The First Sunday of Advent December 1, 2013
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
75(1-3), 63, 87, 75(4)
Oh, sing to the LORD a new song!
For He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory.
The LORD has made known His salvation;
His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth;
Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.
Sing to the LORD with the harp,
With the harp and the sound of a psalm,
With trumpets and the sound of a horn;
Shout joyfully before the LORD, the King.
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness,
The world and those who dwell in it;
Let the rivers clap their hands;
Let the hills be joyful together before the LORD,
For He is coming to judge the earth.
With righteousness He shall judge the world,
And the peoples with equity.
In 1719, the hymn writer Isaac Watts published a collection of poetic verses based on the psalms. This was no small thing, since until that time there was no easy way to sing these Scriptures in the English language. The Christmas hymn so familiar to us today as Joy to the World is Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98—and it wasn’t really intended to be a Christmas hymn. Psalm 98 is a psalm of rejoicing at the return of the exiles from Babylon to their homeland of Judea. The exiles praised the fact that God was among them, that the Lord had come to their rescue. The poem that Isaac Watts wrote reflects the joy we have whenever the Lord comes to us, whether it is in the manger at Bethlehem, into our hearts by faith, or in judgment at the Last Day.
This Advent season we will be considering Psalm 98 in connection with the hymn, Joy to the World. Each week we will take up one verse in order to give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of the thoughts contained in that verse as they are drawn from Scripture.
Today we will consider: “THE LORD IS COME: PREPARE” I. Prepare for the King of all the earth and II. Prepare every heart to greet Him
As one can see by reading Psalm 98, the people singing it are welcoming someone very important into their midst. There are calls to make music and to shout for joy. The whole creation is even asked to take part in the celebration: Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills be joyful together…” [v.8] Who can deserve such a lavish welcome? Who is so important as to warrant that the “sea…and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” [v.7 NIV] should make such a fuss?
Only someone as important as a king can stir up this much excitement and fervor; and we find that, sure enough, there is a King at the bottom of it all. The LORD—the King.
Only God Himself, the Creator of all things, can move the mountains and the valleys to shout out for joy. The Old Testament believers who first sang this psalm were excited that God had brought them out of captivity and was so obviously working among them with His power and might. We of New Testament times, and especially during the Advent season, think of Jesus who was born in Bethlehem; and we are glad to welcome Him into our midst too. For He too is true God, Son of the Father. Jesus is just as worthy of having the seas resound and everything in the world and all who live in it shout out to the glory of His name at His coming.
The One whose birth we will be celebrating is truly a King. And His coming is a kingly one, for He comes to do the work of a king.
Kings are supposed to take care of their subjects. They are supposed to defend and protect the people under their rule. This Jesus did—for all the earth—not just by sustaining and supporting physical life and well-being by His almighty power, but by coming to bear the burden of sin and guilt that stood against all. He was born a human being, lived under the same law that mankind was obligated to follow, He fulfilled that law perfectly, and He became a perfect sacrifice for the world’s wickedness, satisfying the Heavenly Father so that all could be saved. The LORD—the King—Jesus Christ, has done this and by so doing, He has taken care of His creation in a way that no other king ever could. He has given eternal protection, not just protection from the enemies of a neighboring country.
“He has remembered his mercy and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” [v.3] The Father sent His Son in the flesh to protect and defend us from the end result of our sin, everlasting death. It is no wonder we sing: “Joy to the World! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King.”
This is no ordinary child that we welcome to the manger. This is the King who saves us. Therefore, the celebration of Christ’s coming at Christmas is no ordinary celebration for which to prepare. It is not like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, or another “Hallmark holiday.” The coming of Christ at Bethlehem has spiritual implications that affect us all, therefore it deserves our utmost attention and our earnest preparation. We should not let the things around us distract us from our focus on the arriving King. Not the feverish baking of nut bread and cookies or the organizing of Christmas parties—or even the busyness of readying the children to participate in a Christmas Eve service should pull our eyes away from the Savior and the reason He comes.
It is fitting and proper that we prepare for the Christmas season because we are preparing for a King. But how does one go about getting ready for this King?
If you were getting ready for a head of state to come and visit your house, you would certainly arrange to have gifts waiting for your visitor. Gifts that were fit for someone of such high standing. As we prepare for Christmas, there are gifts involved too. We run around to one shopping mall after another trying to find the sales and stumble on what we think our friends and relatives would enjoy receiving under the tree. For some, especially the store owners, this seems to be the most important part about Christmas. That’s why the day after Thanksgiving is called “Black Friday”—it is the day when all the shops are supposed to sell enough to keep them profitable and “in the black” for the entire year. But do these gifts that we rush around buying for one another really prepare us for Christ’s coming? They are not even gifts for Jesus, are they? They are gifts for uncles and aunts, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers. But where in all that are we preparing for Him?
On the one hand, we might say, “No. The amount and type of gifts collected for others says nothing at all about how ready a Christian is to celebrate the Lord’s coming at Christmas.” On the other hand, if when buying the gifts for one another we think about and understand that these are tokens of remembrance in honor of the King, who is worthy of all our gifts and more, then there might be something there that will help us truly prepare for His coming.
As you might expect, Jesus is not too interested in how many gifts are under the tree for Him. He is interested in what He can give to you. God’s take on Christmas does not have to do with what He gets, but with what He gives. Psalm 98 says: “The LORD has made known His salvation…He has remembered His mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” [vv.2a,3]
If He then comes as a Giver of Salvation, how do we receive that which He gives? We receive it the only way we ever receive His salvation, through repentance and faith. We examine ourselves and see that we have not measured up to His holy standard of perfection. With sorrowful hearts we say, “Lord, I am a sinner in need of your mercy.” Then we cling to Him who says, “You are forgiven.” We rest our confidence on this that the One who will appear in Bethlehem is the One who clears our debt of guilt before the Heavenly Father, and in this way that gift of forgiveness becomes our own. Through repentance and faith we receive God’s Christmas blessings.
Preparing for Christmas means trusting in what He comes to give to us, holding onto that truth that the Baby died for me. This is what comes to mind when we hear the words of the hymn: “Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room. And heav’n and nature sing.”
Sometimes people look like they are ready for Christmas on the outside, but in their hearts there is no repentance and faith. They might have Christmas lights strung up all over the yard. They might have music pouring from the rafters and host a large Christmas party for all their friends. They might give lots of money to local charities and bestow generous gifts upon their neighbors. They might outwardly appear to be more ready and more into the “Christmas spirit” than anyone else—and yet in their hearts they may be far from truly prepared for Christ’s coming. All the outward festival is nothing if inwardly we disregard the reason Christ had to come—because of our own sins—and the true peace He brings when He arrives—the forgiveness of our sins. If sorrow over our wickedness and confidence in the Lord’s ability to cancel our debt are not part of our Christmas preparation, then we are really not prepared for Him at all. Without repentance and faith, Christmas is just another holiday flash that offers a few minutes of good feelings and then is gone.
In practice, what can we do to make repentance and faith part of our Christmas celebration? We can spend a little time in the Lord’s Word every day as we come near to the holiday. We can turn especially to those passages which show us our weaknesses and failures and talk about the hope and comfort Jesus gives at His arrival. The prophet Isaiah, writing to those who awaited Christ’s first coming, said things like this: “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, He will come…’” (Isaiah 35:3-4 NIV). And again He wrote: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you” (Isaiah 60:2 NIV). Prepare your heart by listening to the Gospel—the good news that help and salvation are on the way. Believe that the rescue is near for you! Count on it!
Watch also that you do not get overwhelmed by the outward trappings or difficulties of this busy season of the year. If you should find yourself getting too upset that this or that isn’t going to be done in time for Christmas, or problems and difficulties that you had hoped would be cleared up in your life before the holidays just aren’t going to go away in time, then prepare your heart by remembering that Jesus came to help us in our need—and lean on Him.
True Christmas preparation doesn’t depend on outward circumstances, good or bad. The poorest of beggars can be the most prepared to meet the Lord. The richest of rulers can be completely unready in heart and mind. If we are ready to kneel before the Baby as the Wise Men did and say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” then we are ready for Christmas even if not a light has been strung or a single carol played on the piano. It is not a snowy December day that puts us “in the mood” for this holiday, it is knowing that though our sins be as scarlet, Christ will make them white as snow (cf. Isaiah 1:18). It is hearing the words of Psalm 98: “He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness” and taking them to heart that readies us for His arrival. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.