While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: Psalm 132:10-12
10 For the sake of your servant David,
    do not reject your anointed one.
11 The Lord swore an oath to David,
    a sure oath he will not revoke:
“One of your own descendants
    I will place on your throne.
12 If your sons keep my covenant
    and the statutes I teach them,
then their sons will sit
    on your throne for ever and ever.”

Luke 2:20
20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Reflection: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks may hold the distinction as the only Christmas carol written by a British Poet Laureate.

Nahum Tate was born in Dublin, Ireland. Tate was the son of an Irish pastor, Faithful Teate, and both of his grandfathers were also ministers. Despite a history of clergy in his family, Nahum instead pursued a literary career. 

Tate attended Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated in 1672. Within a few years, he moved to London and began making a living as a writer. 

Tate wrote and published a collection of poems but primarily focused his writing on stage plays. After writing a few original plays, he turned his attention to creating adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. His rewrite of the tragedy, King Lear, concluded with a happy ending and was so successful that it became the preferred performance version for over a hundred years.

Due to his significant contributions to the arts, Nahum Tate was named Poet Laureate of England in 1692, a title he held for twenty-two years.

Prior to 1700, church music in English consisted exclusively of Psalms. In 1696, Tate collaborated with Nicholas Brady to update the traditional settings of the Psalter, producing the New Version of the Psalms of David.

Around the same time, Tate wrote the lyrics for While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, a Christmas carol based on the angel’s proclamation in Luke 2.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.

When Tate and Brady published a Supplement to the New Version of the Psalms in 1700, they included sixteen hymns not based on Psalm texts. While Shepherds Watched was the only Christmas hymn in the collection, thereby making it officially the first Christmas carol approved for usage in the Anglican Church. Prior to that, most carols had roots in folk music and were considered too secular for church services.

The fact that the lyrics were drawn directly from the scriptural account in Luke worked in the hymn’s favor and helped it gain acceptance for congregational singing.

The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all simply wrapped in swaddling clothes
and in a manger laid.

Tate’s carol is one of the first known hymnic descriptions of this glorious event. Of the sixteen new hymns in the Supplement, it is the only one still sung today. It is a blessed and simple reminder of the moment when the divine birth announcement was delivered quite unexpectedly to humble peasants.

All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace;
to those on whom his favor rests
goodwill shall never cease.

Listen: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Andrew Peterson
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. — Psalm 85.9

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 25  (Listen 5:12)
Psalms 132-134 (Listen 2:42)

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Hark! The Herald Angels Sing — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: Psalm 130:7-8
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

Luke 2:13-14
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Reflection: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

One has to wonder whether the iconic Christmas carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, would be as popular today if it still retained its original opening line, “Hark how all the Welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings.”

If you don’t know – and you probably don’t – welkin is an archaic English word that means the sky or the heavens, the highest celestial realm inhabited by God and angels. 

Already a theologically dense hymn, its usage would have likely been hindered by the inclusion of an unfamiliar and arcane term in the first line. Thankfully, what we have instead has now become comfortably familiar.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild;
God and sinners reconciled.”

Written by Charles Wesley in 1739, less than a year after his evangelical conversion, the song bears the marks of this eager new convert wanting to clearly express the fullness of his faith.

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings!

As students, Charles Wesley, his brother John, and friend George Whitefield were members of the infamous “Holy Club” at the University of Oxford in the 1730s. All three were founders and leaders of the early Methodist movement. It should come as no surprise that Wesley’s Christmas hymn is rich with theological proclamations.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Immanuel.

Scriptural references abound in the hymn, in particular, names or titles referring to Christ: Immanuel, Prince of Peace, Sun of Righteousness, Desire of Nations, Second Adam. Wesley presents the gospel message loud and clear, expanding on the glorious announcement to the shepherds by the angelic host.

Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

But what happened to the Welkin?

Wesley’s brother John published the carol, originally titled Hymn for Christmas-Day, in his 1739 collection, Hymns and Sacred Poems. Wesley also shared the song with George Whitefield who many years later included it in his 1754 compilation, Collections of Hymns for Social Worship.

Whitefield made a number of lyrical changes to the song before publication. Fortunately, one of the most notable modifications was to remove the reference to “Hark how all the Welkin rings” in favor of the more accessible phrase, “Hark, the Herald Angels sing.”

Whether it is from the Welkin or the Herald Angels, the good news of Jesus’ birth rings out with joy for all people.

With angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

Listen: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by Norman Hutchins
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. — Psalm 36.5

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 24  (Listen 5:07)
Psalms 129-131 (Listen 1:45)

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What Child is This? — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: Psalm 123:1
1 I lift up my eyes to you,
    to you who sit enthroned in heaven.

Luke 2:15-18
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

Reflection: What Child is This? — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

The melody of Greensleeves is instantly recognizable, but few know the lyrics of the original song by that title. Most associate the tune with the beloved Christmas carol, What Child is This?

The son of a surgeon from Bristol, England, William Chatterton Dix spent most of his life as a manager of the Maritime Insurance Company in Glasgow, Scotland. 

In 1865, at the age of 29, Dix suffered from an unexpected, severe illness that nearly took his life. The sickness left him confined to bed for months suffering from serious depression. During his recovery, he experienced a profound spiritual revival. Reading the Bible constantly, he channeled his renewed faith into writing poetry and hymns for the church.

Dix’s most well-known hymn is the carol, What Child is This?, written during that period of illness and depression. The song wrestles with the mystery of the Incarnation and paints a classic portrait of the Nativity.

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 questions presume to be those of the shepherds as they consider the true nature of the baby the angels celebrate. They wonder about the humble circumstances surrounding his birth.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?

Dix based the song on a poem he had written earlier, titled The Manger Throne, in which he describes the excitement over the birth of this King born in a lowly estate.

Never fell melodies half so sweet
          As those which are filling the skies,
And never a palace shone half so fair
          As the manger bed where our Saviour lies

With a symbolic nod to the story of the Magi, the questions of the shepherds are answered, and we are reminded that our King has come to rescue both kings and peasants, wise men and shepherds alike.

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

This King, born in a Manger Throne, has come to bring us life, the humble station of his birth reflecting the humiliation of his own death on our behalf.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;

The King of the Universe, born in a filthy cattle trough, worshiped by dirty shepherds. A stark contrast which portends our own transformations when we follow him, much like the spiritual awakening of a humble Anglican businessman inspired him to dedicate his creative talents to hymns which remind the church to continually reflect upon the question, what child is this?

Listen: What Child is This? by Russ Taff
Lyrics from Hymnary.org

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 21  (Listen 3:25
Psalms 123-125 (Listen 1:52)

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Zealous Correction and Healing — Hope of Advent

Scripture Focus: 2 Chronicles 7.11-16
11 When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, 12 the Lord appeared to him at night and said: 
“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. 
13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. 16 I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. 

Luke 2.45-49
45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” 
49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Reflection: Zealous Correction and Healing — Hope of Advent
By John Tillman

God promised Solomon that his eyes, ears, and heart would always be in the Temple and attentive to those who sought him there. But, God warned that if they turned away and abandoned him, he would reject Solomon’s Temple, destroy it, and exile his people away from the Temple and his presence. The slide into idolatry began quickly. Soon, Solomon built other temples for false gods and joined in worshiping there.

By the time Jesus visited Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed and burnt with fire. Jesus entered a rebuilt version. However, Jesus’ eyes, ears, and heart still longed to be there, engaging in his father’s business.

One of the humorous mysteries of the incarnation is imagining adults teaching young Jesus about the world he created and the scriptures he inspired. Imagine him, who filled the hearts of psalmists until they burst with poetry, learning to sing words he shaped. Imagine him, who spoke through Isaiah and other prophets about the minute details of his life, ministry, and death, sitting in Nazareth’s Hebrew school listening to a teacher interpret Isaiah’s words without realizing they are about him. Imagine Jesus, who “knew what was in each person” (John 2.24-25), learning ethics from a pharisee who will “devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.” (Mark 12.40)

For Jesus, God’s house was the Temple, flawed as it was. Like today, corruption in religious circles was rampant, and religious leaders were more concerned about political power than truth or justice. Jesus showed us an example of maintaining zeal for God’s house in his life, but that zeal didn’t mean warm, fuzzy nostalgia or not rocking the boat. Every time Jesus came to the Temple, there was something to confront. In the Temple, Jesus deconstructed hypocrisy, repaired the foundations of faith, healed broken bodies, mended broken hearts, and corrected crooked teaching. Don’t we hope for that today?

For us, God’s house is the church, flawed as it is. Advent tells us Jesus is coming. To our churches. To our cities. To us. His eyes, ears, and heart are in his church today. What might Jesus see, hear, and feel in our churches? Will he long to stay? Will he find us doing his father’s business?

Thank God, Jesus is zealous for imperfect people and places! May his Advent bring zealous correction for our errors and healing for our weaknesses.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord; we bless you from the house of the Lord. — Psalm 118.26 

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 7  (Listen 4:07)
Psalms 114-115 (Listen 2:18)

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Exclusive Claims, Inclusive Hope — Hope of Advent

Scripture Focus: 2 Chronicles 6.18-21
​​18 “But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 19 Yet, Lord my God, give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence. 20 May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. 21 Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive.

Luke 2.28-38
28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 
you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, 
and the glory of your people Israel.” 

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Reflection: Exclusive Claims, Inclusive Hope — Hope of Advent
By John Tillman

It was a common belief in the ancient world that gods were territorial.

When Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel they exiled much of the population and imported captured peoples from other regions to take their place. When animal attacks became a problem, the Assyrians reasoned that the imported non-Israelites were not properly worshiping “the god of that country,” so they sent back an Israelite priest to train the foreigners in worshiping Yahweh. (2 Kings 17.26-28)

Jews did not worship Yahweh as a regional god. Yahweh was God in Israel, Judah, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and everywhere else. Yet, they still struggled to comprehend God’s presence. Solomon marveled that God’s presence would enter the Temple when even the highest heavens failed to contain him. Solomon pondered how this everywhere-god could “dwell on earth with humans.”

God’s enormity does not limit his intimacy, and Solomon’s Temple is not the smallest or humblest place God will enter.

Centuries later, standing in a reconstructed Temple, Simeon held in his arms the same presence that filled Solomon’s Temple. The prophetess Anna, who never left God’s presence in the Temple, recognized it in Jesus and proclaimed about him to Jerusalem.

How astounded Solomon would be at Simeon standing in the Temple holding Jesus in his arms! How astounded we should still be!

Yahweh is God, and Jesus is Lord everywhere, at all times, all at once. This exclusive claim was odd to some and offensive to others. “Who is the Lord that I should obey him?” (Exodus 5.2) “Bow down before this statue I have made!” (Daniel 3.15) “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19.34)

Exclusive claims are no less odd or insulting today. Christians face versions of these same objections now. “Why should I obey God?” “You must assent to and support my belief!” “My belief is greater than yours!”

God’s exclusivity is not a bragging point or an insult. Our hope is exclusively in God yet inclusively welcomes all people. Jesus is the light of the world, not the light of our region, race, or nation. His existence is exclusive—He is the only God. His invitation is inclusive—He will be anyone’s God.

The gospel offers everyone, everywhere, an opportunity to say, as Simeon did, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” God is their God, too. Jesus loves them, too. He longs for them and desires to come closer to them than Solomon, Simeon, or Anna could imagine.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
With my whole heart I seek you; let me not stray from your commandments. — Psalm 119.10

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 6.11-42  (Listen 7:17)
Psalms 112-113 (Listen 1:49)

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