Sermon, Dec. 19

O Wisdom,  coming forth from the Most High, 

filling all creation and reigning to the ends of the earth; 

come and teach us the way of truth!
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

It’s the fourth Sunday in Advent. This coming Friday is Christmas Eve. Which means it’s almost the end of my favorite church season.

Christmas – the Feast of the Incarnation – has a profound theological significance for God’s people. The eternal Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us – and not in pomp and power but as a child born to a poor family. Whether you find yourself able to believe the story as it comes to us, or whether you receive it as a parable about God’s yearning to be as close to us as an infant at the breast… there is power and beauty and hope in the Christmas Gospel. 

And yet… Advent is my favorite. Christmas is always just the littlest bit of a let-down. 

O Lord of Lords, and ruler of the House of Israel, 

you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and gave him the law on Mount Sinai: 

come with your outstretched arm and ransom us.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Christmas is about the fulfillment of prophecy, of hope. Ancient promises come to birth.  Angels proclaim that God is doing a new thing. Shepherds and wizards honor the baby King, the Messiah, the Christ – which are Hebrew and Greek versions of the same word: The Anointed One, the one marked with oil as a sign of being set apart for God’s purposes. 

In Advent we turn back the clock, and wait. In our readings and hymns and prayers we remember the long yearning of God’s people for that Messiah, who would lead them and call them back to God’s ways. We remember John the Baptist and his lifelong vocation to call people to repentance and amendment of life, to prepare the way for Jesus.

We remember Mary, invited by God to become God’s mother, and her courageous Yes, and her song of fierce hope for a better world, one that reflects God’s priorities instead of humanity’s. 

Don’t let anybody tell you that Mary was meek and mild! She had a vision for a world transformed, and was willing to put herself, her body, her future on the line, to help fulfill God’s plans. She reminds me of the passionate hope and courage of some of the young folks I know today. 

Today’s readings invite us to stand with millennia of God’s people, crying out, Restore us, God! Gather your strength, come, and save us! Scatter the arrogant! Feed the hungry! Let your children around the world live in safety, in peace! 

O root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the nations; 

kings will keep silence before you for whom the nations long; 

come and save us and delay no longer!

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The verses punctuating this sermon are called the O Antiphons. You might notice that they overlap with the Advent hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel” – or you might not, because the wording is somewhat different. The hymn is based on these texts, which were probably written in Italy about 1500 years ago – they’re very old! 

There are seven O Antiphons, and by tradition they’re used for the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. A sort of second countdown towards Christmas on top of Advent itself. 

Each O Antiphon names Jesus in a different way. O Sapientia, Wisdom! Evoking Old Testament texts that describe Wisdom as a breath of God, a feminine personification of God’s power, who befriends and guides humanity. 

O Adonai, Lord of Lords! – using an ancient name for God, recalling God’s self-revelation to Moses, as a Power greater than Pharaoh and his army. 

O radix Jesse and O Clavis David! – Root of Jesse, Key of David! David was Israel’s great king, a thousand years before Jesus. We met David this summer and we know he was far from perfect. But his name stands for a time of freedom, prosperity, unity, and peace for God’s people. For a thousand years Israel hoped for a new king like David – perhaps even a descendant of David, and of David’s father Jesse. 

O key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; 

you open and none can shut; you shut and none can open: 

come and free the captives from prison, and break down the walls of death.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The key of David is my favorite image from the Antiphons; it comes from Isaiah, chapter 22. There’s a prophecy against an evil finance minister named Shebna? – the text says, and I quote, “The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my man.”

Once God has yeeted Shebna into the desert, it continues, God will put another man, Eliakim, in his place – including putting him in charge of the keys of the palace. It’s an odd little passage – but the key symbolizes holy and righteous authority. 

Then there’s O Oriens! – O Morning Star, Star of the East! In Scripture and tradition, East is the direction of expectation and hope – probably, deep down, because east is the direction of sunrise. Churches generally have their altars pointing east – ours does. 

O Rex Gentium, King of the Nations! O Emmanuel, God with us! From Isaiah again: “Look, a young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

The O Antiphons point back in time, bringing forward the imagery of millennia of struggle, hope, and yearning. And they point forward, with urgent anticipation, giving us words for our struggle, hope, and yearning. 

O Morning Star, splendor of the light eternal 

and bright sun of righteousness: 

come and bring light to those who dwell in darkness and walk in the shadow of death.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 

This is, fundamentally, why Advent is my favorite, why I find it so real and so resonant. For this four weeks, the season in the church feels aligned with the season of the world, and the season of my heart. In Advent we cry out to God to mend what is broken and heal what is wounded, to overthrow the unjust and free those in bondage. 

We dare to shout: Restore us, God of hosts! Gather your power! Come and save! 

At the end of the Prayers of the People this season, we pray, “You have set before us the great hope that your kingdom shall come on earth;… Give us grace to discern the signs of its dawning.” And I do, I do; I can see glimpses of God at work in human hearts and human history. I have hope. 

At the same time, we remain deeply mired in callousness and cruelty, nihilism and violence – and the fundamentally flawed idea that there are kinds of people and that some matter more than others. 

We’re often exhausted and overwhelmed, angry or despairing. 

Christmas – certainly cultural Christmas, and sometimes church Christmas – says, Shhhh, can’t we just be happy for a minute? 

Advent says, Come stand next to me. Let’s holler together. 

O king of the nations, you alone can fulfil their desires;

cornerstone, binding all together: 

come and save the creatures you fashioned from the dust of the earth.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Advent is a season of double anticipation. I said that the first week, I say it every year. We anticipate Christmas, our annual celebration of the feast of the Incarnation; AND we anticipate – impatiently! – the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the world. Rescue, and restoration, and renewal. 

Theologians talk about how we live in the already/not yet – this in-between time, two thousand years and counting.  Christ’s birth and death and rising shifted something fundamental in reality, and yet, and yet…. We still struggle, suffer, yearn. We still wait.

Advent names and sacralizes that yearning, makes it holy. It doesn’t pretend that Christmas – or Easter for that matter – fixed everything. That it’s all joy and peace now.  Instead we can join our voices with Micah: May fearful and disconnected people live in safety and peace! With Mary: May the arrogant be brought down, and those trampled down be lifted up! With Zephaniah, last week: May corrupt and predatory leaders lose their power, and ordinary folks live in safety, with no one to make them afraid! 

What yearnings do we want to name before God, right now?…

Restore us, God! 

Gather your strength, come, and help us!

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, 

hope of the nations and their savior: 

come and save us, O Lord our God.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!