Today we conclude the advent series based on the O Antiphon Prayers of Advent. The prayer for December 23 is, "O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the anointed of the nations and their savior: come and save us, O lord our God. Amen.
Christmas approaches at the end of the week. It may not feel like it with all the business we put upon ourselves, but Christmas is a time of great mystery. As a child I remember the fascination of the mysteries of Christmas, such as how Santa Claus gets down the chimney, especially if itís only a six inch pipe. How does Santa know what you want when you forget to send him a letter? How did my parents survive the noise, excitement, and shopping pressure with four boys in the house? These were some of the mysteries of Christmas when I was growing up.
As Christmas drew nearer I remember singing the hymn "O Come Emmanuel." It was and still is a hymn of mystery for me. It always made you slow down for a moment and think. It evoked a sense of the mystery of Christmas, for children as well as adults. Even the tune sounds mysterious, joyful, yet sober and haunting.
The first verse is the most mysterious because of the word Emmanuel. The Hebrew means literally, "God who is with us." It is used two times in the Bible.
The first use was back in the days of king Ahaz. These were dark times. Godís people were divided in political leadership. People no longer feared the Lord or walked in His ways. Neighboring countries threatened King Ahaz in Jerusalem. Would they invade? Who would stop them? Would this be the end of days for Godís people? God gave a sign. A virgin would have a child, and he would be called Immanuel--God with us.
That was what king Ahaz needed, a reassurance that God was still with the people. By the time the child grew to few years old, the enemies of Jerusalem would be defeated.
Donít we need an Immanuel today? We must not be fooled by a good economy and prosperity. The enemy of Godís people is still out there. Sinfulness, always waiting to surround us, hurt feelings and despair can strike suddenly, even at the holidays. Loneliness and loss are the armies that camp around us.
What will our riches do for us then? Can money alone bring us happiness? Can it save our souls from despair when the invisible enemies approach? We need an Immanuel just as much as Ahaz did.
The other place in the Bible where Immanuel is mentioned is Matthew. The Lord told Joseph in a dream that the child Mary would bear would be the prophecy of Isaiah come to life. "Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins."
Here is the greatest mystery of Christianity. All religions promise to bring us to God. Christianity is the message of God coming to us. In Immanuel God is with us. The child born to Mary, Jesus Christ, is the perfect and complete union of God and man. Jesus is God, the same who created the earth and all planets, the land, sea, and all living things. Jesus is fully equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In the mystery that we call the incarnation, this eternal God is found in a human body. He lives and eats, laughs and cries. He bleeds.
The greatest mystery the world has ever seen is that Jesus is God with us. We cannot even begin to understand how this happned, but we believe it is true.
The hymn points out why all this happened, which is easily lost in a modern Christmas. O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear."
Donald Deffner relates how a TV interviewer was walking the streets of Tokyo at Christmas time. As in America, Christmas shopping is a big commercial success in Japan. The interviewer stopped one woman and asked, "What is the meaning of Christmas?" Laughing, she responded, "I donít know. Is that the day Jesus died?" Sadly, there was some truth in her answer.
Without the understanding of Immanuel, God with us in the person of Jesus, there is no mystery at all at Christmas. We are able to explain it all. It is a season for our personal enjoyment. Without Immanuel the mystery of hope is gone. There is no ransom from sin, no reversal of our wrongs. We still have to face at time of our death with no answers to what happens next.
In December 1903 after many attempts, the Wright brothers were finally successful in overcoming a mystery that remained above the grasp of human beings since the beginning--flight. Their flying machine worked, and they telegraphed the message back home to their sister Katherine. "We have actually flown 120 feet. We will be home for Christmas." Katherine took the message to the editor of the local newspaper. He glanced at it and said, "How nice, the boys will be home for Christmas." He totally missed the big news--for the first time in history man had flown!
So many miss out on the peace that Immanuel brings. Donít let the mystery of Immanuel escape you this Christmas. What you really need is not a new teletubby or pokemon, or anything that can be bought or sold in a store. You donít really need to see Cher or Ricky Martin in concert. What you need is someone who will ransom your captive soul, free you from your debt to God, and raise you up from your grave. You need a savior. Jesus Christ is exactly that. Donít miss out on the mystery of it all.
Let Immanuel inspire you to have a Christmas beyond monetary value. Mend a quarrel, let go of suspicion, tell someone "I love you, I forgive you."
Visit someone in a nursing home. Apologize if you were wrong. Be kind to someone you work with. Tell your children what Jesus means to you. These gifts are far more valualabe than anything you can buy in a store, and their effect lasts much longer.
This Christmas, remember--Immanuel has made this possible. He is the mystery of God giving himself for you.
And the peace of the advent of Jesus be with you this week and always.
We sing the first stanza of Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel.
Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel.
That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
Copyright © 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.
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