols are overdone during the Advent?
No I do not – mainly because of the great theology that is included these carols. With the possible exception of “Mary Did You Know” most of our contemporary songs do not include very “deep” theological truths. The playing of Christmas songs may seem to be overdone because radio stations and stores play “Christmas” music early on in the holiday season to the extent that many of the carols have become so familiar that we no longer consider their content.
Consider first the old advent hymn, written in 1744 by Charles Wesley, “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” This hymn is a little heavier than most of the music we are used to hearing today. If we are not careful we will miss much of the meaning. The first verse focuses on the fact that the coming of Jesus Christ fulfilled Israel’s longing for the Messiah.
As the one whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament, He is the “long-expected Jesus.” A few of the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled are Isaiah 7:14, which spoke of a virgin giving birth to a child whose name would mean “God with us;” Isaiah 9:6, which told of a child whose name would be called “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, eternal Father, the Prince of Peace;” and Micah 5:2, which said that from Bethlehem would come a ruler whose “goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”
These and many similar prophecies looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, and many devout Jews prayed earnestly for the day when He would arrive. Luke 2:25 tells of Simeon, a man of faith who was “looking for the consolation of Israel.” When he saw Jesus as an infant, Simeon knew that this Child was the fulfillment of his messianic hope. Charles Wesley was borrowing from this passage when he described Jesus in this song as “Israel’s strength and consolation.”
Although He fulfilled Israel’s prophecies, Jesus came to bring salvation to the world, which is what Wesley was referring to when he described Christ as the “hope of all the earth” and the “dear desire of every nation.” More than that, He is the “joy of every longing heart.” He alone is the one who can satisfy every soul.
The second verse tells us why Jesus can meet our expectations: He was “born a child and yet a King.” As the One who is both God and man (the Theandropos), Jesus was able to satisfy God’s wrath completely by dying on the cross for our sins. When Wesley wrote about Jesus’ “all sufficient merit,” he was referring to Christ’s ability to bring us to salvation.
“Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus” is a great song for Christmas, focusing on the “long-expected Jesus” who was born to set us free from sin and to bring us salvation.
Another is Charles Wesley’s best-known song “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” It has been altered slightly by editors, but most of it remains just as Wesley intended when he wrote it more than 250 years ago. As we generally hear it today, the song begins with a triumphant proclamation of Jesus’ birth, describes the fact that He is both God and man and then praises Him for the salvation He was born to provide.
The first verse speaks about peace on earth that is so popular at Christmas time, and appropriately so, for Jesus did come to bring peace. Primarily, however, He came to bring us peace with God, which is what Wesley meant when he wrote, “God and sinners reconciled.” We have all sinned against God; we have broken His commandments and thus made ourselves His enemies. When people become enemies, they cannot go back to being friends until their differences are set aside. Sometimes reconciliation involves the payment of reparations, and which is essentially what Jesus did when He died on the cross. He paid the price necessary to reconcile us to God. The price was really ours to pay, not God’s, but Jesus was able to pay it because, though He was God, He became also a man, the Theandropos, being born as a baby on that first Christmas day.
Charles Wesley described Jesus’ birth in the second verse of this song. He wrote, Though He is the everlasting Lord, the second person of the Trinity (which is described in the song as “the Godhead”), fully equal in nature with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus became the “offspring of the Virgin’s womb.” He was “veiled in flesh,” the “incarnate Deity.” He was God, having become also a man.
The name Emmanuel means “God with us,” which is what Wesley was referring to when he wrote that Jesus was “pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” He became a man, but in the process did not lose His deity. He was “God with us.”
The idea that Jesus would lay aside His divine privileges for any reason is nothing short of incredible, but He did so in order to provide us with salvation. Wesley focused on this amazing occurrence in the third verse, where he wrote,
Jesus laid aside His own rights, coming to this earth and dying for our sins, that those who trust in Him might have eternal life. He was born that we might be born again, and that is good reason to sing “glory to the newborn King.”
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written in 1867 by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal pastor from Philadelphia. He had been in Israel two years earlier and had celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem. This song describes the city not so much as it was when Brooks observed it, but as he thought it might have appeared on the night of Jesus’ birth.
The streets of our own cities are quiet on Christmas day; stores are closed and most people are at home. It is possible that Bethlehem was quiet on the night that Jesus was born, but we know that the place was full of people from out-of-town, and chances are that there were even more people on the streets than usual.
But this song does not say as much about the level of activity in Bethlehem as it does about the fact that very few people even noticed the Baby who was born. One line from the second verse reads, “While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love”–a situation that is true even today. The world goes on about its business, working, eating, sleeping and playing, utterly oblivious to the spiritual realities around it.
Brooks wrote in the third verse of the song, when Christ came into this world, He came quietly. The angelic announcement to the shepherds was the only publicity that accompanied Him. He was born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough; He did not arrive with the pomp that one would expect of a King.
For the most part, He still does not. When people today place their faith in Jesus Christ, the Bible tells us that He comes to live inside them through the indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:16-23; Rom. 8:9-11). There is not a lot of flash associated with an entrance like that, and some of your friends might not even notice the difference at first, but when you trust in Jesus Christ an incredibly significant event takes place. Your sins are forgiven and you are made a new person (John 5:24; 2 Cor. 5:17).
Jesus’ coming means that Christmas does not have to be the lonely time that it is for so many people. We can experience His salvation and enjoy His presence as individuals, even though the world around us does not understand what is really going on. As the last verse of the song reads, “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”
Another favorite carol of mine, “Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts and published for the first time in 1719. The song is a paraphrase of the 98th Psalm, and it has become one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time.
The popularity of “Joy to the World” has resulted in a number of revisions designed to fit the theology of those singing it. For example, in 1838 the song was revised by a group of religious skeptics, who apparently liked the song but did not want to sing about the coming of the Lord. They changed the words from “Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing,” to “Joy to the world! The light has come [a reference to reason], the only lawful King. Let every heart prepare it room, and moral nature sing.”
“Joy to the World” continues with the words, deserving our praise; “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.” This verse alludes to Genesis 3:17, where God told the first man that the ground itself would be cursed as a consequence of his sin.
Instead of submitting to man as a banquet table as previously stated in Genesis 2:9 before the Fall, the ground would now produce thorns and thistles–weeds that would cause humankind to labor intensively in order to survive. With this verse of the song, Watts anticipates the day when the blessings of salvation in Christ will overturn sin’s consequences “as far as the curse is found.”
That day has not come yet, but someday Christ will return to reign in His glory and judge the nations. As we sing in the last verse, “He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”
When Jesus came to this earth, He did not remain in the manger, where He might have been easily controlled. He did not even remain on the cross, where He might have been honored as a martyr. He rose from the dead, that He might reign over all creation. Whether people enjoy singing the words or not, Isaac Watts was right.“Joy to the world! The Lord is come.”
And so dear readers, my prayer for us this Advent season is when we hear or sing these carols our will be eyes opened to look up to the Cross and see that One whose heart has been broken when we plunged the sword of our own rebellion into His side. Yet, God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die. The ultimate reason for Christ’s coming was not merely to die, but to live again, to rise from the dead, and even more to live forever in these hearts of ours. Come . . . come Lord Jesus and reign in these hearts of ours. Amen.