Click for this week's text: Matthew 1:18-24
How do songs, centuries old, full of religious imagery and messages, keep getting air play? Simple, stop talking about the meaning. As the season of Hallow-thank-mas gets to the final stretch, we will listen to every version of every Christmas carol in every store we visit. Yet in many cases, the meaning has been lost. My hope and prayer during the weeks leading up to Christmas, we’ll rekindle some of the glow.
To start, I’d like to share with you about the history of the lyrics of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The history of this carol dates back to between the Eighth and the Twelfth Century. During this era in Church history people would actually either sing or chant these phrases that all started with the letter 'O'. Songs were important because most people were uneducated. Somebody would read a Psalm and then they would sing or chant phrases that started with the letter 'O', and they became known as the O antiphons. Over time, one of the lines they would sing birthed this song, O Come O Come Emmanuel (from "Then Sings My Soul, Book 2 by Robert J. Morgan). In the Methodist Hymnal, you’ll find these antiphons still listed!
But that is only part of the story. It is a name meaning “God with us.” It also doesn’t come from the night of Jesus’ birth. It actually comes from the words of the prophet Isaiah found in Isaiah 7:14-15: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat butter and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
Names were important in the Bible. The choosing of names and the titles one received were critically important. One can easily dismiss the “Immanuel” with the idea of God being present through his Spirit or that God is present in his creation. But Verse 15 of Isaiah tells us something unique – God became like us: he ate our food and lived our lives.
And at the transition between BCE and the Common Era, sometime around the year 1, the Jewish people were under foreign rule. Rome and Caesars had the final say. The prophets and people hoped and looked for a leader, a king, sent by God to free the Jews. What they couldn’t seem to understand was God not only wanted to free them but all of humanity from our sinful nature, to make a way for us all to choose good.
The Jews were looking for a Messiah. The Jews and gentiles alike were looking for a savior from Roman rule. Today those words have lost most of their meaning. But when I read the headlines, articles and blogs, the one I still hear people looking for is a desire for God to be with us. John’s gospel describes that “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” It almost sounds like Jesus meets us down at the Waffle House. As it was 2,000 years ago, it remains today, humanity is still crying out for Emmanuel, but how will the people of the world know God is with us? It will be “...through every action of our life, that we begin, continue, and end in Jesus’ name” (from Clarke's Commentary on the Holy Bible).
There is a story told of a winter night where a farmer heard an irregular thumping sound against his kitchen storm door. He went to a window and watched as tiny, shivering sparrows, attracted to the evident warmth inside, beat in vain against the glass.
Touched, the farmer bundled up and trudged through fresh snow to open the barn door for the struggling birds. He turned on the lights and tossed some hay in the corner. But the sparrows, which had scattered in all directions when he emerged from the house, hid in the darkness, afraid.
The man tried various tactics to get them into the barn. He laid down a trail of Saltine cracker crumbs to direct them. He tried circling behind the birds to drive them to the barn. Nothing worked. He, a huge, alien creature, had terrified them; the birds couldn’t comprehend that he actually desired to help. The farmer withdrew to his house and watched the doomed sparrows through a window. As he stared, a thought hit him like lightning from a clear blue sky: “If only I could become a bird – one of them – just for a moment. Then I wouldn’t frighten them so. I could show them the way to warmth and safety.” At the same moment, another thought dawned on him. He grasped the reason Jesus was born. (story credited to Paul Harvey)
And when we invite Jesus into our hearts, then the world will see the truth - God IS with us.
Ken's Note: I am aware of the similar series done by Craig Groeschel and Lifechurch.tv. It is a work I have referenced in my own work but it has not been the basis for my work. Where appropriate, I will cite.