The Thrill of Hope Sermon Series – #1: O Come O Come Emmanuel

This Advent, I’m doing a sermon series on some of our favorite Advent/Christmas hymns. I hope you enjoy them!

SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 11:1-9

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

The Thrill of Hope sermon series
#1 – O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Nov. 30, 2014

Here are we on the first Sunday of Advent, which means it’s time to loosen up the pipes and prepare to sing some of our favorite songs of the season! But I wonder how often we actually listen to the words we sing on Sunday morning. I choose hymns that try to match the theme of the sermon and service, but it’s hard to sing and read and comprehend and mentally make out a shopping list and decide where you’re going for lunch all at the same time, so I believe we often don’t really listen to what we’re singing. For our Advent sermons, we’re going to look at the words of some of our favorite Advent and Christmas hymns to get at the deeper meaning behind them.

And even when we sing songs we know, we may not know what we’re singing. I know for a fact that a lot of us sing the wrong words to our favorite Christmas hymns. For example, in “Silent Night,” do you ever sing, “Round John Virgin, mother and child…” Or how about this one from “Angels We Have Heard on High”? “Gloria…in a Chelsea stable…” I’m sure at least a couple of you have sung, “Noel, Noel…Barney’s the king of Israel…” Or maybe you’ve exclaimed, “Joy to the world! The Lord has gum, let earth receive her keys…” Do we really know what we’re singing?

            We start this series by looking at my favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” This hymn actually started as a series of sung responses call the “O Antiphons,” because each line started with the letter O: O Wisdom, O Root of Jesse, O Dayspring, etc. These seven antiphons, which date back to the 12th century Roman church, would be sung or chanted on the seven nights leading up to Christmas. Back in those days, few people could read, so these songs were teaching tools, expressing the hope and truth of Christmas and the promise of Christ’s return. It wasn’t until the 1850s that these words were translated into English by John Mason Neale and combined with a haunting tune to create the hymn we have today.

The hymn is a plea, much like several of the psalms, for the Lord to come and make things right in a world which we have broken. The hymn calls Jesus four different names: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”; Dayspring, which literally means the rising of the sun or the break of day and honors the light Jesus brings into the world; Wisdom, a feminine term used several times in scripture to refer to God; and Desire of nations, which comes from the verse in Haggai that says, “’ I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

Much of the hymn is built around or alludes to imagery we see in the passage from Isaiah. Both the hymn and the scripture are set in the context of Israel’s exile from their homeland. As you may know, God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, into the Promised Land. The good news is they settled there; the bad news is they settled there! They got too comfortable and complacent in their faith, backsliding away from the laws God had given them to live by. So God sent a series of prophets to Israel to warn the people that if they didn’t shape up, they were going to be punished for their lack of faithfulness. Humans being humans, they didn’t listen, and so they were invaded by the Babylonians, who conquered the Israelites, ransacked their homeland, and sent the people off to Babylon to live in exile. That’s why, in v. 1, the Israelites are spoken of as captives, mourning in lonely exile and awaiting the appearance of their Savior.

After the first verse sets the stage for the longing of liberation, the next three offer glimmers of hope for Christ’s return. Verse 2 says, “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s deep shadows put to flight.” Verse 3 calls on Wisdom to bring order to the chaos of their lives, granting divine knowledge and leading them down that path, instead of the one that got time into this mess in the first place. And verse 4 calls on the Desire of nations to bind all people together, and then offers what I think is the most provocative line in the whole hymn: “Bid envy, strive, and quarrel cease, fill the whole world with Heaven’s peace.” Hmm. In light of what’s happened this week in Ferguson, Mo., and other parts of the country, in light of what’s happening around the world in places like Syria and the Ukraine and many countries in Africa, this plea takes on a new urgency.

I don’t know about you, but paying attention to these lyrics makes them a little harder to sing. Gloom and death? Quarrels and strife? Did the Grinch write this hymn? This is a season about joy! Can’t we set these downer things aside for a few weeks and just enjoy the spirit of the season? Besides, this hymn really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with us, does it? I mean, it was written about a group of people who are exiled from their homeland, taken captive by foreigners and forcibly moved. Luckily for us, we’re not in exile, are we? We live in a free country, where we’re free to buy stuff and post pictures of our pets on Facebook and call each other names and come to church on Sunday and do what we want on Monday through Saturday. We’re not in exile from anything! Except maybe our soul, the image of God inside of us. We’re not captive to anything, except maybe our desire to buy more, to own more, to be more than the person next to us. We don’t need to be ransomed from anything, except maybe our own selfishness, or our smug judgmentalism, our own desire for comfort, our own propensity to do the easy thing instead of the right thing. Do we need ransoming, do we need to be saved – from ourselves? O come, O come, Emmanuel.

This hymn is a stark reminder that each of us need the liberation that the Christ child offers. I believe each of us brings death, gloom, sadness, strife, envy, and conflict into the sanctuary this morning. Something this morning holds us captive; something is casting a shadow over us. Something is keeping us in exile. Sure, we can try to set those things aside, even for a few weeks, to savor the joy of this season, but I have a better idea. How about we ask Christ to enter into those shadowy things, to enter into our gloom and our sadness and our strife, and to disperse them, to fill the world and our hearts with Heaven’s peace? How about, along with the candy canes and the presents, we put under the tree our deepest fears and our most painful hurts and say, “O come, O come Emmanuel?”

What would happen if we do that? That’s the picture Isaiah paints so vividly for us, a peace that takes mortal enemies and unites them as companions – wolves and lambs, cows and bears, children and snakes. That kind of peace feels so wonderful and exhilarating and impossible, so we have a hard time even envisioning what it would look like, because too often the peace we strive for is completely conditional. I can remember my grandfather had an interesting way of keeping the peace when I was little. If one of us grandchildren would get out of line, he would threaten to go get the yardstick. Now, that usually was enough to make us cool our jets, but if we continued, he’d walk slowly over to the closet, open the door, and pull out the aforementioned instrument, all the while giving us that look. I know it was only a yardstick, but to us little kids it must have looked at least three feet long! He’d walk slowly back over to his chair and lay the yardstick across his lap, and peace would reign in the kingdom. Now I have to tell you that in a million years my grandfather would have never hit one of us; he never needed to. Just the threat of violence was enough to coerce peace.

I’m afraid that’s the only kind of peace we know these days, peace that is arrived at through the use of threats and weapons and wars. Our peace is conditional. We’ve all been bombarded with such visions of violence and atrocity that Isaiah’s unconditional peace hardly seems worth working for, much less being an attainable goal. How can we endure sharp words of hate from other people and be expected to invite them to Christmas dinner? How can we allow ourselves to be cursed at and not want to curse back, or be flipped off in traffic and not return the hand gesture? How can we watch what has happened in Ferguson and expect to sing about peace with anything less than a heavy and vengeful and prejudiced heart? The gloomy clouds of night, the shadows of death, hang over us. Living for peace is not always the easiest response, and yet we know that’s what we are called to do. O come, o come Emmanuel.

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin, the little boy, says to Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings.  I’m sorry I did it.” Hobbes suggests, “Maybe you should apologize to her.” Calvin thinks hard about this for a moment and then replies, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.”

God has given us an obvious solution to one of our greatest problems – our lack of peace. God has given each of us a spirit of peace within us so that we may work to make that peace exist outside of us, and God has given us a vision of what that peace looks like in the life of Jesus Christ. It’s so easy to give in to our fear and hate, to speak the harsh words and counter malice with malice. But that’s not what Christ did, and that’s not who we were created to be. Maybe we can’t change the world. But God can change our world through us.

Isaiah’s peace isn’t here yet. Not by a long shot. But he dares us to dream about it, to imagine it, to work for it until envy, strife, and quarrels cease. He challenges us to envision each day, each encounter, each word and action as a chance to bring a little bit of Heaven’s peace into our not-so-peaceful world. It’s a smile instead of a curse, or a handshake instead of a hand gesture. It’s outstretched arms instead of clenched fists, and loving each other for our similarities, and respecting each other for our differences. It’s choosing to live for peace instead of living in fear. It’s replacing “us vs. them” with “us and them.” It’s asking: does what I’m about to say or do or write promote God’s peace, or hinder it? The good news is that Isaiah’s peace can be achieved, one person at a time.

That’s a daunting task, isn’t it? Part of me would rather ignore the conflict in my life and in this world, to insulate myself and pretend like everything’s all candy canes and mistletoe. If I surround myself with people who look like me and think like me, then I never have to worry about getting along with the wolves and bears and snakes of this world. But that’s not who we are called to be. We are called to be instruments of God’s peace, beacons of hope that this world is worth saving, that God is still at work to bring about Heaven’s peace. Until that day when Isaiah’s peace is achieved, we have work to do. Thankfully, we don’t do it alone. One candle is lit. We have reason to hope. Help is on the way. O come, O come, Emmanuel.

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