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.
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.
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.
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,
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.