Ellsworth Kalas ~ Singing all the Wesleyan Way
I confess that I’m not much of a shopper, at Christmas or any other time. But I rejoice that at this season the odds are good that the beleaguered shopper will hear some Gospel. The full Gospel. The glad Gospel. The redeeming Gospel. It will come over the audio system in the shopping mall.
I’m thinking of the Gospel as Charles Wesley delivered it in “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” No one before or since has done as good a job of delivering the Gospel in a song as did Charles Wesley. Wesley wove Scripture in and out of nearly every line and he did it so naturally that you have to keep alert or you’ll miss it. And his lines are packed full of doctrine.
The first verse of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” is an invitation to join the angels who announced Christ’s birth. In fact, Wesley wants all nations to rise and “join the triumph of the skies” in the tumultuous news, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” Notice the exclamation point. Wesley was inclined that way. It’s hard to end all your sentences with periods when your soul is on the rise.
As for doctrine, see Charles Wesley’s Christology and you’ll understand why Methodism swept the British Isles and then the American frontier. This is not the story of a wonderful young man who grew up to be a great teacher and then history’s finest martyr, this is the story of the One who was “by highest heaven adored, the everlasting Lord.” And if you wonder about his birth, he is the “offspring of a virgin’s womb.” If that phrase isn’t clear enough, Wesley explains that the Godhead is “veiled in flesh,” because Jesus is “th’incarnate Deity.” That is, God is “pleased with us in flesh to dwell.” If after all that you still don’t get it, Wesley is talking about the incarnation.
And Wesley’s not done yet. He describes our Lord in scriptural language, and while we’re comprehending the wonder of it all Wesley gets into the mood of Paul’s magnificent picture in Philippians 2: “mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.” Apparently Wesley ended all of that with a period, but my own redeemed soul wants to substitute an exclamation point.
See what we’re singing. Our God, Jesus the Christ, lays aside all his divine glory, and he does it mildly: “ I have come to do thy will, O my God.” And why does he do this incomprehensible thing? Quite simply, so that you and I “no more may die.” He was born into this world so that he might raise this motley conglomerate of humans “from the earth,” and with it all “to give us second birth.” Don’t sell this second birth short! Not when it is Item Number One on heaven’s agenda.
There’s so much Gospel in “Hark! the Herald Angels sing” that one of these shopping days some one is going to hear it — really hear it! — somewhere between a shoe store and a snack shop, and that someone will say, “I just got it! Or it got me! Now I know what Christmas is all about!”