O Come, O Come, Emmanuel?

The text of the sermon, based on Luke 1.39-55, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2021.


“O come, O come, Emmanuel,”[1] we sing; giving melodic voice to the meaning of Advent. This season of Christian anticipation of the advent, the coming birth of Jesus. Our Emmanuel, “God with us.”[2]

Still, I wonder. Do we always want God with us?

God. Infinite Mystery and Majesty. Whose thoughts, Isaiah declares, are higher than ours.[3] Whose judgments, Paul testifies, are unsearchable and inscrutable.[4] Who, never completely comprehendible, always uncontrollable, inspires reverence and fear.

So, maybe it’s better to keep God at arm’s length; offering God an occasional passing nod. Like Voltaire,[5] who once said: “God and I acknowledge each other, but we are not on speaking terms.”[6]

Ah, too cavalier by half. Even sacrireligious. So, on a more serious note, maybe it’s safer to keep God small. O come, O come, Emmanuel, but stay as that Bethlehem baby born to an unwed teenage mother betrothed to a common village carpenter. Stay in that cold, dark stable. Stay in that manger, a feeding troth for animals. Stay harmless and non-threatening.

No, that won’t work. For Emmanuel, God with us, named Jesus grew up. And then launched a ministry, saying: “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[7] Jesus, after reading this Isaian prophecy, said: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[8]

And then Jesus, in the name of God, went out and caused a ruckus! Reaching out to all. Reaching across ancient cultural barriers between rich and poor, righteous and sinner, well and sick, living and dead, men and women, old and young, Jew and Gentile. Breaching sacred lines of division meant to keep the peace; meant to keep everyone in place.

But what else would Jesus do? His advent was signaled by his cousin, John, who, still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. Leading Mary to burst into song. No sweet lullaby, but a righteous rant! A radical manifesto declaring what God would do, what God already had set in motion with Jesus’ conception.

I wonder. How often did Mary sing her song after Jesus was born? Singing while she taught him the story of their people. A difficult history with periods of blessed liberty and wretched captivity. Singing while she taught him about God who, through it all, sustained the people and who, through an angelic vision, foretold a time of deliverance through him.

No wonder Jesus grew up and did what he did; fulfilling Mary’s song. Thus, becoming, being a problem. For Jesus, in his life and ministry, disturbed the principalities and powers, both political and religious, which, threatened, terrified by his radical hospitality and equality, killed him.

Looking at our world, as it was and is, not much has changed. The powerful and prosperous remain powerful and prosperous. Thus, we might dismiss Mary’s song as wishful, delusional thinking; especially when expressed in the modern terms of the elimination of class distinctions and economic resource redistribution. But we can’t. For, again, Mary’s song took flesh in Jesus, our Emmanuel, God with us.

Thus, a greater problem. For Jesus, as then, so now, disturbs the world’s value-system. Mary’s song doesn’t condemn the mighty and the rich. But rather testifies that power and wealth (either, often both, almost always the currency of exchange in human societies) are not eternally valuable. For they have no standing as righteous God’s sight. What matters to God? Mary tells us. Jesus shows us. Humility. Mercy. Service. Self-sacrifice.

Thus, our greatest problem. For Jesus disturbs how we live.

When we sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” we call ourselves to continue Jesus’ ministry. We are to be radically hospitable. We are to be wedded to equality. Thus, whenever, wherever, however we can, leveling life’s playing field. Bringing down the powerful. Lifting up the lowly. Filling the hungry, who have nothing, with good things. Sending the rich, who already have more than enough, empty away.

Christianity is an incarnational religion. Christianity is about a transcendent God taking our flesh, becoming immanent in Jesus and, through the Holy Spirit, being, remaining in human history in us.

O come, O come, Emmanuel. O come, O come, you and me.

© 2021 PRA

#radicalhospitalityandequality #TheSongofMary #TheMagnificat 

[1] Veni, veni, Emmanuel, Latin, ca. 9th century

[2] 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”).

[3] See Isaiah 55.8-9

[4] See Romans 11.33b

[5] The French Enlightenment philosopher, playwright, and essayist, François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), better known by his pen name, Voltaire.

[6] From a story told about Voltaire who, after doffing his hat in recognition of a passing funeral procession and being questioned by an acquaintance, “Why do you do that? I thought you did not believe in God,” reportedly responded in this way.

[7] Luke 4.18-19. Here, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61.1, 58.6, and 61.2 (my paraphrase)

[8] Luke 4.21

3 thoughts on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel?

  1. I love this sermon, Paul. I’m sitting here at the dining room table with our Advent wreath right in front of me, thinking about the light that those four candles represent, the light that is always there, although we rarely see it. The invitation, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is indeed, as you make plain in your words above, an invitation directed to US to open our eyes to the light that has already come to us, an invitation once more to see what the world has rejected time and time again, because the message delivered demands that we see beyond our small selves, that we grasp how inextricably we are linked, by the unifying power of the great Love that created us, to all of our fellow human beings and to all of Creation.

    Thank you for your words, for their comfort and for their challenge. Indeed, “O come, O come, Emmanuel; O come, O come, you and me” will become my prayer for Advent, for Christmas, for every day of the coming year, for all the days to come. Amen.

    Much love and gratitude,



  2. Paul,
    I totally Agree with Karen, this is such a powerful sermon!!! I truly hope that Mary would still be singing her song, as the words to a great song have always moved me to action.

    Here’s my favorite part of the sermon and it’s on my “clipboard” for this week (the things I MUST work on this week)!
    “Thus, whenever, wherever, however we can, leveling life’s playing field. Bringing down the powerful. Lifting up the lowly. Filling the hungry, who have nothing, with good things. Sending the rich, who already have more than enough, empty away”.

    I hope I find the best way of using it!! One of the things I’m doing (COVID safety pending) is giving some fun LEGO building sessions for free as I don’t want our seniors to miss out due to lack of funds!

    Love your words and hope to catch the YouTube version of this sermon cause I know you digressed a time or two!!

    Much love!!


  3. Always, my beloved sisters, I thank you — I thank God for you! — for your reading, reflecting, and then responding to my sermon texts.

    As I ruminate on your comments, it occurs to me that I (and I think all of us, whether preachers or not) have only one sermon; which I preach over-and-over again almost no matter the scriptural text or life-event. My sermon? Love and justice, Divine unconditional and impartial kindness and fairness for, to, and with all at all times. For this is what I see Jesus doing. This is who I perceive Jesus to be.

    And, yes, Loretta, I did digress a time or two in the moment of public presentation!

    Love to you, each and both, always and in all ways,


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