Oh Holy Night

With each passing Christmas season it seems as though I get more and more excited with its advent (no pun intended), and enjoy each year more than the previous year.  One of my favorite parts of the season are the Christmas songs – not the annoying ones that Congress ought to pass a law against (we can snoop on people’s cell phone conversations but we can’t make “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” go away???), but the ones that move our souls to remember why the season is so special.

To that end, I thought about writing a few few posts about my favorite songs and what makes them so darn good. Hopefully this is the first of several…feel free to comment and tell me what your favorite songs are and why.

Oh Holy Night

I can’t listen to this song without something stirring inside. The song takes us back to that moment of incarnation in Bethlehem better than most musical reproductions of the scene. In the first verse, the scene is set, you hear about the starts, the night, and you are there.

You are also reminded of the plight of man.  Something has gone terribly wrong, and what is about to happen on this night is about to change, well, everything.  The verse says, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”  What are we pining for?  A Savior.   A Rescuer. The melody takes on a decidedly morose tone meant to cast some sadness on your heart, and remind you what is at stake…the fate of the world.

Then the second stanza breaks in:

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord, let ever, ever praise Thee
 

This is where I lose it!  Haha!  Seriously though, let me explain:

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
 

These chains and the slavery are bound up in one idea, and it comes in a hint from the first stanza – sin.  The whole world is bound up together in one cataclysmic death spiral and we’re spinning out of control toward one not so particularly delightful end.

Jesus, the One whose birth we’re hovering about in our minds eye is the One who is breaking the chains – Jesus is the pronoun “He” here – and He’s breaking both the chains of slavery and oppression (inferring that this slavery isn’t so great, in fact its vile and its destroying us).  But it doesn’t stop there – the writer says that the “slave is our brother”, which could mean so many things, but in the context of the hymn what I think it means is that we are all slaves from the same family now having been redeemed by Christ.  French poet Placide Cappeau who wrote the original lyrics first had a verse which was initially translated, “He sees a brother where there was only a slave, love unites those that iron had chained.”

So the thrust of this sentiment is that we are all in bondage to sin.  It also has overtones that both physically free and physically enslaved all share in the brotherhood of mankind and are all slaves together until Christ redeems those who put their faith in Him.

It always “gets” me to sing that “in His name all oppression shall cease” because the idea here is there is this power – a real power – in the name of the baby being born. Why is that?  Because He is a being born a King!  Kings utter a word and servants obey. They go and do whatever their Lord tells them to do. When Jesus opens His mouth, every syllable necessarily brings forth obedience (think of the wind and waves obeying Him later in His ministry, and the creation coming forth at the beginning of Genesis 1).  It is awful comforting to think that at the word of our King all oppression shall cease.

Finally, the hymn breaks forth into doxology:

Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord, let ever, ever praise Thee

 

Paul’s Romans 11 praise echoes in my mind, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Rom. 11:33, 36)

When I sing this part of the verse, I realize that “all that is within us” praising “His holy name” is a call to respond to all the truth the writer has just impressed on our minds and hearts.  That truth is that though the world was lost in the mire and bondage of sin, though the oppression of life had seemed to rule the day, though the entire course of life seemed destined toward eternal misery, yet here is One who will snatch us up from death into newness of life!  This is the day, this is the hour, this is the moment when the “Christ” the “Savior” the “King” has come.

What a great song! I hope you can sing this song with gusto this Christmas as you ponder these profound and glorious truths in your heart.

 

Fighting Anxiety with Prayer

It so happens that this time of year is especially stressful for me.  Being in politics comes with its benefits and opportunities to serve the Lord and one’s country, but it also entails a great deal of stress, which can lead to anxiety.  I make a distinction between the two terms because I feel that stress is best defined as the result of outside agencies pressing down upon a person’s life – these can’t always be avoided. Whereas anxiety is probably best defined as the nervous feeling we have inside as a result of the stress – and ultimately because we are weak and sinful creatures who battle “unbelief.”

I am not unique in feeling “anxious.”  The topic is so intrinsic to our fallen humanity that Christ spent a lot of time addressing it during His Sermon on the Mount.  But because it is a battle I have fought often, I am familiar with the weaponry one needs to successfully wage war against anxiety.  One of the major weapons is prayer – not simply small little prayers you send up during the day, but long, deep, gut-wrenching prayers that bring you to your knees.  As it happens, I’ve been reading a lot about prayer, and wanted to post some of the quotes and tips that I’ve come across in the past few days.  This is a combination of two sources, 1. Jerry Bridges’ chapter on Prayer in ‘The Transforming Power of the Gospel‘, and 2. John Calvin’s 4 rules of prayer that was posted on Ligonier’s blog earlier last week. I hope you find these excerpts helpful and encouraging!

Calvin’s 4 Rules of Prayer

For John Calvin, prayer cannot be accomplished without discipline. He writes, “Unless we fix certain hours in the day for prayer, it easily slips from our memory.” He goes on to prescribe several rules to guide believers in offering effectual, fervent prayer.

1. The first rule is a heartfelt sense of reverence.

In prayer, we must be “disposed in mind and heart as befits those who enter conversation with God.” Our prayers should arise from “the bottom of our heart.” Calvin calls for a disciplined mind and heart, asserting that “the only persons who duly and properly gird themselves to pray are those who are so moved by God’s majesty that, freed from earthly cares and affections, they come to it.”

2. The second rule is a heartfelt sense of need and repentance.

We must “pray from a sincere sense of want and with penitence,” maintaining “the disposition of a beggar.” Calvin does not mean that believers should pray for every whim that arises in their hearts, but that they must pray penitently in accord with God’s will, keeping His glory in focus, yearning for every request “with sincere affection of heart, and at the same time desiring to obtain it from him.”

3. The third rule is a heartfelt sense of humility and trust in God.

True prayer requires that “we yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly plead for pardon,” trusting in God’s mercy alone for blessings both spiritual and temporal, always remembering that the smallest drop of faith is more powerful than unbelief. Any other approach to God will only promote pride, which will be lethal: “If we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit,” we will be in grave danger of destroying ourselves in God’s presence.

4. The final rule is to have a heartfelt sense of confident hope.

The confidence that our prayers will be answered does not arise from ourselves, but through the Holy Spirit working in us. In believers’ lives, faith and hope conquer fear so that we are able to “ask in faith, nothing wavering” (James 1:6,KJV). This means that true prayer is confident of success, owing to Christ and the covenant, “for the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ seals the pact which God has concluded with us.” Believers thus approach God boldly and cheerfully because such “confidence is necessary in true invocation… which becomes the key that opens to us the gate of the kingdom of heaven.”

Overwhelming? Unattainable?

These rules may seem overwhelming—even unattainable—in the face of a holy, omniscient God. Calvin acknowledges that our prayers are fraught with weakness and failure. “No one has ever carried this out with the uprightness that was due,” he writes. But God tolerates “even our stammering and pardons our ignorance,” allowing us to gain familiarity with Him in prayer, though it be in “a babbling manner.” In short, we will never feel like worthy petitioners. Our checkered prayer life is often attacked by doubts, but such struggles show us our ongoing need for prayer itself as a “lifting up of the spirit” and continually drive us to Jesus Christ, who alone will “change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.” Calvin concludes that “Christ is the only way, and the one access, by which it is granted us to come to God.”

Jerry Bridges on Individual Prayer

“Biblical meditation simply means to prayerfully and carefully reflect on Scripture in order to determine what God is saying and the possible application of that Scripture to you.”

“…though we cannot transform ourselves, we can and must bring our minds under the continual influence of the Word of God. And as we do that, the Holy Spirit will use His Word to do His transforming work in us.”

“As we open our Bibles to read, we should do so with a prayer that God, through His Spirit, will meet with us in His Word.”

“We pray more about our needs, both temporal and spiritual (but probably more in the temporal area), than we do about God’s glory and will. Therefore, in our time with God, it is good to expand our horizons beyond ourselves and our families and consider the work of God worldwide.”

“Does your prayer during your time with God reflect this interest in His glory and will?”

“We know that we are both responsible and dependent, and prayer is, among other things, an expression of that dependence. It is an acknowledgement that we are helpless sin ourselves – that we are dependent on the Holy Spirit to both do His own work and enable us to do the work we must do.”

“I also pray that I will be motivated to obey and serve Christ out of love and gratitude, not out of a sense of duty.”

“He will give us the desire and motivation to pray if we ask Him.”