Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending

Advent is more than just a countdown to Christmas.
The Advent season takes its name from the Latin Adventus Domini, which means “the coming of the Lord.” What is in sight, however, is not just the coming of the Lord to earth born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.  Ultimately, Advent is about the coming of the Lord in Glory at the consummation of salvation history. In Advent our prayers turn to that day when Christ shall return to earth to judge the world and reign forever. 

It is that day for which all of creation groans in eager anticipation. A day unlike any other. A day in which the sun and moon will be darkened and the stars will fall from the heavens. This is poetic and dramatic language meant to evoke the cosmic and earth shattering significance of the coming of the Lord, “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

It is this grand spectacle immortalized in Charles Wesley’s classic Hymn, “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending.” The pomp and magnificence of the scene is vividly brought to life through the tune most often associated with its text, Helmsley.
Throughout Advent and Christmas, I am going to be preaching on the words of some of the beloved hymns and anthems of these liturgical seasons. Wesley’s hymn seems like the appropriate place to start.

First, some background. Charles Wesley was an Anglican clergyman from the 18th century. He was educated at Oxford where he founded “the Holy club” out of which the Methodist tradition grew. His brother was the much more well known John Wesley. Although they were close and shared many core convictions, Charles strongly opposed the breach with the Church of England initiated by his brother.

He is the author of some of the most well loved hymns in all of Christendom. Among them, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Christ whose glory fills the skies,” “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings,” “Christ the Lord is risen today,” and another Advent classic, our sequence for today, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Wesley’s text for Lo He comes with clouds descending is actually a reworking of an older hymn by John Cennick called Lo he cometh! Countless trumpets. Wesley took the general narrative and theme of the text but vastly improved its poetry.
Even Wesley’s text varies slightly from hymnal to hymnal but the version in the Hymnal 1982 begins like this:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,Once for our salvation slain;Thousand thousand saints attending,Swell the triumph of His train:Alleluia! Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign!

There are several biblical allusions here. First there is the image of Christ, the son of man, coming in clouds and in glory mentioned in our gospel reading. More specifically the reference is to Revelation 1:7:
“Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”

There are two paradoxical images set side by side. First, Jesus as the suffering servant, the one who was slain for the sins of the world. This is Christ in his brokenness and humiliation. Second, the victorious conqueror returning from battle leading a great army.  Hebrews 9:28 says,
“Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
This is the king arriving with glory and honor. Jesus’ first appearance was in humiliation but his return will be in glory. He came first to purchase our salvation. He is coming again to bring that deliverance to completion and reign forever.
The second stanza reads,
Ev'ry eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty
Those who set at nought and sold him
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
 Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall their true Messiah see.

What is asserted here, and in the verse from Revelation on which it is based, is that Christ’s return will be a visible appearance. Jesus said, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” There won’t be any doubt he has arrived. It will be obvious to everyone.
An allusion is also made to the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Do you remember the story? Joseph’s brothers betrayed him. They stripped him of his robe and threw him in a pit. They sold him to slave traders, but in Egypt he was exalted to Pharaoh’s right hand. Years later, they found themselves standing before him, no longer naked and beaten, but clothed in royal authority. He had their lives in his hands and so they were terrified.

Wesley depicts the people of the world as Joseph’s brothers and Christ in his royal appearing like Joseph. We have every reason to be terrified of his wrath and judgment. He holds our life in his hands and yet, like Joseph, he is full of grace and mercy.

Long before the time of Jesus, God spoke through Zechariah the prophet,
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10)

The deep wailing that Wesley writes about is the sorrow of the people of the world, and the people of Israel in particular, when they realize that the one they rejected, the one they set at naught and sold, is actually the true messiah and Lord of creation.

In the third stanza Wesley continues,
Those dear tokens of his Passion                          
Still his dazzling body bears,                                    
 Cause of endless exultation                                                        
 To his ransomed worshipers.                                      
With what rapture, with what rapture  
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
The allusion here is to Jesus’ appearance to Saint Thomas after his resurrection. We who at last behold him will cry out, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
All our doubts will be at an end. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.

Jesus still bears the wounds of his passion as a demonstration that the same one who suffered for the sins of the world is also the victorious Lord. Those wounds are not evidence of his defeat but badges of glory. They are the visible evidence of our salvation and so for us his worshippers, they fill us with exultation. 

Notice how the appearance of the crucified and risen Lord is both a source of terror and remorse, but also rapturous joy. When we sing this hymn we are hung on its paradoxes. How can a hymn that contains the repeated words “deeply wailing” be such a triumphant and uplifting experience?

Contained in this hymn is the promise that the worst of human evil, the horrible reality of suffering, which now seems so meaningless, will at the last day be swallowed up in the victory of Christ and transmuted into glory.

This is why, in Advent, we wait with joy and expectation for that day which is simultaneously dreadful and gloriously joyful.  On that day the world will not be able to help but worship and glorify Jesus Christ, the crucified, risen, and returning king.

Yea, amen! Let all adore Thee high on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the pow'r and glory,
claim the kingdom for Thine own!
Alleluia Alleluia! Thou shalt reign and thou alone!

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