On Jordan's Bank
Charles Coffin (1736); Translation by John Chandler
Advent — what a strange and beautiful season!
When the religious leaders in Jerusalem sent messengers to John the Baptist to ask who he was and why he was baptizing people in the Jordan River, that kinsman of the Lord replied that he was not the Messiah. He was “a voice crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
How do we do that? I learned how to prepare for Christmas from the time I was a small boy. My father and mother would take us — there were two and then three and then four of us children — to a local department store, owned by a friend of his. We were given a certain amount of money (in our heads, not our hands) to spend on each other, and so I rummaged around for what I thought my kid brother and my kid sisters would like. That was a couple of days before Christmas. By then, we’d had the tree up and decorated, with ornaments and a lot of tinsel, and my father had strung the house outdoors with colored lights. He’d also make sure that his movie camera was ready to go, because we’d be starring in it — without sound, of course — on Christmas morning.
Meanwhile, things in the church were a little different. The priest wore purple, and we didn’t sing the Gloria. And since we lived in the northern hemisphere, it was winter, the days were short, and we usually had snow on the ground. Advent, we were told, was a penitential season, and I suppose that somewhere in my young soul the idea took root, though I can’t say that I have been particularly assiduous in my penitential practices; and that too is something I must confess.
Why, though, do we shy away from such preparation? Let us rather be instructed by our hymn this week, “On Jordan’s Bank.” The poet, Charles Coffin (writing in Latin, so what we have here is a very good English translation), calls us to make the way of the Lord straight and clean in our hearts. Think of a dusty and musty room, full of clutter. The more you let it go, the less do you want even to go there or open the door, let alone deal with the disorder. But once you set your mind to it, and your body and soul too, though it may be discouraging at first, the better you feel, and it’s with a kind of triumph that you look at it at last, clean, shining, smelling like fresh air. Now consider that it’s God’s grace that gives you the will and the energy to do this, and that the Lord himself, who is coming to visit, is the unseen power: He is the one who moves our hearts, and the one who cleanses us too. For without his grace, says the poet, echoing the prophet Isaiah, “we waste away / Like flowers that wither and decay.”
But suppose a part of you wants to do that work, but you are hobbled with the agedness of sin? That is why we beg the Lord for the miracle of forgiveness and purification. If He stretches out his hand, we will be healed. If He bids us, we fallen sinners will stand. If we lose heart, and the world seems a realm of gloom, he shines forth, and he restores to the earth its loveliness. A strange season, as I say, and a beautiful one, because the Lord is working within us to prepare us for Himself. He is near, He is at the gates, but He is also among us now. The priest wears purple, but we are stringing lights on the porches of our hearts, and buying gifts for one another, all to celebrate the greatest gift of all, that the Word through whom all things were made, the Lord himself, would be made flesh, and would be with His people in the most fundamental way, the way they least expected.
Then let our hearts rally in expectation!
On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry Announces that the Lord is nigh; Awake and hearken, for he brings Glad tidings of the King of kings. Then cleansed be every breast from sin; Make straight the way of God within, And let each heart prepare a home Where such a mighty guest may come. For thou art our salvation, Lord, Our refuge, and our great reward; Without thy grace we waste away Like flowers that wither and decay. To heal the sick stretch out thine hand, And bid the fallen sinner stand; Shine forth, and let thy light restore Earth's own true loveliness once more. All praise, eternal Son, to thee, Whose advent doth thy people free; Whom with the Father we adore And Holy Ghost for evermore. Amen.