Carols are such an important part of our Christmas celebrations. We've been listening in our house since the day after Thanksgiving...well, technically I guess we started Thanksgiving morning. I spent years trying to enforce the “December first” rule—no carols before December 1. But it is a battle I've lost to my spouse.
Carols give us a “sentimental feeling”—to quote a secular carol. They remind us of Christmases past, happy memories of family and friends and food and gifts. But the Christian Christmas carols do so much more—they teach theology, mostly good theology, the theology of the incarnation—God come to earth as a human being.
This hymn is an example of how the words are on our lips but may not make it all the way to our consciousness. How many know at least the first verse by heart? How many have deeply considered the meaning of the words? I generally haven't, but for today I looked at each word. I will share some of what I found, beginning with the very first word, Hark...who says hark anymore? It is an archaic word according to dictionary.com. It is no longer in common use but it was a term to get people's attention. Herald is someone who comes early with an announcement. And an angel is really the term for messenger, in particular a messenger from God. We have an assortment of angel figures here in our sanctuary. Beautiful, artistic, stylish representations of God's messengers...but most likely an inaccurate representation. For angels appearances as relayed to us in scriptures are always a fearful occurrence. Check it out, when a messenger of God appears, the angel's first words are invariably...”Do not fear!” These beautiful angels do not inspire fear so, in my mind at least, angels are probably much more fearsome than depicted here.
The final word in our opening, Sing. Here's something I learned this week, nowhere in the scriptural account of the appearance of the angels does it say they sang! Luke tells us, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Praising God and saying.... But as human beings have contemplated the events of that night, I believe that we became convinced that praising God had to include singing. That is how we best praise our God and it is not hard to imagine the angels singing...and our many carols with the angels singing their glorias, hallelujahs, “glory to the newborn king!”
OK, that's my explanation of my title and also an in depth look at the first line of the carol. Now I want to look specifically at the theology found throughout this carol. I invite you to follow along in your hymnbooks since we will sing this when I'm done. I'm taking it largely word by word so it may be helpful to follow along. I will note that the hymn was written by Charles Wesley who is the brother of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. He was very particular about being theologically sound. Yet, as I pointed out, scriptures didn't report the angels singing. This isn't Charles Wesley's mistake. His original opening line was even more old school, but perhaps more theologically correct: “Hark, how all the welkin rings”. Understand that? Welkin, I discovered, mean the vault of heaven. Wesley wrote the opening verse without the refrain and no mention of the angels singing. His good friend George Whitefield made the changes which we sing today. And I think we'd side with Whitefield, the idea of angels singing fits in with how we praise our Lord. I'll move on.
Line two, “peace on earth and mercy mild”. Again, the multitude of angels glorified God saying, “On earth, peace, goodwill toward men.” Peace, mercy, goodwill are intertwined in the words of the heavenly host. The carol gives us that sense in this second line, then gives us a theological reason for the coming of the Son of God: God and sinners reconciled. Jesus came that we, each of us, all of us, could be reconciled, reconnected to our creator. The world since the fall of Adam had rebelled against God. We are born rebelling—who has to teach their baby to be selfish, or their two-year old to lie. “Who broke this?” “Not me!” We all come into the world sinful beings. Sin separates us from God. But Jesus came to reconcile us! That's the good news of the gospel, the good news of Christmas. In Colossians, Paul wrote, “through (Jesus), God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the...cross.”(Colossians 1: 20) God and sinner reconciled....
Next comes a universal invitation to us, the singers of the carol: “ Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies”. The triumph of the skies is pictured as a multitude of angels-the angelic host-announcing or singing of the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. It is a triumph because God's plan for salvation is being put into place. It began back in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve's sin—which I will get to--and salvation is fulfilled in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the victory of the Cross. And we are invited to join in the praise joyfully.
Second verse: begins with a reminder of the place of Jesus in heaven. He is adored by the angels of heaven, and he's the everlasting Lord...skip a line; “Veiled in flesh the God-head see, hail the incarnate deity.” This is an important line. Wesley makes note of the fact that Jesus is man and God, fully human, fully divine. He is God, but he is veiled in flesh; not that the flesh makes him less God in any way. It suggests almost a disguise; Jesus is God but those around him see only a man. But an incarnate deity, God made man, also tells us that Jesus was fully human. He had the same needs that we have; need for food and water and air to breathe. The need for companionship and love. And destined like all men to die. “Pleased in flesh with us to dwell” tells us the theological truth that Jesus willingly came to earth as Emmanuel, God with us. Paul wrote this, “For in (Jesus) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”. (Colossians 1: 19) As I said, Charles Wesley was very thorough in his desire to make the hymn both theologically correct and to make it poetic and musically pleasing.
Back up to line two of verse two quickly. “Late in time behold him come” is a little confusing to me. There had been 400 years between the time of the last Old Testament prophet and the birth of Jesus, he could be referring to that. But we certainly recognize the prophecies of Isaiah as Jesus is acknowledged as the offspring of the virgin Mary.
Verse three, hail the Prince of Peace, a name that we recognize from our verse of the month from Isaiah, a title for the promised Messiah. Jesus is that promise Messiah. The Sun of Righteousness is a title filled with meaning. Note Sun is s-u-n, not s-o-n. Wesley goes back to the prophet Malachi for this, Malachi 4:2: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” This is not specifically the Messiah, but it has often been interpreted as referring to him. The Sun represents light, Jesus is the light of the world and Mr. Wesley brings that to the verse, Light and life to all He brings. Then back to Malachi, risen with healing in his wings. Wings here is obviously not to be taken literally, Jesus doesn't have wings. But with poetic license, he ties into the healing Jesus brings, healing the world of sin and the penalty of sin; born that we no more may die.
If you're following the hymn, you'll note I skipped a line there. Paul writes a wonderful soliloquy in Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 5-8) The Carol simplifies it; “Mild he lays his glory by”.
The last line of verse three comes from John's gospel from his conversation with Nicodemus; in John 3: 3 Jesus told him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Jesus tells us we must be born again, he came so that we would have this, “second birth” as Wesley put it. The gospel in rhythm and rhyme.
We have three verses in our hymnbooks; if you look this carol up online you will normally find three verses. But Mr. Wesley wrote 2 more, verse four: “Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us Thy humble home; Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head. Now display Thy saving pow’r, Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.” I won’t take this line by line, but I said I'd get back to the garden of Eden. The line about the woman's conquering seed and bruising the serpent's head brings us back to God and Adam and Eve after the fall. God told the serpent, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3: 15) Jesus came from the seed of woman and Jesus will be the one by whom the serpent is bruised/defeated. A plan put in place in the garden, fulfilled by the seed of woman, a baby in a manger.
In Corinthians, Paul writes of Jesus being the new Adam, “The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Adam the first human, Jesus the life giving last Adam. The final verse goes like this, “Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface, Stamp Thine image in its place: Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in Thy love. Let us Thee, though lost, regain, Thee, the Life, the inner man: Oh, to all Thyself impart, Formed in each believing heart.”
Like I said, there is a lot of theology in these verses. Reminders of just who Jesus was and is. Reminders of what Jesus came to do and what he did. Reminders that God's plan is in place and the new Kingdom began with Jesus and will be fulfilled when he comes again. In our gospel today, John answered John the Baptists questions with the assurance that he was the fulfillment of prophecies. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” It is an expansion of what we heard from Isaiah this morning about the coming Messiah, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” And James reminded us, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” God's plan is in place and God is in control.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we focus on joy. Joy for the birth of Jesus, Joy for God's providence, Joy for our future in God's kingdom, Joy for the fellowship we share in Jesus' name, joy for the season. Let us sing of the glory of the newborn king. Perhaps the angels didn't sing with joy—that's hard to imagine, but let us sing with Joy, Hark the Herald Angel sings 31 PH