Advent Tensions - Magnified Meaning

Advent this year has been an enlightening journey for me. At FirstB we have tried to engage the season with real intention. Our sermon series is called Advent Upheaval – the theme about which I posted a few weeks ago. For the most part, we’ve avoided traditional Christmas carols. And yes, I’ve caught a little heat for it. We’ll evaluate our approach after the turn of the year.

But I had an epiphany (small “e” – I know the big day is supposed to be January 6) last Sunday as we sang Isaac Watts’ classic Advent hymn, “Joy to the World.” I think I’ve sung that carol for fifty years and associated it directly with angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph with the Holy Child in a manger stall in Bethlehem. Sure, there is some correlation. The Christ Event and all its implications is, after all, one big story. But Watts doesn’t mention any of those things in his text. I’ve just associated the carol with Christmas – well – because I always have, just like the rest of our Western culture. Even though I try to be an intentional worship leader and church musician, I’m pretty sure most of the value that I was gaining from singing the carol was strictly sentimental. It’s a good bet that sentimentality has been wrapped up in my other caroling activities. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

But when I sang Watts’ words last week the meaning of the words exploded with fresh meaning in my mind and spirit. This is a song of great joy because Christ is the sovereign Lord! It’s more a song about the Kingdom of God than it is specifically about the Baby in the Manger. This song could be sung any day – perhaps even more meaningfully on Palm Sunday or Easter. Now wouldn’t that be provocative! I could see the raised eyebrows. (For FBC readers, don’t worry, I’m not going there.)

Here’s my point: when it comes to this time of the year, we need to be intentional about meaning and spiritual formation without succumbing to the pressures of sentimentality. Sentimentality has a place. It brings emotional comfort. It is a return to a safe and nurturing place. Certainly, ministry does deal in sentimentality. We do have a role in bringing comfort. But sentimentality doesn’t go much beyond cultivating positive feelings. Sentimentality makes us feel good, but it doesn’t change us. Sometimes, it is the absence of positive feeling that becomes an impetus for growth. Tension can be good.

The church’s mandate is to be and make disciples of Christ. Spiritual formation must be our first priority. What we do sing does matter. (Colossians 3:16 – I’ll preach on that December 26.) Putting off the singing of carols has created some tension. I’ve heard and felt some of the push-back. There is only one way to reconcile the tensions of Advent. Don’t observe it. On the other hand, if we learn to live with the tensions of Advent, the discomfort caused by waiting, introspection, and searching for meaning will bear fruit when we do finally unwrap those delightful carols that announce Christ’s wonder-full birth!

Anyway, here are those timeless words from Isaac Watts whose fresh meaning was unveiled to me last Sunday:

Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every 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.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.


  1. The beauty of poetry is not only in the language, but the images the chosen words provoke. It is very possible that the birth of Christ is what inspired Watts to pen this hymn. I also get your point about singing this on Palm Sunday. I believe that we did that one year at WACC and it was very well received. (Keep that idea on the back burner, you may be surprised)

    It is also true that people don't usually change unless there is discomfort or pain and people can become so ingrained in traditions and comforting sentiments that they miss the true "Reason for the Season", but I think you have to be careful not to cause too much upheaval. I am sure that was/is the agenda of the "Director of Creative Arts" at my previous church. His goal was to shake things up and make people think outside the box. The problem was he substituted one box (traditional) for another (contemporary) and did not break down the walls of either box. Talk about tension!! It prompted change all right, but it was more like division.

    I think the Holy Spirit creates the tension we need to move in the right direction. He uses people like you to provide instruction, guidance and discipleship to facilitate the changes He wants. I also think God created us with a bent towards sentimentality for a reason. It is good to understand why things are meaningful to us and grow from that. It's not bad to sing Christmas Carols just because we love them, but it is good to take a fresh look at the words and the meanings. Studying something you love already is fun. Thanks for posting a fresh view on a well loved hymn.

  2. Very insightful, Debbie. Provocation just for the sake of stirring things up is not helpful.

    We didn't grow up observing Advent, though I've been in a few churches that lit the wreaths and made an attempt at entering into the tensions of Advent. But we never really got it. For me, this is the first year that I've ever really been able to contemplate Christ's second Advent, John the Baptist's call to repentance, and my need for a fresh advent of Emmanuel in my life. It's been refreshing as these days have been a time for real spiritual renewal and refreshment even in the midst of tension and busyness.

    Advent hymns like "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" and "Joy to the World" have taken on fresh meaning because I've been able to delay the Christmas celebration. I'm looking forward to that, and in fact we'll do Christmas carols in a big way this Sunday...departing from a strict Advent observance. (I can only get away with so much...) But I'll also continue celebrating Christmas until after the New Year.
    Very good thoughts, Debbie. Thanks for posting.


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