A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Prepare Him Room
December 18, 2014
One of the world’s favorite Advent/Christmas hymns was originally cast as a creative re-telling of Psalm 98 by Isaac Watts. “Joy to the World!” appeared in 1719 at a time when many churches stipulated that only Psalms may be sung in church, so Watts crafted his hymns to “imitate” particular Psalms. The parallels between specific phrases in the hymn and Psalm 98 itself are rather spotty, but it is entirely appropriate to trace Advent’s messianic hope back to the days of prophets and psalmists, long before Jesus arrived.
Just as it is difficult for Christians to mourn Jesus’ death when they already know the Easter story, it is hard for Christians to be an Advent people for whom the Messiah’s arrival is still a dim and distant hope. Singing with the pre-Christian psalmists is a profoundly Advent-orienting act. As Psalm-singers, all we know is waiting. All we know is hoping. We have no idea yet of when or where or how the Savior may come.
Only in retrospect was the Christian church able to say that Jesus came at precisely the right time. (“The fullness of time” is how Paul puts it in Galatians 4:4.) The Messiah’s coming seemed to those awaiting his appearance as far off as ever when Jesus arrived.
How did God’s people continue to nurture their Advent hope generation upon generation, century after century? How do we nurture our hope that Jesus will indeed come to reign in fullness over a world that he fully sets right? Perhaps we can learn from the people of ancient Israel who sustained their messianic hope with what I call the “Three B’s of Advent People”: Belief, Behavior, Belonging. These three B’s constitute the ongoing housecleaning work of people who are seeking always to “prepare him room,” as “Joy to the World” urges us:
Let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing!
We often emphasize one or two of the B’s at the expense of others. Some locate faith primarily in what we believe, or more specifically, the doctrines we affirm. What does our creed say about Scripture – inspired by God? About Jesus – born of a virgin? What’s on our doctrinal checklist? Others stress behavior as the key marker of authentic faith. One version of this is the classic finger-wagging warning that we ought not “drink, smoke, or chew, or run with those who do.” For others, if we give a certain percentage of our time or income to the mission of the church, all is thereby made well. Finally there are those who stress belonging as most critical. One manifestation is a preoccupation with the question of who’s in and who’s out of God’s favor; others include construing the church as a family chapel, social club, or service provider.
Taken together, these three B’s constitute the three legs of the stool on which ancient Israel was able to sit and wait for the Messiah for countless generations without giving up. Those who belong to the covenant family come to believe the faith of that family as they seek to behave in ways that are commensurate with that faith.
To “prepare him room” and to keep it ready for his coming, followers of Jesus would do well to embrace ancient Israel’s time-tested values that sustained their hope through thick and thin. Belonging – we belong not because of our affinities or achievements or family right or even simply by signing up, but because God claims us, and demonstrates that claim by calling us to engage in tangible, inseparable company with others who have likewise been claimed. Belief – not just intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions, but casting ourselves upon God’s tender care, trusting that no matter how dire our situation, God will not abandon us. Behavior – we love our neighbor, outsider and insider alike, as we have been loved by God: without limit, without condition.
Prepare him room! Cast yourself in child-like trust upon the One who has promised never to leave or forsake you. Pursue such extravagant self-giving that you lose all track of time and expense. Know that the One who has claimed you has also claimed others, to whom you also belong. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Share it. Trust it. Prepare him room, indeed!
Preparing with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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