A sermon on Wesley's hymn "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus"

In 2007, the preaching team at Hope Chapel devoted four Sundays in December to exegeting the common hymns of Advent and Christmas. It was one of the most satisfying preaching series that we ever engaged during the years that I served as a pastor there. If you have the chance, I earnestly encourage you to provide your communities with a deeper understanding of the songs which we sing during this season. It's a great way to recover some of the poetically and theologically sharp edges that often get lost in the routinized cycle of music that occurs year to year. It's also perhaps a way to open up opportunities for more enthusiastic congregational singing.

Here is the outline to sermon I gave on Charles Wesley's hymn, "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus."

A Bio Note on Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

Charles has been nicknamed “the spiritual librettist of the Methodist revival” and “the Psalmist of the First Great Awakening.”  He is known (or perhaps not known) famously for such hymns as:

  • "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?" 
  • "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" 
  • "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"  
  • "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing"
  • "Jesus, Lover of My Soul"
  • "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending"
  • "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"
  • "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" 

A few facts about the poet-theologian:

-        He was born in 1707, the 18th child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley.
-        Attended Oxford.  Studied Latin and Greek as well as the classics of literature.  It was there that he, along with John, his brother, and George Whitefield, formed the Holy Club.  The Club’s disciplined approach to Bible study, worship, and visitation of the sick and imprisoned along with frequent observance of Holy Communion, led to the members being labeled the “Methodists.”
-        Ordained to the priesthood in 1735, but not till 1738 did he experience a conversion of the heart.
-        Traveled to the Georgian colony as missionary to the Native Indians and chaplain to the colonists.
-        Married Sarah Gwynne in 1749.  3 out of 8 their children survived infancy.
-        He was a good friend of William Law and Count Zinzendorf and became an instrumental figure (no pun intended) in the First Great Awakening.
-        He wrote over 6,500 hymns and put to paper more poems than Robert Browning and William Wordsworth combined.  His mother Susanna’s influence upon him was considerable, as she read to the kids from the psalms daily.  We can also see the influence of John Milton’s Paradise Lost upon his hymn writing.
-        On his tombstone are inscribed the following words:

As a preacher
He was eminent for ability, zeal, and usefulness,
Being learned without pride,
And pious without ostentation.
The sincere, diffident Christian,
A son of Consolation,
But to the vainboaster, the hypocrite, and the profane,
A son of Thunder.

Distinctives of his Hymnody

Charles Wesley’s hymns are marked by a comprehensive knowledge of Scripture.  One scholar describes it this way:

“Methodist admirers of the Wesleys have sometimes taken solace in the notion that if one day the Bible should disappear, its text could nearly be completely reconstructed based on the Wesleyian deposit of hymns alone.”

There is hardly any aspect of Christian theology that is not covered in his hymnody: creation, law, redemption, faith, repentance, prayer, Holy Communion, death, judgment, heaven, hell, the Church, mission, service, the Holy Spirit.  Christian doctrine comes alive in his songs.

One humorous note is that Charles was often accused of a “worm theology.”  Apparently he made use of too many references to being a worm. For instance:

“that only name to sinners given,
which lifts poor dying worms to heaven”

But mostly Charles Wesley can be understood best as a hymnodist in light of his training and his passion.  He was trained at Oxford University; his passion was the affective experience of Christ.  He was shaped by the environment the Anglican Church; he was transformed by his spiritual conversion at age of 31.  He was both a careful thinker and a deeply emotional poet. 

So on the one hand, John Wesley, who thought his brother a little too emotional, too prone to “amorous terminology” (as per “Jesus, Lover of my Soul”), nonetheless had this to say about his brother’s hymns:

“In these hymns there is no doggerel, no botches, nothing put in to patch up the rhyme. . . . Here are no words without meaning . . . Here are both the purity, the strength, and the elegance of the English language—and at the same time the utmost simplicity and plainness, suited to every capacity.”

Charles Wesley was a consummate craftsman, daily honing his craft.

As to his emotional personality, here is a amusing anecdote given by Henry Moore, a close friend of the Wesley family:

“When at the University, in early youth, [John] was alarmed whenever [Charles] entered his study.  Aut insanity homo, aut versus facit [The man is mad, or making verses].  Full of the muse, and being short-sighted, he would sometimes walk right against his brother’s table, and, perhaps, overthrow it.  If the “fine phrenzy” was not quite so high, he would decompose the books and papers in the study, ask some questions without always waiting for a reply, repeat some poetry that just then struck him, and at length leave his brother. . . .”

So Charles is the man of Christian doctrine and the expressive artist. 

“To the free spirit he brought biblical and theological order.  To the liturgical tradition he brought . . . a ‘dancing heart’.” (Crichton Mitchell, Man With the Dancing Heart, 9).

A theologian with a dancing heart

Charles, in this way, exhibits a distinctly objective and subjective approach to the Christian life and we observe this trait clearly in his Christmas hymn, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

This carol is a sung declaration of the person and work of Jesus Christ in both their subjective and objective dimensions.

A comment about the poetry.

In the first verse, the meter is A-B-B-C. The thought pattern works this way:

-        Petition—declaration—declaration—result.
-        To the Jews—to the Gentiles—to the Gentiles—to every person.

In verse 1 Wesley highlights our subjective experience of Christ’s redemption.  Here we experience our own:

-        freedom
-        rest
-        strength
-        consolation
-        hope
-        joy

In verse 2, Wesley draws our attention to the objective work of Christ, specifically the Lordship of Christ.

-        He is born to deliver
-        He is born a child and king
-        He is born to reign in us
-        He brings his gracious kingdom
-        He rules in all our hearts by the Holy Spirit
-        He raises us to his glorious throne through his sufficient merit

He is in sum:

-        Messiah
-        Pauper-prince
-        “Christ in us”
-        The wise King
-        The Governor of human hearts
-        The crucified and resurrected Savior
-        The Sovereign of the universe

In the second half of verse 2 we also encounter a summary, as it were, of the doctrine of salvation:

  1. Sanctification: “by thine own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone”
  2. Justification: “by thine all sufficient merit”
  3. Glorification: “raise us to thy glorious throne”

Charles is a theologian and poet, thinker and feeler, teacher and worshiper.  And the key theme that he draws our attention to in this hymn is that of longing.

The Idea of Longing

The hymn begins will the key imperative verb, “Come.”  You and I have been given a considerable power, the power to say “come” and the power to say “don’t come,” the power to say yes and to say no, to believe or not to believe.  Wesley enjoins us to say “Come” once again: Come, thou long-expected Jesus. 

Jesus is the longing of the earth and he is the longing of every human heart.

  1. The Longing of all the earth 
Hope of all the earth thou art
Dear desire of every nation

That Jesus is the longing of every nation is something we find in the OT, the NT, and in the early church.

The OT: Genesis 49:10 (in the LXX).

“A ruler shall not fail from Judah, nor a prince from his loins, until there come the things stored up for him; and he is the expectation of nations”

The NT: Acts 10:34; 17:23, 27.

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

“Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.  God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”

In the early church: Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition:

"Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, written around 40 BC, prophesied a golden age, the culmination of the centuries, in which a virgin would return and a new offspring, bearing divine life, would descend from heaven to earth to rule a world transformed by his father’s virtues.  St. Augustine believed Virgil had been inspired by the Holy Spirit to write such things, though perhaps unknowingly."

Hope of all the earth thou art
Dear desire of every nation

  1. The Longing of every human heart

Joy of every longing heart . . .

Psalm 63:1

O God, you are my God,
Earnestly I seek for you;
My soul thirsts for you;
My body longs for you,
In a dry and weary land
Where there is no water.

Matthew 11:29-30

Come to me,
All you who are weary and burdened
And I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you and
Learn from me.
For I am gentle and humble in heart and
You will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy
And my burden is light.

 Jesus says, Come, I will give you rest.  That has always been his invitation.  It remains his invitation today, to you and to me.  My friends, take Christ’s lordship to your heart; let your heart find its long-desired rest.

What does it mean for you and for me today to long for Christ?  What does it mean for you and me to say, “Come”?  Come where?  Come why?  Come when?  Come how?

 Our Response to the Word

My encouragement to us today: that we would pray a prayer that welcomes the Lord Jesus into a specific place in our lives.  What does your heart long for?  What does it long for earnestly and intensely? What does it long for faintly and wearily?  Let us pray these longings, and trust that the Spirit will bear these in Christ before the Father.

Lord Jesus, come into this area of my life . . . .

-        My thought life
-        My emotional life
-        My will
-        My speech patterns
-        My physical body

My relationship with:

-        My spouse
-        My parents
-        My children
-        My siblings
-        My friends
-        My work
-     My neighbors

The addictions that feed my false self:

-        food
-        sex
-        anger
-        jealousy
-        laziness
-        greed

Let us sing the Hymn together.


Revelation 22:20-21

He who testifies to these things says,
“Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you today and in the week to come.


Ron said…
very nice David
Thanks, Ron.
Greg Scheer said…
Great sermon using a great hymn. One of the things I find interesting about this hymn is the tunes with which it is paired: http://www.hymnary.org/text/come_thou_long_expected_jesus_born_to.

STUTTGART is a fine tune--we're using it in my church at this year's Lessons & Carols service--but it is perhaps a bit too triumphalistic due to its march-like character.

HYFRYDOL is more lyrical, but still too confident to convey the longing of Wesley's text.

For my money, BEACHSPRING is the tune that opens up this text. The first two tunes begin on a downbeat ("COME, thou") whereas this tune begins with pickups ("come thou LONG-expected"). Added to that, the downbeat is an appoggiatura (unresolved note), giving it even more of a feeling of yearning. This unresolved motif continues through the whole melody, supporting the text's "now and not yet" theme perfectly.

If you want to hear a recording of an arrangement of this text/tune, listen here. Things get more interesting in the 2nd and 3rd verses.
Greg, that's fantastic. In my TA group from Lester Ruth's worship class we recently had a conversation about the choice of tunes--how to choose a good tune, that is. And here you're doing it in style. I love it.

Now I'm going to go hear it.

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