Lessons and Carols

Lessons and Carols 

Is 9:2, 6-7
Luke 1:26-38
Lk 2:1-7
Lk 2:8-16
Matt 2:1-11
Jn 1:1-14

If we had to pick one hymn for the season of Advent one would quickly rise to our minds- “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. It is an old hymn. The words have their roots at least as far back at the year 800, but probably go back further. They have been used and modified in the season of Advent ever since. 

The first verse goes-
O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.

That really sums up what Advent is all about. “O Come” is a yearning. … When thinking about Advent, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer uses the image of miners who have become trapped in a collapsed mine. They have no ability to save themselves. They sit in the darkness and wait. They have no power over when of if they will be saved. They sit in the darkness and yearn, “O Come, O Come”. They wait to hear the pick axes against the stone and the voices of their saviors. Advent is a yearning in the darkness for the one who can save us.

“Emmanuel” means “God with us”. It is another name for Jesus. The name “Jesus” means to deliver, save, or rescue. Jesus is God with us to rescue us.

The next line calls on Emmanuel to “ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here”. These are historical realities. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and needed to be rescued. Later they were taken into exile in Babylon. The Hebrews cried out for political rescue from oppression, but their cry became a symbol for all God’s people because we all have something we need to be rescued from.

We all struggle with some kind of addiction. That’s really what sin is. An addiction is a destructive habit, but we participate in the sin because there is a short-term reward. A drug addict seeks the short term high, but the overall effect on their life is destruction. This is what sin does to us. We can be captured by lust, or pride, or greed, or jealousy, or apathy. We can become trapped in our own hearts. We can also become trapped in our own sense of meaninglessness, our own hurt, our loneliness. Sometimes what we need to be rescued from most is a false image of God. A false image of God is like an idol that enslaves us and twists our very souls to serving it.

The enslavement and exile of Israel has become highly symbolic for God’s people. All of us have some part of our life where we feel trapped, or not really at home. All of us need to be rescued in some way.

The hymn continues, “Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.” The hope for we who are trapped is Emmanuel- The “Son of God”, and also “God with us”.

This opening verse sets the stage for Advent. We yearn to be saved, and we have some Idea who we yearn for. In a sense, the whole Old Testament is encapsulated in this verse. The Old Testament, taken as a whole, can be seen as a yearning to be rescued, and a yearning for God’s presence- for “God with us”.

We see this yearning in Isaiah 9- 
“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. … 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.”
Quite literally, our days have been getting darker and darker until we reached the winter solstice. Now there has been a shift and things begin getting lighter again. It is a beautiful symbol in the physical world that just as we emerge from the darkness of Advent into Christmas, so we begin receiving more light in our day. We are trapped in the cave, we are trapped in the darkness, but light has arrived, the rescuer is coming.

I want to skip ahead to our last reading, which is our reading from the Gospel of John. It might not seem all that Christmassy. We don't see Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem, or the angels appearing to the shepherds. But what is happening is that John is taking us behind the scenes of the Christmas story. John gives us a glimpse into what is happening in the eternal heavenly realm while Joseph and Mary are traveling to Bethlehem, while the angels are appearing to the shepherds, and while the child Jesus is sleeping in the manger. Behind all this is God at work. John gives us a glimpse behind the Christmas scene.

John goes back to the beginning. Before anything was. Before time- (if you can wrap your mind around that one). We are back in Genesis 
"In the beginning [...] was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning".
 John gives us a glimpse at the Trinity before creation, and you get the sense that words are reaching their limit as to how much power they have to describe such things.

The Word- the Son- was with God, and was God. And through God, the Word, all things were made. And just to reinforce the point, John tells us that "without him [without the Word] nothing was made that has been made". The Word, The Son, was completely a part of the creation at the very beginning. Behind the baby that lies in the manger is the one that created the universe. If that doesn't make your mind melt, then you haven't understood it at all. It is beautiful and amazing, but we can hardly begin to fathom it. This baby in the manger, in some mysterious way, is God, the Word, who (John says) "was life [itself], and that life was the light of all [hu]mankind." The Word- the Son- the Light- the Life. John can hardly find the words to describe it. His language has to become poetic if it is to be of any help.

And then John describes Christmas from a heavenly perspective- from behind the scenes. The Word, The Son, the baby in the manger, "9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

Through Jesus, God would show Himself to the world. To meet Jesus, is in a profound way to meet God. When we want to know what God is like, we look to Jesus. He is the Author writing Himself into the book. In Jesus we see love for the poor and rejected. He is a healer or the blind. He is a liberator of those oppressed by evil powers. He is a challenger to the self-righteous. In Jesus we see insight into the human heart. We see compassion for the sinner he refuses to stone. In Jesus we see the Father run to meet the long-lost son who had rejected him. In Jesus we see forgiveness for those who crucified him. In Jesus we see God.

God became one of us, to save us. God will not abandon us. And to prove it, God took humanity onto Himself. So much so that after the first Christmas, after the incarnation, there is no way to encounter God the Son, the Word, without also encountering the human person Jesus. He didn't do this for any reason other than love.

In perhaps the most important and packed sentence in all of the Bible, John says, 
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

That is what is behind the Christmas story. Behind Joseph and Mary, and the shepherds and angels, and Bethlehem- Behind all this is God reaching out to us in love as one of us. God entering the mess with us. God becoming a fragile baby in Mary's arms. The Word became flesh and lived among us. For our sake, so that we would know God, so that we would know God's love for us.



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