Hymns and Lessons for Advent 2 (Cycle A)

Do you remember the Dawn of the Harmonic Convergence? No? New Age Voyagers and Doonsbury fans might remember.

On August 17, 1987, thousands of people gathered at various “mystical” places to channel positive energy by “resonating with the universe” (through humming, chanting, blowing conch shells, whatever felt right) in order to neutralize Earth’s bad vibrations and set the stage for purifying the planet. This purification process was to take 25 years and would prepare earth for that great day in 2012 AD, when a harmonious, nuclear-free, pollution free earth would slip out of the evil space beam that had imprisoned us for the previous 5,125 years. On that glorious day (in 2012), the New Age would begin as the now harmonious Earth would join forces with the intergalactic intelligences that had been waiting for us. (Do you remember now? Were you even born yet?)

A lot of us snickered, back then, at this hodgepodge of astrology, UFO-ology, Mayan and Aztec religion, and New Age philosophy. We snickered at the hodgepodge, but not at the yearning for harmony, not at the hunger for peace.

The ancient Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:1-10 that is this week’s reading from the Old Testament, reaches deep into our heart’s hunger for harmony and promises a new age of peace that will begin not in outer space and beyond time, but right here in a concrete, historical context: There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse , and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on Him … Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins, and faithfulness the belt of His waist. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them …They shall not hurt of destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Please remember that God’s people were very sad and discouraged in the days of the prophet Isaiah, and with good reason. Heartbreaking images of violence and terror and death were burned into their memories from their recent experience with war — a war they lost. They lived with poverty and suffering and sorrow every day. So Isaiah spoke to them of the wonderful day God had promised He would send. The Messiah would come to bring a time of tenderness and peace, to judge with righteousness and faithfulness. The Messiah would bring the kind of peace that comes with justice.

Too often, “peace on earth” comes at the expense of justice. Those who have power and influence in the family, at the workplace, or in government, all too often use their power to make sure nobody rocks the boat. That’s “how come” slavery lasted so long … and segregation. That’s “how come” it took so long for women to attain full legal rights. That’s also “how come” John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” in this week’s Gospel reading (Mt:3:1-12) They had enormous power and influence which they were not using as agents of God in this world. So John the Baptist is out in the desert urging people to receive the baptism of repentance, and many Pharisees and Sadducees came to him for baptism. “You brood of vipers! This big public show isn’t going to fool God. If you don’t start ‘bearing good fruit in your lives’ and doing the right thing, it’s going to be all over for you!” That’s what John said. He was fearless what it came to “speaking truth to power.” That’s why he was beheaded. But peace that comes without justice isn’t peace. As G K Chesterton said, “Right remains right even when nobody believes it — and wrong remains wrong even when everybody does it.”

See, as John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees, there is more to repentance than “feeling sorry.” Nobody is ever sorrier than a crook who has been caught. Repentance isn’t about being sorry. It’s about a change of heart that turns our life around … that turns our feet away from the wrong road … that gets us headed in the right direction … that leads us to use whatever power and influence we might have as an agent of God in this world.

There is a reason why we have a Gospel like this one at a time when all of us are pretty-much caught up in the preparations for Christmas. We have a Gospel reading like this one because the Church Year wants to remind us of how important it is that you and I prepare our hearts and our lives for Christ’s return. The generations of Christians who lived long before us put together the lectionary and the rhythm of the Church Year itself to make sure that we were reminded that Christ IS coming again just as surely as He was born in the first place; just as God kept His promise that the Messiah would come to earth, so God will keep His promise that Christ will return. And there will be justice. And there will be peace.

The hymns that we sing this week remind us of the same thing. (Subscribers to my blog will need to click on the title of the blog to see and hear the YouTube videos of these hymns.)

The Processional Hymn is “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” with lyrics by Charles Wesley, arguably the world’s greatest hymn writer. You know many of his hymns: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Love Divine all Loves excelling, Christ the Lord is risen Today, Rejoice the Lord is King.” Although his brother John Wesley was the organizational genius behind the founding of Methodism, without the hymns of Charles, the Methodist movement might not have gotten off the ground. In 53 years, he produced 56 volumes of hymns — and in the lyrics of these hymns he gave “a full account of scriptural Christianity.” This hymn is an expression of anticipation and longing for the arrival of Christ. As a child I always thought this hymn was about waiting for Christmas — but it’s about more than Christmas, of course. “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 human 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.” This wonderful hymn “slides around” like Advent itself: sometimes it looks at Christ’s birth in the past, sometimes at Christ who is present with us now, sometimes it looks at Christ’s promised future return. Despite its apparent simplicity, this hymn is actually just as complicated theologically as Advent itself.

The Hymn of the Day is “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry”. In this hymn, John the Baptist is not only calling the Pharisees and Sadducees to a change of life, he is also calling us. He is reminding us of the salvation Christ bought for us with His death and resurrection, and is bringing us the “glad tidings from the King of Kings” that He is coming. And with this coming “beauty will spring in every place.” This hymn so beautifully ties together the yearning of Isaiah 11:1-10, the warnings of Matthew 3:1-12, and our own circumstances. This hymn lets Isaiah speak a word from God to our yearning for peace, it lets John the Baptist call us to straighten out our lives and prepare our hearts for God’s messiah. “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh; Come, then, and hearken, for he brings glad tidings from the King of Kings. Then cleansed be every Christian breast and furnished for so great a Guest. Yea let us each our hearts prepare for Christ to come and enter there. For Thou are our Salvation, Lord, our refuge and our great reward. Without Thy grace our souls must fade and wither like a flower decayed. Lay on the sick Thy healing hand and make the fallen strong to stand; show us the glory of Thy face till beauty springs in every place. All praise, eternal Son to Thee whose advent sets Thy people free, Whom, with the Father, we adore and Holy Ghost forevermore.” Despite its apparent simplicity, this hymn also is as complicated theologically as Advent itself.

Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart is the Distribution Hymn. It sings of our life as a pilgrimage. No matter what life throws at us, we sing words of encouragement to each other: “Still lift your banner high, still march in firm array, as warriors through the darkness toil, till dawns the golden day. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing. // At last the march shall end; the wearied ones shall rest; the pilgrims find their heavenly home, Jerusalem the blessed. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing. // Then on, ye pure in heart! Rejoice, give thanks and sing! Your glorious banner wave on high, the cross of Christ your King. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing.” What a great hymn to sing as we come forward in a continuous procession to receive Holy Communion, to have our souls fed with Christ’s own body and blood. This hymn anchors us in the moment: we know that Christ was born 2,000 years ago and we know that He will return at some point in the future, but right now, in the present, we are warriors & agents of God on a pilgrimage “through life’s long path, still chanting as we go”.

The Recessional Hymn turns our faces straight toward the future that is coming: “The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks, when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes. Not as of old a little child to bear and fight and die, but crowned with glory like the sun that lights the morning sky.”

Did you notice how the progression of the hymns encapsulates the mystery of what the Season of Advent does with time?

In the first two hymns, we stand with the people Isaiah and John the Baptist were addressing as we yearn with them for the promised deliverer and the time of peace and justice He will bring in with Him, as well as are reminded that we need to get our lives shaped up. We look backward to the first Christmas when God kept His promise that the Messiah would come; we simultaneously look forward to Christ’s final, second coming. We know that we ourselves will be held accountable before God yet we also know that because of Christmas Day we have a Redeemer and an Advocate; we know that there will be judgment on sin and that the entire world will be called to accountability before God yet we also have hope that the coming King is bringing eternal life with Him. In the Distribution Hymn we are standing squarely in the present, where we are living courageously in pilgrimage and are part of that continuous procession to receive our Lord’s body and blood. And then in the Recessional Hymn, our eyes are focused utterly on the future Christ is bringing with Him.

In short, the wonderful hymns of this Second Sunday of Advent encapsulate the mystery of what this Season of the Church Year does with time. Advent is that wonderfully complex season of the Church’s Year when we hold in our awareness that we are living “between the times”: Christ has come, Christ is present, Christ will come again. The hymns for this Sunday help us do this. And here “between the comings”, we live in pilgrimage as faithful warriors of the Lord of Glory. A Greater Christmas than Christmas is coming. So don’t lose heart! Live like one of the Children of Light! Rejoice give thanks and sing! Spread the Word. And have a blessed Advent.

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