Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus by Rev. L. John Gable
December 4, 2016
Have you ever thought or planned or expected things to turn out one way, but then when they actually played out another way, you realized it was much better than you ever could have hoped for or expected? Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. My wife Kristin is a master planner when it comes to throwing surprise birthday parties, particularly for me, particularly on my decade years; and she’s been doing it since I turned 20. That year we were in college and dating, and after dinner on my birthday I thought we were going out for ice cream with another couple, but it ended up being a midnight party with all of my friends in a remote truck stop in somewhere Indiana. At 30, she surprised me by inviting all of those same friends to meet us at a truck stop not far from where we were living in Mansfield, OH, then they all came to our home for the weekend; again, with my awareness. When I turned 40 I was going to surprise her on her birthday by inviting all of her friends to come to our home in Wisconsin for the weekend, but she found out about it, (in truth, she had told one of her friends to tell me to throw a surprise party for her, so all along I thought it was my idea when really it was hers). She proceeded then to un-invite her friends and re-invite all of mine who showed up at the party at the designated time wearing paper bags over their heads. It took me the whole weekend to figure out how she pulled that one off. When I turned 50 our daughter Jenny was graduating from Hope College in Michigan, so the party I thought we were going to for her turned out to be a surprise party for me, including those same friends. And then, most recently, when I turned 60 just a few months ago we got all dressed up in tuxes and formal wear to go to what I thought was going to be a “Downton Abbey” dinner party, only to discover that the wait staff that night were, you guessed it, those same friends who came in from around the country, some of whom had been to each of the decade parties before. I already am feeling a little anxious about my next one, still ten years out. My point is this: none of those birthdays celebrations were at all what I expected or imagined, much less could have planned for, but every one of them turned out to be far better than anything I could ever have hoped or asked for.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the season of the church year designed for waiting, preparing, longing, expecting the coming of the Messiah. The carol we will look at this morning is the familiar, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”, one of some 6,000 hymns and carols written by Charles Wesley, brother of John and co-founder of the Methodist movement. The carol speaks powerfully of the longing and hope and expectation associated with the coming of the Messiah, but it also begs the question, what are waiting for? Rather, Who are we waiting for and what do we expect in His coming?
Centuries before the birth of Christ Old Testament prophets spoke clearly about the coming of the promised Messiah. They cast a clear vision of the king who would come out of the line of David. He would be a “second David” who, like the “first David”, would set the nation of Israel free from her captors and lead them once again to a place of prominence on the world stage. This coming Messiah King would be a mighty ruler, a strong deliverer, a compassionate restorer. The prophet Isaiah speaks of this “anointed one” as “a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse (David’s father)”; as one who had the spirit of the Lord resting upon him, “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” He would usher in a new and peaceable Kingdom over all the earth where “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” This was the vision of what life would be like when Messiah comes and all of creation lives together under the reign of God, so this is what the people waited for, watched for, longed for and prayed for, for centuries, even as we continue to pray for the coming of that Kingdom today, “Thy Kingdom come”…“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”
As we read these Old Testament texts we, as Christians, recognize that they were casting the vision, laying the foundation, making the preparation for the coming of the Messiah which is announced in the opening verses of the New Testament. Matthew opens his Gospel by saying, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” The proclamation of the angels on that first Christmas morning, of the entire New Testament and of the Christian church through the ages is that that promised Messiah has come in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call the Christ; but ironically, the One who came was not at all the one who was expected.
It is fair to say that people of faith expected the Messiah to come as a child born among them, and not as an outsider. They were looking within the line of David, and their own history reminded them that God had often used the birth of a child in a miraculous way to do a new thing or to mark a turning point in their story line. Edward McDonald puts it this way, “When God wants an important thing done in this world or a wrong righted, He goes about it in a very singular way. He doesn’t release His thunderbolts or stir up His earthquakes. He simply has a tiny baby born, perhaps in a very humble home, perhaps to a very humble mother. And He puts the idea or purpose into the mother’s heart. And she puts it in the baby’s mind, and then…God waits. The great events of this world are not battles and elections and earthquakes and thunderbolts. The great events are babies, for each child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged with us, but is still expecting goodwill to become incarnate in each human life.”
That certainly was the case with this child born of Mary, but we mustn’t forget how completely unexpected and utterly scandalous His birth really was, particularly for Mary and Joseph. We know them to be faithful and righteous people, dedicated to doing what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet to find her unwed and pregnant with no reasonable explanation other than that it “was by the Holy Spirit” was at best suspect and at worst scandalous and offensive to any self- respecting religious person, Joseph included. It took an act of God and a visitation by an angel to convince him otherwise.
No one ever would have expected the birth of the deliverer king to come in this way, to these parents, in this place. “Even now we do not expect to find a diety in a stable,” writes Ann Weems. “Somehow the setting is all wrong, the swaddling clothes too plain, the manger too common for the likes of a Savior, the straw inelegant, the animals reeking and noisy, the whole scene too ordinary for our taste. And the cast of characters is no better. With the possible exception of the kings, who among them is fit for this night? The shepherds? Certainly too crude. The carpenter too rough; the girl too young; and the baby? Whoever expected a baby? Whoever expected the Advent of God in a helpless child? Had the Messiah arrived in the blazing light of the glory of a legion of angels wielding golden swords the whole world could have been conquered for Christ right then and there, and we in the church, to say nothing of the world, wouldn’t have so much trouble today. Even now we simply do not expect to face the world armed with love.”
Those most attuned to prophecy expected the coming of the Messiah in purely in military/political terms. He would come as a deliverer, a conqueror, a savior who would lead them in battle and set them free from all their foes, but in His coming the unexpected Jesus did something greater still. He came to set us free, not from our enemies, but from ourselves.
As Wesley pens, “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.” When the angel announced the birth of the Messiah to Mary and Joseph he gave them two names by which He would be called: Jesus and Emmanuel. His given name, Jesus, was a common one then. It is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, Yeshua or Joshua. Whereas many of us have names which have meaning, Jesus is uniquely the One who actually is and does exactly what His name means. Yeshua or Jesus means “Jehovah saves”. When we say the name Jesus we are making a pronouncement no less extraordinary than that of the angels. We are, quite literally, saying “God saves”. His name tells us not only who He is, but what He does…Jesus saves.
But what does He save us from? Not from our enemies, as the ancients expected or as history has shown. Rather He saves us from the enemy within us. He saves us from sin. As Pogo tells us, “We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us.” Or as G.K. Chesterton responded to the radio announcer’s question, “What’s wrong with this world?” Chesterton called in saying, “I am.”
Many missed Him in His coming because He didn’t fulfill their expectations of what a “real Messiah” looks like, then or now. He didn’t come with swords drawn and guns blazing to rescue His people from their foes. He didn’t preach a political agenda for world dominance; rather He taught a new Gospel of turning the other cheek, of walking the extra mile, of forgiving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. Many criticized Him for being “excessively spiritual and insufficiently earthly.” But all of this was part of the sovereign plan of God for us and for our salvation. This great Deliverer came not to set us free from “them”, whoever “they” may be, but to set us free from ourselves and the sin which clings so closely and binds so tightly. The freedom He offers was not at all what was expected, but it proved to be so much better than anything we ever could have hoped for. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free.”
The second name He was given was Emmanuel, which is translated, “God with us.” Where do we imagine God residing? Seekers then and now might answer, “Up there” or “out there”, but all who have come, by faith, to know Jesus as the Messiah recognize the truth that He has come to live “with us” and by His Spirit to live “within us”, a concept that was radically new and totally unexpected. In the birth of Jesus of Nazareth God has acted definitively in sending His Son, the promised Messiah, the Deliverer, and Savior.
All of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah were fulfilled in Him, but hardly any in a way that anyone would have expected; which is a good reminder to us that God is God and we are not. God’s ways are not necessarily our ways, but God’s ways are always right and true, and so much better than anything we ever could have hoped for or expected.
At the end of the Civil War this prayer was found, written by a Confederate soldier. It could have been written as the prayer of Advent.
“I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything that I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all, most richly blessed.”
“I got nothing that I asked for, but everything that I had hoped for.” “To fold one’s hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world,” is the way Karl Barth puts it, to which another responds, “be prepared because God’s answers are usually different from what we expect.”
Friends, Advent is the season of waiting, and longing and hoping, not just for an event that is over and done with in the past, but for God’s coming anew in our lives right here and right now. I know we come to worship today with a design of what we hope for and pray for and expect God to do in our lives, our homes, our community, our world; prayers for health and healing and wholeness. We come with the hopeful prayer on our lips for Christ to come again, as He one day will, in power and glory, to restore peace and harmony and to usher in the promised Kingdom of Heaven, once and for all. So our prayer today is and has been the prayer of the faithful in every age and it is itself the closing prayer of Scripture, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, come!”
This hopeful, waiting, watching, praying is the stuff of Advent and all of that is good; but let us also be open to the possibility that in His coming God may very well act in some radically new way that is beyond our wildest imagination or expectation. Be assured, He will fulfill all of His promises to us, but don’t be surprised if He does so in ways that we never, ever could have expected, but knowing God as we do, in ways that will be better still. So we pray in confidence and hope, in anticipation and expectation, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, come!”