Friday, December 25, 2015

Why We Rejoice: a reflection on "O Come O Come Immanuel"

“O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”

Praise be to Christ, who stepped into our lonely exile and mourned alongside us, so that he could bring us out of it and back to the Promised Land. This is no escapist fantasy that denies the reality of evil. We have a God who looked evil full in the face, allowed it to do its worst and STILL overcame it. He has come. This is why we rejoice.

“O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer out spirits by thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight.”

Advent isn't just a season; the word means the arrival of something important or long-awaited. Another translation of this hymn phrases it, “cheer us by thy drawing nigh.” The presence of Christ should mean the presence of joy.

But I'd be lying if I claimed that I always experience that. Sometimes the gloomy clouds of night refuse to disperse. And however much we may try to ignore it, death's dark shadows will come for all of us. This is why we still pray for Christ to come; we don't experience the fullness of His presence yet. But even while we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can have confidence because Immanuel – God with us – has come. One day He will come again and disperse the gloomy clouds of night once and for all. But until then, we are cheered by the hope given by His promise and the profound demonstration of His love for us in His first coming. This is why we rejoice.

“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.”

It’s easy for Christians to forget that the giving of the Law was a great moment. It was the clearest demonstration of God’s character to date, a vivid picture of the majesty of the One who had just saved His people from the most powerful nation in the world by having them march through a large body of water. It showed people exactly how they were to live in light of being chosen by a holy God.

In a world that seems to be sliding back into chaos, we too long to be saved, for God to come in a show of glory and set up a just society free of exploitation, oppression and violence. And that will happen. But first God needs to make us capable of living in a just society. So He sent Christ to atone for sin and the Holy Spirit to transform us so that we can do what’s right. God has provided all we need to be ready for His glorious return. This is why we rejoice.

“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.”

Just as the ancient son of Jesse led his people into battle and struck down enemies they could not defeat for themselves, Christ has defeated our true enemies. He defeated sin by making atonement and empowering us to fight it, freeing us from its guilt and power. He defeated death by making a way for us to escape the depths of Hell and by assuring us that our bodies will be resurrected. He defeated the devil by disarming him so nothing he does can destroy us. He can tempt, but with every temptation God provides a way out. He can accuse, but his accusations have no weight, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He can attack us, but God will protect or restore all that we lose, and Satan’s ultimate destruction is assured. The battle still rages, but the victory is won. This is why we rejoice.

“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.”

In moments when troubles seem overwhelming and we long to escape or when we should be perfectly happy yet our joy feels empty, we realize that every home we have known has been just a shadow of a greater home that we long for. We are homesick for a place we have never seen, where we cannot go on our own. And He has come to open the way to bring us to the place our hearts have always yearned to go. This is why we rejoice.

“O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.”

If modern science has taught us anything, it is that the universe is ordered by wisdom. Think about the vastness and complexity of our universe and the fact that everything from clusters of galaxies to the tiny particles within atoms operate according to laws that we can know and study. Wisdom has shaped our universe, and for us to live appropriately within that universe we also need wisdom – understanding of relationships and ethics and how to make good choices. And now the wisdom that ordered the universe, the Word by whom all things were made has stepped into a human form, to live a life of perfect wisdom and has shown us exactly what a human life well lived looks like. This is why we rejoice.

“O come Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease. Fill all the world with Heaven’s peace.”

The promise to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through him is now fulfilled. People from all nations come and find their deepest desire, their thirst for God, satisfied. And now we wait for the time when all our lesser desires will be met in Him or else will fade into insignificance before the light of His glory. We wait for the time when conflict between nations and individuals will cease, for evil will be restrained and we will be transformed into the image of the Prince of Peace. This is why we rejoice.

“Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” He is peace and wisdom. He is the Way. He is our mighty savior and our just Lord. He is the light who brings true joy. He is God with us. Today, let us remember his coming and celebrate the fulfillment of our hope knowing that His victory is a certain as though it were already complete. Today, let us rejoice.

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