Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Preached by Jason Abbott
Every year, we pack our things and the things of our five kids and the gifts we’ve purchased for our extended family, to make a thousand-mile journey home for Christmas. We make all kinds of preparations before we leave to head back—taking down the Christmas tree, putting away decorations, ordering a hold on mail. Many, many preparations! These, however, aren’t typically a hassle or pain for us because we’re anticipating our homecoming—seeing our family and friends again. We’re excited and energized by our vision of the joy to come.
But, then we arrive. And, following the initial celebration of seeing each other, the reality of the next few weeks sets in—sleeping in the room right next to my father and mother-in-law, co-parenting about a hundred children together with my in-laws and my siblings, working out the politics of time spent between family and friends. Just to put it simply, our visions of the joy to come are never really met. (I wonder if a few of you, or even all of you, don’t identify with that kind of disappointment during Christmas. I’ll bet I’m not alone. We all long for more.)
This is a human desire and hope—for peace instead of conflict, for joy instead of hardship, for freedom instead of bondage, for understanding instead of confusion. And, yet, we don’t see them in the greater world around us. And, we don’t see them in our own lives either. In and of ourselves, we’re totally unable to satisfy such hopes and desires. (We all long for more than we can accomplish.)
Yet, in today’s Christmas hymn, Charles Wesley, echoing the prophetic words of Isaiah, directs our attention to the One who can satisfy these hopes and desires. Listen to these lyrics from Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus:
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, / Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, / Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation, / Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, / Joy of every longing heart.
Freedom from sins, rest from life in a fallen world, strength and consolation in our weakness and our brokenness—these are hopes that span across the globe; these are desires that transcend national boundaries. This is the joy we long for!
Friends, this is what Jesus’ first and second coming are all about—good news: redemption, restoration, freedom, justice, and salvation. These only come in Christ. So, let’s look at a short passage in Isaiah to see how. That’s our goal today.
1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
So, how are we going to see the gospel in the two advents of Christ Jesus—both his humble birth and his victorious return? Well, we’re going to ask a couple of questions of the text. First, we’ll ask: What’s the good news the Servant preaches? What is gospel about his message? Then, second, we’ll ask: Who delivers the goods? Who grants all these good news promises? Who has the power?
Let’s consider the answers to each of these two questions in turn.
1. What is the good news (vv. 1-2)?
Well, it’s gospel to the poor; it’s healing for the brokenhearted; it’s freedom for captives and prisoners (v. 1). These are the first things revealed about this gospel. And, as we consider this, we might wonder about those it’s for. Who are the poor? Who are the brokenhearted? Who are the captives and prisoners? We might wonder if we’re being excluded because we’re not literally any of these things.
Now, if you’re concerned by this, allow me to comfort you. There is nothing about the context of today’s passage which would restrict these descriptors to those who are literally poor or literally brokenhearted or literally in some type of prison. 1 These expressions encompass a larger view of poverty and of sorrow and of slavery. This is good news for the poor who are poor—and the rich who are equally poor. This is gospel for the brokenhearted who mourn—and the joyful who mourn as well. It’s good news for those who are confined to an actual prison cell, and those people who can go anywhere at any time yet are imprisoned by the expectations of others or owned by the very things they own. As one commentator explains:
Who are the poor? Those who are so broken by life that they have no more heart to try; those who are so bound up in their various addictions that liberty and release are a cruel mirage; those who think that they will never again experience the favor of the Lord,…those who think that their lives hold nothing more than ashes, sackcloth, and the fainting heaviness of despair. These are they to whom the Servant/Messiah shouts “Good news!” 2
I wonder whether you don’t recognize yourself somewhere in that description. I know I can find ways in which it describes me.
And, when we are aware of our poverty and broken-heartedness and captivity then we are aware of our need for Jesus—for the One who proclaims this good news. Friends, the first step to salvation is always the recognition that you need saving—that you can’t do it on your own and that nothing else in this world can do it for you. When you realize that, the news in this verse sounds like very good news indeed—like something worth celebrating.
What do you think about when you think about celebrations? Do you think about birthday parties or anniversaries? What does the world think of when it thinks of celebrations? I Googled celebrations and found a list of the top ten celebrations in the world. It had things like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, and Oktoberfest in Munich on the list. But, think about those for a bit. What are they celebrating? What’s the good news being celebrated? Drinking beer? A weird parade? Not getting gored by a 2,000-pound bull with which you voluntarily decided to run through narrow crowded streets?
No, those are just excuses to party, not causes for celebration. What the verses in Isaiah are talking about are a cause for celebration. What was bad is now good; what was lost is now found; what was enslaved is now free—these are all reasons for celebration, not mere excuses to party. This is what’s being proclaimed in Isaiah. And, this is what’s celebrated in the birth of Jesus.
If we simply approach Christmas as an opportunity to take time off from work and be with family and eat and drink a bunch, then it won’t be much of a celebration. And, we’ll surely come away disappointed in the end. If, however, we approach it as our salvation begun and ultimately finished in Christ, then we won’t merely party but celebrate…because that’s tremendously good news. That’s beautiful!
Yet, what do we do with verse two? How does verse two also preach gospel? How is the “vengeance of our God” good news? Isn’t vengeance always a bad thing? Well, it depends on your perspective.
– If you’ve robbed someone, you’re probably uncomfortable when you drive by the police or hear there’s a lead on a suspect.
– But, if you’ve been robbed, you probably like it when you see police drive by your home or learn they’re close to making an arrest.
So, you see, our perspective determines whether we consider something good or bad news. And, this is exactly the case when we consider the “vengeance of God” in the second verse of our text. After all—“It is a great source of comfort to anyone who is oppressed to know that the source of the oppression will one day get exactly what it deserves, and that its power will be broken.” 3 That too is good news!
Well, let’s move on to our second question.
2. Who gives the good news (v. 3)?
Just look at the final verse of our text. Look at what the Servant/Messiah says about power and who has it. He says he’s been sent:
…to grant to those who mourn in Zion— / to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, / the oil of gladness instead of mourning, / the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; / that they may be called oaks of righteousness, / the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified (v. 3).
On Wednesday, millions watched the memorial service of George H W Bush. I watched George W Bush’s touching tribute to his father. I’d highly recommend it to you. He did well.
Yet, as I watched I couldn’t help but think about today’s passage of Scripture. As they panned across the audience, I couldn’t help but think about our frailty—about the frailty of humankind. The immense sanctuary of the National Cathedral brimmed full of the most powerful men and women in the world. President Trump and former Presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Carter were all at that ceremony. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was there; the King and Queen of Jordan were in attendance; Prince Charles was there. The list could continue on and on and on—literally the most influential people in the world, all there! 4
And, with all their power, they sat there, in the face of death, and shed tears and offered condolences and then went home. The most powerful people on earth couldn’t make beauty out of ashes and couldn’t transform mourning into gladness. None of them had the power to turn that bad news day into good news.
We are weak. We are needy—even the best of us.
But, in this passage of Scripture there is one with power. One who is capable of changing your ashes of devastation into a beautiful and glorious crown of triumph. One who is able to take away your sorrow and pour gladness like oil into your life. This Servant/Messiah, in Isaiah, isn’t just a preacher of gospel but the one who grants and gives what he preaches. He has power. He is God. He is the gospel.
In the very first chapter of Isaiah, the people have turned from God and trusted and glorified humans instead. So, God tells them, because of this sin: “you shall be like an oak / whose leaf withers, / and like a garden without water” (Isaiah 1:30). God tells them that faith in human power—though it seems immovable and sturdy like an oak—will ultimately fail, wither, and die!
(There’s a warning here for us. Who do we trust above God? Who do you trust in more than Jesus Christ?)
Well, notice the Lord picks the oak tree imagery up again sixty chapters later. Except here it is an exceedingly positive image. In opposition to the power of man, all those who will receive and trust in the power of the Messiah will “be called oaks of righteousness, / the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified” (v. 3). In short, a great reversal takes place. All those who imagine themselves to be strong like oaks will wither and die, while all those who recognize that they are withering and dying on their own will grow strong like oaks by the power of God.
(In whose power will you trust? Your own or Christ’s?)
Let’s visit once again my Christmas in Missouri—all my great expectations of joy and cheer dashed every year. Why? Why the regular yearly disappointment? Why the repetitive withering of my hopes? Because, at their root, they are in man. They are in people. I’ve lost sight of Christ and celebrating him. Instead:
– I look to my wife and children to grant me lasting joy.
– I look to my in-laws and siblings to bring me happiness.
– I look to my parents and my wife’s parents to give me rest.
– I look to my friends for the provision of my salvation.
I’ll bet you do this also! We load expectations upon our family and our friends which they cannot possibly bear. We arrive with high expectations and, then, leave having been disappointed. We wither and die over and over again, year after year because we’ve placed our faith in people.
Friends, there’s only one Man who can grant joy, bring happiness, give rest, and provide salvation. One Man who was:
Born [his] people to deliver, / Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, / [Lord] Now [in us, your] kingdom bring.