O Come O Come Emmanuel
A sermon preached by Rev Chris Williams on 11 Dec 2016
Chilli Con Carne means? = ‘Chilli with meat’ or ‘chilli with flesh. Carne is the word from which we get carnivorous, or carnal (fleshly). Incarnation – is the word we use of the birth of Jesus: because this was ‘God incarnate’ or ‘God with flesh’ – or even, ‘God con carne’.
Our faith didn’t start at Bethlehem or with Jesus. The stable was the most historic day in human history, but it was not the beginning – or, indeed the end – of the story.
One of the great themes of Advent is the way it looks back to the events leading up to the birth of Jesus – events, we’ll discover, that are part of our own Christian identity and history.
If you come to the carol service, we will be reading some of the old Testament prophesies that foretell a coming messiah. The Messiah was understood by the Jews as a person who was anointed by God to bring peace, justice and mercy to the whole world. The oldest prophecy is found right back in the Genesis creation narrative and the newest was John the Baptist – the cousin of Jesus.
The scene is set In Genesis and we have this great battle between good and evil – exemplified by Adam and Eve and the serpent – a battle, it seems, that evil won.
The underlying premise is that God loved and created the world – but that we messed it up – we call it sin. That we are sinners, seems obvious to me. I don’t need to read history books or look at the news to know that. I just look at my own life to be painfully aware of my own sin – a word I define as ‘the human propensity to screw things up’. And this is a problem for a holy and perfect God: It creates a barrier between him and us.
Much of the Bible is the story of God’s dealings with humanity in order to bring a solution to the problem of sin and bring us back into fellowship with him. He chose a people – Israel – to be his special people and through them he intended to show the love of God and bring salvation to the world. They were not special in that they were better or more loved; it was that they had a higher calling to live and obey the commands God had given, to demonstrate to THE WHOLE WORLD how EVERYONE could live a good, healthy, happy life and know and please the living God.
He gave them priests and prophets and law and worship to turn their hearts back to God, but again and again, the human propensity to screw things up took precedence.
Eventually, God stepped into history himself as a man – as a baby: God con carne, God incarnate, the word – made flesh.
But I wonder if we are aware of how the birth of this baby, at this time and this place, fits into the bigger picture.
As a hook to hang my thoughts on, I want us to look briefly at the famous Advent hymn O come, O Come Emmanuel. It’s one of my favourite tunes – but I wonder how many of us have a clue what we are singing when we say lines like: O come Emmanuel, or O come thou rod of Jesse, or O come thou Dayspring or key of David?
Each one of these titles refers to the messiah, (Remember, the Messiah is the one who is anointed by God to bring peace, justice and mercy to the whole world). Each one emphasises a different Old Testament prophecy of the coming Messiah which was fulfilled at Jesus’ birth.
“Emmanuel” means ‘God with us’. It is a reference to Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Israelites were in exile and longing for a saviour – a messiah. As time went on, this longing grew – particularly in the years preceding the birth of Jesus this verse and others seemed to be pointing to the arrival of someone who would come and save Israel from its oppressors – the Romans.
The gospel writers certainly saw Jesus as the fulfilment of these messianic promises. Matthew cannot be clearer when he says: 21 Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”.
So Jesus is the messiah – something we proclaim today every time we say the word – ‘Christ’, which is simply the Greek translation of Messiah., but he didn’t come to save the Jews from the Romans but, rather, the world from their sins. He came first to the Jews, but John says:
11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—
Emmanuel – God with us! It’s a shocking and dramatic event.
And God is still with us – today – in the turmoil and suffering of this world – God is still with us – Emmanuel
The verse continues: ransom captive Israel.
A ransom is a price paid to release someone. The writer refers to the exile – the time when the nation was forced to live in a foreign land. Many of the prophets and OT writings were written during, or about, this dramatic period in Israel’s life. It is primarily through the cross that this messiah, God-with-us, this God con carne, who came to ransom captive Israel.
Verse two speaks of the rod of Jesse. Rod here is just an old-fashioned way of saying ‘shoot’ and again refers to a passage in Isaiah which states “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Well who on earth is Jesse? Jesse was the father of David – the great king of the golden era of Israel’s history – a king and kingdom Israel longed to experience again. This prophecy says that although the line of David is just a stump – no longer flourishing – no longer providing kings – there will come out from this lineage, a new shoot – a new person who will free Israel. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy – the line of Jesus going right back from Joseph (Jesus’ father) to King David – and his father Jesse – indeed, Matthew takes the geology right back to Abraham.
Can you see, this is no, new religion – made up in a vacuum – this was part of what we call ‘salvation history’ – the weaving of God’s plan throughout human affairs from the first to the last.
The third verse speaks of this Messiah as the Dayspring – which is an ancient way of saying Dawn – or sunrise. It comes from the Gospel of Luke at the end of the Benedictus – which is a song of praise and hope from the lips of Zechariah when he finds out he is to be the father of John the Baptist who, himself will prepare the way for the messiah.
Listen to his words:
‘In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ Amazing, dramatic and encouraging words. Christ bursts upon us and in particular to drive away the clouds of night – that sin which we spoke about earlier which brings gloom and despair. And also to lead us into peace. Anyone fancy any of that this morning?
The Key of David is a reference, again, to a passage in Isaiah which became increasingly understood as a messianic passage. The implication is that ‘one who holds the keys’ has the authority and power of King David. There are a number of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that show the Messiah would control David’s domain. The angel Gabriel, when he came originally to Mary said: ‘You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
And finally, Come thou Lord of might. Now the writer of this hymn takes us right back to Sinai – the mountain on which the Law was given to the Israelites 2000 years before the birth of Jesus. Here, the writer is alluding to the fact that the Son of God was there at that time – not incarnate – not in flesh – but with the Father and the Spirit at the formation of this pivotal moment in the formation of this nation – a nation, God had already promised through Abraham 4 centuries earlier, that through him (that’s Abraham’s offspring) all the nations of the earth will be blessed. That’s why Matthew takes the ancestry of Jesus right back to Abraham. That blessing is fulfilled in the arrival of the messiah – Jesus.
On the face of it, this may seem a bit like a dry Bible study – connecting a few ancient verses in the Bible and an old hymn. But the reality expressed in these words is nothing less than the salvation of the world and a small glimpse into salvation history.
The key to grasping all of this is that this Jewish and Israelite history – from Abraham to Jesus is also our history. If you don’t get that, then much of what we believe, or say in our liturgy or worship, and much of our Bible, will remain opaque and a mystery.
Galatians says: God redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus. The blessings given to Abraham, we have already seen, were for his descendants. This history is now our history – our salvation history because we are part of that lineage from Abraham to Jesse, from David to Jesus and to every person who is born again.
This shoot of Jesse is the point at which we – gentiles and non-Jews, become part of the story – not as illegitimate hangers-on, but as fully-fledged members of the family – those born again into the line of the David through Jesus the Messiah.
In our Communion liturgy in a moment, we will hear the words ‘For when he (Jesus) humbled himself to come among us in human flesh, he fulfilled the plan you formed before the foundation of the world to open for us the way of salvation’. Doesn’t it give you a sense of confidence and trust in God – that we are part of his amazing plan – stretching back through history and before the foundation of the world and reaching forwards into eternity.
That confidence and trust should energise and strengthen us to continue our part in this incredible story and to work with our messiah to bring peace, justice and mercy to the whole world .