Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates

More than any other hymn, this week’s hymn captures, explores, and responds to the imagery of the Advent season. This Sunday we will be singing  “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” by 17th century hymn-writer Georg Weissel. In 5 stanzas he ties together the prophecies of the Psalms, the foretelling of the Messiah in the prophets, the humble coming of Jesus, our response, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

The hymn draws much of its imagery from the Psalm for the day, Psalm 24.

1 The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
2for he has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
5He will receive blessing from the LORD
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
Selah

7 Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
8Who is this King of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle!
9Lift up your heads, O gates!
And lift them up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory!
Selah

My Lutheran Study Bible tells me that this Psalm may have been written by David when the Ark of the Covenant was brought back to Jerusalem. The response from verse 7, “Lift up your heads, O And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” may very well have been a liturgical response that the assembly sang or spoke during the praying of this Psalm.  We can remember the triumphant procession (described in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16) and try to imagine what it must have been like to watch the ark of God Himself be brought into the city of God.  It’s no wonder that they would shout to the gates to open and let in the King! We sing this psalm, however, not so much to remember the events of 1st Chronicles as to praise God for the ultimate fulfillment of this Psalm in our King Jesus. Just as the Ark of the Covenant was the presence of God among His people Israel, so Jesus is our Immanuel, which means “God with us”

Here’s stanza 1

Lift up your heads ye mighty gates!
Behold, the King of glory waits.

The King of kings is drawing near;

The Savior of the world is here.

Lift and salvation He doth bring;

Therefore rejoice and gladly sing.

To God, the Father raise

Your joyful songs of praise.

 

The second stanza moves us into the humble earthly advent (coming) of our Savior.

Stanza 2

A righteous Helper comes to thee;

His chariot is humility,

His kingly crown is holiness,
His scepter, pity in distress.

The end of all our woe He brings;

Therefore the earth is glad and sings.

To Christ the Savior raise

Your grateful hymns of praise.

It is worth pointing out here that the traditional reading for the first Sunday in Advent is the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. On that day Jesus rode a very humble chariot- a simple donkey. This stanza is about more than the triumphal entry, however. It is also about the healing, mercy, and gladness that Jesus brings. Throughout the prophets, we hear how the Messiah will come and bring peace to Israel and salvation for all nations. This peace was described in last week’s reading from Isaiah 35:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Jesus describes himself as the fulfillment of this prophecy in Matthew 11

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Jesus is the Messiah, the gentle king, who brings peace, healing, life, and the forgiveness of sins. He brings the end of our woe. All that we can do is gladly sing our most grateful hymns of praise.

Stanza 3

How blest the land, the city blest,

Where Christ the ruler is confessed!

O peaceful hearts and happy homes

To whom this King in triumph comes!
The cloudless sun of joy is He

Who comes to set His people free.

To God the Spirit raise

Your happy shouts of praise.

I do not have a way of asking Georg Weissel whether he means the word ‘land’ to mean a country, the city of Jerusalem, or whole people of God.  I think we can say that this stanza is not saying “God bless the USA” (but that’s a subject for another day). Perhaps we can just ask the question, “where is Christ the ruler confessed?” It seems that wherever Christ is confessed there is joy and freedom and happy shouts of praise. Why is the Spirit mentioned here? We’ll get our answers in the next stanzas

Stanza 4

Fling wide the portals of your heart;

Make it a temple set apart

From earthly use for heav’n’s employ,

Adorned with prayer and love and joy.

So shall your Sov’riegn enter in

And new and nobler life begin.

To God alone be praise

For word and deed and grace!

We proclaim in this stanza that Christ should enter our hearts and dwell there. Christians believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths, as it says in Romans 10:

For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.

We have now moved from a festive procession in 1000BC to the Spirit living within us today. We learn in 1st Corinthians 6 that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Romans chapter 6 describes the new life in Christ for us:

1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

This new life is ours in Christ by His grace. We pray for this, not only in Advent, but every time we pray “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s prayer. We pray that His kingdom may come among us also (Luther’s small catechism).

And now for stanza 5

Redeemer, come and open wide

My heart to Thee; here, Lord, abide!

O enter with Thy grace divine;

Thy face of mercy on me shine.

Thy Holy Spirit guide us on

Until our glorious goal is won.

Eternal praise and fame

We offer to Thy name.

Stanzas 4 and 5 are not a faith creating decision for Christ. We know that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus or come to Him. It is only when Jesus comes, by His Holy Spirit, and opens wide our hearts that He is able to enter in. It is the Holy Spirit who guides us and keeps us in the one true faith unto life everlasting. We pray that Jesus will abide with us and always dwell in our hearts. We offer the response of eternal praise.

We end with a passage from Ephesians 2:

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

When All the World Was Cursed

This Sunday is the Third Sunday in Advent. Last week we focused on the ministry of John the Baptist, and this week we again focus on John the Baptist. I’ve always wondered why we needed two weeks in every year to focus on John the Baptist. Isn’t that a little redundant? Perhaps its best to think of these two Sundays as Anticipation and Fulfillment. Last week we heard John’s message of repentance, as we anticipated the imminent coming of the Messiah. This week we see John in prison and Jesus affirms that He is the Messiah and that John is the one who is sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way.

The hymn of the day, When All the World Was Cursed, by Johann Olearius, takes the prophecies, setting, life, and ministry of John the Baptist and condenses these things into four stanzas. You might assume that this would lead the hymn to feel very dense and intellectual, but in actuality it is so well written that it flows nicely from beginning to end. Every phrase naturally follows the next, and yet every line contains a clear Scriptural allusion. So, instead of listing the hymn stanzas by stanza, I’m going to list it one or two verses (lines) at a time.

Stanza 1

When All the World Was Cursed

By Moses’ condemnation

 

The hymn-writer starts by sending us all the way back to Moses, the law-giver. In Deuteronomy 27, we hear a description of a liturgy that Moses and people of Israel participated in before entering the Promised Land. Here they read a series of curses against those who broke God’s law, the last of which is as follows:

26 “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

This curse is on everyone who breaks God’s Law, which is everyone who sins. Who has sinned? The entire world has sinned, as it says in Psalm 14

2The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.

3They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.

This is the setting for the story. The entire world is under the curse of sin.

Stanza 1

Saint John the Baptist came

With words of consolation

Does it seem odd that it says, “Words of consolation”? After all, didn’t we read John calling for repentance and calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers last week? The consolation of John is the promise of the Messiah, who brings peace between man and God. John is the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,

Stanza 1

With true forerunner’s zeal

The greater One he named,

And Him, as yet unknown,

As Savior he proclaimed

John gained a zealous following and became famous throughout the region, yet he never lost sight of the fact that his role was to point to Christ.  We read about this last week in the reading from Matthew 3:

1 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

He says this despite Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:

11Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.

John, then, came into a world that was under the curse of the Law and preached a message of repentance, of hope, and of comfort; proclaiming to the lost world that the Savior was coming soon.

Stanza 2

Before he yet was born,

He leaped in joyful meeting,

Confessing Him as Lord

Whose mother he was greeting.

The first half of this stanza is clearly telling us the story from Luke 1, when Elizabeth, pregnant with John, was visited by Mary, who was pregnant with God.

39In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

By the power of the Holy Spirit, John was able, even in the womb, to recognize the Savior and point to Him.

Stanza 2

By Jordan’s rolling stream,

A new Elijah bold,

A new Elijah? This is from the prophet Malachi, where in Malachi chapter 4, it says:
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

Jesus says of John in Matthew 11:

12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Jesus himself says that John is the fulfillment of this Old Testament prophecy. The reference to Elijah means that John is a great prophet, and there was an expectation in the culture at the time that Elijah would come. John preached in the wilderness, by the Jordan River. This is why last week’s hymn started, “On Jordan’s banks, the Baptist’s cry”.

From Stanzas 2 and 3

He testified of Him

Of whom the prophets told:

Behold the Lamb of God

That bears the world’s transgression,

Whose sacrifice removes

The devil’s dread oppression.

Behold the Lamb of God,

Who takes away our sin,

Who for our peace and joy

Will full atonement win.

This is a reference to John’s encounter with Jesus in the gospel of John.

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

This is why John’s message is considered to be peace and consolation. Jesus has come to be the Lamb of God, to take our sins away, and to reconcile us to God. He is the propitiation for our sins, meaning that through Him God’s wrath over sin is satisfied. The curse of Moses is lifted, and we have hope, life, and salvation through our Lord.

I should also point out that this line from John is a part of our communion liturgy. As we head to the altar to receive the body and blood of the lamb, we sing, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.” In our communion liturgy, we affirm the words of John. We confess that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that He is truly present with us here on earth through His body and blood.

In response to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, we ask in stanza 4 that we may be repentant of our sins, and strive to follow our Savior until we have eternal life with Him.

Stanza 4

O grant, dear Lord of love,

That we receive, rejoicing,

The word proclaimed by John,

Our true repentance voicing,

That gladly we may walk

Upon our Savior’s way

Until we live with Him

In His eternal day.

 

 

On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry

The hymn of the day for this Sunday is very specific to the season of Advent and to the ministry of John the Baptist. The hymn is “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” by the Frenchman Charles Coffin, a scholar and professor.  The hymn itself takes our Gospel reading for this Sunday from Matthew, with the reference to Isaiah, and sets the themes into five stanzas.  This is one of those hymns that I’ve sung my while life without really thinking about it, and it’s nice to really dig into the depth of theology behind this great hymn.

Here’s the first half of our Gospel reading for this Sunday, from Matthew 3:

1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.'”

4Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The heading for this section in my study bible simply states, “John the Baptist prepares the way”, to which we might reply, “that’s nice”. Our hymn, however, moves us beyond a simple, passive understanding of this text and applies it to our lives.

Stanza 1:

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry

Announces that the Lord is nigh;

Awake and hearken, for he brings,

Glad tidings of the King of kings!

John goes out into the wilderness and tells us all the coming of the Lord, of the Messiah, is about to happen. That’s why the hymn tells us to “Awake and hearken”; this is really important! The King is coming! This is good news! This is the joy of advent, and yet John is sent to prepare the way by preaching repentance. Why? Because Jesus came to seek and save the lost; he came to deal with the problem of sin. Stanzas 2 and 3 three will deal with this.

Stanza 2:

Then cleansed be every life from sin;

Make straight the way for God within,

And let us all our hearts prepare

For Christ to come and enter there.

 

Stanza 3:

We hail Thee as our Savior, Lord,

Our refuge and our great reward;

Without Thy grace we waste away

Like flow’rs that wither and decay.

John told the people to prepare for the coming king by repenting of their sins.  This is how we, too, are to prepare.  We anticipate the second coming with joy, but in our lives we constantly flee to our Lord for forgiveness and mercy.  It says in 1 John, 1:

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

God promises to be faithful and forgive us all our sins. How do we have this forgiveness? We have it through Jesus, who is our Savior, our Lord, our refuge, and our great reward.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

And in 1st John 2

2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

So, this Sunday, every day, and every Advent, we remember that we prepare for Christ by repentance, and that it is by His grace alone we have faith and forgiveness.  The hymn, and the Gospels do not end here, however. Stanza 4 takes us into the ministry of Jesus,

Stanza 4:

Lay on the sick Thy healing hand

And make the fallen strong to stand;

Show us the glory of Thy face

Till beauty springs in every place.

This stanza really anticipates what comes next in the Gospel accounts. Jesus comes to John, is baptized, and begins His ministry. Jesus’ ministry is marked by healing, signs, and miracles. God cares about the sick, the poor, the disenfranchised, and all others who are devalued by society. This active healing and mercy is the work of Jesus and of us, the church, today, as we care for all around us. I do not know if the second half of this stanza is a reference to the transfiguration, but I do think stanza 4 serves as a prayer that the healing and mercy shown us in this life will extend into the perfection of eternity.

Stanza 5 (everybody stand up!)

All praise, eternal Son, to Thee

Whose advent sets Thy people free,

Whom with the Father we adore

And Holy Spirit evermore.

Jesus’ advent (coming)truly does set us free from sin, from death, and from all fears and anxiety forever. Today we are called to live a life of repentance and mercy, looking forward to the day when we will praise the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forevermore. Amen.