The Gospel According to Christmas Carols- "O Come O Come Emmanuel"
Pastor Terry Inman
In the next few weeks the gospel will be played, performed and caroled not just in church but also in public. Wherever you are shopping, eating, commuting, working or watching TV—tune in to the Christmas Carols—especially the ones that tell the good news--the God story!
They are so familiar season after season. It’s so easy to get caught up in the nostalgia and totally miss the message. So this month we are going to pick some of the most admired carols and highlight the truth they tell.
One of the historic carols connected with the church’s celebration of Advent is the Hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. Over the years it has gone through several catholic and protestant revisions. It is sung in variations of four and up to seven verses. We did three this morning!
It’s one of my favorites of the season. The tune is pleading and melancholic—yet majestic and expectant. The theology of the lyrics is impeccable. This carol is ancient and the author is unknown.
We have no idea who first penned this lyrical prayer—Just some monk sometime before 800 A.D. A time in history we often call "the Dark Ages." Civilization had broken down and mankind was sliding backwards into more chaos, ignorance, depravity, and unending warfare.
Someone, somewhere in a monastery in Europe, penned a chant that would reach across the ages to encourage millions. These affirmations are called the great “O” Antiphons. They were anthems of praise and adoration, sung responsively as part of an ancient worship liturgy.
During those "Dark Ages" the Bible was inaccessible. But the monk who composed these stanzas had a full and rich knowledge of Scripture.
He used a wealth of phrases from Old Testament prophecies that speak of the Messiah. Depending on which version of the hymn you are singing, He is mentioned as “Emmanuel”, "the Rod (branch) of Jesse," the "Dayspring” from on high," and the "Key of David".
The original piece included three more, “O COME” titles with verses:
“Lord of Might”, “Wisdom from on High” and “Desired of Nations”.
In the early eighteen hundreds an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale was reading an ancient book of hymns. (Some Pastors play golf for relaxation—Father Neale read vey old hymnals!)
He was brilliant but frail. He could write and speak over twenty languages. He should have been a leading scholar and preacher in the Church.
Apparently some were jealous of his intellectual prowess, so the local religious hierarchy shoved him off to labor in some forgotten church in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Africa. But he did not despair.
On a meager salary he established an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to evangelize and reclaim prostitutes. While he was tirelessly educating and evangelizing, he came across this hymn in a Latin text.
The tune that went with the text was from a 15th century Franciscan convent of nuns ministering in Portugal. Rev. Neale easily translated the Latin into English and gave the world an awe-inspiring Christmas carol.
Soon his translation made it to England, and from there "across the pond" to America and around the world.
Unknown monks first inscribed this gift over 1200 years ago. It was given a tune by nuns in an obscure convent in France. A forgotten missionary off the coast of Africa rediscovered it.
Hidden for centuries, millions worldwide now enjoy the song of Emmanuel (God with us). God is the one who orchestrates history.
Whether it’s the dark ages or this present darkness this is a song of hope.
It’s a celebration of Christ’s first advent and anticipation of His second!
Today we will look at the light discovered in this past season of darkness!
I mentioned that the carol and its great “O Come” Antiphons or anthems capture some significant prophetic names of Christ. The verses are correlated prayerful appeals for the full realization of these promises.
O come Emmanuel (God with us) is the central theme and the most important title mentioned in the carol. The name “Emmanuel” comes as a sign of God’s intervention first mentioned by Isaiah the ancient prophet.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. Isa. 7.14
The carol picks up this prophetic promise and literally prays into its fulfillment. You can feel the intense longing as you hear it.
“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.”
God’s people had been evicted from their homeland and fallen into the custody of foreign oppressors. They were not unlike many of the suffering Christian refugees fleeing their homelands in the mid-east today.
When the Prophet Isaiah first introduced “Immanuel” he was encouraging a King to put his trust in God and not fear the threatened invasion by a formidable adversary. Many Christians seem to be living in anger and fear.
He told him to look for a “sign”. A young woman in the household would give birth to a son named Immanuel (with us is God). Before the child was weaned Judah’s enemies would be defeated.
This happened just as forecast in 722 B.C. Judah’s foes were foiled. But like many prophecies this one also looked way beyond the immediate geo-political events to the first advent or coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Over 700 years later Matthew references this prophecy. He claims it is confirmation that the baby born in Bethlehem to a young virgin named Mary is the promised, “Immanuel” God with us! He is God in the flesh!
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” Matt 1.22-23 (NIV)
God would no longer be a distant divinity—revered but impersonal. He came in the person of His son Jesus Christ to live with us and die for us.
Today we don’t have to “mourn in lonely exile”. He is alive. He has come.
He lives in us and will soon return for us! He is Emmanuel, God with us!
The second stanza of the carol carries the title “O come Rod (branch) of Jesse”. We use the term “branch of government”. This title is again in anticipation of His promised reign. He will one day administrate justice, as did his ancestor David, the Son of Jesse.
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. Isa 11.4 NKJV
Isaiah also predicts an end to oppression. He foresees an eternal era of peace and prosperity. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. Isa. 9.6-7 (NIV)
We long for the day when there are no more wars, terrorists and catastrophes. We long for a restoration of morality and justice. We long to see abortion, addiction, and perversion come to and end. We long for the Bethlehem promise of “peace and earth and good will toward men”.
It is human to long for better things, a better paying job, a decent roof over our head, a newer car, an IPhone 7! But our material or emotional longings will never completely satisfy us.
The reason this song tugs at our soul is that we have a deep yearning for the King of our heart to be crowned the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
We sing, “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
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
The next label for Christ in this carol is “Day-Spring”—It means rising or dawning. I know it’s also a brand of religious Christmas cards but it first appeared in the scriptures. With the newborn baby in his arms, the proud papa of John the Baptist, broke out in a prophetic poem.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Luke 1.76-79 NIV
This too has its roots in Isaiah’s ancient prophecies. The Messiah would spend most of his short time on earth bringing light to the Gentiles along the shores of Galilee. Most of his disciples were from that region.
Isaiah said, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Isa. 9.1- 2 (NIV)
These were not the folks the religious leaders of the day expected Jesus to connect with. They were considered shady and shadowy. Jesus turns our dusk to dawn. So we also sing our way out of darkness into the light.
“O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Let the Day-Spring disperse your despair or depression. He is light!
The final Messianic identity in this carol is the “Key of David”.There is a reference to this in the book of Revelation. In Chapter 3 the letter to the ancient church in Philadelphia (Asia not America) portrays Jesus as the one who is “holy and true” holding the “Key of David”.
The phrase “Key of David” originates with an ancient prophecy of Isaiah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. Is. 22.22 NIV
Key of David is an expression of spiritual dominion and authority. We often give dignitaries honorary keys to the city. Jesus was victorious over death he was given the keys to shut up hell and open up heaven.
He alone holds the keys to the Kingdom of God. When we open our hearts to him—He opens the doors to his kingdom to us. So we sing this final stanza with great anticipation.
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.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Emmanuel is God with us. He is at home with us. We are safe with Him. He gives us a higher purpose. He shuts out hellish misery. God came in the person of His son Jesus. He died for us. He will return for us, but he is now in us. He is in us by the presence and power of the His Holy Spirit!
Let’s translate these affirmations into some of our own idioms.
Emmanuel come live in us.
Rod of Jesse come reign in us.
Dayspring come shine through us.
Key of David come open heaven to us.
Now sing in your heart year around, “O come, O come Emmanuel!”