Editor’s Note: Modern hymn writer Keith Getty has written a series of essays, each focusing on a Christmas hymn or carol. This is the second of an 11-part series in Baptist Press.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Charles Wesley is probably my biggest hymn-writing hero. He wrote the perfect hymn for every season, every celebration and every genre of Christian congregational worship. For Easter Sunday, he wrote “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” For Christmas, he wrote “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” On the theme of redemption, he wrote “And Can It Be.” No one can compete with him.
This, his advent carol, contains a wonderful sense of bursting anticipation:
Come thou long expected Jesus
Born to set the people free
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in Thee
This sense of anticipation reminds us not only of the Israelites longing for their promised Messiah, their King, to set them free, but also reminds us that we, in the midst of celebrating the birth of our Savior, are still waiting and anticipating and hoping for Christ’s return – He is the long expected Jesus for both the Israelites in the past and for us in the present as we look with expectation to the future fulfilment of all God’s plans.
In the third and fourth lines of this first verse, the words fear and rest are juxtaposed reminding us that Christmas is often a time when our fears are amplified – our worries about our family or the future or our feelings of loneliness can all increase in the run up to Christmas. There is often an unspoken pressure that Christmas must be perfect and harmonious, a time when we can stop and rest and have a break from all the usual stresses of life. And yet the reality is that the Christmas holidays don’t always give us the reprieve that we long for – many of us continue to carry huge burdens and difficulties.
Yet this carol reminds us so beautifully that, no matter what we are facing or how stressful our lives might be, our true rest is found in Christ – rest from striving, rest from busyness but also rest for our souls, our bodies, our minds and rest from the fears and sins that so often keep us captive. Only Jesus can release us from our fears and sins and bring us the true rest we so desperately need.
When I sing this song at our Christmas concerts, it’s just extraordinary to see the expressions of longing and anticipation on people’s faces as they sing these lines:
Israel’s hope and consolation
Hope of all the earth thou art
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart
The promised Messiah was the consolation, the comfort, the solace of all of Israel and still today so many people are seeking consolation and comfort, often in the wrong things, but wonderfully these words assure us, as the verse turns upward, that Jesus is the joy of every longing heart.
So often at this time of year we are promised, through the big brands, the high street and department stores, that we will find fulfilment and joy through the gifts we give and receive, the more expensive the better! But it’s an empty promise and this carol brings us back to the truth that can so easily get lost in the midst of consumerism, busyness and striving – Jesus is the fulfilment of every desire. Jesus is the person in whom we find ultimate joy.
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
The carol finishes on a note of triumph and encourages us to look toward eternity. It reminds us that there is still a much bigger heavenly celebration to come. It encourages us to wait with expectancy, with longing and anticipation while at the same time calling us to recognize the joy and fulfilment that Jesus’ birth has already brought. In this carol, Wesley has penned perfect lyrics; it’s mind-blowingly good!
About Keith and Kristyn Getty
Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern hymn writers whose compositions are sung the world over. For more information on Getty Music and the Sing! initiative, visit www.gettymusic.com.
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.