Joy to the World | Thou Who Wast Rich | Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Joy to the World | Thou Who Wast Rich | Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Liturgy Lessons: December 3, 2017 – First Sunday of Advent
Musical Introit – O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Call to Worship: Isaiah 60:1-3; Isaiah 9:2-3; Isaiah 12:3-6
Kids Choir Anthem: “O Come Little Children”
Opening Hymn: Joy to the World (#195)
Confession of Sin: Psalm 130
Advent Prayer Song: Come, Lord Jesus
Assurance of Pardon: from John 3:16-17 and Isaiah 9:6-7
Hymn of Praise: Thou Who Wast Rich (#230)
Advent Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Luke 1:26-38 (The annunciation)
Advent Doxology: The First Noel (last verse)
Sermon: Casey Bedell
Tithes/Offerings: TBA
Supper: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (#193); See Amid the Winter’s Snow (#199, vs. 1,2,5)
Closing Hymn: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (#203)
Sung response: “Gloria in excelsis deo”

Now we begin again. The First Sunday of Advent is the start of the liturgical calendar. It is January 1st for the worship life of the church. The entire church calendar year follows the events in the life of Christ. Following the main body of the calendar, which begins in Advent and ends at Pentecost (followed by months of “ordinary” time), can be a significant, formative practice for a congregation. At its best, this countercultural tradition provides churches and Christian worshipers with devotional rhythms that echo the human heartbeat of Christ. It also unites us to the greater body of Christ around the world who are in step with us each Sunday along the way.

The word Advent means “to come.” The season of Advent is a month of expectant hope for the coming Messiah. It consists of the four weeks leading up to Christ’s birth. Just like Lent before Easter, it is a season of waiting. We hear scriptural prophecy and promise of a savior, and we revisit the chapters of the story that led up to that glorious night when, as John Milton put it, “that far-beaming blaze of Majesty forsook the courts of everlasting day, and chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.”

In the same manner that one would clean and decorate a house for an honored guest, so we prepare our hearts in these coming weeks so that they may be sacred altars for the “hallowed fire of heaven.” We also add a few decorative elements to our Advent services in honor of Christ. This is fitting since the word decorate comes from the Latin words meaning “to grace or to honor,” or “to embellish with beauty.” Each Sunday at the start of the service, you will hear one instrumental verse of O Come, O Come Emmanuel as a musical introit (“entrance”). This hymn, played in minor mode, is to be a prayerful and meditative way to quiet our hearts from the hurry and worry of the holiday season. We will also sing a simple prayer song each Sunday entitled “Come, Lord Jesus.” I pray that these elements will awaken the longing in our hearts for Jesus. In addition to those, we have an Advent Doxology, which is the final verse of The First Noel, and we close each service by echoing the choir of Angels in the refrain of “Gloria in excelsis deo,” sung to the tune of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

This Advent season, may all the elements of our worship services be used by the Holy Spirit to illuminate the darkened soul with the Beauty of Christ and awaken the deadened heart with the breath of His spirit. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Emmanuel. Come, and be born in our hearts.

Joy to the World
Text: Isaac Watts (1719)
Tune: arr. Lowell Mason, with help from Handel

Did you know that the word carol comes from a French and Latin word for dancing and spinning? Well, if the purpose of a Christmas carol is to get the soul to “dance and spin” with joy at the celebration of Jesus’s birth, then there is no better example than this song. But, surprisingly, this hymn was not written for Christmas. Rather, Isaac Watts wrote the hymn as a paraphrase of the last five verses in Psalm 98 for his 1719 publication, The Psalms of David Imitated. Verse nine of the psalm reads, “…let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Watts unapologetically interprets this as a reference to Christ. The theme of “Christ coming” made it an apt hymn to be sung at Christmastime, and it has since become one of the most beloved Christmas carols. There are multiple theories as to where this melody came from. Some believe that Lowell Mason was the arranger; others believe he only changed four notes of an existing tune. What is quite clear, however, is that the tune, ANTIOCH, is derived from various melodies found within Handel’s Messiah. The opening phrase sounds like the chorus “Lift up your heads,” and the last four measures, with the text “heaven and nature sing,” sound like the beginning of “Comfort ye my people.” The tune is, thus, often attributed to Handel, with Mason as the arranger and combiner of text and tune. Sing through the opening line of the tune, or listen to it, and you will quickly notice that it is simply a descending scale.

What better musical depiction of the incarnation is there than a melody that starts “on high” and ends, inevitably, at the lower octave? And, after that blessed descent, the rest of song leaps forth in a celebratory dance. If Jesus is born the “King of Israel,” then this song that celebrates him is indeed the “King of carols.” What a great way to kick off the Advent season!

Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor
Text: Frank Houghton (1894-1972)
Music: French Carol Melody, arr. 1930

This relatively young hymn is one of my favorite in all hymnody. It has an accessible, poetic text set to an exquisite, lilting French melody. It is inspired by 2 Cor. 8:9. The original French verse “Quelle est cette odeur agreeable?” is translated loosely as “what is that nice smell?”. In the Oxford book of carols, the sensual and flowery original is translated as follows:

Whence is the goodly fragrance flowing, stealing our senses all away,
Never the like did come a-blowing,Shepherds, in flow’ry fields of May,
Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing, stealing our senses all away?

What is that light so brilliant, breaking, here in the night across our eyes?
Never so bright, the day-star waking, started to climb the morning skies!
What is that light so brilliant, breaking, here in the night across our eyes?

Bethlehem! there in manger lying, find your Redeemer, haste away.
Run ye with eager footsteps vieing! Worship the Saviour born today!
Bethlehem! there in manger lying, find your Redeemer, haste away.

The version in our hymnal, though not as true to the original French, is certainly a poetic and theological upgrade. It is full of beautiful comparative imagery. Just note the contrasts in the first verse alone:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor, all for love’s sake becamest poor
Thrones for a manger didst surrender, sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.

However, for all of its sublime phrases, the one that stands out is the most humble: “All for love’s sake.” We repeat that line twice in each of the first two verses, and then the hymn reaches a climax in the final verse where we are reminded that the purpose of it all is worship. So, perhaps the original wasn’t so bad after all. It invites us with childlike wonder to “haste away” and “find the redeemer.” “What is that goodly fragrance?”, it asks. That is the perfume of Christ’s all-exceeding loveliness and the scent of fire from He who is the very flame of love. Jesus, Savior and King, we worship you!

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Text: Liturgy of St. James (5th cent.), paraphrased by Gerard Moultrie (1864)
Tune: French Carol (17th cent.)

Scripture References:
st. 1 = Hab. 2:20, Zech. 2:13
st. 2 = Rev. 19:16, Luke 22:19-20
st. 3 = Matt. 16:27
st. 4 = Isa. 6:2-3

Perhaps the irony in the title (singing the words “keep silence”) is a reason why this hymn is not more well-known. Taken on musical merit alone, it is a superior hymn. Hauntingly beautiful and powerfully evocative, the melody entitled PICARDY is a French carol dating from the seventeenth century. The minor tonality of this tune expresses a mystical sense of awe and transcendence. There is also a sense of mystery around the text. Scholars cannot agree on the actual date or source material, but most agree that “Let All Mortal Flesh” may date back to at least the fifth century. offers this description:

“The present text is from the Liturgy of St. James, a Syrian rite in the Greek Orthodox church. It is based on a prayer chanted by the priest when the bread and wine are brought to the table of the Lord. The text expresses awe at Christ’s coming (st. 1) and the mystery of our perception of Christ in the body and blood (st. 2). With images from Isaiah 6 and Revelation 5, it portrays the glory of Christ (sung to by angels) and his victory over sin (st. 3-4).”

Although it has eucharistic emphasis, the text pictures the nativity of Christ in a majestic manner and in a much larger context than just his birth in Bethlehem. We are drawn into the awe and mystery with our own “alleluias.”
In the Lord’s supper, we celebrate the true mystical nature of the incarnation. The word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us. While we sing this hymn, I invite you to imagine yourself kneeling in the manger in reverent silence to worship the King, born a child to banish the darkness away. May those “alleluias” continue to ring on in our hearts.