Carol of the Bells — Carols of Advent Hope

Scripture Focus: Hebrews 13:15-16
15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Luke 2:10-11
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Psalm 150:3-6
3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
4 praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe,
5 praise him with the clash of cymbals,
    praise him with resounding cymbals.
6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.

Image: Today’s image is a picture of Blagoveshchensky Cathedral in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Reflection: Carol of the Bells — Carols of Advent Hope
By Jon Polk

Perhaps recognized less for its lyrics and more for its chime-like melody in three-quarter time, the rhythmic “Carol of the Bells” provides the perfect accompaniment for the holiday season.

Hark how the bells,
sweet silver bells,
all seem to say,
throw cares away
Christmas is here,
bringing good cheer,
to young and old,
meek and the bold.

While now indelibly connected with Christmas, the origins of this carol trace back to a Ukrainian folk song written for New Year celebrations.

The conductor of the Ukrainian Republic Choir commissioned Mykola Leontovych to write a new piece based on traditional folk songs. Leontovych was a composer, conductor and music teacher, but he was also educated as a priest in a Ukrainian seminary and composed the first liturgy in the modern Ukrainian language.

Leontovych wrote “Shchedryk” (“Bountiful Evening”) in 1914 and it was first performed in 1916 by students from Kyiv University. The song, also known by the English title “The Little Swallow,” tells the tale of a swallow who flies into a home, singing a prediction of a bountiful and wonderful year ahead for the family inside.

Bountiful evening, bountiful evening, a New Year’s carol;
A little swallow flew into the household
and started to twitter,
to summon the master:
“Come out, come out, O master,

Your goods [livestock] are great,
you will have a lot of money, by selling them.
If not money, then chaff from all the grain you will harvest
you have a dark-eyebrowed beautiful wife.”

As you can tell, although “Shchedryk” and “Carol of the Bells” may share the same melody, their lyrics are not at all the same.

Leontovych’s song was written during a time of intense political and social turmoil in Ukraine during World War I. In fact, Leontovych himself was killed by a Russian agent in 1921 and he is considered a martyr by the Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The sparrow was a herald of springtime and its presence in the song would have given listeners hope for better days ahead in the New Year. 

When “Shchedryk” was performed by the Ukrainian National Choir in the United States in 1919, American choir conductor Peter Wilhousky, himself of Ukrainian descent, thought the song sounded like handbells ringing. Wilhousky eventually wrote new lyrics and performed his version, focused on Christmas, with the NBC radio orchestra during the Great Depression. Once again, the carol lifted the spirits of listeners during a challenging and difficult time.

Advent calls us, for this moment, to set our cares aside and remember the hope we have in Christ, who carries us through difficult seasons in life. May our hearts be stirred to worship the One who truly brings us hope.

Listen: Carol of the Bells by Fleming & John
Listen: Shchedryk (Ukrainian and English Translation) by Eileen
Read: English Lyrics from LyricsForChristmas.com
Read: Ukrainian Lyrics (with translation) from Wikipedia.org

From John: As the conflict in Ukraine enters its tenth month, please continue to pray. A fellow seminarian Jon and I served with was in Ukraine just before war broke out. Although she is back in the states, the ministry team she served continues their work from Poland, doing what they can to spare and save lives, to provide for refugees, and to spread the gospel as they minister. Pray for their safety as they frequently enter the country to assist those evacuating or to deliver supplies. Pray for the end of the conflict and that people can return to rebuild their lives, cities, and churches.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Show me your marvelous loving-kindness, O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand from those who rise up against them.
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings. — Psalm 17.7-8

Today’s Readings
Esther 3 (Listen 3:12)
Hebrews 13 (Listen 3:31)

Read more about Supporting Our Work
Give to support biblical literacy, rhythmic Bible reading and prayer, and gospel-centered discipleship.

Read more about Facts and Harsh Realities
The pastors and churches they support in Eastern Ukraine are in real, tangible danger…harsh realities surround them.

Away in a Manger — Carols of Advent Love

Scripture Focus: 1 John 5:1-5
1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

Luke 2:4-7
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

From John: Once again, I have been looking forward to Jon Polk’s Advent contributions related to music related to this time of year. Jon has always been a key source through whom I learned about unique music and artists worth discovering. Jon is a music connoisseur and collector with a massive collection of music, both on his shelves and in his heart. This week, please enjoy his exploration of the carols of Advent.

Reflection: Away in a Manger — Carols of Advent Love
By Jon Polk

One of the world’s favorite Christmas songs is the lullaby-like carol, “Away in a Manger.” A 1996 Gallup Poll ranked it as the second most popular of all carols. The simple, saccharine lyrics are beloved by both children and adults alike.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.


First published in a Boston newspaper in 1882 with the title, “Luther’s Cradle Song,” it was accompanied by a notation which read, “The following hymn, composed by Martin Luther for his children, is still sung by many of the German mothers to their little ones.”

The great German reformer himself, known to be generally rough and abrupt in manner, penned a sappy, sweet Christmas hymn?

Actually, no. The song is nowhere to be found in any of Luther’s hymn collections or theological writings. Furthermore, linguists have compared the English and German versions of the hymn and concluded that the German is the translation not the original. Not only did those German mothers not sing “Away in a Manger” to their children, but they had never heard the song until hundreds of years after Luther’s death.

(Most likely, the song was written for and became attributed to Luther in connection with events surrounding the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1883.)

If its pedigree is not attached to the famous Martin Luther, why is this sentimental little song one of the world’s most favored Christmas carols? Its staying power may be found in the universality of parent-child relationships.

The parent-child relationship is the only human relationship that is unchangeable, permanent, and exists from cradle to grave. Friendships may wane over time, work colleagues come and go, and sadly, even many marriages end in divorce.

However, a parent will always be a parent to their child. A child will always be the child of their parents. The biological relationship is forged in eternity. More importantly, the love of a parent for their child is like no other. Ask any parent of a newborn to describe that love and they will be at a loss for words. It is in a word: indescribable.

Father God has called us his children. God’s love for us will never change. It is permanent, infinite, all-encompassing, unlike any other love. It is in a word: indescribable.

When we sing “Away in a Manger,” we are reminded of a parent’s profound love for a tiny, innocent baby and in turn, reminded of the infinitely more profound love that God has for us, his children.

I love you, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky,
And stay by my side till morning is nigh.


Listen: Away in a Manger by Shane & Shane (familiar US tune)
Listen: Away in a Manger by Lauren Daigle (familiar UK tune)
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org


Divine Hours Prayer: The Cry of the Church
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 6.11-42 (Listen – 7:17)
1 John 5 (Listen – 3:00)

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Read more about How Are You Waiting? — Hope of Advent
When we do the joyful work of anticipation and preparation for Christ’s Advent, we may find that it is actually we who are coming home.

Don’t Waste the Waiting

Scripture Focus: Luke 2.36-38
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: Don’t Waste the Waiting
By Dena Dyer

The prophetess Anna was widowed after only seven years of marriage. But instead of wallowing in grief, Anna dedicated herself to the service of the Lord and trusted that she would see the Messiah before she died. Upon seeing Jesus at his temple dedication, she gave thanks to God and spoke about Him to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. How good of God to allow Anna to see our Savior before she left this earth!
 
Anna recognized Jesus as the Promised One, thanking God for Him. She exemplifies Romans 5.2-5 (NIV): “And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Anna’s suffering did not lead to bitterness, but to perseverance. That perseverance formed her character. And her character, forged in the fires of waiting and worshipping, led this prophetess to a fervent hope of seeing God’s glory.

Do you and I have this kind of hope, one that isn’t fixated on what the world might give but what will most glorify God? Do our prayers focus on us and our problems, or on what will draw us closer to the heart of Jesus? Or does weariness win over worship?

Most days, my prayers are for financial provision or health for me and my loved ones, instead of for God’s glory to be shown and His purposes fulfilled.

Anna’s faithful love for the Savior convicts and challenges me. It breaks apart my excuses for not worshipping more (protests of “I’m too old/too tired/too weak/too busy” seem silly when I hold them up to her example) and points me towards a life of persistent, faithful surrender. Instead of waiting out her last years with worry, Anna stayed connected to God and His people. She was fruitful, and God multiplied her act of obedience.

During one particularly long waiting season, after running ahead of God in various ways, I confessed my impatience and frustration. During that moment, I distinctly felt the Holy Spirit say, “Don’t waste the waiting.” I understood this to mean that I was to submit and trust, instead of running ahead of my Heavenly Father. And after a time of repentance, I did just that. And though my situation remained the same, my next few months felt a lot more peaceful and joyful.

I wish I had allowed the season of unanswered prayer to turn me towards God and not away from Him. What if, like Anna, I had worshipped God instead of fretting? Instead, I wasted months when God could have been holding me close to His heart, teaching me His truths and growing my relationship with Him. It was my loss. I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes; don’t waste the waiting.

About Dena: Dena Dyer is an author of eleven books, including Wounded Women of the Bible: Finding Hope When Life Hurts with Tina Samples. She’s also a speaker, worship leader, Anglophile, and movie lover who lives with her husband, youngest son, and rescue pup near Fort Worth, Texas. In her day job, she serves as Executive Assistant to Jamie Aten, founder of Wheaton’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute. Find out more about Dena’s books and resources at her website or follow her on Instagram or Facebook.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Show us the light of your countenance, O God, and come to us. — Psalm 67.1

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

Today’s Readings
2 Samuel 10 (Listen – 3:19)
2 Corinthians 3 (Listen -2:25)

Read more about Waiting at the Beautiful Gate
The man Peter and John heal in this passage is a man who waited.

Read more about How Are You Waiting?
When we do the joyful work of anticipation and preparation for Christ’s Advent, we may find that it is actually we who are coming home.

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear — Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice Month:
In August, The Park Forum looks back on our readers’ selections of our most meaningful and helpful devotionals from the past 12 months. Thank you for your readership. This month is all about hearing from you. Submit a Readers’ Choice post today.

Today’s post was originally published, December 23rd, 2020, based on readings from John 13 and Luke 2.
It was selected by reader, Russell in Saitama, Japan
“I always thought this was a strange Christmas carol, in that it never mentions Jesus or His birth. I’m glad to know that the author was ‘passionately focused on Christ,’ in spite of this omission.”

Scripture Focus: John 13.13-15
13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

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: It Came Upon The Midnight Clear — Readers’ Choice 
By Jon Polk

After graduating in 1837 from the Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Edmund Hamilton Sears settled in as pastor in the country town of Wayland. The church was impressed with his character and preaching and Sears, who never had ambitions for a prominent city congregation, was enamored by the quiet beauty of the little parish.

One can sense parochial tranquility in his most famous hymn.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old…
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Sears’ family would quickly grow to four children, compelling him to seek out a larger church which could support them. In 1840, he accepted the pastorate of a church in Lancaster, where he would serve for seven years.

The work in Lancaster was difficult and Sears suffered from illness, depression, and an eventual breakdown. Ultimately, his condition deteriorated to the point where he was unable to project his preaching voice loud enough for the congregation to hear.

To facilitate recovery, he returned to Wayland for a year of rest. When healthy, he was invited to return to the Wayland church part-time, which freed him to use his gifts in writing.

In the aftermath of his personal struggles, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” in 1849. At the time, the U.S. was reeling from the Mexican War and struggling with slavery as the Civil War drew near.

His sadness is palpable in the lyrics.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long…
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring…

Sears’ theology was passionately focused on Christ; he preached “The word ‘Jesus’ opens the heart and touches the place of tears.” He maintained that Christ alone had bridged the great divide between God and humanity.

As a result, he believed that we are responsible for implementing God’s peace in the world, consequently he preached for equality of women and men, opposing killing even in war, and against the evils of slavery.

This work towards peace is reflected in the carol’s hopeful ending.

When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Following his life struggles, Sears managed to find his own peace and eventually a new purpose as a full-time writer. In his most read work, The Fourth Gospel: The Heart of Christ, he writes, “My consciousness at one time may give me an inward sense of moral ruin and disorder. I may see a creation rise out of this chaos… a peace more sweet than the tranquility of the morning… It comes not from inward beholdings of the Deity, but of what He does…”

Listen:It Came Upon A Midnight Clear by Over the Rhine
Read: Lyrics at Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
“I will establish your line forever, and preserve your throne for all generations.” — Psalm 89.3-4

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 9 (Listen – 4:42)
Romans 7 (Listen – 4:09)

Read More about Readers’ Choice 2021
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Read more about Ennobled by the Incarnation
Jesus comes not to condemn our humanity but to share in it. The incarnation is an ennobling epiphany

Rulers with Borrowed Scepters

Scripture Focus: Genesis 49.10
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, 
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, 
until he to whom it belongs shall come 
and the obedience of the nations shall be his. 

Luke 2.30-32
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.”

Reflection: Rulers with Borrowed Scepters
By John Tillman

Most of what Israel says to Judah has little to do with the son in front of him, but the Son who was to come through him.

The ruler prophesied would eventually come to Judah. The staff of rulership that Israel saw, resting between the feet of Judah’s descendants, would one day be claimed and taken up. 

Ten tribes broke away from the Davidic kings’ after Solomon’s death. The Northern secessionists kept the name, Israel, and the Southern kingdom, composed of Judah and Benjamin, was called Judah after the tribe of its rulers.

Judah and Benjamin managed to preserve their identities and heritage through Babylonian captivity and, eventually, were returned to their capital of Jerusalem to rebuild. The northern tribes were less successful, if at all, in holding on to their unique identity. This is perhaps due to how muddled and corrupted their identity was even before captivity. 

The Northern kingdom never had a ruler who could be classified as “good.” In fact, King Ahab, whose name is synonymous with poor leadership and corruption, might be considered one of the better kings Israel ever had. He set quite a low bar, but most who came after him were even worse. Almost half of the kings of Israel took the throne by insurrection or assassination.

The rulers of Judah fared better but still suffered political swings from evil and idolatrous rulers to pious and faithful reformers. However, none of them were the one foreseen. That is Jesus alone.

Jesus is the king we are waiting for—every other ruler is using a borrowed scepter. 

From Joseph’s beneficent Pharaoh to Moses’s genocidal Pharaoh, rulers are highly variable. But no ruler, not the best of Pharaohs or of Judah’s kings, not any emperor or empire past, present, or future, is worthy of our unswerving loyalty. Any of them will betray our hopes. None of them can be trusted to deliver us. The best human rulers are but poor stand-ins for Christ and the worst of them are anti-Christs.

No matter if we live under Pharaohs or Sauls, under Davids or under Ahabs, under Hezekiah’s or under Nebuchadnezzars, they are only shadows that will pass and grass that will dry up and blow away. 

We, like Simeon, (Luke 2.25) are waiting for our true king, Jesus, the root of Jesse, the “glory of Israel.” (Luke 2.29-32) Our king and kingdom are from another place. (John 18.36

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; for God himself is judge. — Psalm 108.2

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Genesis 49 (Listen – 4:54) 
Luke 2 (Listen – 6:11)

Read more about To Wicked Kings, Foreign and Domestic
Jonah took God’s messages to wicked kings, foreign and domestic.

Read more about The Thriving Tree
Zedekiah didn’t make his bad decisions alone. A host of religious leaders and yes-men helped.