Advent Message from Dr. James Brenneman
God’s Christmas Carol
I love the Advent season. I love sitting around a fire roasting chestnuts and singing carols. Come to think of it, I’ve never roasted chestnuts around a fire, but I love the idea of doing that. I love that we, as a community, can join in ushering in the Christmas season.
Christmas is a “season of song that wraps itself around us like a shawl.” The carols of Christmas – “Silent night, holy night,” “Away in a manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – warm more than our bodies. They warm our hearts with melodies that last forever. Then there are those other carols that stick in our minds, but have no redeeming quality. Songs such as, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” And that odd “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” about a Grandma who drank too much eggnog and is found out in the snow on Christmas morning with hoof prints on her forehead. I’m not making this up. From the ridiculous to the sublime, Christmas carols capture the crazy silliness and deep joy of this season.
Six-hundred and twenty years before the First Noel another “Christmas carol” was being sung by the prophet Zephaniah anticipating the advent of a new “king of Israel.” In Zephaniah 3:14-20, he intones, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion” (3:14). “Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart . . . (15b) The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.” In a sense, this is Zephaniah’s version of the famous Christmas carol, “Joy to the world the Lord is come. . .Let earth receive her king; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing.”
Something in the old carol of Zephaniah is quite surprising. Zephaniah writes not just about joy to the world, but of God’s joy! In 3:17 it is God who “rejoices over [us] with gladness. . . God exults over [us] with loud singing as on a festival day!” God has a festival of carols for us! In Zephaniah’s carol, of the several words translated as joy or rejoicing or exulting — one meaning, literally, is “to spin around under the influence of near violent emotions” of gladness or “to sing shrilly!”
You get the picture of God dancing wildly and singing at the top of God’s lungs on a festival day, exulting in God’s beloved people – a festival of carols for you and me!
The philosophers (Plato/Aristotle) couldn’t fathom this kind of emotion in God. To suggest God might be affected by an emotion like joy was, in their minds, to lessen the meaning of “godness,” the unmoved mover, the wholly other.
Even the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin, when commenting on this passage in Zephaniah, limits God’s joyfulness simply to God being delighted with God’s own “all-sufficiency.” For Calvin, God is simply pleased and delighted (self-satisfied) that one-day God’s salvation will be wrought upon the earth. “These hyperbolic terms [of Zephaniah],” says Calvin, “seem to set forth something inconsistent in God. For what can be more alien to God’s glory,” Calvin continues, “than to exult like man when influenced by joy arising out of love?”
Exuberant joy, more alien to God? To such interpretations of Zephaniah’s Carol, I say, “Bah, humbug!” Could it be, rather, that God actually dances a jig of joy, exults over God’s people with utter abandonment? Yes! Absolutely, yes! God is the source of pure joy! Christmas is not just about God’s love for us, but it also about God’s joy in us! If the epistle of John can say, “we love, because God first loved us,” I would say then, “we are joyful, because God first enjoyed us!”
I am absolutely flabbergasted by this old, old Christmas carol of Zephaniah’s. While we were yet sinners, God exalted in us – not in our disobedience, not in our rejections, and dissembling – but in us! God doesn’t just love us, God delights in us!
Someone once said, “Love accompanies us, but joy befriends us!” We expect parents to love their kids, wives and husbands or fellow Christians to love each other. As Christ put it once, “what’s so special about that? Even unbelievers do that much.” Christ even expected us to love our enemies. For Christ, love seems to have a certain moral demand to it. Love is less of an emotion and more an ethical duty. As the old saying goes, “I must love you, but I don’t have to like you.”
But, joy? Exulting over one another or the other “with utter gladness and loud singing?” Wow! That’s a whole new level of relationship.
Here at ABSW let us not simply tolerate one another with all our foibles and failings. Let us not simply get along with each other on our different floors and across our distinctive domains. Let us not simply love one another, genuinely or out of moral duty. Let us also rejoice in one another! Perhaps even exult, dance a jig with joyful abandonment for each other. May that be our dream for this great and worthy place we call ABSW.
For we do have so much to be joyful for here at ABSW, not least of which are the many, many students who have passed through our classrooms — or such a dedicated board, faculty, administrators and staff, past and present company included — or so many supporters who give of their time and financial contributions. “Sing choirs of angels!”
But…more importantly…and above all, as we enjoy this evening’s meal and sing a few Christmas carols together, let us take that old, old Christmas carol of the prophet Zephaniah and wrap it around our souls. God rejoices over you! God rejoices over me! God rejoices over us! So yes, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!
By ABSW president, Jim Brenneman, at the ABSW Faculty, Staff, Administrators Christmas Banquet,
December 15, 2017 followed by celebrating anniversary years of service and carol singing.