In the church in which I grew up, we weren’t allowed to sing Christmas carols until Christmas, and Christmas didn’t “officially” start until the Christmas Eve service. Some pastors were hard-line about this, and still are. Others have cheated and let their flock sing maybe one or two the Sunday before. But primarily, the month of December was and is observed as Advent. And Advent carols, while rich in theology, are not familiar Christmas songs. Except for one: O Come, O come, Emmanuel. It was always the first hymn my churches sang on the first Sunday in Advent.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lowly exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
This first stanza is a cry for rescue. Its text is born of the deep desire of the nation of Israel during the days of the prophet Isaiah. In the early 700’s BC, Isaiah prophecied about a day when Israel would be called to account for her infidelity to her Lord God. She would be punished through a long exile in the land of a pagan nation. This prophecy came to pass in 587BC.
But Isaiah also prophecied that God would not leave his people Israel abandoned forever. In time, he would rescue them. Isaiah quoted God’s promise like this:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 ESV)
The first four lines of the carol are the cry of Israel from exile. The last two lines are the Lord’s promise to answer that cry. They promise not only the end of exile (fulfilled in 538 BC), but also the greater rescue from the exile of sin that all of God’s people have suffered since the beginning of creation, when Adam and Eve brought the curse of sin into the world.
When Christians sing this carol today, we are to remember God’s enduring faithfulness to his people over the centuries and the generations. Even more importantly for us, though, is the continued cry we should emit each day – that Jesus, our Emmanuel, would come again at the end of time to rescue us and take us into our eternal home.
Until then, we cry out even now for rescue from the painful effects of sin in our world and in our lives. And we rejoice in the promise that God will, in fact, provide that rescue.
The coming of Jesus at Christmas is the downpayment on that promise.