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O Come, O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek

This morning begins the first week of Advent. Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” It’s the time that Christians throughout the world focus on the arrival of Jesus—his arrival as a baby, his arrival into our hearts by faith, and his future, glorious second arrival.

At our church this year during Advent we are doing a series we’re calling “The Songs of Christmas.” Each week we’ll pair themes from a beloved Christmas hymn with a passage in the book of Isaiah.

Before I read our passage from Isaiah 11 this morning, let me mention something Jesus once said that helpfully orients us to the Old Testament book of Isaiah. In John 5:39 Jesus said to religious leaders,

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”

That phrase the Scriptures refers to the Word of God written before the coming of the Messiah, which we call the Old Testament. It’s the first 80% of the Bible. “Good job,” Jesus says to these religious leaders, “for paying attention to the Bible. But if you’re reading it in such a way that you don’t see me,” says Jesus, “Well, then you’re not doing it right, because it’s all about me.”

Admittedly, with some passages in the Old Testament, it’s more difficult to see exactly the way in which they point to Jesus. But then there are other passages where it’s not so difficult at all to see the wonderful way that they point to Jesus. Isaiah 11 is one of those.

Scripture Reading

Follow along with me as I read from Isaiah 11:1–9. After I read them, we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.

11 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
        and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
        the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
        the Spirit of counsel and might,
        the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
        or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
        and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
        and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
        and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
6The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
        and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
        and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
        their young shall lie down together;
        and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
        and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
        in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
        as the waters cover the sea.

Prayer

This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .”

1. What is the context of Isaiah?

You’ve probably had many conversations in your life where you only hear part of the conversation, and to only have part of the conversation is confusing. You walk into a room, and people are talking, and you think, I’m not sure what to make of all this. Someone is going to have to slow down and let me inside otherwise I’m going to miss it.

Well, as we open the book of Isaiah, I want to make sure we all have the proper context because seeing the glory of this passage and the greatness of the Messiah is contingent upon knowing something of what’s happening. So let’s talk about the context of Isaiah for a bit since we’ll be in the book this morning and the next four weeks.

In the opening line of the book of Isaiah—as is the pattern in many of the prophetic books of the Bible—we are given a statement of the prophet’s family connections, geographic connections, and a list of the kings who ruled during his ministry. In Isaiah 1:1 we read,

The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

All of these details are significant. These details tell a story; they give insights into the political and spiritual milieu in which Isaiah inhabited, just like if I mentioned President Kennedy or President Trump, or Washington or Lincoln, these names tell us a story.

As we pull together dates, this list of Judean kings—Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah—tells us Isaiah’s ministry was a long one. And as you read his book carefully, you notice that his ministry even extended into the terrible reign of King Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son. When you stack up these dates, the tenure of his prophetic ministry lasted something like 60 years or so, from 740 BC to at least 681 BC, which are dates taken from “the year King Uzziah died” in 6:1 to the death of a foreign King named Sennacherib, who is mentioned in 37:38.

A lot happened during these years. There were a few moments of prosperity and peace, but on the whole, there was turmoil, especially amongst the surrounding nations. In fact, around 721 BC, so more or less a third of the way into his ministry, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered and taken into exile. To put this in our context, it would be like Isaiah was living in Pennsylvania and the state of New York (just above us) was captured by Canada and all the inhabitants of New York were taken into exile.

It’s not always possible to discern exactly what event is in the background when Isaiah speaks for the Lord, but it would seem that chapters 7–11 do give us a few details, especially if we looked closer into chapter 7. Chapters 7–11 are during the reign of Ahaz, specifically a time when a certain alliance was forged.

At the time, Assyria is the big dog on the block. So Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel attempt to compel the southern kingdom of Judah to team up to fight Assyria. King Ahaz, the king of the southern kingdom of Judah—the one to whom Isaiah is doing ministry with—doesn’t know what to do. Isaiah tells him to trust God and not to make his bed with any of these other nations. God will save you, Isaiah tells him. But Ahaz doesn’t listen. He cozies up with Assyria by paying a huge tribute to it, which put the people of God in servitude to Assyria. It’s difficult for the people of God to be the people of God when the world calls the shots.

I think these are the events in the background of our passage. And so I say all of this to point out that the people of God were fragile. Their kingdom, which once looked like a thriving forest, was being chopped to the ground (cf., the that it would also happen to Assyria in 10:33–34). Among the people of God there was infighting and idolatry, and outside her borders were wars and rumors of wars and massive cultural shifts.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, the people of God were tempted to use the means of the world to overcome their problems, rather than trusting in their God. And when we put it like that, it all sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it?

Before we dive back into Isaiah 11 to see how wonderfully breathtaking the promises made there are, let me read a portion of one other passage. In Isaiah 6 we have the famous call of Isaiah into ministry, which I think will be helpful to read.

1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

        “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
        the whole earth is full of his glory!”

4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

This all sounds so lofty and glorious and fearful and terrifying and gracious and awesome. Isaiah sees mighty angels unable to look at the Lord, but yet they sing with such volume the heavenly temple shakes. Then Isaiah sees his sin. God symbolical atones for his sin with a burning coal. Then God calls for a missionary; he calls for a prophet to go preach to his people. And Isaiah jumps up, waves his hands, and says, “Oooh, Ooooh. Send me, Lord! Send me!”

Do you know what happens next? God tells Isaiah he will send him to preach, and when he does send him to preach, he’ll preach to those won’t hear, who won’t understand, and who won’t turn and repent. “You preach, Mr. Isaiah, but there’ll be no revival. Not yet, anyway,” God says.

So in v. 11 Isaiah responds, “Well, how long do I have to preach to people who won’t listen.” God answers that this will happened until cities are burned to the ground and until the metaphorical “forest” that is God’s people becomes nothing but a dead stump in the ground (6:13).

That sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? But there is more to the book of Isaiah than chapter 6—a lot more. There is more that God wants to say to his people through the prophet Isaiah, and the more he wants to say is good news—like really good news.

Now that we have the context. Let’s go to the second point in the sermon.

2. How great is the Messiah?

The second question I want to take up is the question “How great is the Messiah?” When I ask this question, I want you to have in mind a certain similar sounding question. A father might ask his daughter, a daughter who has just gotten in trouble, “Sweetie, how much do I love you?” When she looks down at her feet and simply shrugs her shoulders, the father takes his thumbs and wipes her cheeks, and says, “Look up, sweetie,” and he asks again, “How much to I love you?” And then he takes his arms, stretching them as wide as he can go and says, “I love you this much.”

Isaiah 11:1–9 is God saying, “Look up, daughter. I love you this much.” Or to phrase the question the way I wrote it in your outlines, “How great is the Messiah? Well, this great. And this great. And this great. And so on. Look again at v. 1.

11:1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
        and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

Does word “stump” v. 1 not feel electric now that we’ve seen the context (6:13 & 10:33–34)? Jesse was the father of King David. And the picture here is of a royal family tree that grew strong, but then became a diseased tree with poisoned fruit to such an extent that God had to cut the tree to the ground so the fruit would stop killing people and bringing shame on the owner of the tree. It was the only thing to be done. And to everyone who would walk by this stump of a royal family tree, if they even noticed it, all they would have seen is a dead hunk of wood.

How great is the Messiah? From this dead hunk of wood, there will be a shoot or a little twig, and though it seems insignificant and fragile, this shoot will be the means of giving life to the people. This shoot will become a branch, which will become a tree again, and that tree will bear good fruit. Fruit isn’t merely edible. Fruit is sweet. Fruit tastes good. From a dead stump God will raise up the life-giving Messiah.

Oh, church, you may feel as though the work of God in your life has extraordinary odds against it. Well, so did a twig from the stump of Jesse.

Let’s keep going. Vv. 2–5

2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
        the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
        the Spirit of counsel and might,
        the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
        or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
        and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
        and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
        and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

How great is the Messiah? Two main pictures emerge in this passage. The first picture is the special connection this Messiah has to the Lord. We’re told the “Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” Intermittently the Spirit would come upon certain leaders in the Old Testament, say, a Moses or a Joshua, a Samson or even a David. But the one promised here is so great that the Spirit will rest on him. That’s not intermittent, fleeting language. The Spirit will descend upon this leader with permanence, which is great because it means that unlike so many of the Kings before him, this Messiah will not act on his own; he’s not rogue. Instead, he’s cooperating with the Spirit, and the Spirit is cooperating with him.

And what is the result of all this Spirit language? Wisdom, understanding, might. In other words, the Messiah will be one who is fully equipped to do anything and everything that is required of him. He’s not held back or diminished.

And that leads to the second picture in these verses. There is this line about not judging by what he sees or hears, and you might think, Wait, don’t we want judges to do this? How else would they do what they do?

The Messiah is so great that when he adjudicates with his gavel in his strong arm, he’s able to penetrate to the heart of the issue, and judge with perfect righteousness. We should want judges who judge by what they see and hear because that’s about as good as we can hope for in this life. But the greatness of the Messiah is such that he that not limited in the same way. And the result is that the poor and the meek, who are often not fairly represented in courts, will have the protection of the Messiah.

And we read of the Messiah being able to kill the wicked with the breath of his lips. What does that mean? Does he just need some mouthwash—like he just ate a bag of onions or something? No, of course not. In Israel’s day and our own day, enormous amounts of money and time and energy and lives are spent keeping wickedness at bay. It’s a lot of work to carry the ring to the fires of Mordor. Think of the laws we pass and the offers who try their best to enforce them, and think of the military and the battles we fight. So much energy. So much effort. So much loss of life. How great is the Messiah? This great: one day he will topple evil the way I could stack up a line of dominos and blow them over. Effortless.

And now, the final four verses, vv. 6–9.

6The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
        and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
        and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
        their young shall lie down together;
        and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
        and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
        in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
        as the waters cover the sea.

My previous church, which was in Tucson, Arizona, had a beautiful courtyard. And on one Saturday night after the service, some kids were playing in the trees and rocks, and all of a sudden there was yelling. A young child named Lilly did not get bit, but she was playing near a coiled rattlesnake. She almost sat on it.

I won’t spend hardly any time on this last chunk of verses, except to point out the overarching point. The greatness of the Messiah pictured here is such that when he comes to do his work upon the earth, he’ll do it in such a way that those who once seemed like vicious, deadly predators, will become friends. When the Messiah does his work, it will be as though a little child could play with a cobra because the sting is gone; there is nothing to fear (1 Corinthians 15:54b–57).

And the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth in the same way the waters cover the seas. Think about that! Wherever there is sea, there is water. And so, where there is land, there will be the knowledge of God. That’s pervasive language. The knowledge of God under the full rule and reign of the Messiah will not be intermittent. The knowledge of God won’t be sprinkled or scattered unevenly. Rather, it’s coated thick throughout the world (cf. the Krispy Kreme frosting waterfall).

And what is meant here by knowledge? It’s not mere awareness, but nearness, intimacy, and love. The knowledge that covers the earth as the waters cover the seas is the knowledge of a father wiping tears from the cheeks of his daughter and spreading out his hand saying, “I love you THIS MUCH,” and everyone everywhere going, “Yeah, Dad, we get it. The Messiah is awesome.” That’s what’s pictured here.

3. What sort of people ought we to be?

Now we come to my final question: what sort of people ought we to be in light of this kind of a Messiah? Very, very briefly, I’ll have two answers. We ought to be a people who long to be like our Messiah, and we ought to be people who long for the Messiah to come again.

a. People who long to be like Jesus

Here’s what I mean first. If our Messiah is characterized by truth and justice and protecting the poor and the meek, ought not we to be like that too? I think so.

If the Messiah’s highest pleasure is not doing his own will but living in the fear of the Lord, then ought we not to be a people who seek to have our highest pleasure in obeying the Lord? I think so.

If our Messiah is not swayed by the whims of the people and culture, and he’s not enamored with the money and the status that the world offers, and if he doesn’t just do what seems best to everyone else, but he actually knows what is right and true, shouldn’t we be people who don’t give a rip whether or not the views we hold from God are out of step with popular opinion? I think so.

So that’s one answer to the question what sort of people we ought to be: If this is what our Messiah is like, it seems to make sense that we strive to be like him. The Apostle Peter says in one of his letters that, Christ gave us an example, “so that you might follow in his steps” ( 1 Peter 2:21). And the Apostle Paul tells us in one letter to “be imitators of God” and to pattern lives after Jesus (Ephesians 5:1).

b. People who long for Jesus to come again

But I want to end mentioning what I believe is the main takeaway from this passage. We ought to be people who long for the Messiah to come again. To say it differently, we ought to long for the Second Coming of Jesus.

There’s a fancy phrase that’s helpful when reading some passages in the Old Testament prophets. It’s called “prophetic foreshortening.” You don’t need to remember that phrase. But I bet you’ll remember the image that is often used to explain it: mountain ranges.

I mentioned Tucson earlier; let me mention it again. When you land at the Tucson airport, you’re in the south part of the city. If you look north from the airport, you see the Catalina Mountains. And if you get on I-10 and begin driving north to Phoenix, after about 30 minutes you notice something. What looked like one giant mountain is actually a whole range of mountains, with the highest mountains in back. From the south, and from 45 miles away, they look like one mountain, but they are many mountains.

What does that have to do with Isaiah? As Isaiah stood where he stood—south of the Messiah, so to speak—his prophecy about the Messiah has several mountain peaks to it. Some of them are clearly fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus as a baby who grows up and then dies for the sins of his people. Jesus is born as a baby, which means he’s fragile, like a twig from a stump. And Jesus is from the family line of Judah, more specifically the family line of David and his father Jesse. And in Luke 4, Jesus speaks of the Spirit of the Lord resting upon him. So some of the peaks of Isaiah 11 are fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas.

Other aspects of this passage in Isaiah 11 might have begun, such as the Messiah’s ministry beginning to bear fruit, but others are not fulfilled until the Second Coming. Does the knowledge of the Lord cover the earth like the waters cover the sea? Not yet. Has the Messiah killed the wicked with the breath of his mouth? No. But what do we read in one of Paul’s letters about this? Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2 that “the Lord Jesus will kill [the evil one] with the breath of his mouth and bring [him] to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (v. 8). In other words, there is another mountain range yet to climb.

Therefore, in so much as Advent is about celebrating the birth of the savior, it’s also about longing for the Second Coming of the Messiah, when the work he began, he will see to completion. And this is why we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in a minor key. Emmanuel means God with us. And we long for God to be with us—yes, he’s here now, but what is to come is greater still. The second to last verse in the Bible goes like this:

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

In other words, we still sing “O come, O come, Emmanuel / And ransom captive Israel / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appears. . . / O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny / And give them victory o’er the grave.”

Prayer

Pray with me as Ben and the music team come back up to lead us in one more song. Let’s pray . . .

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