O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Part 1)

Originally written as a Christmas message, delivered on 12/12/10. Listen to the original audio recording here.

I’m driven to the Old Testament book of Zephaniah during the Christmas season. Zephaniah has a marvelous sense of anticipation to it. Some people most associate the Christmas season with joy, or family or hope or peace or rest—I have always associated Christmas most with the sense of anticipation and excitement.

Some of that comes from before I was a believer. I didn’t become a follower of Jesus until I was 19, but I’ve always loved Advent. It was pretty much the only time I liked going to church as a kid. The church I grew up in had an advent wreath, and if you grew up in a more traditional church, you’re probably familiar with this. The advent wreath had a candle for each of the four Sundays of advent. And each Sunday of advent in church, they’d light the next candle, until all four were lit, which meant Christmas was here.

It lent this intense sense of anticipation and eagerness and excitement—almost longing for Christmas to come. And of course, back then, Christmas anticipation was mainly about school letting out and wondering, “Will I get the G.I. Joe Aircraft Carrier?!” or will dad cheap out?

But while what Christmas means to me has changed, the sense of anticipation and eagerness and longing has not. And that’s why Zephaniah resonates with me during advent—because it has this intense sense of longing.

I’d like to start by looking at the last seven verses of this book. But before we do, here’s what you need to know about this passage. This passage reflects an anticipation of what has not yet come. What I mean is that much of the language of these seven verses is present-tense. It reads as though these things have already happened.

But the fact is that these things have not yet happened for the original readers. At the time Zephaniah was speaking and writing these things were still a long, long way off. And the original readers would obviously have known that. They wouldn’t have been confused. They wouldn’t have been reading this and saying, “Wait, what?! This hasn’t happened yet!” They would have understood that Zephaniah was using present-tense language as literary device to heighten even further their anticipation for what is still to come. Almost as if to say, “Imagine that this is here now. Imagine what it would be like to have this still-far-off thing happening right now.”

So, with that in mind, let’s look at chapter 3, starting in verse 14: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the LORD.”

So, this is what the people of God were anticipating at the time of Zephaniah. This is what they were desperately longing for. That much is clear. The questions are, first of all: Why are they in such longing? Why aren’t these things a present reality for them? And, second, do they ever get it? Do they ever get the G.I. Joe Aircraft Carrier? Do they ever get the things they’re so desperately longing for?

So, first: Why are they in such longing? What’s going on here? What’s the back story?

The situation facing the people of God during Zephaniah’s ministry is that the people are in a state of utter moral and spiritual wreckage. Almost everyone has turned away from Yahweh. They’re worshiping the gods of other nations. They’re making pagan sacrifices—even sacrificing their own children to some of these other gods. They’re not keeping God’s law. The kings are corrupt, the priests are corrupt—everybody is corrupt. It’s a mess. It’s awful. It’s The Jerry Springer Show.

And because of the utter rebellion and sin and evil of the people, God has decided to do something about it. Namely, he’s going to send the nation of Babylon—this terrible, powerful pagan empire to the north, to destroy Israel, destroy the capital city, Jerusalem, and even destroy the temple. They’re going to come in, there’s going to lay waste the Promised Land, and they’re going to carry the people of God out of the promised land and into exile in Babylon. It’s going to be unimaginably awful.

In fact, it’s almost impossible for us to understand just how horrifying—how terrible—this situation actually was to the people of God. Probably the best we can do to try to imagine it by imagining another nation coming in and laying siege to the United States, destroying Washington D.C., and dragging us all away from our homes and out of the country to live in exile in, say, Siberia—or Tehran.

But even that doesn’t quite do it.  Because, you see, it wasn’t just that they were getting displaced. It wasn’t just that they were losing their homes. It wasn’t just that their whole way of life was changing. That’s all bad enough. But it was really so much more than that. So much more horrifying than that.

Israel was The Promised Land.  It was the land that God had given to his people as part of his covenant with them—as part of his solemn agreement that he would be their God and they would be his people. So, this wasn’t just a matter of wondering, “Where are we going to live now?!” This was a matter of wondering, “Has God forsaken us?” “Are we cast off?!” “Is it over?!” “Has God finally reached the limit of his patience with us?!”

That’s the horror we have to try to imagine.

Imagine the feeling that would come over you if you realized that it looked like God was finally done with you. He’s seen enough of your idolatry. He’s seen enough of your perversion. He’s seen enough of your pornography. He’s seen enough of your greed. He’s seen enough of your self-centeredness. He’s seen enough of all of it… And that’s it! He’s done. He’s washing his hands of you. Grace has run out. It’s over. No more saying, “It’s okay if I sin. There’s always forgiveness. No more second, third, fourth, five-thousandth chances! He’s cutting you off from him forever…

Imagine that horror of believing that. That’s what the people were forced to consider.

And that’s not all! It wasn’t just the fact that their sins had become so many and so repugnant.  And it wasn’t just that they were going into exile in a foreign country, which made them wonder if God had cut them off forever. Even that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the destruction of the temple. You might think, in light of God forsaking you and of being exiled into a foreign country, the destruction of the temple just doesn’t seem like that big a deal, really. Right?

But remember that for the people of God under the old covenant, the temple was the very dwelling place of God. Yes, they knew God was omnipresent—that he was, in one sense, everywhere. But God dwelled in a special way in the temple. It was the place where God was with his people. It was the place where God dwelled among his people. It was the place where he was Emmanuel—the “God who is with us.”

And so God sending the Babylonians to lay siege to Jerusalem and destroy the temple was a signal that God was leaving. He would no longer be among them. He would no longer dwell with them. He would no longer be “God with us.”

So, as the people begin to see the events prophesied begin to unfold; as they see Babylon pressing into their borders; as they see the foreign armies coming to lay siege; as they realize that this is really happening—that it isn’t just a strong warning; that the nightmare is coming true… they begin to long and wait and anticipate.

And as you can imagine, what they were longing for were three things: First, that God would somehow forgive their sins. That somehow he’d have mercy. Second, they longed for him to bring an end to the exile, and that he would be their only master—their only king—once again. And third, they longed for him to come again to dwell among them—to be “God with us.”

And that’s what Zephaniah invites the people to anticipate with him in the passage we read. Remember: These things were not yet a present reality for the people. These are the things they’re longing for.  Zeph. 3:15, again, says: “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you.” That’s forgiveness of sin. “He has cleared away your enemies.” Verses 18-19: “I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.” That’s the end of exile.

And, perhaps the most beautiful portion, starting midway through verse 15: “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’” What is that?

That’s “God with” his people. Loving them. Singing to them. Exulting over them.

So, what’s the rest of the story? Did this ever happen? Well, in 538 B.C. (50 years after the exile began) the Babylonians were overthrown by the Persian Empire, and King Cyrus of Persia began to allow the people of Israel to return to their land. So, it seemed like that exile was over.  Twenty years after that a temple was built in Jerusalem. And so, apparently, it was over. The darkness was ending. The people were living in the Promised Land. There was a second temple.

…And still… something was off. It just was off.

First of all—they were back in the Promised Land, but their King is really still Cyrus, king of Persia. They weren’t free. They were still under a pagan ruler. It didn’t really seem like God’s kingdom. In some ways, it almost felt like they were still in exile, because they were still slaves.  They were still under the dominion of a foreign nation. In fact, in Ezra 9:6-9, the authors write this (and keep in mind, this was written after the people have returned to the Promised Land):

“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery.

For we are slaves. [Don’t miss this! He doesn’t say: “we were slaves—until recently, when you brought us out of slavery!”  No. He says: Even right now back in the Promised Land, “We are slaves…”] Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.”

So, apparently, the people who had returned still viewed themselves as living in slavery. They still viewed themselves as in living exile. They knew that this wasn’t what the “Kingdom of God” was supposed to be like. There had to be something more coming.

Moreover, their sins clearly still had not been dealt with. Remember that Ezra said in 9:6: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” So the forgiveness they had longed for and had anticipated still had not come.

And worst of all, while a temple had begun to be reconstructed, it was such a small, shoddy, lackluster building in comparison with the first temple that when the old men saw it—men who had lived long enough that as boys they had seen the first temple—they wept (Ezra 3:12). Not for joy.

For sadness.

They wept because they felt, “This can’t be right. This is all wrong. This can’t be what we were waiting for! This is not a place where God will dwell!” Everything was just wrong somehow.

And so even after they returned to the promised land, the people of God still longed for a return from exile, for forgiveness of sins, and for God to come and reign and dwell among them. And they didn’t know if it would ever come. It was a time of deep darkness and hopelessness and fear.

The song doesn’t date back that far, but it captures perfectly the despair of the people of God: “O come, O come, Emmanuel (“God with us”); And ransom captive Israel; That mourns in lonely exile here…”

And we all know that that’s not where the song ends.  But Israel didn’t know whether or not the song would end there. And so they waited. They waited for hundreds of years…

Until some people started hearing a strange story.

Apparently a story had originated in a town called “Bethlehem” that was really of no consequence other than that it was the city where the great King David had been born. But that was a long, long time ago. And this story really wasn’t believable. Surely it was just another wishful fairy tale. But it had such teeth, and was so over-the-top in what it claimed, that it was hard not to listen to it.

The story went something like this:

“When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, “God with us”).  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’” (Matthew 1:18-2:6).

It was an outrageous story. An almost unbelievable story. That after all this time, God would bring (in the form of an infant, no less!) one who would bring forgiveness of the sins of his people, who would be a Messiah King who would end the exile, establish the Kingdom of God and reign over his people, and who would be “Immanuel”; God dwelling with his people.

An outrageous and almost unbelievable, but true story. “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.

The nightmare has come undone. The darkness has lifted. The wait is over.

What Zephaniah invites the people to long for is here. We might use Zephaniah’s own words to express it this way: “Sing aloud, O Church!; shout, O people of God! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O Church! Jesus, the savior, our ransom, our sacrifice, our Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, Jesus Christ, is in your midst—dwelling among you by his Spirit; you shall never again fear evil.

It is said today in all the world: “Fear not, O Church; let not your hands grow weak.  Jesus, the Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who has saved; he rejoices over you with gladness; he quiets you by his love; he exults over you with loud singing. He has gathered those who mourned for the festival, so that we will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, he has dealt with all your oppressors through the Cross. And he has saved the lame and gathered the outcast, and He has changed our shame into praise and renown in all the earth. He has brought us in, and gathered us together; and has made us renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, and has restored our fortunes before our eyes,’ says the LORD.”

One of the most beautiful and joy-giving ways we can celebrate Christ in the advent season is not to take his coming for granted. Most of us are not as amazed by his coming as we ought to be. It isn’t a stunning reality for us because we’ve gotten used to it. But as we consider our spiritual ancestors; as we consider their hardship; their trouble; the darkness and hopelessness in which they lived; the fear and despair, we may begin to see the coming of the Messiah King, the end of the exile, the dawn of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sin, and God making his dwelling among us in Jesus Christ as absolutely stunning realities.

“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.”

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