how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth

true repentance

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I was reading in a book of Christian poetry this morning the words to several poems that have been set to music and become popular Christmas songs, as is the case with many hymns. And as is often also the case, one poem contained a verse I have never sung, or even heard before, and its message is beautiful. The poem, originally by James Montgomery and first published in Scotland in 1816, is called Nativity, but the hymn title is drawn from its first line, “Angels, from the realms of glory.”

I have to admit, its never been a Christmas song I’ve noticed much. It sounds awful to say it that way, but that’s really the appropriate word, because having sung it countless times and having the traditional first four verses memorized, I haven’t ever really sat and reflected on the words. Even now, in the short time I’ve been looking over it, I know there is much more to be drawn out, but I was just so surprised and caught up by this last new verse that I find my attention driven fully toward it. The first three verses address those directly involved in the events surrounding Christ’s birth – the angels, the shepherds, and the sages; or wise men. The fourth verse then shifts the focus to believers, called saints, and the anticipation with which all generations of Christians wait eagerly for Christ’s second return. And this is where most hymnals end the song. The fifth verse, however, says this:

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doom’d for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you – break your chains;
Come and worship,
Worship Christ the new-born King.

I don’t claim to know all that James Montgomery meant in writing this hymn. I’m not an expert analyzer of poetry or hymns, just a person who loves words, and I love this verse. One of the reasons it is so powerful, and follows so logically from the first four verses of the poem, is that it does what I’ve mentioned a few times already in these Christmas song reflections: it shows the connection between the birth of Christ and the reason for it. It also speaks to two different groups of people, calling ultimately for the same response. To the saints of the previous verse, saints who were sinners, and still are sinners, it calls for worship. For true worship, based on the knowledge of the mercy that has been shown us and the repentance we have been granted. It calls for reflection upon what we were and what the birth of a baby offered us who were “doom’d for guilt to endless pains.” So come, sinner called saint. Come and worship. Worship Christ.

But on a very important secondary level, I think this last verse holds out a message not only for us sinners called saints, but for those sinners who truly are still doomed by guilt, those who don’t yet know the mercy that is the birth and life and death of Christ. And it’s not a message that is not very popular in the contemporary church, to be honest, but it was Christ’s message, the first He preached and always the core:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Repentance. This verse speaks to a so very lost and depraved and dying world and doesn’t just say, “there’s hope,” or preach “peace on earth,” though these messages are true and timely, but it says that what this world needs, what sinners need, is a Savior. What this world needs is a King, and He came. The kingdom of heaven came, and it entered the world in the birth of a baby and though it is not yet fulfilled in perfection; a fact of which we are so aware; it has begun, and will never end. And this message is all the more powerful when we are made painfully and joltingly aware that life ends. Ravi Zacharias, in a letter response to the events of this past week, said it this way:

The Bible only speaks of one remedy…: the transformation of the heart by making Christ the center. Those who mock the simplicity of the remedy have made evil more complex and unexplainable. Every heart has the potential for murder. Every heart needs a redeemer. That is the message of Christmas. The world took that child and crucified Him. But by his triumph over death He brings life to our dead souls and begins the transformation within. Unto us a child is born and He shall save us from our sins.

I hope, as I reflect on this hymn, that my heart recognizes its capacity for evil and is once again wrung with true repentance. I hope I see again that but by the mercy of God, so am I chained to sin, and it would be just. I hope it leads me to worship.

Repent and worship, sinner called saint. Worship Christ, the new-born King.

Read the whole of Ravi Zacharias’ letter here.

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