December 5: Freedom is Coming/Jesus is Coming

[John the Baptizer] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of Adonai, make God’s paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” Luke 3:3-6

We have moved deeper into Advent, and in the gospel text, the electrifying message of John the Baptizer is capturing everyone’s attention with John’s call to repentance. He steps into Isaiah’s prophecy to prepare the way of God by smoothing mountains, filling valleys, and sweeping away obstacles. 

“Freedom is Coming,” also sung as “Jesus is Coming,” is a South African song from the anti-apartheid struggle. It was popularized globally by the Swedish liturgical musician Anders Nyberg and his choir Fjedur in 1984 when Nyberg published Freedom is Coming, a collection of fifteen four-part South African freedom songs. Nyberg and Fjedur had spent time in residence with South African choirs in an effort to connect choral traditions across cultures. 

Freedom songs, like “Freedom is Coming,” “Siyahamba,” and “Thuma Mina,” were sung within and outside Black South African churches as part of the anti-apartheid resistance movement. In the 1980s and 1990s, congregations around the world began singing these freedom songs in support of anti-apartheid. In global usage, freedom songs acquired new meanings in new contexts. Worshipers who experienced oppression found a voice for their hope for freedom; worshipers in more privileged contexts used freedom songs to express solidarity with others. Liturgical musician and scholar C. Michael Hawn writes of discovering a Presbyterian youth choir singing “Freedom is Coming” in Mandarin in Taiwan in 2004, where the first free elections had been held just eight years prior.

In “Freedom is Coming,” a leader or choir sings in dialogue with the assembly. The two parts, “oh, freedom” and “freedom is coming,” respond to one another. The assembly part expresses the coordinated role of the whole community in the work of freedom. The leader line announces changes in the texts (such as “Jesus is coming”) and floats above, a soaring expression of liberation that only exists in relationship with the assembly. This leader-and-assembly structure is not unique to “Freedom is Coming,” but it serves the text and its understanding of freedom well. The ease of singing “Jesus” in place of “freedom” equates Christ with liberation, a deeply Advent message that would be at home in John’s wilderness preaching. 

John sees freedom coming on the far horizon. He urges his followers to prepare the way for freedom, for the coming Christ. Freedom will level mountains, raise valleys, and eliminate all obstacles that stand between God’s people and God’s liberation. John preaches as if he is singing “Freedom is Coming” with confidence and certainty: “Oh, yes, I know.”

Bulletin version: “Freedom is Coming” is a South African freedom song from the anti-apartheid movement. It became part of global hymnody in the 1980s. Its call-and-response format reminds singers of the interdependent nature of freedom in Christ and echoes John the Baptist’s call in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. 

Resources: Learn more about “Freedom is Coming” and South African freedom songs in general from C. Michael Hawn in “History of Hymns: ‘O Freedom’ and ‘Freedom is Coming’” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-freedom-and-freedom-is-coming) and “History of Hymns: ‘Siyahamba’” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-siyahamba). You can also read about freedom songs in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (subscription required, https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/s/south-african-freedom-songs). 

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