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.