I love Christmas for many reasons, but one is that during Christmas we get to see, very clearly, the link between the Old and the New Testaments. On the whole there two mistakes people make in trying to relate the two Testaments. The first is to assume that every word of scripture is equal to every other word of scripture. We might like to think that at times, but the fact is, some words take precedence over others. We don’t follow the Old Testament dietary laws for example, nor do we allow fathers to sell their daughters into slavery as prescribed in Exodus 21. We cannot construct a social ethic based on the book of Leviticus, or the history of the Kings of Israel.
The second mistake is to throw the Old Testament out altogether. It is, in places a very violent book. God, for example, on more than one occasion, demands that whole groups of people be slaughtered. A number of Psalms call for violence against our enemies. Slavery is not only tolerated, we are given rules on how to practice it. There is that whole thing about not charging interest, which would put banks out of business, and every forty-nine years all debts are forgiven, all slaves are set free, and all land goes back to the original owners. Capital punishment is allowed, but only in cases where there are eyewitnesses to the crime, and the eyewitnesses have to be willing to be a part of the execution.
But I think that is a mistake. There are beautiful parts of the Old Testament, and rich theology. If we throw out the Old Testament we are getting rid of the 23rd Psalm, the call of Isaiah to Comfort the people of God, beating our swords into plowshares, Sabbath rest, the complexity of the book of Job, the pathos of the Lamentations–doing away with the Old Testament would gut a lot of what we know about God.
So what does Christmas give us?
The focal point for all of our faith, Jesus Christ. And the hymn we are singing this morning brings it all to light for us.
O Come O Come Emmanuel is based on a very old liturgy that dates back to the Eight century, the O Antiphons. These choruses were popular in monasteries, and were sung starting December 17, eight days before Christmas. Each day a different verse is sung in the daily worship of monks and nuns. They were called the O Antiphons because each verse starts with O. O Emmanuel, O Wisdom from on high, O Root of Jesse. By the way, an Antiphon is a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle.
In the Eighteenth century, the O Antiphons were turned in to a hymn, chanted in Latin, by the people. It first appeared in a Catholic worship book in Cologne, Germany. It made its English debut, using the tune we are singing this morning in 1851. The tune is a bit of a mystery though. The man who published it gave a cryptic reference as to where he got it, and no one could verify his sources. You will be relieved to know that the mystery was solved in 1966, when an enterprising hymn researcher, and yes, that does exist as a job, found a 15th Century French manuscript that contained the tune we know today.
Each of the seven verses centers around a title for Jesus, as well as a verse from Isaiah that gives us that title comes from. Some of the titles are well known and obvious, such as Emmanuel or Wisdom from on High, while others are a bit more obscure, like the Key of David.
Each of these show us how the Old Testament points us to Jesus.
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
And order all things, far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go
We start with wisdom.
They say that knowledge is when you know that a tomato is really a fruit, and not a vegetable. Wisdom is when you know not to put tomatoes into a fruit salad. Of all the great virtues listed by theologians over the years, I would say that today we are most in need of wisdom. Wisdom is the virtue that holds all the others together. We may be full of love, but we need to the wisdom to know when and how to practice our love for others. For example, out of love, I want to help every single person that comes through our doors. Weekly I have people in my office seeking some kind of help. I pray for wisdom when I listen, so that I might know how best to meet their need, if I can at all. Sometimes what people ask for is not what they really need. Wisdom helps me figure out who to help and how.
Isaiah says this about Jesus:
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah 11:2-3
Throughout the Old Testament we find places where Wisdom is central, from the Proverbs to the story of Solomon. When we sing about Wisdom from on high, we are singing that the wisdom of Jesus far exceeds the wisdom of the world. As Isaiah told us of God, His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways, but we open ourselves up to the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ, we have access to the wisdom of the ages, the deep wisdom of the Universe.
Jesus is the fount of all wisdom. Knowledge is necessary, but without wisdom, it does little overall good. When we cultivate a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus, we find our wisdom can increase as well.
Lord of Might
O come, O come, Thou Lord of might
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty and awe
The most basic confession in the Church is Jesus is Lord. The Hebrew word for Lord is Adonai. When we say Jesus is Lord, that means we bend our wills to the will of Jesus, we do what God requires of us as revealed to us by Jesus Christ. We are saying, in essence, that we are willing to follow the operating instructions of life. How many of you have ever bought Ikea furniture? If you have you know that it comes unassembled. Now if you are like some people, you dump the contents of the big IKEA box on the floor, and start at it, putting together your bed, or your sofa or your end table. And if you do it that way, you are very likely to end up with a big mess.
If we try to put together a church without following the instructions of our maker, we may end up with a big mess. If we try to put our lives together without following the operating instructions given by God, we may find that big mess is our lives.
Isaiah tells us, […] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” Isaiah 11:4-5 This hymn tells us that Jesus is that judge. Too often when we hear about God judging, we jump to thinking about Heaven and Hell, or God’s divine retribution. But that is only a small part. It is more like the judgment on the person who refused to take gravity seriously. God created us a certain way, and to live a certain way–in peace and love with one another. When we ignore that, when we refuse to recognize the authority of the teachings of Jesus, we break our heads on reality. We end up with things like wars, like hunger and poverty, like addictions.
But there is another section from Isaiah that traditionally goes with this verse: “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” Isaiah 33:22
He will save us! Its like following the instructions that come with something from IKEA. If we don’t follow them, we are likely to end up with a mess, but if we do follow them, we have what we want. Except that what we have, is not a bed or a sofa, but abundant life, both now and in eternity.
John 1:12, which I read last week, says: … to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.
Root of Jesse
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
I hate waiting. This verse, more than any other points us to the long arm of God working throughout all history. In a nutshell, the biblical story is that God created us in his image, but that we turned from God, again and again throughout all time, and by turning from God, we damaged our relationship with God, with each other, and with ourselves. The history of the Hebrews is the history of a people who were chosen by God, but who, time and time again, turned their backs on God. And their story is also our story. We were chosen by God, but time and time again, we turn our backs on God.
But God has been working in history to repair the breach. God gave the law to Moses at Mount Sinai, including the Ten Commandments, so we could know what was important to our Lord. God sent prophets to speak the Word of the Lord to the people. And, as we say in the communion liturgy, in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus Christ, the Father’s only begotten son, to become the bridge to restore our relationship to God. David, and the descendants of David were a part of God’s plan. The lineage of Jesus goes back to King David, but even further back than that, to David’s father Jesse.
God did not just wake up one day and say, “Hey, what if I send my boy Jesus to the people. That might help.” Jesus was not God’s plan B. Jesus was first, and foremost, always God’s plan A. So when we sing of
Key of David
O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery
I have a powerful ring of keys in my pocket. It is the A key to the church and it opens every single door in the building. There is nothing I cannot open, from the mail box to the sound and light board, to the doors of every office. It I ever lose these keys, it is going to cost a lot of money to re-key every thing.
In this verse we see that Jesus is the Key of David. What does that mean?
Isaiah 22:22 says: “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.”
Jesus has the key to everything important, including the key to our hearts. In many ways we can be closed off to God, and to each other. We might want to share what is on our hearts, but for some reason we cannot. There was a couple who was attending my last church for about three weeks, and they both made separate appointments to see me. The husband came in first. He told me he was really liking being at the church, he loved the worship service, he loved the people, and most of all, he felt God was working in his heart in a way he had never experienced before. “But I have one problem,” he said. “I don’t know how to tell my wife about my new found spiritual life. She will think I am a religious nut.”
Two days the later the wife came in. She said a lot of the same things. She was growing spiritually, and felt closer to God than she had ever felt. “But I don’t know how to tell my husband,” she said. “He’ll never understand.”
“You two need to talk,” I said. “Not to me, but to each other.” And they did.
Jesus opens our hearts; he opens them to God and he opens them to one another. There are some keys only he has.
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Back when I was in college I decided to climb Mount Mitchell with a friend during Easter break. Mount Mitchell is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, but before you get all impressed on my mountaineering skills, I should tell you it is only 6,684 feet. You don’t even get above the tree line.
It was the spring, and the weather was gorgeous. My friend and I were wearing shorts and t-shirts on the hike up. And we were hot. We got to the peak, which was in the woods, set up camp, ate dinner, and that was when the cold front set in. I had a Spring sleeping bag, and no heavy coat, and I was cold–really cold. My friend was as cold as I was. We huddled in the tent, listening to AM on our transistor radio, waiting for the dawn when the sun would start to warm things up, and when we could pack up and get the heck off the mountain.
It was a loooong night. And it seemed to get colder and colder as the night went on. We shivered in our tent for an eternity, until finally the dawn broke. We quickly broke down our camp site in the emerging light, and started our hike back down the mountain. The dawn warmed the earth and after an hour of hiking, we were back in our t-shirts, finally warm after the long night.
When we are in darkness, we wait for light in hopeful anticipation. The darkness could be an illness. It could be grief. It could be a long season of spiritual dryness, when we feel God is far, far away from us, and not the light in our souls.
Isaiah 9:2 says:
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.
Jesus is the light of the world, and shines his light on us. Sometimes his light is too bright for us to see him, like the sun is too bright for us to look at. But we can see by his light. We can make our way through this treacherous world. We can see, as the Psalm says, the paths of righteousness.
Desire of Nations
O come, desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease
And be Thyself our King of peace
“Why do the the heathen rage?” asks Psalm, or to put it another way, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?” The answer the Psalmist gives is that the leaders of the earth ignore God. Now the Psalmist wrote this around 3,000 years ago, but not much has changed. Leaders of the world get too full of themselves, full of pride, whether it is national pride or just their own ego, and they forget that we were all created by God, and all share in the goodness of God. And so, throughout the centuries, humanity has been in a constant state of war. Perhaps it is necessary at times, but perhaps not.
When we sing this verse, we are not necessarily singing it for the nations of the world, but for the many faceted faces of the world-wide Church of Jesus Christ. Deep in our hearts, most people want to peace, they want prosperity, they want to get along. Yet all sorts of different things come from without to make this impossible at times.
When we sing this, we are singing to our King, the king of the church. If the nations must rage, the church should be able to remain at peace. One of my seminary professors had a poster on his door–A modest proposal for peace; that all the Christians in the world agree not to kill each other. The Church of Jesus Christ is a multi-faceted beautiful jewel, each face with its own shimmer, its own radiance, its own design. But it all comes together to make a beautiful whole.
If we keep our faces turned to Jesus, we don’t have time to focus on the various ways we are different. We only see how Christ works differently within us all. If we keep our faces focused on the Desire of Nations, we see what binds us all together, and makes us one in God.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
The first verse of our Advent hymn is actually the last of the O Antiphons. They build up to this one thing; Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. No longer do we fear being separated from God. God came to us, and bridged the chasm between humanity and divinity with Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, God with us, Emmanuel. The mystery of the incarnation lies behind every verse of this hymn. We can participate in the wisdom of Christ, because Christ is in us. We can know that the Lord of Might calls us to his side, because Christ is Lord. We can reap the fruit of God’s work over countless centuries, because Jesus is the root of Jesse, God’s plan for all eternity. We can have the power of God unlocked for us, because Jesus is the Key of David. We can see by the Light of God, because Jesus is the Dayspring, the radiant dawn. We can hope for peace because Jesus is the desire of nations.
From start to finish we can experience the love and work of God through Jesus Christ because he is all of this things. All of this and more. We experience now, but only in part. We wait for the time when we can experience it fully, and so we sing, O Come, O come, Emmanuel! Come, Lord Jesus, come.