The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
By August Taylor
Some of the biggest questions we may often try to ask ourselves are: “What would God want me to do today? What would Jesus do?” Many times, we may focus on our day-to-day tasks, and lose sight of the bigger picture; of the future.
Sometimes, we need a reminder that the Lord has provided and will continue to provide for us. He gave us his son, Jesus, to guide us and spread His word, so that we may follow. He has always had plans for our future, as He has laid down a path for us to follow, a “Holy Way,” free of dangers, sin and strife. This “path” goes well beyond our understanding of accessibility; not only does it provide for any needs but removes hindrances: “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened.”
By following God’s path, we know He will strengthen us, cleanse us of our sins, and make firm our feeble knees. By remembering, this day and every day, that our path ahead is assured, we can move forward with determination, as we wait, knowing He will provide.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
By David Roden
I was part of two productions of Godspell when I was in college. In one, I played the part of Jesus and needed to memorize major sections of the Gospel of Matthew. It was an uplifting and rewarding experience that has stayed with me my whole life. But do you and I find passages like this uplifting? This one is harsh and demanding. Do we, like the Pharisees, believe our salvation is assured and nothing more is required of us? Are we producing good fruit or enough fruit? Are we just chaff?
Passages like this remind me of a perspective of God and faith that resonates for me in “Christian Doctrine” by Shirley Guthrie. I particularly like his characterization of God as Just Loving and Loving Justice. This juxtaposition describes well what I believe about God. God is Love and Justice at the same time in perfect balance. God is like a good parent who loves the child to death, but at the same time knows that hard lessons are necessary for the child’s own growth and development. The child needs and wants boundaries and may ultimately only recognize the full depth of love when the parent is truly angry with the child’s behavior.
At the same time, justice needs compassion to be truly helpful. Strict legalistic justice is not loving justice. It is blind, uncaring justice that focuses on the letter of the law rather than the intent of the law. Loving justice sees the bigger picture—the ultimate goal of redemption and reconciliation—and does everything in its power to heal rather than simply punish.
So I start with the belief/assumption that the nature of God is Just Loving and Loving Justice. For me, this is fully confirmed by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. When I use this lens to read and interpret the Bible, the angry God of the Old Testament and John the Baptist is more palatable, and the role of Jesus Christ is clear. Israel as the chosen people and you and I are chosen by Christ to be made new, to be a light in the darkness, to prepare the way of the Lord. We are not chosen for privilege. We are chosen to serve and show forth the love and justice of God to the world. We are clay in the potter’s hands. We are perfected through God’s work, God’s love, and God’s refining fire.
By Dr. Ben Hutchens
“What Child Is This?” is a famous and traditional Christmas carol crafted in 1865. The lyrics were composed by William Chatterton Dix, the son of a surgeon residing in Bristol, England. William spent most of his life as a businessman in Glasgow, Scotland, working at the managerial level of the Maritime Insurance Company. He was greatly enticed by traditional English folk songs. And when he started writing the lyrics for “What Child Is This?,” he decided to utilize the melody of “Greensleeves” to create the carol.
The lyrics were inspired by one of William’s verses titled “The Manger Throne.” It urges humanity to accept Christ. The eloquent melody is haunting, and its beautiful essence reiterates the “Adoration of the Shepherds” who paid a visit to Jesus during the nativity. The lyrics pose questions that reflect what the shepherds might be pondering about during the encounter and subsequently offers a response to such questions.
What Child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, While shepherds watch are keeping?
The first stanza is heavily influenced by his contemporary romantic poets and flirts ceremoniously along the edges of emotionalism. The carol starts with a rhetorical question, condensing the concept of childbirth within a single paragraph. The poet has successfully painted a classic picture of the nativity – the child Christ sleeping on mother Mary’s lap, as the angels and shepherds provide the background score with “Anthems Sweet” and “Watch and Keep” respectively.
Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear: for sinners here The silent Word is pleading.
The second stanza offers a momentary reference to “mean estate,” or less than an ideal condition. The poet registers similarity with the first stanza with another rhetorical question. He wonders why the child Christ should be displayed in such a humble environment. The poet tries to decipher the answer analytically, and reasons that the “mean estate” that refers to the birth of Christ has its roots entangled with his future sufferings. The second stanza alludes to the anguish and distress of Christ’s future.
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh, Come, peasant, king to own Him. The King of kings salvation brings; Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
The poet utilizes the final stanza to expand the emphasis on the people attending the humble scene. He draws inspiration from the Epiphany season and focuses on the metaphorical gifts that are being bought for the infant. His setting flouts the conventional structure of time quite comprehensively, like everyone, starting from the “king” or the “peasant” is offered an equal chance.
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.
Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
By Lauren Beyea
In the verses immediately before today’s scripture passage, Ahaz’s kingdom is threatened by two competing kingdoms. Isaiah is told by God to notify Ahaz, Stay calm and stand firm in your faith. Within God’s time the other kingdoms will fall.
As our passage begins, God asks Ahaz to request a sign of reassurance that what Isaiah has shared is true. But Ahaz says, I won’t put the Lord to test. Exasperated by this response, Isaiah scolds Ahaz and then blurts out that there is Good coming — a miracle born to the House of David who will be called Immanuel. He will know all, even as an infant. And in His infancy, the land of the two kings who challenge Ahaz will dissolve.
The prophecy here is clearly the collective Christian best news ever. However reassuring and affirming to all of us, it does read as if Ahaz was not particularly seeking this sort of intelligence in the heat of his own crisis. A man of the Old Testament, he knows better than to challenge God, perhaps especially when things are already going downhill. Even in Isaiah’s clear frustration to Azah’s retort, the good news is, Isaiah can’t help but share word that there is overwhelming, world-altering Hope on the horizon. Although his family is threatened in the present, Ahaz must hold fast and believe.
With the last several years of pandemic and racial injustice laid bare and fresh in mind, we each can empathize with a compound and complex struggle like Ahaz’s, seemingly sprouting from all directions and without an end in sight. These last few years we lost jobs and livelihoods. We were told to retreat from others and the routines that had provided tremendous comfort, release and solace in all of our previous hardest times. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Yet how have we, like Ahaz, managed to cling to the hope that’s to come in God’s time? Where have we seen the glimmers of promise for the future? How do we, and in what ways should we, prepare to wait for what God is doing in our lives?
In our Glory to God hymnals, hymn 100, “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout,” speaks to this: Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me.
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound, till the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
The beauty of Advent is that we all live together in the waiting, just as we have as a community of Christians throughout time. We know the promise of Christmas and our Savior is to come — no matter our personal struggles and circumstances. Do not lose heart. Hold fast. A miracle is coming.
By Dr. Ben Hutchens
Today we enjoy our own Westminster Ringers performing a piece which combines two familiar tunes. The “Carol of the Bells” is a popular Christmas carol with music written by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914 and lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky. The song is based on the Ukrainian folk chant “Shchedryk.” In its original form, the music is based on a four-note ostinato and is in 3/4 time signature, with the B-flat bell pealing in 6/8 time. In this setting it is paired with “O come, O come, Emmanuel” (Latin: “Veni, veni, Emmanuel”). It is a metrical paraphrase of the O Antiphons, a series of plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days before Christmas. The hymn has its origins over 1,200 years ago in monastic life in the 8th or 9th century.
On this final week of advent, I pray that the music we offer lifts your spirits. May the peace of the Christchild and the joy of the angels be with you this week and always.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
By Kerri Stevens
This scripture, titled “Joseph accepts Jesus as his Son,” focuses on the character of Joseph (figuratively and literally) and his role in realizing God’s plan of salvation for humankind.
One can only imagine being told that the person you are betrothed to has been unfaithful and is pregnant, and in a day and age when divorce or death were the only options to break the engagement. According to Jewish civil law, Joseph had the right to divorce Mary and the authorities could have had her stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23, 24). Now imagine being told the child’s father was God. It would be hard to wrap your head around! This unearthly situation defied human logic. Yet Joseph respects Mary – her explanation and feelings towards the expected child – and seeks a way to quietly break off the engagement without bringing further public attention or shame to her. He considers her, not just himself, in what must have been a time of great personal stress and heartbreak.
Nevertheless, it is not God’s plan that Joseph break his pledge to Mary, so he sends an Angel to convey the significance of what is happening. And Joseph’s dream confirms that Mary is indeed carrying the Son of God and he should not be afraid. While Joseph might have thought that divorce or death were his only choices, a third option is revealed to him – to go through with the marriage. And when Joseph wakes up, he takes Mary home to be his wife, names the baby Jesus (meaning “the Lord saves”) and does not perfect the marriage until after the baby is born.
From the start of this passage, we are told that Joseph was a righteous man. Even so, his integrity and willingness to so readily abide by God’s direction in this supernatural circumstance is impressive. He chose to do what was right and tried to do it in the right way, despite the potential consequences of his choice (e.g., social stigma, humiliation). His quick obedience to God imparts the depth of his faith. He trusts God to take care of him, no matter the situation and no matter the path that lay ahead for him. And in doing so, the prophet’s words are realized (Isaiah 7:14).
It is remarkable how in times of uncertainty God can show us possibilities that we could not otherwise see for ourselves; and it is equally remarkable how Joseph’s decision to obey God, not only fulfills God’s will for his own life (being Mary’s husband & Jesus’s earthly father), but the will God had for all of us (that Jesus would be our Savior).
During this time of Advent, may we emulate Joseph by being in close communion with God and sensitive to his guidance. May we be reminded that whether in times of trouble or not, God can show us possibilities we don’t necessarily see. When we obey His word, He will take care of us. And that in fulfilling His will for our lives, we assist in delivering the larger plan God has for His creation. Ultimately, may we readily accept the call God has for us this Christmas season knowing the call Jesus accepted to be our Lord and Savior.
By Dr. Ben Hutchens
Today, our advent wreath departs from the darkness of purple candles to the brightness of the pink candle. It is on this day that we remember the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Lady has been the subject of myriad composers, both in their personal piety and also in their sheer amazement of the story of the incarnation of the Lord.
German composer and choral director Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” was written in 1964 for—of all things—a firemen’s choir to sing at a choral competition with other work-based choirs (factory workers’ choirs, police choirs, etc.). The piece remained unknown until 1970, when Biebl gave a copy to the all-male Cornell Glee Club on a tour to southern Germany. The Harvard Glee Club soon recorded the work, followed most famously by Chanticleer in the 1980s. Biebl eventually rearranged the work for mixed voices, and his “Ave Maria” is now one of the best-loved and most-sung a cappella choral works of the past half century. This week’s recording is of our own Westminster Choir from last week’s service of Advent Lessons & Carols.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
By Susie Helm
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, And a branch shall grow out of his roots.
You’ve likely heard about Six Degrees of Separation – that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. Perhaps you’ve even played the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The idea is that we are all connected to one another through those we know and with whom we connect. As we move beyond the time of lost physical contact with our family, friends, work colleagues and even our church family, our social connections are reigniting. Like that shoot that comes from the stump, our connections with one another grow out of our roots. Although our roots do bind us, we have many differences that can separate us. Those differences can be gender, racial, nationality, generational, political and physical. In a time where differences can cause extreme anger, hatred, name calling, familial separations, and even violence, we need only to lean on the words of our Hymn of Welcome, Blest be the Tie, to recall that our bindings are stronger than our differences.
Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, The fellowship of kindred hearts is like to that above.
The fellowship of kindred hearts – our six degrees of separation can be our six degrees of unification. While the recognition of our differences is important for discourse and discussion, the embracing of our fellowship and our kindred hearts is our acknowledgement that we are rooted in the same Christian love that can propel our hearts toward greater understanding.
The Wolf shall live with the lamb, The leopard shall lie down with the kid, The calf and the lion and the fatling together, And a little child shall lead them.
Living with our differences is important as we are all individuals. Just as a tree or plant whose roots become bound can lose its luster or life, people can become suppressed with bound roots. We all need room to grow and spread our branches. If the wolf and lamb can live together, and the leopard lies with the kid, can we celebrate our differences, and still know that despite those differences, we share the great love of Christ.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him and his dwelling shall be glorious.
The signal … the symbolism of the root of Jesse, foretold by Isaiah, so long ago, gives peace to the world – to all who believe. And in this Advent season, we reflect on how we connect; though we may differ in many ways, we are all together in faith.
So, if we have or have not met, I know you, my friend, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and share the branches that grew from the stump that came from the stem of Jesse.
By Dr. Ben Hutchens
The hymn “Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth” is a perpetual favorite of mine. At Westminster we employ it in a twofold procession.
The first, perhaps most obvious, is the physical movement of singers from the rear of the sanctuary to the chancel. In so doing, we are reminded of entering into God’s presence as we worship.
The second is procession of sound. As the hymn retells the story of the coming Christ, the number of voices and instruments swells with each passing verse. In today’s recording, the first verse of the hymn is sung by five of our Girl Choristers. A small number of handbells accompany 40 of our youngest children in singing verse two. The adult choir takes verse three. The remainder of the verses are sung by the largest choir of the church—the congregation.
The late Sir David Willcocks provides us with the free harmonization of the last stanza as we sing praise to the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Paraclete. The recording is that of the choirs of Westminster earlier in December 2019. May your celebration of Christmas be filled with the light, love, and joy expressed through our music.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
By Pat Prosperi
In this selection of Matthew, we’re told to always be ready for Christ’s coming—since no one knows when that event will happen. How uncertain and exhausting that can sound! How are we supposed to live our lives in a way that will make us ready at any moment for Christ’s return?I wish Matthew had supplied us with a step-by-step guide in how to do this while still working at our jobs, taking care of our children, paying the bills and handling all the many other obligations of our day-to-day lives.
But if we dig a bit deeper into what Jesus told us, I think we can figure out what to do. First, Jesus told us to love one another. That seems like a good place to start—to treat each other with compassion, to offer and be able to receive kindness and support, to demonstrate God’s love to others through our words and deeds.
Secondly, Paul tells us to that we need to grow in faith and in godly living. It is important for us to read our Bible and other spiritual literature, to learn from sermons and other teachers about leading a Christian life, and to pray for God’s strength and guidance so that we become more like Christ every day.
A third step we can take is to join a Christian community. Jesus said that wherever people are gathered together to worship, he will be there. Part of the work Jesus left us to do is establishing and joining churches—to bring hope to the world and work to better our communities. Like any other endeavor, it’s easier to lead a Christian life when we join up with others who are putting their beliefs into practice.
Finally, a very practical step we can take to be ready is at the end of every day, week or month, pausing to ask ourselves some questions: Have I treated others with love? Have I grown in my faith? Have I done all I can to work for and support my church, doing God’s work in the world? To me, this is how we’ll be ready for Christ’s return.
By Dr. Ben Hutchens
While there are many carols and anthems that help us “get ready” for the great festival of Christmas, this setting of of words of the prophet always warms my heart. The promise of the Peaceable Kingdom of God provides a clear sense of hope and calm in the midst of a very hectic season. The recording if of our own children’s choirs in 2019. Next Sunday, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we will present the same at church in our annual celebration of Advent Lessons & Carols.
A shoot shall come forth out of Jesse, And a bud shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of life shall be with him, The spirit of wisdom and truth.
From out of the wells of salvation Will he draw us the water of life; His waist shall be girdled with justice, The heart of his heart shall be Love.
He’ll come from the end of his heaven, And the earth shall be torn from its place; Our lives shall be filled with his radiance As floodwaters cover the sea.
Refrain: Then the lamb shall lie down with the leopard, And the lion eat straw with the ox, For the hand of a Child shall lead them To the peaceable kingdom of God.
It is the words of the refrain that are most meaningful to me. May the voices of the children of Westminster remind us all of the promise foretold by the prophet Isaiah as our prayers for peace and concord ascend to the throne of heaven.