a sermon, based on Luke 1.39-55, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015
“O come, O come, Emmanuel…” This wondrous carol proclaims the meaning of Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming.” This season of Christian anticipation of the birth of Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Still, I wonder. Do we always want God with us? The God who, as depicted in the Bible in numerous ways, is ultimately infinite in majesty and mystery? The God who, therefore, is not fully knowable, never controllable, thus, always inspiring reverence and fear?
It’s saner, it seems to me, to keep God at a distance; on occasion, offering a respectful nod and, weekly, a worshipful bow. If we choose to approach God, surely it’s safer to draw near the humble, harmless Christmas crèche of the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, surrounded by an adoring Mary and Joseph, docile cattle, gift-bearing wise men, and an angelic choir hovering above.
Yes, O come, O come, Emmanuel, but please stay in Bethlehem and remain as a baby. That way you won’t disturb us, our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions too much. And we’ll stay here in our world, being who we are, doing what we do; even though all is not quite right with our world or with us.
Yet Emmanuel, whose name is Jesus, grew up and inaugurated his mission, declaring: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And in his ministry, Jesus caused a ruckus. Reaching across cultural boundaries between rich and poor, righteous and sinner, well and sick, living and dead, men and women, adult and child, Jew and Gentile. Breaching ancient barriers meant to keep the peace, meant to keep everyone in place.
But what else could Jesus have done? Before he was born, his coming was announced by his cousin, John, who, also still in the womb, leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, leading her to burst into song. Not a lullaby, but a righteous, radical declaration of God’s will.
I wonder. How often did Mary sing this song after Jesus was born? Singing while she told him about the history of their people, a chronicle of travail and tribulation, occupation and oppression. Singing while she told him of the visit of the angel Gabriel that foretold his birth through God who was his Father and that through him God would save. No wonder Jesus grew up and did what he did. How could he have done otherwise?
This is why, for some, Jesus is a problem. Emmanuel, God with us, God disturbing us, proclaiming that the first shall be last and the last first, that the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, and the rich sent away empty, that the lowly are lifted up and the hungry filled. The dream, the nightmare of it is enough to make the powerful and prosperous lose sleep.
We could dismiss it as wishful thinking. But we can’t. For Mary’s song took flesh in Jesus. His life of unconditional love and justice for all. A life that led to his death because he challenged the status quo of the iniquity of inequality.
Yet here’s the paradox. Mary’s song doesn’t condemn the mighty and the rich. Rather it testifies that power and wealth, almost always of greatest significance in human societies, are not real values. For they have no standing in God’s sight.
This truth shines heavenly light on our identity: We are to be Emmanuel, God with us, for others. When we sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel”, we ask Jesus to advent again so that we will follow him anew, doing the work we have seen him do; work, through him, we have been given to do. We, in unconditional love and justice, are to invite all to dwell together, “bind(ing) in one the hearts of all mankind,” bidding “our sad divisions cease,” for we come in the name of “our King of Peace.”
Christianity is an incarnational religion. Even more, a way of life. The story of a transcendent God taking our flesh, being in human history is the chapter and verse of the life’s story of all who follow Jesus.
In this spirit, today, let us sing and pray: “O come, O come, Emmanuel!” Let us sing and be, O come, O come, you and me!
Photograph: Christmas crèche on the Parish Hall stage of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri (1963) by William John Abernathy
 Veni, veni, Emmanuel, Latin, ca. 9th century
 See Isaiah 7.14: “The Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (that is, God is with us).
 Luke 4.18-19
 A declaration echoing Hannah’s song of old (1 Samuel 2.1-10).
 See Luke 1.26-38.
 Matthew 19.30, 20.16
 Words from O come, O come, Emmanuel, verse 7.