Advent 1 Dec 3 2023
The theme of our Advent meditations this year is “Singing the story”. Over the 4 weeks of advent we are going to take well known Advent and Christmas hymns, and try to go a bit deeper into the theology and history of what you may have been singing all your life.
The history, the prophecy, the hope that is contained in every verse and every line, of the songs and carols that are so beloved to us at Christmas, will, I hope, make them sing even more, and bring you joy as you sing them, this year, and for the rest of your lives.
I pray that you can drink in the richness that flows from every holy thought, every rhyming line. And I pray that this might refresh your joy in the Christmas season. If you are like me, you can tend to get a bit of the Christmas grinch going as Christmas starts so early these days. You feel like we just got through it, and here it is again already?
I told one of my children as I do pretty much every year that I don’t have the energy for Christmas this year. But that always tends to change as I get closer to Christmas itself. Why? I think it is because I get to sing more carols. Singing, and Joy in Christmas is our birth-rite as Christians. The purity of the gift of the Christ-child, this is our inheritance in the faith.
So I pray that your joy is rekindled. And as it is, your hope begins to grow. I pray that over this 4 weeks you see the plan of God so long awaited, put into place at just the right time, in just the right place. And I pray that in seeing that, you begin to feel deep within you that certain knowledge that this plan is still in action, that God is still at work in his creation even when it sometimes looks bereft of his presence.
I pray that you know deep in your heart that he is coming back one day, to end the suffering, to ransom as the carol for today says: captive Israel, his church, the new Israel.
And that in that hope, you may find peace. Peace to carry on.
So today we look at the Advent Carol
O come, O come Immanuel.
The original lyrics to this carol are quite old, (as far back as the eighth or 9th century) and formed part of the chants used by French monks and associated with the Magnificat, or song of Mary, sung in the days leading up to Christmas, as part of an evening vespers service.
The tune that we have today is of unknown origin, and the translation from Latin was done by John Mason Neale in 1851. He is also the author of the hymn: “Good king Wenceslas”. So it is safe to say that he was a minister who was not tired of Christmas. He has contributed quite generously to our advent and Christmas celebrations.
The carol expresses the longing that God would send the one foretold in Isaiah 7:14 to a people who were under threat by the Syrian empire. When the prophet spoke these words, they were not yet in exile, but as the ministry of Isaiah went on they were soon to be.
They would soon ask:
How could they trust the promises of God when they were far away from home?
How could they worship God when he was to be found in the temple, and they were so far from it?
But this would be a sign to them: Not of their obedience, that god was happy with them because they had done the right thing. No, they had followed foreign gods and turned away. This was a sign of God’s love and mercy.
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
And while they were in exile they would wait, they would wish for this sign and wonder what it means.
Immanuel: God is with us.
But God is in the temple. Back in Jerusalem. And we are so far away.
This prophecy points to a big “what if?”
What if God could come and be WITH US?
What is God went with his people again, like he did on the exodus through the desert, not bound by the walls of a building or of a tent, but like the pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night?
It is this longing that the carol expresses.
Come God, come and be with us. Here, in whatever mess it is that we are in, whatever exile we are in.
The second verse of the carol cries for the coming of the branch of Jesse.
Root, stump, shoot. What is this language of the root of Jesse?
Isaiah talks about the shoot from the stump of Jesse. Jesse, the father of David, came to be a name not just associated with David his son the great King, but with the line of Kings that would come from him.
The line of Davidic kings was broken because of the disobedience of God’s people. The tree was cut off, the kingship ended, and yet the family line remained, and God, ever faithful to his promise to have a King on the throne from the line of David brought new life. This is after all our God who is in the business of bringing life from death. This is the symbolism of the shoot, new life, that would come from the stump of the seemingly dead tree.
This is symbolism used right through the new testament to describe Jesus, including in revelation 22, the last chapter of the bible:
I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16).
Jesus, who was at the beginning, was both the root, (He was there before the Line of Jesse) and the offspring (he as a man was born into the family tree of Jesse, of his line) He was before and after, a beautiful picture of his nature both as God and man.
The other reading we have for today is the Isaiah 9 prophecy of the names of the Messiah, and there are years of sermons in every one of those names:
His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
That is the prophecy and these are the names that we are going to sing at the lighting of our advent candle on every one of the weeks of Advent.
They show the Godly nature of this child to be born. And somewhere in there, in amongst the fact that this child to be born was a human child, and the glory of the fact that he is God himself, born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, we find the miracle of the incarnation.
Incarnation is just a word that means the “In-flesh-ness” of God. A claim that no other religion makes. That God became one of us, and made his dwelling among us. Not just in a temple, stuck in one city away from where you and I go through our exiles, but WITH us. One of us who feels our pain and our suffering and knows what it is like to feel far away from his Father, so much so that on the cross he cried out asking why his Father had abandoned him!
But we know he hadn’t.
And we know he has never abandoned us, and he has promised never to abandon or forsake us, but to always be with us until the very end of the age: (Matthew 28:20)
This is the amazing wonder of Christmas. God is not an uncaring being far away on a cloud, but a loving God who promised to come in person, who heard the cry of his people to come and be with us, and who we know, again because he has promised, that he will come back this time not just to come and be with us, but to take us to be with him. Home from exile, home from suffering and death and crying and pain, home, away from the old order of things (revelation 21: 4)
Christmas points us to this. In this cry, O come, O come Immanuel, there is hope. Lift up your heads in whatever exile you are going through.
(Isaiah 40:1) Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.