“Born to set thy people free:” A Christmas hymn devotion
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of 4 weekly devotions based on the hymns of Charles Wesley.
Lines! They’re everywhere this time of year. There is a line of traffic to get into the parking lot to do our Christmas shopping, and a line of people to make our purchases before we leave. Our kids wait in line to see Santa, and we wait longer than usual to treat ourselves to that special holiday latte. In our 21st century celebration of Christmas, we get a lot of practice in waiting.
In a strange way all of this waiting fits the Christian calendar. The Church sets aside the four weeks before Christmas as a time to prepare for the coming of our long-expected Messiah. This season called Advent is an opportunity to focus on how God came to us in history in the person of Jesus, comes to us in the present, and will come again in the future.
In December 1745, Charles Wesley published a two-verse prayer in Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord that helps us enter into the season of Advent. “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” appears in the United Methodist Hymnal with only minor changes from the original.
As we sing Wesley’s words, we enter into an ancient prayer. For hundreds of years, our ancestors in the faith prayed for the Messiah to come. God had blessed them to be a blessing to all the nations (Genesis 12:1-3), but it was difficult to feel blessed in the pain of defeat, exile, and occupation. They longed for the Messiah to come and reestablish the kingdom.
We understand those feelings of distance from God. While we have experienced times when God feels near, there are others seasons of struggle and doubt. Some of us have spent time wondering if God is still with us. So, we join this prayer today, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.”
We also know this on a much larger scale. We see the brokenness of our world and its systems. We long for justice for all people regardless of race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation. We await the day when Jesus will return to usher in the new creation and heal our broken world. We join this prayer for our future also, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.”
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“Christmas medley: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing / Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” arranged and performed by JT Iovino.
As we keep singing, Charles Wesley continues to lead us in a prayer for liberation. For Wesley, Jesus was born for this purpose.
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.
The Rev. Paul Chilcote, Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Ashland (Ohio) Theological Seminary, talks about this in an episode of the Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast. “For Charles, in particular,” he shares, “our redemption is all about being liberated from those powers, those forces in our lives that keep us from being the children of God that God has created us to be.”
In verse two, Wesley shows us what that looks like.
By thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone,
By thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.
Seeking to have Christ as the sole ruler of our hearts was the drive of the early Methodist movement.
“By Methodists,” John Wesley wrote, “I mean…one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him’” (“The Character of a Methodist” ¶5). In another place he writes about Methodists being those who pursue “universal love filling the heart, and governing the life” (“Advice to a People Called Methodist”).
“What is it that’s binding you up?” Chilcote encourages us to ask ourselves during this time of preparation. “What is it that’s keeping you from being the loving, caring, compassionate person that God has created all of us to be? What are those barriers that stand in the way of that?”
Living the prayer
When standing in line threatens to steal your joy this Christmas, hum this hymn as a reminder that waiting is essential to the season. During Advent, we wait for the coming of Christ into history, into our lives, and into our world.
Let Charles Wesley’s words be your prayer in this season. Come, thou long-expected Jesus. Release us from our fears and sins. Rule in our hearts. Let us live in freedom, sharing your love with all whom we meet.