Sermon for Advent 1
November 27, 2011
Yesterday, as we were putting up our Christmas lights on perhaps the warmest last weekend of November I can ever remember, I realized just how overwhelmed I was to think that Advent had essentially begun. The vastness of November has given way to the rush of December before that month has even arrived, and the lights, the Christmas trees, the shopping, the arrival of Santa – they all seem to have landed on my doorstep too soon.
Today marks the first Sunday, the first day of Advent – the season in the church year where we prepare ourselves – our hearts, our homes, our lives – for the coming of the Messiah. Except it seems like in this day and age, there is not much for us left to prepare by the time today rolls around! Baking has begun, trees are decorated – well, in some homes at least – and frankly the arrival of the Messiah has been placed at the bottom of our To Do list for the time being.
I think it’s important for us – at least it’s important for me – to stop for a moment on this day and remember just what this season is all about. While the Christmas countdown clock seems to be ticking for many of us, we actually have four whole weeks laid out ahead of us – plenty of time for us to stop and ponder the wonder, indeed the miracle, of Jesus’ arrival. And while Christmas seems to be coming too fast for us, let’s not forget that for the people of Israel, the people who had waited for generations upon generations for the coming of the Messiah, that blessed day could not come soon enough.
And so this morning, I thought we might think for a moment about the meaning of Advent – that time of waiting, of preparation, that the Israelites experienced – in hopes that we too might catch a glimpse of the glory that truly is the reason for the season. And it seems to me that the perfect way for us to do just that is to think about one of the oldest and most beloved hymns of the season, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” dates back to the ninth century, when it was sung in Latin and used in formal Catholic masses. Because it was written sometime before 800 AD, we don’t actually know the writer of the hymn, but the many references to both the Old and New Testament, suggest it was probably a monk or a priest.
When first written, the Latin text of this hymn contained seven different verses, each one representing a different biblical view of the Messiah. It was sung or chanted, one verse per day, during the last seven days before Christmas. It really was a Coles’ notes version of the Messiah – who he was, what he represented, why he had come to earth. This hymn became important not just for liturgical reasons, but because few common people in the Dark Ages could gain access to the Bible, or even read for that matter. This song was one of the few examples they had of the full story of how the New and Old Testament views of the Messiah came together in the birth and life of Jesus. It brought the story of Christ the Saviour to life during hundreds of years when little else was available to common people – and for this reason could really be considered one of the most important songs in the history of the Christian faith.
The hymn gained world wide acceptance when it was discovered by John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest who, because of his evangelical and progressive beliefs, was banished to a little island off the northwest coast of Africa called Madiera. Not having much to do at this remote outpost, Neale studied and read Scripture and Scripture based literature voraciously. When he came across the Latin chant “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, he recognized how important the hymn still was, and so translated it into English for more accessible use. That was the beginning of the world-wide spread of this hymn that has now been translated into scores of languages and is sung by Christians around the world.
While to our ears the references to rods and keys can be confusing, they all spring directly from Scripture passages that would have resonated loud and clear with early Christians. The Hebrew people had been waiting for a Messiah, the one who would come to earth to deliver God’s people – and had heard prophecies of this event for centuries. The first verse of this hymn begins “O come, O come Emmanuel”, a term from Isaiah 7:14, which prophesied “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”. With these words Israel was introduced to Emmanuel – God with us –the hope for the Christian world held captive on a dark, sinful Earth. And with these words anticipating the Messiah’s arrival, waiting and watching begins….
The second verse, beginning “O come, O Wisdom from on high” centers on the source of true wisdom that comes only from God through God’s Son. With the Messiah’s arrival, the wisdom can reach around the world and bring peace and understanding to all.
The third verse, O come great God of might, speaks to God’s presence with the people of Israel over the ages – particularly the story from Exodus 24 where, in a cloud that lingered over Mount Sinai for six days, God on the seventh day gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
O come, thou rod of Jesse, in some translations also called the Branch of Jesse, is taken from Isaiah 11:11 which says “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” In this verse, the rod of Jesse represents Christ, the only one who can defeat the powers of evil and bring eternal life to those who follow him.
And finally, the lyrics turn to “O come, thou key of David,” a reference to Isaiah 22:22. The words in this verse explain that the newborn King holds the key to the heavenly kingdom and there is no way to get into the kingdom but through Him. It is based on the verse which reads: I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.
Verses six and seven of this hymn, which, just like your hymn books are sometimes included and sometimes left out, speak to Christ’s arrival as a morning star (also called a Dayspring), and as the Desire of nation, both having similar biblical groundings as the other verses.
So think about it for a moment. Imagine having heard legends passed down from your grandparents and their grandparents and their grandparents about the coming of this Saviour, this one who would forever change your life, and indeed the world. Imagine living in a time of hardship and injustice, barely able to fathom what a world of wholeness and liberty might look like, but holding on to the faintest glimmer of hope that maybe, one day, God might turn the tables. Imagine waiting for generations and centuries, until the promise became all but forgotten, yet in your darkest moments holding on to the possibility that God might indeed come to earth. Now that is anticipation. That is waiting. That is the world to which this helpless infant arrived – hardly the triumphant Messiah they were searching for. But I’m jumping ahead of myself again.
This Advent season, before we lay the baby in the manger, before we even look to the brightest star in the sky, let’s spend some time with our Hebrew ancestors. Waiting, and preparing, and holding on to the hope that God will indeed make true the promises that are written on our hearts and treasured in our beings. Let’s spend some time with our families thinking about what we really are anticipating. Let’s take time with our faith community preparing ourselves for the miracle that is fast approaching. Let’s find the time in reflection to marvel at how this promise of God is about to be fulfilled in the birth of a tiny child.
Advent really is an amazing season. One of preparation and anticipation. One where days seem short and the darkness of night seems to last forever. One where we make ready the world to accept and worship the King, the baby, who fulfils God’s greatest promise to the world. So let’s not rush too fast to the manger – because it is in the journey….in the waiting…that we find true reason to rejoice.