O Sing a Song of Bethlehem: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

by | Nov 29, 2022


Meg Peery McLaughlin
“O Sing a Song of Bethlehem: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
November 27, 2022
Isaiah 64: 1-9

Prayer for Illumination

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.


Cheez-its and old songs saved Thanksgiving day for the McLaughlin gals.
We were driving home from Spartanburg,
after a delicious lunch that required two plates for Jarrett and me to fit all the things.
But it turns out the twins had only eaten bread and pie
so they were hungry by 6pm when we were still 2 hours from Chapel Hill.
First we tried a Bojangles – Closed!
Then a McDonalds – Closed!
After briefly pondering the pre-made foods in a gas station,
we passed around a box of Chee-zits and started a Christmas play list.

Rocking around the Christmas Tree
and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
got us all the way home.

And that broke the seal, because the rest of the weekend,
(I’m sure for every day from here on out)
Christmas songs filled the house.

Jingle Bell Rock and White Christmas
were the back drop for trimming the tree.

It is the first Sunday of Advent. Have you decorated yet?
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition actually.

We get our decorations out and put them in their exact and rightful places in the house: the tree goes here, the nativities go there,
the snowmen sit on this shelf, the elf on that one.
And there is a comfort we take in the sameness of it all.
And yes, Advent shows up with the opposite message.

Advent wants life to change,
not the decorations, you understand, but the whole joint.
Advent wants the world to be different.
Advent starts with a holy impatience with the world as it is.

And how could it not?

In the two weeks since the Frasier fir trees were being cut and
trucked into the Trosa lots:

Even more families in Ukraine are without heat,


Young football players were gunned down at UVA
As were shoppers just running into a Chesapeake Walmart for the crispy onion straws you put on top of greenbean casserole.

Hate erupted at a gay bar, as young people danced under the rainbow,
God’s covenant promise of non-violence.

Advent screams to God:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.

Since I’ve stood in this pulpit last,
little baby Milo Basiri whom we’ve been praying for the past month, has died,
a goodly number of you have undergone treatment, rehab,
or faced complex family dynamics that are fit for a novel.

Advent protests:
Please, God. Rend the heavens. Mend us and all this mess.

In our scripture this morning,
God’s people holler at God.
Their world is a wreck, too.
They’re living in the aftermath of exile
and though they are home, still nothing is right.
So they beg God to come with such force that all of creation shakes.
They recognize they’ve not always been their best selves,
But they say too bad, God, you’re our potter, we’re your clay,
You’re stuck with us, your children,
So come. Come Tear down here. Come.

It’s what we’ll sing in a bit.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Get down here.
It’s a song the church has been singing for over 1,200 years.

This Advent in worship,
we’ll be considering some of these old songs and their stories.

And that’s one of the things about Christmas songs, they are mostly old.

Even the ones we hear on the radio.

That playlist that got us home on Thanksgiving day,
they were nearly all performed half a century ago.

Of the top 20 Christmas songs that have ruled Billboard’s Holiday 100,
Over two thirds of them were written before I was born.

The “newest” song in the Christmas canon
Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You is 28 years old .

The reason is nostalgia.

Now before you roll your eyes,
picturing saccharine Norman Rockwell prints;
before you rightly remind me that part of our nation’s problem is the way
we’ve sentimentalized our past,
let me tell you where nostalgia gets its name.

The word was coined by a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, in 1688 describing the anxieties of soldiers fighting away from home. Hofer combined the Greek word for homecoming, nostos, with the word for pain algos. When these young men were feeling homesick and afraid, revising cherished memories was a way to cope, and build resiliency. Fascinatingly, nostalgia gave them a way to move forward into the future.

And if I understand the text, our scripture is no different.
God’s people are homesick –perhaps not even for a home they ever actually knew,
but instead for a home where all was finally made right.
And to cope with the stress of living in the meantime between those homes,
they remember the God they’ve known in days past.

From ages past, the prophet writes, no eye has seen any God besides you.
And if you flipped back to the chapter before you’ll overhear Isaiah
“recounting the gracious deeds of God” like the calling of Moses,
And the exodus, God bringing the people through the red sea,
giving them a land and name.

Isaiah looks back at cherished memories of God
as a way to help God’s people hold fast to the who they know God to be,
enough to have the confidence to trust who God will be in the future,
the one who will tear open the heavens and come down.
It’s nostalgia at its most sacred.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of our oldest Christmas songs.

We got the hymn we know today because of a chant that the earliest church
sang at evening vespers each day from December 17 to the 23rd.

The chant, called the O Antiphons of Advent, or the Great Os,
looks back at the story of Jesus in scripture
And remembers 7 titles he is given.
O wisdom, O Lord, O root of Jesse,
O key of David, O Dayspring,
O Desire of Nations, O Emmanuel

And to each name, the song adds the plea come
And a future hope of what that arrival may mean.

O Come, Thou Dayspring, Come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here.
O Come, Desire of Nations, Come and bind all people in one heart and mind.

Maybe this is what all our Christmas songs do—
whether they be sacred or secular—
they make us nostalgic—
literally pained for the home that should be, for the world as God would have it be,
deeply mindful of who God has been in the past,
resilient and ready for what God will do
when God does finally rend the heavens
and mends every last one of us.
That’s really beautiful.

So sing loud, church.
Sing a song of Bethlehem
in the car with your cheezits,
in these pews,
sing your pain and hope,
on key or out of tune,
sing until Emmanuel comes.

O Come, O Come. . .