We're Still Waiting: We need to anticipate the second coming while we celebrate the first
In the opening song of the musical The Cotton Patch Gospel, the chorus sings: "Somebody said, 'It's the second coming,' someone said, 'It's the first.' Somebody said, It's the best that could happen,' someone said, 'It's the worst.'"
In Gainesville, Georgia, the setting of The Cotton Patch Gospel, the locals apparently saw a connection between the first and second comings. But in the rest of North America, any attention to the second coming during December seems out of place. Judgment and other "signs of the age" certainly do not fit with our marketplace Advent and Christmas celebrations. With the national retail economy hinging on the shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, any hint of a second coming could only spell economic disaster. How many skis or Baby Alives or hot tubs would we purchase if we were serious about praying, "Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly"?
Even our biblical stories and churchy activities do not seem to match the second coming very well. Jesus meek and mild, singing angels, worshiping cows, and gift-bearing wise men from the opening chapters of the gospels seem a long way from the judgment and terrors of Matthew 24. So do our Advent and Christmas celebrations with their carols, trees, wreaths, and candles, or the Christmas pageants with our children and grandchildren portraying bathrobed shepherds and winged angels. Advent and Christmas are mostly about sweetness and light, and seem at odds with the fearsome images of judgment that we associate with the second coming.
Standing on Tiptoe
But the wisdom of the church knows better. The church has, for a long time, linked the first and second comings of Jesus. Increasing use of the lectionary for sermon texts and topics has strengthened that linkage.
Why does it make biblical sense to preach and sing about the second coming while anticipating the first?
Think back to the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah, Mic-ah, Zephaniah, and the other prophets describe a city and country and world that are sick unto death—moral death. Evil is rampant as people engage in false worship, disobey the Lord, neglect the poor, and are cruel to the dispossessed. Listen to these words from Zephaniah 3:
Woe to the city of oppressors,
-rebellious and defiled.
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the LORD,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials are roaring lions,
her rulers are evening wolves
who leave nothing for the morning.
Her prophets are arrogant;
they are treacherous men.
Her priests profane the sanctuary,
and do violence to the law.
This city is a moral cesspool. It needs a rescuer, a savior, a Messiah. The world that has forsaken God needs Immanuel— God must come very close to people to rescue them. This darkness is in desperate need of light.. This crooked world begs for someone to put things right. This corrupt city needs someone to bring justice. These leaders, pulling corrupt strings or wielding whips of oppression, need to be trampled by a righteous judge and Lord:
"Therefore wait for me," declares the LORD,
"for the day I will stand up to testify.
I have decided to assemble the nations,
to gather the kingdoms,
and to pour out my wrath on them—
all my fierce anger"
And this people, bowed down under oppression, with hardly enough strength left to call out, needs someone to rescue them, to love them, to live among them:
Sing, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O Daughter of Jerusalem!
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
God's people of old stood on tiptoe and craned their necks trying to find that Savior on the horizon. Their world was in great need.
It still was in great need of redemption six hundred years later. And that's why Mary and Zechariah, Anna and Simeon, the shepherds and the angels, all started singing when that Messiah got himself a manger, a house, a family, and a medical bag of miracles. They all rejoiced when that Messiah came and dwelt among us and set up his peaceable kingdom.
That was the first coming.
The Old Testament prophecies about that first coming are sharply etched and crystal clear. The world is in a mess, and the Savior will come and set things right. But the time line of the event is a bit fuzzy. Did this take place in Bethlehem, two thousand years ago? Yes, the labor pangs and the healed lepers were there to prove it. But there's more. The prophecies also talked about a peaceable kingdom that will last, about toddlers playing with cobras and vipers, about shalom that won't quit.
"Are we there yet?" Not really. The ancient promise was fulfilled, but not completely. The Savior came, but his kingdom is not yet completely in place. Just look around. During Advent 1992 there was more than tinsel and wassail. We also saw images of dying orphans in Somalia and of ravaged cities and women in Bosnia. We heard of people stealing children's Christmas presents, and of church leaders preying on children. Advent 1993 will have its own horrors. The "not yet" of a completed shalom will be agonizingly obvious to the orphans of Romania and the homeless of North America. The lack of wholeness will be seen in the divisions in our churches and the crevices in our families. Zephaniah's voice still sounds:
Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled.
But so does the promise:
The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
Our Advent times are like the waiting times of Israel. They cried, "O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom us." And we say "O come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!"
As worship leaders this Advent season we will lead God's people in singing "Hark, the glad sound! The Savior comes." Choir directors will feel the excited weariness of rehearsing cantatas and lessons and carols. Banner committees will design exciting colors and symbols. Worship planning groups will choose members to light the Advent wreath candles. Pastors will prepare thoughtful sermons on preparing our hearts for Jesus' coming.
But in the midst of this festivity and during the anticipation of our Christmas Eve candlelight service, we will also remind the congregation to whisper, "Lord Jesus, come quickly."
YOUR KINGDOM COME
REFORMED WORSHIP HYMN COMPETITION
How do new hymns get written? And how do hymnal committees find hymns that address contemporary issues? The rapid changes in our culture have revealed many gaps in older hymnals. For example, what nineteenth-century hymns extolling God's gift of creation ever mentioned that our environment was fragile? Or that we have abused God's creation?
The most effective way to fill those gaps is to hold hymn searches or competitions. And now, for the first time, Reformed Worship is delighted to announce such a competition (see inside back cover for details). This hymn search is being underwritten by a group of churches in Edmonton, Alberta, who collected over $500 for this purpose. Joachim Segger, director of music at West End Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, writes:
Some time ago the West End, Ingkzoood, Hope, and Covenant Christicm Reformed Churches got together for a hyrtvt festival. As chairman of the organizing committee for $iis event, 1suggested tfiat we sponsor a hymn-writing competition and collect funds for this through an offering. The committee supported this idea but felt it would be more effective if we gftue the generated funds to Reformed Worship to set the guidelines and administer the competition.
The theme chosen for this hymn competition is Your Kingdom Come, a petition from the Lord's Prayer. We are calling on poets and musicians to help us pray that prayer in terms of the issues we wrestle with in our day.
As Reformed Christians, we believe that all Christians are called to full-time kingdom service. Our call is cosmic in scope, and is related to the vision of the kingdom that has come and is still coming. Often, hymns that reflect the broader issues of kingdom service have either been too broadly conceived in terms of a "social gospel" message, or too narrowly conceived in terms of work in and through the institutional church. What exactly was Christ teaching us to pray?
We hope that this theme will inspire and encourage poets and musicians. Hymn competitions are the best form of encouragement to hymn writers who make it possible for God's people to "sing a new song to the Lord."
As readers of Reformed Worship, you can help by making this opportunity known to individuals who may be qualified but may not be subscribers to RW, especially those who teach English and music.