O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the Nations and their Saviour, come to save us, O Lord our God.
O Emmanuel—it is a resonant name, “God and man hyphenated,” one author calls it. It means, “God is with us,” and the One whose coming we expect, Jesus the Messiah, His name, Saint Matthew tells us, is Emmanuel. You know this name perhaps, from the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 7, which we have just heard. But you probably know it best of all from the great Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It is a translation of a medieval Latin hymn, which is in turn a versification of a series of beautiful antiphons. These are one sentence anthems designed to be sung before and after Mary’s Song, the Magnificat at Evening Prayer during the last eight days before Christmas. In that series of antiphons, and in the original Latin hymn, O Emmanuel is the last one, the antiphon for the Eve of Christmas Eve. But when the great John Mason Neale was translating the hymn, he put it first instead, and so we know the whole hymn by that immortal plea, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”
It was a wise choice, I think, for it is the finest of the antiphons, and in a way it is the summary of all of them. The antiphons and the verses of the hymn chart a series of images, drawn deep from the well of Old Testament prophecy, mostly from Isaiah, the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. O Wisdom, O Lord of Might, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O Desire of Nations: but together, in their prayers for wisdom, for protection, for fulfillment and deliverance and peace—all of them can be summarized, O Emmanuel, O God be with us.
O, O, in a sense too, they all come to just this. O-It’s a cry of misery and sorrow, perhaps, but of longing as well, for desire for what we can just barely see, for what we have just begun to hope for. We call for Christ in this great variety of names, celebrating different parts of the gift He is to us. He is all these things, He fulfills all these promises, but above all He is God with us, God in our own flesh. “A virgin shall conceive and bear a Son”-the laws of biology are suspended for His arrival, angels fill the skies with song to announce His arrival, wise men come from across the distant mountains to bring Him sacred gifts, because here, in Him, we find the satisfaction of mankind’s noblest dream and most passionate hope.
We need God with us. This is a life of suffering, a vale of tears. Our technology and complicated social systems aim to make it less so, but for most of us, at least occasionally, reality has a way of poking its unwelcome head in the door. We suffer pain. We are lonely. Promises made to us are broken. And suffering seems to diminish us. We don’t just hurt, we are discouraged. We feel cut-off in our suffering, afraid to unpack the burdens that will darken the pleasant lives of the other people who claim to care for us.
But God turns up in the lives of suffering people. That the story of the faithful in every generation. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” the old spiritual has it, “nobody knows but Jesus.” Sometimes God is the healer, who removes the suffering and restores us to wholeness. But sometimes He simply comes to be with us in the midst of it, showing us that we are not alone, and that He is not just with us, but for us.
God is the helper of His people—“a very present help in trouble,” the Psalmist confesses in that great song of faith. And He had long assured His people of His concern, that He heard their sorrows and would deliver them. But to come and take on flesh, to live among us as one of us, well that was almost beyond what could be imagined. And to come, not as a powerful man, but a humble one, “a man of sorrows, and well acquainted with grief”—to endure what we endure, and still more. Well, in those dark moments, what we wonder of course, is if He really does love us, if He really will remain with us? And here is the demonstration of that love. He is with us to the very last, in all our sorrows, bearing all our griefs.
And yet, He is not merely our companion, this Emmanuel. The antiphon calls Him “our king and lawgiver.” And in part, that’s just good poetry, pulling together the themes from earlier in the series for an appropriate conclusion. But He is also God with us as the One who must be obeyed, the One who shows us the way of life and then calls us to follow behind. And He is with us in judgment as well as comfort: He is with us as one who will tell the truth about our sin, and call us to true repentance, so we may stand prepared in the great Day. When Isaiah talks about Emmanuel, and he does so only twice, it’s never quite clear if he’s sharing good news or bad—or better perhaps, whether he’s emphasizing the judgment or the comfort. It’s all good news really, even the judgment, because He smites only to heal. He lays bare only to strengthen and renew. Love takes trouble, doesn’t it. We wouldn’t want less from a true God.
He is also with us in drawing us together, to be with one another. Emmanuel is not only the Savior of the Jews, God’s long chosen people. He is to be Lord of all, the one expected of the Gentiles, the Savior they’ve been craning their necks to greet down the long sweep of history. And He draws us together, “where or two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of them.” I am God with you, He means, when you are with each other, for each other.
Ours is such an age of loneliness. I was struck, and disturbed by the cover of the Atlantic a few years ago. It showed a beautiful woman and a handsome man, wrapped only in sheets in each other’s arms, obviously ready for a most intimate encounter, but actually staring past each other into the dim blue lights of smartphones. The headline was “Is facebook making us lonely?” What a parable of these days, when we seem to have forgotten how to be with each other.
This is the world calling out for what we are trying to share, I thought. This is the Church’s great opportunity. We’re pretty good at doing community. We’re learning together how to be with each other. But it is Him that they really long for, He who is still “expected of the nations,” whether they can remember it or not. If they find what they are seeking in us, it’s only because He is with us before. Emmanuel, He draws us together, and we look together to Him and the promise of being with Him in all His fullness.