Singing for our Death

By Paul Koch

No matter how progressive or cutting edge people may be, I have yet to hear anyone say that they don’t like the old hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” And why would they, this ancient hymn has been sung both in and out of the church for hundreds of years. It is the great hymn of Advent; it is the longing cry for the arrival of Christ in our midst. It has been found on the lips of God’s people from before the founding of America. It is a powerful and joyful hymn that we love to sing loud and long; well, most of it anyway.

You see there is that one verse, that one line that seems so out of place. It is the one line in the whole hymn that I don’t much care for. In fact, most of us forget that it is even there. The 3rd verse of this great hymn bothers me and it goes like this,

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might, Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height In ancient times didst give the Law, In cloud and majesty and awe.”

So in this verse we sing about the giving of the Law that comes in cloud and majesty and awe. We can almost see the image of God descending on the mountaintop of Sinai to give to his servant Moses the Ten Commandments.

But the Law of God hasn’t proved to be very good to us.

Oh, I don’t mean that we don’t like it. We do like it. We like it in little bits that we can control, in tiny pieces that we think we have a good handle on. So we like the Law when we use it to condemn those who are different from us. When it condemns the sexual practices of other people, or the addictive habits of our enemies. We love the Law when it makes us feel good, when we are able to place ourselves higher than someone else.

But the Law of God isn’t something that we can simply use when it suits us. The Law is not some dog that we keep tightly on a leash to make us feel safe and secure and to frighten, and then lock up in a cage when it bothers us. Not that we don’t try, mind you, but the Law is not ours. It isn’t some tool that we wield how and when we want. The Law is a Word of God, a Word that works according to His will and purposes. So that dog that we thought we had on a leash, that we used to try and get others in line with us has a habit if turning around and attacking those who hold the leash. We may well think we can use the Law for our purposes, but it begins to expose and condemn our own actions as well. The Law won’t allow us to hide away our sin and failure. The Law calls for perfection. It shows that way of life and condemns us every time we wander off the straight and narrow path.

This Law reveals to you that you cannot live as you ought, that you have failed to be perfect as the Lord your God is perfect. But the Law that is given on Sinai’s height does far more than just frighten or instruct or even guide. The Law brings with it punishment, and the pinnacle of that punishment is death. So how in the world does this verse sneak into a great Advent hymn like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”? For if you think about it, here in the midst of this great hymn is a line where we are all duped into singing about our own deaths – death that comes in cloud and majesty and awe!

So in reaction to this, what can we do? Well we can certainly refuse to sing this hymn. I mean it is sort of bizarre that we would sing about our own deaths anyway. Or perhaps we could just skip this verse, we could just move on to “O come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree.” But I think we all know full well that just ignoring this line or not singing this beloved hymn will not deter the Law of God.

In fact, the Law isn’t the problem, we are. Our sin, our trespass, our failure is what turns this Word of God into a sentence of death.

So the gift of the Law is that it is a gift of despair, a gift of stripping away false securities, a gift of leaving us exposed and broken and dead. Now true this may not be the gift we all clamor for, it may be the last thing we want to sing about. And if it was all that God’s Word did to us, all that it gave, then I would be the first to lead the charge to ban the singing of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” But the joy of our advent season, the joy of the celebration of Christmas is the joy that is found in the refrain of this old hymn. The church hasn’t sung this song for so many years because it was eager to die, but because it wanted to live. It wanted a life beyond the sins and shame of our world, beyond the frustration and failure of our existence. And so as our sin is drug into the light of the Law of God, as we wither and die before his judgment and wrath, so we find joy that He is not yet done speaking to us. This is not his final Word.

The angel comes to Joseph and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And we are told that all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).” God is with us, not just beside us, not just around us, but truly with us. He takes up our flesh, he embraces your sin, for God has come to save!

You see it is when we cannot escape from our sin, when we cannot hide any longer from the Law of God that we are crushed and brought to our knees. And it is when we are on our knees with empty hands outstretched pleading for mercy that our God speaks to us his Word of love. In this great work the Law of God strips us of any hope, any solution within ourselves and leaves us with only one way remaining – our great Emmanuel.

And so perhaps we’ll leave that verse in. Perhaps we’ll go ahead and sing for the Law that kills us. For whether that Word is guiding us in how we ought to live or destroying us because we have not lived that way, in the end it is leading back to our Savior. The Law is leading us to the foot of the cross where our Lord faces the punishment of the Law for each and every one of you. We are led again and again to God with us who declares that you, this day, are forgiven all your sins.

“O come, O come, Thou Lord of might, Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height In ancient times didst give the Law, In cloud and majesty and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.”