Monday, November 28, 2016

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 24:36-44:

Every year around this time we hear from a certain segment of the news media about a war on Christmas, and how come stores won’t say Merry Christmas. That entire argument misses the point entirely because there is not a war on Christmas. There is a war on Advent, the time of preparation. Christmas does not begin until December 25 and then runs for 12 days, so just when we should begin to say Merry Christmas is the very time in which Christmas is taken down and put away in a box until next year.  If we want to talk about a war on Christmas let’s get serious and talk about returning to the 12 days of Christmas that start on Christmas day, not the 30 or so days before Christmas even arrives. And the last piece is that this year Christmas falls on a Sunday, and we will be holding a worship service, and here is my rule, if you are not in worship on Christmas Day, either here or some other church where you are, then you never get to say “Let’s keep Christ in Christmas” ever again. There is not a war on Christmas there is a war on Advent the time of preparation to get ready for the coming of Christmas. To get ready for welcoming the Christ child into our lives once again. A time to get ready to welcome Jesus into the world, and to recognize, as we have talked about for the past few weeks, that Christ is here and yet Christ is not yet here as well. He has come and he has yet to come.

Now I do have to confess my own hypocrisy here and that is that I start listening to Christmas music before Halloween even arrives, and as soon as Linda will allow me to put up Christmas decorations they are going up, so I have my own personal war with advent. But that has never stopped me from simultaneously emphasizing the importance of Advent, as a time of preparation, a time of slowing down and appreciating and also a time of expectancy and of desire. And so, we are going to spend the next few weeks trying to do that, and approaching this season, both of Advent and Christmas, by looking at some of the most famous songs of the season, what they mean and why they matter for our faith, and we start with the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

This hymn is not only one of the most famous, and a personal favorite of mine, and I know some of you, but it is also one of the oldest hymns that we sing. Although the first record we have of it is from the 12th century, it is believed to be from at least the 9th or 8th century, and perhaps even older than that. Originally written in Latin it conveys images not of snow covered pine trees and sleigh bells, but instead imagery, primarily from the prophet Isaiah, of the people living in Exile in Babylon and the expectancy of the Messiah who would come to rescue them and restore the people, giving them freedom and bring about the reign of God. The song we rediscovered in the 19th century by John Mason Neale, who was an Anglican priest, but because of a handicap as well as his desire, as part of the Oxford Movement, to recapture and restore some of the older traditions of the faith that had been removed from the Anglican church by the puritans, found it difficult to find a church willing to accept him as a priest, and so he became the head of an almshouse. From that position, he went on to found the Society of St. Margaret, an order of women in the Anglican church who nurse the sick, but he also had the time and the inclination to find and translate older Latin hymns, to reintroduce them to the larger church. Some of the hymns we owe to him include, All Glory, Laud and Honor and Sing My Tongue the Glorious Battle, but he is best known for Christmas and Advent songs like Good King Wenceslas, which was an original hymn, as well as Good Christian Friends, Rejoice and O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

The verses of the hymn, which we obviously do not singing in Latin, so they are not exact, come from what are known as the Antiphons, which are short sung responses done before and after a psalm or canticle. For those who object to modern praise music and the constant repetition of an easy refrain, this is nothing new. It’s actually a recapturing of this earlier movement of the antiphons, although I don’t think those who were creating praise songs actually intended this, or maybe even knew about this part of the history of the church. But at vespers each evening in monasteries, which is the service done at 6 pm or sunset, in the seven days leading up to Christmas, they would read Mary’s Magnificat, one of the songs of the season, and before and after they would read each one of the antiphons, one for each day.  And I know you all think that’s really exciting, but here is the really exciting part, they formed an acrostic, so that the first letters of each line formed out a word, remembering this was in Latin, and what we know as the first verse of O Come, was sung on the last day, so that the acrostic spelled SARCORE, which spelled backwards is ero cras, which means “I come tomorrow,” or “I shall be with you tomorrow.”  So, they would sing for Emmanuel to come, completing this acrostic, and the next day would be Christmas and they would welcome Jesus’ birth again.

But this song of the season is different from the ones we hear in the malls, as this is not about joy or glory or celebration.  This is a call of longing, and a call from a place of suffering and isolation. Again, it’s harkening back to several visions we find in the Hebrew scriptures, and the first verse calls for God to come and ransom them in their exile. Remembering that the Israelites had been taken into exile in Babylon, and Jerusalem and the temple were laid to waste. Where is the hope to be found? Where is God to be found?  In the 137th Psalm we hear of the exile, “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” But they also know that there are words of comfort, and of promise, and so next we ask for wisdom to come from on high and order the earth, not as we want it but as God wants it, with us following. This is done through God’s might and the giving of the law from on Sinai’s height, but also from the root of Jesse’s tree. Jesse is the father of King David, the one from whom the Messiah will come and reign, because the Messiah will bring the key of David, which is the keys of heaven and earth, and will be the dayspring, the light that shatters the darkness.

All of these are different images of God, different ways that God is known in the world, different ways that we too can cry out to God. Again, most of the imagery comes from Isaiah, who, while offering words of judgment against the people, also offers words of comfort, words with which most of us are familiar simply because we hear them each Advent and Christmas season, like Isaiah saying “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” That is the dayspring coming to disperse the gloom and bring cheer, “ For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.” This child shall also be called, Emmanuel, God is with us.

God is with us. That’s what’s striking about this call is that in the midst of exile, they are calling for God’s presence to be there, while also recognizing that God is already present. That tension again.  We don’t have Christmas because things are going well in our lives or in the world, because if that were true we wouldn’t need Christmas. It’s not a holly, jolly Christmas. We have Christmas because things are not going well, because we need Christ in our lives. That is why Advent, that time to prepare, has many of the same aspects of Lent, the time of preparation for Easter. That’s why we will be receiving communion each Sunday in Advent this year, not only to mark it as a special season, but also to help us remember the mood of the season and the need for Christ.  It is a time in which we not only remember the darkness, but as the days get shorter, we live in the darkness. We have all been in exile at some point in our lives, whether it was the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or a relationship, or health. We have all had a time in which we were taken out of the ordinary, and everything we had known was destroyed, and we wondered “how can I sing the old songs in a new land?” We wondered how life could go on and that so many people were acting as if life was still the same, and yet it could never be the same. We have all cried out from the midst of our exile, and thus this speaks to us. Come to us Emmanuel, come and rescue us.  Perhaps some of you are there even right now, and so in this Advent season, cry out to God. Cry out and say “come to me Lord Jesus, be with me Emmanuel.”

And for those not in that spot, it’s still important for us to be prepared, as the passage we heard from Matthew tells us, for we know not the time or the place when Jesus will come back, and so we to cry out Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.” One way to help prepare for that, as well as just good exercise, is to spend the days of Advent, coming up with our own antiphon. Start out with a name, or attribute of God, followed by a descriptive phrase, followed by some petition, or request of God, or it could be a note of thanksgiving, and then end with rejoicing not only that God will come again, but that God is present for us here and now. Rejoice for Emmanuel shall come to thee, to save and to rescue, to deliver and to shield, to bring about the kingdom of God and to ransom us from exile into the loving presence of God. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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