Right now, the season of Advent is upon us, and it’s one of my favorites. Our hymns have a much more Hebraic focus than the rest of the year. They are full of rich prophecies about God’s promises to redeem Israel, and through them bring redemption to the world.
Listen to these lines from O Come, O Come, Emmanuel:
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
O come, O come, Thou Lord of Might
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
Or Comfort, Comfort Now my People, which comes from Isaiah 40:
Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace!” So says our God.
“Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.”
For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
calling us to true repentance,
since the reign of God is here.
O, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way.
Let the valleys rise in meeting
and the hills bow down in greeting.
Straight shall be what long was crooked,
and the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits God’s holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now on earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that God’s word is never broken.
I love this brief window when the focus is on the Hebrew Scriptures. This is the moment of time that we can reflect along side Zechariah, Anna and Simeon, pious first-century Jews who longed for God’s promises to Israel to come to fruition.
The Arrival of the Kingdom of God
Jesus spent his ministry teaching about coming of the Kingdom of God, a very Jewish idea.* Christians have often very confused notions about what this means, assuming that it describes heaven and not God’s reign on earth. But during Advent, the songs we sing usually get this idea quite correct.
One hymn that was originally intended for advent is Joy to the World:
Joy to The world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let ev’ry heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing…
Joy to the world! the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy…
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love…
This universally-known song draws from Psalm 98:
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn —
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
Let them sing before the Lord,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:4-9)
What I like most (in a subversive kind of way) is that I find it in the most secular places. At Walmart the other day, Joy to the World was what was being broadcast on their retail sound system. Despite the ever-increasing hostility towards Christianity, wherever you go during this season, you can’t miss hearing a very Hebraic proclamation:
The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.
With every year that passes, I appreciate this more and more.
* For more on the “kingdom of God” in Jewish thought, see chapter 13 of Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus.