In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ:
From the Prophet Isaiah, the 66th chapter:
The Lord declares: “ ... the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them." (Isaiah 66:18-19 ESV)
We hear it especially during the Christmas season: words of regret and longing and desire that the entire family would be together — around the tree and around the table. Sometimes it is said in whispers and other times it is shouted from the rooftops: "If only the entire family could be together — at the table and under the tree."
For some of us it will be a difficult Christmas because it will be an unfulfilled Christmas. Someone won't be there to cook the roast or string the popcorn or help put another log on the fire or tell a story or join in song.
In spite of all the shopping, in spite of all the wrappings and fancy sparkling things of Christmas, tonight too many of us here will have a Christmas with a loved one absent.
One example comes from my friend from Cambodia. A refugee of a war-torn nation, his family fled the killing fields. Some relatives were killed, others taken prisoner, still others later rescued from a small boat off the coast. But in that rescue, he was separated from his brothers and sisters and parents. Each individual family member who survived the atrocities of civil war was scattered by the relief agencies to different parts of the world: he was sent to Detroit, Michigan. A brother was sent to Tokyo, Japan. Another, Paris, France. His parents to Southern California. A family persecuted and scattered. A household fragmented and broken.
To come together and rejoice around one table, around one tree: this is the desire of so many people — not only on this day of the year, but on every day of the year.
Do you have a secret desire as you come to the Christmas Table, as you come to the Christmas Tree this year? What do you long for — who do you long for — in the still of this night?
What desire is left unfulfilled after all the glitter and tinsel of the world's spin on Christmas? The desire to be with an absent loved one? The hope-against-hope longing to be reconciled with another who can't be — won't be — with you to enjoy the food and gifts of Christ under his tree?
The great Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and the ancient antiphons that inspired it, reflect the biblical revelation that is just as true this year as it was thousands of years ago: the world, the nations of the world, peoples and families around the globe come to Christmas with desires that they just cannot fulfill, despite all the legislation from Washington and all the declarations from Stockholm or Copenhagen. Despite all the resolutions by the United Nations, the nations are still — whether they dare to admit it or not — longing for that same peace and fellowship and community and family that we as the human race lost so long ago.
What do you long for — what do you desire — when you find yourself singing the words:
O, come, Desire of nations, bind / In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, / And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel!
Some things just can't be bought with a gift card or made right with just a New Years' resolution. Despite all our merry-making, all our attempts to drown-out that dark corner of our heart by just playing the holiday music a little louder or adding more lights to the porch or pouring in a little more peppermint schnapps into the punchbowl — try as we may — the deepest of longings of a fallen humanity are still with us — even on Christmas Eve.
Actually, if we are honest with ourselves — it is especially the light of Christmas Eve that brings to light our darkness, our longings, our unfulfilled desires and fears — as individuals, as families, as neighbors and friends, as citizens of a nation and the world.
You see, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is actually a public confession, a prayer set to music, sung to the Lord of heaven and earth. For when we sing the words of this beautiful Christian hymn, we give witness to the teaching of the Old and New Testament — the revelation that we are a broken, fragmented people who cannot make things around the Christmas Table and things around the Christmas tree like they should be, like they once were, like we wish them to be.
And so we despair of ourselves this Christmas night. We despair of our trying through our busyness and buying and bartering to make it all right, to redeem the darkness and hidden longing that comes with Christmas.
"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is a great hymn for the Christmas season because it takes our eyes and preoccupations off self and puts them where all true desires are fulfilled: on the One who comes from heaven above, the One who is the true Desire of all families and peoples and nations, the One given the name Emmanuel — God-with-us-to-save.
The hymns of the Christian Church — the liturgy and readings of the Christian Church — announce again this night that there is a world of difference between simply making ourselves merry for a few days around Christmas and receiving, by God's undeserved grace, a blessed Christmas, a lasting Christmas, despite our losses, despite our weaknesses, despite our fallenness and sin and inability to create the Christmas Table and Christmas Tree we know we long for.
For the God-ordained scandal of Christmas Eve is something that flies in the face of everything we would have ever expected: the announcement from a cattle shed that gives that peace and that joy and that family and community that won't break a week later, won't run out of batteries a month from now, won't be traded in for another color or size or re-gifted and placed on the dollar table at a garage sale.
Hear the Word from heaven tonight: Emmanuel has come. The desire of the Nations and the Price of true Peace has come in this lowly, common-enough looking child in the straw of a Bethlehem manger. The savior of wandering shepherds and cynics. The redeemer of those oppressed by their sins and shortcomings. Emmanuel, God-with-us, come to deliver us, even from our fears of bearing the burden of another unfulfilled Christmas — another year of missing family and friends around tree and table.
For the Son of God and Mary's Son has come to do what all our will-power was always unable to do, what all the mistletoe and merry-making could never accomplish, what holiday wishes just couldn't make a lasting reality.
It is this Christ child who has been sent to set the table and decorate the tree. It is the baby Jesus who alone can bring the nations together around tree and table — his Table and his Tree.
For Christ is the true Manna from heaven. It is this one child who is, as Martin Luther use to say, the cook and the waiter and the meal at the true table of reconciliation. He prepares the table — his table, and feeds us with his very body and blood — forgiving sin, strengthening faith and establishing a communion — a holy and eternal communion with God and with each other.
Yes, Christ sets the table and gathers the peoples around it. He fashions the tree and draws the nations around it. For, as by a tree humanity fell into sin, so through a tree redemption for us has been won.
Jesus himself revealed the same when he foretold, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32 ESV)
The true desire of all people, all nations, all families broken and scattered by sin has come hidden, wrapped in swaddling linens and laid in a manger.
What is needed to have a jolly Christmas is anyone's guess. But — as baptized Christians — what is necessary for a blessed Christmas? The table of Christ. The tree of Christ. God's gracious invitation. And the Word made flesh for you.