Perspective: O Come Emmanuel

By Larry Steen

Years ago, the pastor of a small backwoods country church wished to improve the interior of the sanctuary and asked the church board to approve the purchase of a chandelier. One old deacon rose to his feet to oppose it and said. “Pastor, I’m not fer buyin’ that thar shan-do-leer thang. Fust, nobody can spell it. Seccunt, thar ain’t nobody can play it even if’n we got it, and thud, what we really needs roun’ here is some more light!”

Awaiting the Light
Darkness and light – these are great biblical themes. They are themes that are seen in their highest contrast in this Advent and Christmas season. We call this time of year leading up to Christmas “Advent” and it is a time of year to imagine what it was like in the days leading up to Christ’s coming nearly two thousand years ago. Can you imagine what it was like in Israel back then? I am not talking about the way people lived, or the way they dressed, or the kinds of houses they lived in. Imagine, if you will, the spiritual climate in Israel before Jesus cane.

It was a climate of spiritual darkness. No prophet of God had spoken in 400 silent years. The Biblical promises of the Messiah were yet unfulfilled. The land of Israel was occupied territory of the Roman empire and ruled by the evil puppet King, Herod. One can imagine the cries of the small, faithful remnant– “How long Oh Lord? How long before your kingdom is restored? When will the Promised One sit on the throne of David forever?” Many had despaired and had given up hope that the ancient prophecies would ever be fulfilled.

Isaiah prophesied what it would be like for the Messiah to come…during the dark days leading up to the His coming. Isaiah 9:2 says, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”(KJV)

Darkness. Dwelling in the land of the shadow of death. That is what it was like in Israel before Jesus entered into this world.

The essence of this time was captured in the familiar stanzas of the solemn but beautiful Advent carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The carol transports us back in time before Christ was born. Notice how the carol describes the gloominess of the days before Christ’s coming, and is written from the perspective that Jesus has not yet come. His coming is viewed as a yet-to-take-place event with only the messianic future hope the source of any encouragement one could have in the midst of a sad and dark world.


      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.


      O come, Thou Rod of Jesse free. Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;

      From depths of hell Thy people save, and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.

      Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


      O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high, and cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;

      Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

      Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


      O come, Thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.

      Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


      O Come Adonai, Lord of Might, who to the tribes on Sinai’s height,

      In ancient times dids’t give the law, in cloud and majesty and awe.

      Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


Even in the darkness of the days leading up to Christ’s birth, in the darkness of the Advent season, a glimmer of hope, a glimmer of light still shines. The prophecies of old encourage the faithful. “Have faith! The Promised One will come!”

Welcoming The Light
And when Jesus comes, everything is changed! The Advent glimmer of hope is now the Christmas flash of blinding light! Jesus has come! The difference between Advent and Christmas is illustrated in the difference between the beautiful but solemn, even melancholy, Advent carol, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the jubilant Christmas carol, “Joy to the World!” The former longingly looks forward to a day which is not yet, when Christ shall come; while the latter erupts in an exuberant celebration of all creation when Christ’s birth finally arrives and his saving work begins.


      Joy to the world, the Lord has come!

      Let earth receive her King!

      Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing…


      Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns.

      Let men their songs employ!

      While fields and floods, rocks hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy…


      No more let sin and sorrows grow!

      Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings flow

      Far as the curse is found …


      He rules the world with truth and grace.

      And makes the nations prove                   

      The glories of his righteousness and wonders of His love…


Sharing the Light
And here is the takeaway life truth from this message. As we consider the glimmer of hope in the darkness of Advent and the blinding glory of light that we experience with the coming of the Lord Jesus, we are reminded that many in our world today, even after Jesus’ coming, still live as though He has not come – they remain in darkness. Imagine what it must be like for them! They are lost and without hope. Who will tell them about Jesus and turn their faces into the light?

Quoting the old deacon, “What we really needs roun’ here is some more light!” Wherever in this world darkness still exists, it is our great privilege to shine that gospel light into that dark space. It is my prayer that each of us so values the light we have received, that we will joyfully share it with others.

To God be the glory through this Christmas season!

Larry Steen serves as the director of missions for the Mid-Maryland Baptist Association

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, open access, Artist — Florentine, c. 1406 – 1469