I suppose it happens to all of us as we get older. My entire life I have had folks, particularly folks older than me, gently and not so gently urge me to speak a little louder. I could never really identify with their plight until I recently spent a couple days with my son. Fortunately, David inherited most of his traits from Deb. It seems the only thing I passed on was my habit of speaking softly. David would speak, and I would shake my head in agreement, having no real idea what I had agreed to. For all I know David may have requested half my library and my complete CD collection. But to keep from letting him know that I could not clearly understand what he was saying, I just kept smiling and nodding my head.
Sometimes, even when our hearing is perfect, we still don’t completely understand what is being said. When one reads Isaiah 2, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares”, what kind of image comes into our minds? Is it a message of hope, of redemption, or do the words just fail to register with us? The words of the prophets often seem like empty gestures raised into a prevailing wind of doubt, seldom louder than a whisper, almost always unheard. The sacred words of the Advent season are often overwhelmed by a thousand less critical inquiries dealing with cultural traditions, family customs and making a list for Santa Claus. We are prone to reach for the more familiar songs, the ones we learned as children and still adore today. But the time for “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” has not arrived. This morning, I cajole you to listen to the mysterious tunes which peer into the chaos of our souls and announce Advent as the Hope of the World.
When is the first time you really heard, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel?” Some of you know what I am talking about. You sing it forever and then one day, out of the blue, you hear it for the first time. This hymn is an incredible combination of clarity of words and mystery of sound. “Come, Emmanuel, rescue captive Israel.” The word “captive” speaks to anyone captured by time, or life, or any combination of the two. “Captive” could be a job which has long lost its sense of vocation. “Captive” could be a marriage where words are hardly exchanged. “Captive” could be the frustration of being 13, or the fear of nearing 83. In so many ways that hardly needs to be explained, we have been captured by our choices, captured by our situation, captured until the Son of God appears. Then mysteriously, triumphantly, defiantly the next word heard is, “Rejoice! REJOICE! God shall come to you.”
If you are a member of either choir , the first thing you learn is that our directors take punctuation very seriously. They hate it when we don’t complete a phrase or if we don’t break at a comma. Some of us are getting older and find that it is necessary to breath at inopportune times. But Dwight and Kathleen have told us more than once, the writer of the piece knows when a breath should be taken and when the music needs to be sustained. All my life I have sung “Rejoice (comma) Rejoice (comma) Emman………uel (comma) Shall come to thee.” Imagine my surprise when I discovered there is no comma between Emmanuel and the time God shall come. Emmanuel rushes towards us, Emmanuel crashes into our lives, Emmanuel does not hesitate to rescue us. Eman………uel shall come to thee, and thee, and thee. Do you hear him coming? Are you ready for him to come? Do you long for him to come?
O Come O Come Emmanuel is not our only advent hymn. Charles Wesley spent the first 30 years of his life as an Episcopal priest. Then he came to America and fell under the spell of Moravians who encouraged him to listen to the poems in his heart. He listened well and wrote more than 6,000 hymns. Wesley’s poems were usually sung to music heavily influenced by a German cadence. Originally “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” was sung to a tune that could have also accompanied Hessian troops on parade outside Berlin. But then Rowland Prichard, a fine Welsh composer, lifted Wesley’s words from the parade field and placed them among the hill country of a people lying in wait for a Messiah. Moving from strict cadence to the magic of a waltz, Prichard releases the enchantment found in Wesley’s voice. (Quote as if waltzing) “Come, thou long, expected Jesus, Born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee.” Can you hear the hope? Can you feel the promise? Can you savor the joy?
Granted, not all advent hymns fall as gently on our ears. “Let all mortal flesh keep silent. With fear and trembling stand! Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand Christ our God to earth descended; our full homage to demand.” This is one of the oldest hymns of the church. Originally it was sung before the Lord’s Supper was served. “Let all mortal flesh keep silent.” Ever been to a Quaker service? It is quite different from what happens here. The center piece of the service is silence. People come to the meeting place to sit quietly and listen. I am afraid I wouldn’t make a very good Quaker. Sunday morning is my time to speak and all of you listen. Imagine coming to Church and being bombarded with silence? Imagine coming to church expecting to hear the voice of God? Imagine coming to church ready to listen and then once the voice of God fell on your soul, having the courage to speak? With fear and trembling you would stand. All eyes would turn in your direction. Your thoughts would contain nothing earthly minded. The blessing received, the utterance you heard, had only one powerful, one cleansing, and one redemptive thought. In a voice so clear, so persuasive that you might wonder who was speaking, you hear yourself say, “God demands our full homage.” What could be more radical than those words? God demands our full homage. They are hard words to hear and even harder words to embrace.
Then there is a song we might never hear except that the author was smart enough to attach his words to tune of the more familiar “Sing praise to God Who Reigns Above”. In 1931, Walter Russell Bowie, professor of practical theology and dean of students at Union Theological Seminary was asked to write an Advent hymn. The words that he chose sound as if they belong in the season of Lent. Bowie remembered what we often forget. Not only is Advent a preamble to a God event, Advent serves to remind us of the necessity of Christmas. Listen to these words. “Lord Christ, when first you came to earth, upon a cross they bound you. And mocked your saving kingship then by horns with which they crowned you. And still our wrongs may weave you now, new thorns to pierce that steady brow, and robe of sorrow round you.” Not much festive spirit in those words. How easily we forget that from the beginning Christmas is only a precursor to the cross. God wasn’t making it up as he went along. From the moment the angel of the Lord visits Mary the dots lead to Calvary. Across the manger there should always be the shadow of a cross. For the cross not only defines the failure of civilization, it celebrates the hope of humankind. Listen to verse three. “New advent of the love of Christ, shall we again refuse you. Till in the night of hate and war we perish as we lose you. From old unfaith our souls release, to seek the kingdom of your peace, by which alone we choose you.”
Advent is not a time spent just “roasting chestnuts by the open fire.” Advent is not just celebrated as a time for reminiscing about “being home for Christmas.” Advent doesn’t even promise that “all our Christmas’ will be white.” Advent does something much more important. If you will allow it, Advent serves to reiterate that in the middle and muddle of our lives, God will come. Advent is a precursor of what has happened and what will happen again. I love the way Ann Weems expresses it.
The whole world waits in December darkness
For a glimpse of the Light of God.
Even those who snarl “Humbug”
And chase away the carolers,
Have been looking toward the stars.
The one who declared he would never forgive
And those who left home have returned,
And even wars are halted, if briefly,
As the whole world looks toward heaven.”
Advent is God’s gift to unresolved yesterdays. Advent is the opportunity to place your life in “time out” and figure out what should be next. Advent offers the prospect of believing that not everything is lost and nothing is beyond hope. Advent is the time when hearing that God shall arbitrate for his people as they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks is actually believable. Advent is when Emmanuel rushes into our crooked lives, releasing us from our fears and sins. Advent is when we get off the merry-go-round of life and fall silent in homage. Advent is when we celebrate Christmas by remembering the shadow of the cross that falls across the manger. Advent is when we recognize the sword of malice or anger or guilt or frustration that burdens our lives, and we bury it in the rich fertile grace of God’s forgiveness, allowing it to become the seeds of a new resurrection. Open your ears; open your hearts; open your souls. Listen carefully for the sounds of advent.
O Come, desire of nations bind,
All people in one heart and mind.
Bid envy, strife and discord cease.
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Emmanuel shall come to thee.