O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
It is hard for me to imagine what exile must be like. I can't imagine someone taking me from my home and forcing me to live somewhere else. But I think I'm closer to an understanding after this year. Praise God I still have my family, friends, and a home to live in! Yet, this was a trying year, and I think it was especially difficult because of the isolation it caused. We were told not to visit our friends or families, not to go to football games or concerts, and, for a while, not to go to church. Even as my life has gotten to be somewhat more normal, I still look out on Sunday morning and notice how many of our elders are still missing because they need to isolate. I know people with parents in nursing facilities who have not had a visit since March. I'm thankful that we had the technology to stay somewhat connected this year, but technology promises more than it can deliver. Our nature is wired for in-person relationships, and there is something that is lost when we come through a screen.
I don't mean to complain. I have a lot to be thankful for, but I just want to point out that it's been a hard year. It makes me think of an exile. To be sure, what we have gone through isn't as bad as a real exile. When Israel was taken into captivity, a foreign army stormed their cities, burned them to the ground, killed many, and forced the rest to live in a foreign land. At least we didn't have to go through that! But I do think we got a taste of the isolation and sense of loss.
Isaiah 7:14 says, "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and she will name Him Immanuel." If you've gone to church you've probably heard that verse before around Christmas time, but the odd thing is that Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with Christmas or the Messiah or even exile. Instead, Israel is still in its land. The chapter describes the northern kingdom and its allies rising up to conquer the southern kingdom of Judah, but God promises King Ahaz of Judah that they will not fall. To prove His protection, God tells Ahaz to ask for any sign he wants. Ahaz, trying to super pious, refuses to test God, so God provides His own sign: a virgin will give birth to a son called Immanuel, which in English means God with us.
We don't know what happened next. Presumably, a child was born that assured King Ahaz that all would be well, but we don't hear about it. How strange is it then that Matthew plucked a verse out of this strange story and attached it to Jesus? If this was a prophecy about an immediate situation Ahaz was facing, then what does it have to do with Jesus?
In a time of duress, God sent a child to be a sign to His people that He was still with them. In the same way, while Israel suffered under Roman occupation and the world was still dead in its sins, a baby was born to a virgin who we call "God with us" (Matt. 1:22-23). This baby was God in the flesh, entering into exile with us to make us free. We often mistakenly think that what we need is better health, friends, and things, but what we really need is the presence of God. We were made to walk with Him!
When Jesus left the earth, He promised that He would be with us always (Matt. 28:20). That means that even in this "exile," we have not been abandoned. He is still with us now. But it is plain to see that we still have not reached the perfection He promised. We still get sick and die. People still fight and kill each other. Families still go without. So while He is still with us in Spirit, we are still awaiting the day when we will see Him face to face so that all of our troubles may be washed away. The Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. I am confident that I am not alone, and yet I still long for that future day when every tear will be wiped away. It is in that space, this middle ground between what God has begun and what God will finish, that we can sing this song and ask for ransom from our mourning in captivity, and yet sing,
shall come to thee,
Passages for further reflection: Isaiah 7:1-16, Matthew 1:18-25, 28:18-20, Mark 1:14-15, 1 Peter 1:3-9, Revelation 21:1-4
This post is a part of a series on the song, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Be sure to check out the other posts in the series and my original post explaining why this is my favorite Christmas song.