Rev. Drew Stockstill
O Come On!
November 28, 2021 Rev. Drew Stockstill
I want to tell you all about our Advent sermon series called, “Sing All Ye People: Living the Carols.” Each Sunday through Advent, we are going to look to some of the so-called, Christmas Carols, as our source of hope and inspiration. We’re going to look at what these hymns really say and their
rich theology. The music of the church does not exist to entertain us, though it is beautiful. The
music of worship is a part of our praise of God, and as with our prayers and preaching, the hymns also speak to us about God. I heard it said recently, and it is certainly true, that often what we remember most from our time here are not my words, but words and phrases and verses of hymns.
I’ve told you before about my time with Pastor Walt near the end of his life, several Advents back. As he was dying there were not many words exchanged, but what was still strong and sure in the old pastor’s heart and mind and in his voice were the words of, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” So, through this season we are going to look at what those words from Carols, likely already written deep in your heart, are telling us. Today we begin with the 6th Century Advent Carol, “O Come, O come, Emmanuel.” But first, a reading from Luke 21.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
“There will be signs,” said Jesus. Signs he said, in the sun, the moon, and stars, to the delight of astrologers and astronomers everywhere. There will be signs in the heavens, and on the earth, “distress among nations, confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.” And all God’s climate activists said, “told you so,” as the oceans rise and the hurricanes churn at sea. “There will be signs,” said Jesus, and people will faint from fear and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. When you see these signs, said Jesus, “you know the kingdom of God is near.” Happy Advent!
What a way to start the season of light, with Jesus’ prophecy of fear and foreboding, distress. And what’s the deal with these signs? Is Jesus telling us we need to be paying special attention to our horoscopes in the newspaper after all, so that day doesn’t “catch us unexpectedly, like a trap?” Oh, come on! Really? Be alert at all times, praying so we have the strength to escape all these things? Oh, come on! Really? Really. What’s all this about, Jesus? Really, come on.
Jesus Christ -- Mural, West End, Louisville, KY
Well, friends, this is the Advent season, and the fact of the matter is Advent is something different than Christmas. And it feels different, urgent even. Christmas is covered with nostalgia, a looking back. We look back and give thanks that God because flesh and came into the world, incarnate in Jesus Christ. Christmas, we praise God who is not remote and unknowable, but personal and human, God who knows our particular human joys and struggles, who knows our fears, who knows even our death. As the carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” puts it: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.” That’s Christmas. It’s what has been.
But Advent is more about our hopeful and even desperate longing for something that is both ahead of us and already here among us. What Jesus is talking about near the end of Luke’s gospel, is something he’s sharing near the end of his time on earth. We start Advent not with an expectant mother, but with a dead man walking: Jesus on his way to the cross, on his way to heaven, making promises. We start at the end of his earthly story, because it’s his ending that makes his beginning so sacred, and it’s his ending that is our beginning, church, that sets us straight on his path and sets the vision of the church. And there are signs; he said, signs of what is ahead for us, and that’s Advent. It is tuning our hearts, reestablishing our vision for what will come into the world, what, in fact, is already coming into the world, and there are signs.
James is about my age, but, I’ll tell you what, after talking with him, I think he’s gone through many lifetimes of hardships. James has a good job, he’s a faithful Christian, he loves his family, but what he’s been through…well, these days James sees the signs all around. He’s been to war and back and seen those terrors. Then he got married and was starting a family when the pandemic hit. Then, suddenly, his young son died tragically. As James and his wife were in the darkness of that indescribable pain, his mother died from COVID. Then James told me it looks like he may be facing the end of his career. And as this strong man told me his stories just as steady and calmly as I’m talking now, I found myself lifting a silent prayer to God, “O come on! Give this man a break, Lord. Come on!” And then James said, “You know, with all I’ve been through, and all that’s going on in the world, I just know these are signs that God is coming. I think it’s the apocalypse.”
And it may surprise you to hear it, church, but I think James is right. I think it is the apocalypse, especially from where James is. With all that he is going through, his world is crashing down, coming apart at the seams. Jesus said, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” and doesn't James know it.He’s seen the world shake. But James isn’t fearing what is coming into the world. He’s already witnessed the worst the world has to offer. He knows he can handle anything now. James is not fearing the apocalypse, for what is coming…well, “Then they will see Halcyon Winds by Jonathan Harris
‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great
glory.” From the place of suffering, despair, local apocalyse, my prayer of, “O Come on!” was James’ prayer of, “O Come!” See,James, he’s in Advent, waiting expectantly and hopefully, and desperately for the heavens to open, for Christ to come, to rescue, to heal, to redeemed. He’s ready for the apocalypse, because he knows it will reveal Jesus.
The most recognizable Advent carol is, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I like to think of it as a carol of the apocalypse. See, apocalypse means literally to uncover, to reveal. In an apocalypse something that was hidden is disclosed. Jesus teaches us throughout his ministry on earth that the Kingdom of God is already at hand, already among us, but we cannot fully see it. We get glimpses, right? We see beauty, we know joy, we’ve witnessed justice, we have reason to praise, those are glimpses. But we cannot fully experience it, because the kingdom is often covered, hidden in the suffering that we also face, the times of fear we have known, the brokenness, the times injustice prevailed, the sin. The kingdom is here but we only see so much of it. The Apostle Paul said it this way, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully.” That is apocalypse, what is dark becoming light. What is so often mysterious becoming fully known, revealed, disclosed, apocalypse. When Christ comes, he will reveal the kingdom fully among us. And that is what we remember in Advent.
We aren’t remembering only the beautiful story of baby Jesus, we are remembering that we are a people who join James in praying, and today singing for Christ to come and uncover fully his beloved community, his kingdom on earth. It will be glorious.
We too can often see the signs. What James is feeling today, well it’s been a part of what people have felt since the beginning: that we can’t seem to get enough of the beauty and joy we’ve known, and we can’t seem to escape the fear and the reality of the suffering. You can look to the stars for signs, if you want, but I just look at the newspaper to see the signs: the joy and hope and innocent celebration of Christmas parade in Wisconsin, and a man drives his SUV through it to kill dancing grandmothers and cheering grandchildren. O come on!!! A man kidnaps and murders his own young daughters, O come on!!! A man spends decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit – O come on!!! And that was just this week. This is a world where so many feel trapped in the dark, captive to sin, stuck despairing one headline after another, a world that desperately needs Advent, longs for the apocalypse. And in that world, we are a people of the light, who hold the candle of hope, who move prayers from, “O come on!” to “O come!” Who remind those who have seen the world shake, have the strength to carry on.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” That verse, written some 1,500 years ago, is also prayed from a place of a desperate hope for God’s reign on earth to liberate those who mourn in lonely exile here. James could have written those words. But what James told me he also feels, is what comes next in the 6th century carol. Rejoice! Rejoice!?! Rejoice. From this place of mourning!?! O come, on! Wouldn’t “woe is me,” be more appropriate? But such is James’ faith, that in the signs in his life, and in the world, he sees not reason for despair, there are signs, signs of hope, because surely into this particular darkness, Christ who came into the world, will and indeed does come. And for that reason, we, Rejoice! Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.” This carol walks us through the prayer asking God to come to us in our need, to a prayer which guides us on the way, “O come O Wisdom from on high, embracing all things far and nigh: in strength and beauty come and stay, teach us your will and guide our way.” With hope like that you may feel bit more like singing, “Rejoice!”
This hymn was written in the middle ages, what some call, The Dark Ages. Each verse calls on different name for God to come to us, Emmanuel, which means God with us. Scripture shows us the many ways God comes to us. As the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, assures us, God promises to come bringing justice and righteousness into the land, restoring creation to a place where all will live in safety. Well, then, Come! O Come! “Come O, Key of David, come and open wide our heav’nly home; make safe the way that leads on high and close the path to misery.” “Come O King of nations, come O Cornerstone that binds in one; refresh the hearts that long for you; restore the broken, make us new.” “Come, O Dayspring, come and cheer; O Sun of justice, now draw near disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ Lutheran Church, Rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to you.”