Friends, every Sunday during worship you and I devote a significant chunk of our time together doing something that is becoming less and less common in American life today, and that is, we sing! That’s right, we sing! And for us as Christians, that may surprise us, because singing is so central to who we are and what we do.
But yet, think about it. Aside from Sunday morning worship, where else in your life do you sing? Unless you participate in a choir of some kind, there are really only two instances in American life today where you sing with other people. The first is rather obvious, it’s when you sing “Happy Birthday!” to someone on their special day, which, to be sure, is a kind gesture, and yet, let’s be honest, from a purely musical standpoint it’s more often than not a bit of a train wreck. Right, Laurie? The other is a bit more obscure, it’s when you’re at a sporting event and you sing the Star Spangled Banner or Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the 7th inning stretch.
And that’s about it. Those are the two instances in which you and I sing outside of church. And yet, singing is a major and foundational part of who we are and what we do.
And maybe nowhere in the bible is this more evident than when we journey back to that first Christmas long ago. As person after person after person heard of this good news of the birth of Jesus, that the Son of God who would live and dwell among them, they couldn’t help but respond and worship through song. They were each hearing news so good, news so powerful, news so life-changing that they couldn’t help but sing. And not just the women and the angels, no, no, no, it was news so good it made grown men sing!
Last year at this time, we kicked off our sermon series on the gospel of Luke by beginning where Luke begins, with the story of Jesus’s birth. And in doing so, we looked at the original Songs of Christmas – songs that we find in scripture sung by Zechariah and Mary, Angels and Simeon – those who were a part of Jesus’s birth long ago.
This year, we’re going to once again reflect on the Songs of Christmas, but this time, we’ll look at songs of a different kind. Songs that you might be even more familiar with. Songs like Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Joy to the World.
As we look closely at a few of these classic Christmas carols, my hope is that you’ll gain a newfound appreciation and gratitude for these familiar hymns, and that through them you’ll marvel at the Christmas story and what Jesus’s birth means for you and me all the more.
Our Lord has given us this beautiful gift called music, and music has a way of communicating the truths and promises of God in a way that is both beautiful and memorable. One of the things I know to be true is that though you probably won’t leave here singing the 3 points of any sermon, you very well might leave here singing the lyrics from one of our songs.
And so my hope is that you’ll be savoring these lyrics and humming its tune for years and years to come. So without further ado, let’s get started.
The first Christmas carol we’ll study is a classic, in fact, it’s the song we just sung: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. And to call it a Christmas carol you see, isn’t quite right. It’s better seen as a tried and true Advent hymn. In fact, our hymnals categorize it as such.
In general there are two kinds of carols that are sung during the Christmas season. Advent carols and Christmas carols. And more often than not, you can feel the difference between the two not only by their lyrics, but also by the tune that reinforces it.
Christmas carols are essentially songs of celebration and jubilation that Christ has come. They’re upbeat, high energy. Whereas Advent carols are essentially songs of expectation and preparation for Christ’s coming. They’re a little more reflective, contemplative.
And that’s what O Come, O Come Emmanuel is all about it. It’s a song of expectation and preparation for Christ’s coming, and in fact what’s really beautiful about this one is that it is a song of expectation and preparation in more ways than one.
Let’s take a look at the first verse of this classic hymn. It’s the one we know best:
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
In beautiful prose, this first verse captures what the Israelites, God’s people, were experiencing in the centuries before Jesus’s birth.
They were exiles in a foreign land, captured by the Babylonians – notice how both words are used in that opening verse – God’s people were strangers in a foreign land, forced into exile living in a home that was not their home. It was a time of mourning and longing, hoping and waiting, waiting for the Son of God to appear, for the promised coming of a future Messiah to be fulfilled.
Even when they returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, their season of exile continued. Though they rebuilt the temple, God’s presence did not dwell within the temple as it had before. In fact, between the last writings of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ, there were 400 years of … silence. That’s right silence. And silence is uncomfortable. It was for you and I just now, and it certainly was for the Israelites back then. We long for God to speak. We long for God to be present among us.
And you can imagine God’s people way back when saying and praying something like this, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” For Emmanuel means “God with us.”
And yet, here’s what’s particularly noteworthy about this hymn, and that is, it was written sometime in the 12th century. It was written for Christians on this side of Jesus, on this side of Christmas. In fact, the very concept and practice of Advent, a 4 week journey leading up to Christmas morning, didn’t begin until the 4th century or so.
In other words, it’s not simply a hymn that looks back to the past, but also a hymn that anticipates the future.
You see, Advent is about simultaneously looking in two directions. In one sense we look back, and reflect and rejoice in how God came down and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ, that he was and is Emmanuel, God with us.
And yet, at the same time, Advent also is a time to look ahead. We look ahead to that promised time when God will one day come again. This is the promise and hope of Advent. It points to not only Jesus’s first coming, but also his second. A day in the future, as the bible promises, where Jesus will descend from his heavenly throne, bringing heaven down to earth, a time in the future where he will make all things new.
All this to say, as author Betsy Childs Howard writes, “When we sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” we are not simply role-playing what the ancient Israelites must have prayed before the coming of the Messiah. No, we are praying that Emmanuel would return and make right all that is wrong with the world.”
Yes, yes, and yes. We too, here in 2022, in a very real way, sing and pray, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We long for Jesus to return and for him to right all that is wrong with the world.
And with this in mind, we can see how all the verses to this song are prayers and pleas that we can make to God right here, right now. In fact, each verse begins by addressing God by one of his many names, then follows with a prayer and a plea:
v.2 – O God of Wisdom, teach us in the ways to go
v.4 – O Root of Jesse, free us from Satan’s tyranny
v.5 – O Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home
And here might be my favorite, verse 6, “O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer, our spirits by thine advent here.”
Come Lord Jesus, come Emmanuel, in midst of all the world throws our way, lift our spirits, in this present Advent, right now, right here.
And so friends, where in your life and in the world around are you saying, are you praying, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” “Come, Lord Jesus, Come” ?
Maybe you’re praying this prayer in the midst of your relationships these days, whether with your family or friends. Maybe things felt particularly icy and awkward around the Thanksgiving table this year. You pray for reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, you pray for God to free us from pride and stubbornness. You pray, as the song goes in verse 7, “bid envy, strive, and discord cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” In your relationships, you pray, “O Come again, Emmanuel.”
Maybe you’re praying this prayer in the midst of your work. Maybe you’re at a job you can’t stand, with people you can’t stand. Maybe you’re in need of work and looking for it. You pray, “O Come again, Emmanuel.”
Maybe you’re praying this prayer in the midst of your health. A terminal illness. Pain that can’t be relieved. Doctors that don’t have answers. You pray, “O Come again, Emmanuel.”
Maybe you’re praying this in light of what you see and hear in the news. Inhumane working conditions for workers that created the World Cup in Qatar. Growing inequality in our world, the rich get richer, the poor get poor. Babies in the womb who are never born because mothers are stuck feeling like it’s their best or only option. Mass shootings in churches and schools and public spaces – places that should be known for peace, not violence. Friends, where oh where, do you pray, “O come again, Emmanuel.”
The temptation during this Advent and Christmas seasons is to rush immediately to celebration and jubilation. It’s an understandable impulse. It’s not easy to wait.
This past Friday, we started putting our Christmas decorations up, the tree, some lights, a wreath, and our stockings. And Noah, who just turned 4, kept asking, is it Christmas already? Is tomorrow Christmas morning? His little brain can’t make sense of all the waiting in between.
Truth is, whether we’re 4 or 44 or 84, we don’t like to wait. We don’t like sitting in the tension, in the mourning, in the silence, in the pain. And yet wait we must. At least, for a little while. It’s only by staring into the darkness that we see how desperately we need the light, and just how beautiful it all is.
So friends, if I may, let me encourage you in a few ways, so that you can embrace Advent this year for all that it is.
If possible, slow down. Simplify your calendar. Be thoughtful about your commitments. Make space for silence and reflection, for bible reading and prayer. I don’t think it’s by accident that Advent happens to fall within the coldest and darkest season of the year. In some respects, there’s simply less to do and I feel like it’s nature’s way, and God’s way of saying, do less. So embrace it.
I also want to acknowledge that for our church choirs, this is not slow down season, but ramp up season, and for that I say, “thank you.”
One of the ways we mark this season in the Triller house is that in our living room, in goes the tree, and out goes the T.V. The T.V. goes in a closet during Advent. It’s a simple and tangible way in which we eliminate distractions and make space for what matters most.
And above all, as you ponder and pray, as you mourn and wait, as you embrace the silence, consider where in your life are you saying, “O Come Again, Emmanuel.” And this second part is crucial, as people on this side of Christmas, as people filled with his Holy Spirit, filled with the very presence of God himself, how might he want to use us to share his light and love wherever he calls us to go?
And we’ll ever so slowly begin to finish with. By considering thousands of brothers and sisters in Christ who are literally living in exile halfway across the world. Of course, I’m talking about the people of Ukraine.
In the midst of the war and horror and atrocities in Ukraine, there is something beautiful happening behind the scenes, particularly in the neighboring nation of Poland. Over the course of this year, 3 million Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border, seeking safety and asylum in Poland.
And of the course of this year churches in Poland have stepped up in extraordinary ways to meet the needs of these refugees. In many towns, churches were the first responders. Retrieving refugees from the border, they fed and clothed and housed them, helped enroll their kids in school, connected them with churches in other cities, prayed for them and baptized them. Many churches in Poland have small congregations. One church for example, God’s Light in Lublin has 30 members, and yet their church, leading by faith and trusting in God, found a way to host 60 refugees a night.
All over Poland, churches have doubled in size. “Everyone’s a believer now,” said Andrii Kokhtiuk, a Polish pastor serving near Warsaw. “They’re all crying out to God. The soil is ripe for growing and planting.”
Now based on all of this so far you would think that the blessing has gone one way and that the people and churches in Poland have been blessing to the people of Ukraine and that the Ukrainians are forever indebted to them.
And yet, here’s what’s so incredibly beautiful and can only be described as the mysterious nature of God working powerfully behind the scenes. And that is, the Ukrainians have been a blessing to Poland and Europe as a whole in a way all their own.
Less than 0.1 % of the Polish population identify as evangelical Christians, and though a majority identify as Roman Catholic, less than half regularly attend mass, and many view Catholicism as just part of Polish culture.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has been an incubator for evangelical megachurches, seminaries, charities, and missions since the 90’s. And now this year, many of these evangelicals are being scattered in a mass exodus from Ukraine, serving as involuntary missionaries to the whole of Europe.
One Polish pastor said he has been amazed by the faith of the refugees. He met with one couple in their late 60’s who crossed the border with their two granddaughters. They had just bought a house with their entire life savings, only to then have Russian bombs obliterate it. And yet this couple testified, “God knows our path …. Praise God, praise God.” They had no resentment, no blame towards God.
The Polish pastor says, “God has completely changed us. We woke up from our comfortable life. Now we truly understand what it means to be the body of Christ.”
And at a church in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, despite the heavy presence of war, another presence is also tangible – one of hope and anticipation – and even joy. The pastor there encouraged his volunteers to press on in faith, saying, “The Holy Spirit is making us look more like Jesus Christ. When we look like Jesus, we are showing others the way to Jesus. We don’t understand everything, but we continue to trust in Jesus.” One volunteer called out, “God is good!” The group chorused back, “All the time!” God is good! All the time!
All of this brings us back to the most important part of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It’s the simplest and yet also the most profound.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
Notice the tenses that are used there. It’s present rejoicing because of a future coming. In other words, we can do as the people of Ukraine and Poland.
Though we mourn in exile here on earth, we can be found rejoicing in the waiting because we know Christ is coming.
You would think the writer of this hymn would say, mourn because he’s not here or rejoice because he is. But no, rejoice because he one day will be.
We can rejoice because the God who came down in the person of Jesus will one day come again. He will come to make all things new. To make every wrong right. To bring an end to all suffering and mourning, all death and all pain.
That’s the hope of our brothers and sisters halfway across the world. Friends, may it be our hope too.
Let’s sing the chorus all together now a cappella:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel