Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming!

Listening to 24-hours of Christmas music on the radio this month has probably made you realize one thing: the classic Christmas hymns have much more depth than “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (no offense, Mariah).

Did you realize, however, that most, if not all, of these classic carols were not written simply to be sung during the Christmas season. They were written so that congregations would know true doctrine and feel the joy that comes with it.

One of my favorite “Christmas” hymns is not a radio hit. The song is ”Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming.” This hymn, like many others, was designed to instruct on the doctrinal theme of the “righteous Branch” spoken of by the Prophets (see Isaiah 4:2; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:1-7; 33:14-16). God promised David that his offspring would rule the world forever (2 Sam. 7). The Prophets pick up on this theme and teach that from David’s family tree would come a Branch that would rule the world in righteousness and justice. That Branch, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth who would save his people from their sins and reign over them forever.

The original English translation of this hymn sticks closest to the writing of the prophets. Read it. Learn from it. Sing it. Enjoy it. Enjoy Jesus in it. How? Let this song point you to the truth of the gospel: just as the prophets foretold, a righteous Branch has sprouted, a bright flower, from a rotten tree of sinners. If you trust him, rest assured that he will save you from death and lighten every load!

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!


Christmas Lights, Keeping Shining On

Whether you are a Christian or not, in some way or another, you are waiting for some kind of advent–an arrival of something in your life to give you light and hope. Deep down, there is a sense of guilt, shame, inadequacy, and incompleteness in all of us. To solve these problems, we run to money, success, sex, power, control, friendships, acclaim, morality, technology, alcohol, food, exercise or a thousand other things. All of those things are good things. But when they become ultimate things, they will only leave you in the darkness.

The world is dark. We are dark. And nothing in a dark world (including us) can bring us the light we long to see. We need something from the outside.

You get a picture of this longing for light and hope at Christmas in the Coldplay song “Christmas Lights.” It exposes the darkness that lives in us: Got all kinds of poison in, of poison in my blood.

It illustrates the inherent desire in human beings for hope, for light: I am up here holding on to all those chandeliers of hope.

It lays us bare, and reveals that the pursuit of hope in created things—in this case a romantic relationship—will always leave us unsatisfied: And like some drunken Elvis singing, I go singing out of tune, singing how I’ve always loved you, darling, and I always will.

It beckons us look to Christmas for what it is, a day of light and hope: Oh Christmas lights light up the street, light up the fireworks in me, may all your troubles soon be gone, those Christmas lights keep shining on.

God knows we have this need and does not leave us alone in meeting it. But he did not provide a circumstance or event or a system or information. He did not provide something within creation. Instead, he provided a Person who came from the outside, not only to give light, but to be light.

This person is Jesus, and whoever trusts him will not walk in darkness but have the light of life. It’s during this time of Advent we are reminded that we, like ancient Israel, are waiting, too. We wait for Jesus to come back again to finally take all our troubles away. Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights,” whether it knows it or not, is a desperate cry for reconciliation with the Redeemer, who is the Light of Christmas.


Cantique de Noël

Cantique de Noël was written in 1847, by Placide Cappeau. An atheist poet, Cappeau was surprised when a Catholic priest asked him to pen something for Christmas mass. Despite not believing in Jesus, Cappeau delivered in a big way. This 6-minute video explains the story behind the song. The video is also posted at the bottom of this post.

Cantique de Noël’s English equivalent is the tremendous hymn “O Holy Night.” Cappeau’s poem is a bit different but, in my opinion, it’s a whole lot better. Here’s the literal English translation.

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.

People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,

It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

Life Ministry

My Plea for Pastors and Musicians to Decrease

On his journey to the cross, Jesus said something to the disciples that, if they listened, would change everything about their lives. He said something that, if they took it to heart, would destroy their self-centered and self-aggrandizing identities and reputations, only to give them something infinitely greater.

Here’s what Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).

Earlier in the gospel story, John the Baptizer said the same thing only with different vocabulary: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

This is part and parcel of what it means to live the Christian life. You lose your life. You carry your cross. You decrease. You make Jesus’ name and renown and life and work and reputation increase. And when you do this, you gain. In other words, the Christian life is a recapitulation of the cross and resurrection. We die to our sinful selves in order to experience resurrection life: being satisfied with Jesus and making him look great to the world. We say “no” to building our own little, pathetic kingdoms because God has opened our eyes to see there is one King who is worthy of all honor, glory, and praise.

This is the call for everyone who submits to and follows Jesus. How much more for those who lead God’s people in the church? One of the greatest temptations for pastors/preachers (of which I am one) and music directors is to make ourselves the point during corporate gatherings and, more generally, in our leadership and multiplication strategies. This runs rampant in North America. I see it all the time and it breaks my heart.

How do you know when you stop decreasing? Let me ask several sharp, probing questions that will help you diagnose your heart.

Pastors, are you equipping others to preach and give these people actual public opportunities to do? Are you the only weekly preacher during Sunday gatherings? On your church’s website, when people visit the “sermon” page, is your likeness plastered all over webpage? Does your church multiplication strategy lead to a lot of people under one roof listening to you or watching you on a screen? Does your whole week revolve around planning for Sunday (the day they will see you do your preaching thing) in order that people have a great worship experience?

Music directors, are your songs more suited toward a concert solo than congregational singing? Is the music so loud that a person in the congregation can only hear themselves singing rather than their voice as one in a host of voices? Do you believe and communicate (through prayer or otherwise) that music is a mediator between the people and God, that it ushers them into the presence of God? Do you ever step away from the microphone and delight in the sound of the saints raising their voices to the living God?

Be very careful how you answer these questions. They will reveal what your heart truly loves. They will reveal whether you want yourself or Christ to increase.

Yet at the same time, beware of the deceiving nature of sin. You may answer these questions the right way. You may say, “I’m equipping others. It’s all about Jesus. It’s not about me or my preaching!” You may say, “Of course it’s about congregational worship! Jesus, not the music, is the object of our affection.”

But sin is powerful in its ability to deceive. That’s what sin is and does. It makes us wise in our own eyes. Even if our eyes have been opened by Jesus, sin blinds us. It’s like a hidden lion, crouching behind a rock waiting to pounce on us. That’s why sin is dangerous. Blatant, obvious, visible sin is not the scariest thing. Sin that’s hidden and crouching behind a rocky part of the heart is.

Do you know what will ruin you and me as leaders in God’s church? It’s not sexual sin or embezzlement or fraud or theft or laziness or lack of commitment to sound doctrine. Oh sure, these are dangerous. These are real. But these are merely the blatant, obvious, marquee sins that put you on the front page of paper. It starts somewhere else. Somewhere deeper. Somewhere that’s hard to recognize. Somewhere more dangerous.

It starts with the exaltation of self.

You increase. And when you increase, Christ can do nothing but decrease. You stop carrying your cross and losing your life and call people to carry their crosses and follow you. You stop calling people to Jesus and start calling them to yourself. Jesus stops being your greatest treasure and supreme end, and he becomes a means toward something greater, namely, your worth, your brand, your reputation, your success. You will twist the psalmist’s words and, perhaps even unbeknownst to you, you sing, “Not to you, O LORD, not to you, but to my name give glory!” (see Ps. 115:1).

I wish I were immune to this. I wish that the craving for “celebrity” was a non-issue for me. I’m a work in progress. But I am not where I once was. Oh God has been gracious to me! I have grow incredibly disillusioned Christian celebrity. I don’t want it. On a mega scale or even in the church I serve with just a few hundred people, celebrity sickens me. And because God has been gracious to me this way, pastors and musicians, I want you to know this grace, too.

That’s why I’m pleading with you. I plead with you to see the cross, where your Redeemer was stripped and hung naked that you might come to God. He decreased for your sake. He sacrificed himself and put your before his needs! But this is not so that you would increase yourself, but, in loving response, exalt him! Do you see how the gospel works? Do you see that he become poor so that you could become rich—not in order to flaunt your received riches but so that you too might become poor, knowing him in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death, only to share in his resurrection? Do you see that unless there’s death, there’s no resurrection? Do you see that when you die, Christ will be exalted and there will be ministry fruit beyond your wildest dreams because it will be lasting fruit, centered on him, not you? Do you see that if there’s no death in you, if there’s no decreasing, then you are not fulfilling your role as a leader in God’s church?

I plead with you: decrease! Become small by equipping others and passing on to others what you have and help them do what you do better than you do it! Let God’s voice, not yours, be the prevailing sound in the church you serve! Come to the end of yourself, seeing your heart for the pathetic, deceptive black-ness that it is and that it is only due to the gracious redemption of God that you are a new creation and have the privilege to lead God’s people.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Pastors, musicians, do hear the words of Jesus? Which will you choose?


A Ragamuffin’s Creed

I recently watched Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich MullinsMullins was a musical prodigy who rose to fame in the Contemporary Christian Music scene in the 80s and 90s. Mullins confrontational and controversial style and approach to music made him some what of a “bad boy” in the CCM culture. Eventually, Mullins walked away from it all to minister on a Navajo reservation before he died in 1997. I highly recommend the film if you want an inside look at Mullins’ faith journey, his cultural influence, his sin struggles, and his vision for authentic Christianity.

One of Mullins’s most well-known songs is “Creed,” a musical rendition of the Apostles’ Creed with an added original chorus. If you don’t know the Apostles’ Creed, this song will help you learn it! I sing this to our daughters often at bedtime. Below is a wonderful cover of the song by Third Day and Brandon Heath. Enjoy–and then go watch Ragamuffin (it is available on Netflix).