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Summary: God’s own Redeemer comes to ransom his people.

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Scripture Introduction

The church has marked the Sundays preceding Jesus’ birthday since at least the 5th century. We usually call this the Advent season, because advent means “arrival, especially of something important.” During advent, we prepare for the birth of the Christ, but also for his second coming. Just as we prepare for the appearance of any dignitary, the people of God traditionally have set aside these weeks for confession, repentance, and spiritual evaluation to prepare for the coming of Jesus. God arriving as the child of Mary has magnificent theological implications that should affect us greatly.

But the Christmas season seems to be everything except penitential preparation for the birth of Messiah. Christmas is about office parties and hope for the year’s commercial success.

A few years ago, walking through a shopping mall, I saw everywhere of the removal of Christ from Christmas. Instead of “Merry Christmas,” the signs read, “Happy Holidays.” Instead of a Crèche, there was Santa and his reindeer. Instead of humble preparation there was raucous celebration.

But all the while, music played over the public speakers. Between the screams of children wanting just that computer game, and the chimes of the cash registers, I could faintly hear Christmas carols. Songs loved by so many; songs with profound meaning and Biblical theology.

So that is the idea for this series. What are the words of our favorite Christmas hymns? Where do they come from? How might these great hymns increase our appreciation for the birth of God? “Advent in the prophets and carols,” as we prepare for the coming of the Christ. Today, Isaiah 59.15b-21, and the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

[Read Isaiah 59.15b-21. Pray.]

Introduction

The Jewish people spent many days in exile. But God promised, especially through the prophet Isaiah, that one day the captivity would end and the people would return, led my Messiah.

Isaiah 49.8-11: Thus says the LORD: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people…, saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst…. And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up.”

Isaiah 61.1-2: The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.

Isaiah preached freedom from captivity, and Israel needed it. In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon overthrew Jerusalem, and the last of the deportations begun in 605 BC were complete. Israel was exiled.

Eventually, however, God restored some freedoms. Cyrus allowed the Jews to return and rebuild the temple, which they rededicated in 516 BC, 70 years after the exile.

But even this was not complete freedom. Soon the Greek empire, led by Antiochus Epiphanes, took over Jerusalem. He even set up a statue of Zeus in the temple and sacrificed pigs to it, fulfilling the prophecy in Daniel.

But then some Jews, led by Judas Maccabeus, revolted and retook Jerusalem, re-rededicating the temple in 164. From this victory comes the festival of lights (Hanukkah in the Jewish calendar). In one of the traditional prayers you can hear the theme of freedom: “We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations” (the hymn, Hanerot Halalu, from the Ashkenazic communities).

But even with their zeal, the Maccabeans could not resist Rome. In 63 BC, Pompey took Jerusalem. And in 37 BC, Caesar made Herod, a proselyte to Judaism, King of Judea. Once again, Israel was ruled by another.

Now because of these repeated and continuing captivities, three things seemed true of Jewish folk at Jesus’ birth:

• First, they seemed to know they were enslaved. Roman authority was everywhere evident, and their culture was based, in part, on a history of exile.

• Second, they seemed to know the words of Isaiah, God’s promise of freedom.

• Third, they seemed to want freedom.

Together these should make Israel eager to receive Messiah. How strange, then, that they reject Jesus – the one of whom we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. And ransom captive Israel.”

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