Day 7: In Division, Emmanuel

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

(Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6)

This will be the first year that Christmas will not be celebrated in Mosul, Iraq, near the ancient city of Ninevah. For nearly 2,000 years, Mosul had a thriving community of Christians who dwelt peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbors. Division was rare. They all lived in harmony and peace for nearly 2 millennia.

Then came ISIS. In July of 2014, the Christians of Mosul were given an ultimatum: Deny your God or be destroyed.

There are no longer any Christians in Mosul. There are no longer any churches in Mosul. Deep pits all over Iraq are now full of Christians’ bodies, a holocaust in its own right.

And all throughout the Middle East, the cry for peace echoes. In Syria, more than half the population has been displaced by a war that began only a few years ago. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, and all throughout the world the stories all carry the same tune of persecuted people calling for Emmanuel to come.

Much of the world fights for territory, for power, for survival. In America, we fight for ideals, for the right to be right, for the chance to be first. Even our churches are divided, with congregations on one end of the street condemning the ones at the other end.

Division makes its mark on every corner of the world, and even our best attempts at locking arms and singing “We are the World” will never bring true unity again. Only the King – only Emmanuel – can bind the hearts of all mankind. Only He can bring Heaven to Earth.

As we celebrate this day, let’s remember those around the world who are suffering for the very name we speak when we utter the phrase, “Merry Christmas”. Let’s join our hearts with theirs in prayer for peace, for Emmanuel to be with them…to be with us. Let’s pray for unity in our country’s corner of the Body of Christ. Let’s make room for the King of Peace in our homes, our churches, our communities. Let’s be vessels for Emmanuel to walk through, to move through, to speak through. Let’s be the light that brings Emmanuel to the ones who need it most.

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Day 6: In the Shadows, Emmanuel

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

(In Day 1, He was the light of deliverance’s promise flickering in the darkness. In Day 2, He was the Shepherd leading the way around winding paths. In Day 3, He was the God who chose to dwell with us to the journey’s end. In Day 4, He was the King who reclaimed us from the curse of death. In Day 5, He was the key to the door and the Door itself.)

The world labored and groaned with the weight of its sin, aching for a deliverer as the Israelites did in Egypt centuries before. We could only take so much more before we would surely die. We waited, pained and pining, wandering and wasting away in the shadow of death, wrestling our demons in the dark, clamoring for light, for an Emmanuel to pierce the darkness and bring us peace. And true to His word, though not in our own way, He came.

To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:77-79)

He came to deliver, to lead the way, to enable us to walk with His presence enveloping us, to rescue us from the curse of death, to open the door so we could walk into the freedom of His light. He still comes; He still hears our cries. He’s still Emmanuel when we whisper our desperate, monosyllabic prayers in the darkness when no one else is around to hear – He comes to dwell with us in our shadows and carry us through until the dayspring rises in the morning to give us light. He dwells with us and whispers back, “It isn’t real; it’s only a shadow. The light will soon be here.”

C.S. Lewis, in his book The Last Battle, put it this way:

“There was  a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are–as you used to call it in the Shadowlands–dead.  The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.”

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page:  now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read:  which goes on forever:  in which every chapter is better than the one before.” —HarperCollins: New York, 1956

He comes in our shadows and calls us into the real story – the better story – so we can walk in the morning of His light and love. And the story He writes is better than any story any man could pen; it is written on our minds and hearts for all of time and for all of eternity.

Today, as we await the Big Day, wandering in the shadows and carrying our candles lit by hope, let us rejoice. Emmanuel has come. Emmanuel is here. Emmanuel will soon put to flight every shadow that surrounds us. Emmanuel hears and will respond. The dream has ended; this is the morning.

Day 5: When You Need a Door, Emmanuel

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

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(In Day 1, He was the light of deliverance’s promise flickering in the darkness. In Day 2, He was the Shepherd leading the way around winding paths. In Day 3, He was the God who chose to dwell with us to the journey’s end. In Day 4, He was the King who reclaimed us from the curse of death.)

Before Jesus, the door to the presence of God was locked. We were all relegated to the outer courts; only “authorized personnel” (read: the high priest) could enter into the Holy of Holies where God showed Himself to man. In the echo of His death, Jesus, the High Priest of all high priests, tore in two the veil that separated man from God’s presence. In the glory of His resurrection, He brought back the key and shut the door on death for all who’d choose to live and die for Him.

“The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open.” (Isaiah 22:22) 

He didn’t just open the door. He is the door.

“I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

He lights the way in the dark, answering our cries for deliverance. He makes a safe path around winding roads of righteousness. He brings His presence near us, even when our frustration and doubt cause us to turn to other less-wild lovers. He brings dead things to life again, redeeming us and etching His name upon the roots of our hearts.  And this Key of David made a way for fallible humanity to intersect with incomparable divinity by becoming the Son of Man so that we could become sons of God. He opened the door – He IS the door – that no man can shut.

All so that we could be with Him. All so that Emmanuel could be with us.

Day 4: When Death Seems Like the End, Emmanuel

(In Day 1, He was the light of deliverance’s promise flickering in the darkness. In Day 2, He was the Shepherd leading the way around winding paths. In Day 3, He was the God who chose to dwell with us to the journey’s end.)

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

He sat on the throne of King David of Judah, son of Jesse, friend of God, future ancestor of Jesus. From that seat, he forsook the Lord and ignored His voice. And God declared Jehoiakim the last of a line of kings in Judah. Cursed would be the seeds that fell from his tree.

Then came Joseph, the last in the family line, centuries after the curse on his lineage. Joseph, who by virtue of his bloodline could have inherited the throne, but who by virtue of God’s plan became a humble carpenter in Nazareth, a city scorned by all who passed by. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” they’d say.

And Joseph’s fiancee, a young girl likely just past her bat mitzvah, already pregnant by the hand of God. He could have scorned her, could have had her stoned, but this carpenter from a line of kings chose to believe the promise of God.

Together, they journeyed to Bethlehem, home of David’s ancient throne, traveling hundreds of miles to claim their lineage in Caesar’s census. Back to their roots. Back to their beginning. And in this place of their beginning came a new beginning for all who were to come. In this place where Jesse’s seed took root, a tree would grow, and from that tree, a Branch – a rod – that would conquer death and gather the Shepherd’s lost sheep to come Home.

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 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 of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

But seeds with any potential of growth must die before they can live. This seed that would bring life to all was born to die. And He didn’t come with a trumpet’s reverie; he didn’t come with a parade. He was born in a cave with farm animals around Him because no one had made room for the King of all kings, son of David, son of man, son of God to be born.

He was born in a cave, was raised by a carpenter, and died on a tree. And blessed would be tree from which fell the seed that grew into a tree that the King would carry to be raised up for all to see. Blessed would be the tree that would bear the weight of the King who would bear the weight of the sins of the world and would finish it all, once and for all.

The Rod of Jesse was buried in a cave for three days, and all hope seemed lost. Death seemed like the end. But the Rod of Jesse had to die to deal with the root of the sin that cursed the seeds that fell from the tree of David. On that third day, from the depths of death, He arose with the key that would open the door to the presence of God and set us all free. The world, weary from the weight of sin, would now have cause to rejoice.

God With Us, even in death, brought life. Even in death, He lived. And having redeemed us all from the curse of the law and death, he arose to take His seat on the throne at the right hand of God, grafting a place for all of us in the tree of life, etching our names upon the roots of His heart. This God who is with us has invited us to be with Him.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come, and Emmanuel says, “Come.” What will be your reply?

Day 3: To the Journey’s End, Emmanuel

Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

(In Day 1, He was the light of deliverance’s promise flickering in the darkness. In Day 2, He was the Shepherd leading the way around winding paths.)

They got tired. After 90 days, they were weary of walking winding paths toward a Canaan they’d never seen and which had been mere mythology for centuries. The only thing they knew was the slavery behind them and the dirt caked beneath their feet and the mountain that lay before them. They needed to see the promise, to touch it with their hands, to call it out by name.

They were camping out in the wilderness at the foot of Mount Sinai. And they were restless. This God they’d heard of and cried out to seemed far away after many weeks of walking toward a place they’d never been. And then this God called Moses up to the mountain, telling him to leave the people below with instructions not to even touch it lest they face His wrath.

For forty days and forty nights, they waited while God gave Moses the new law of the land. They waited in the wildnerness and looked up at flashes of fire and billowing clouds of God’s presence, just close enough to see but too far away to touch. They became distracted in the waiting.

When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?” (Exodus 32:1)

So they made an idol – a golden calf – and bowed down to a god they could see with their own eyes. A god crafted by their own hands, dreamed up by their own imaginations. An impotent god, an image of a lowly beast of burden stood before them, ears deafened to their prayers and their songs.

They’d forgotten the songs of Zion. They camped out in front of a handmade god and sang its praises, forgetting the Egypt the Almighty had delivered them from and nearly forsaking the Canaan ahead. Their desire for normalcy plummetted them into chaos.

Moses came down from the mountain, ready to share all that God had given him. In his hands, he held the law written by God Himself, and on his heart, he carried the instructions for creating God’s dwelling place among the people. Imagine his dismay at what he saw when he descended. Moses threw the stone tablets of the law to the ground, shattering them in his righteous anger. God was ready to end it all right then and there. Their journey could have been cut short. It was only through Moses’ pleading with God did God stay His hand and not destroy them all.

Many still died that day. They’d forgotten the promise. They were so busy being angry with the God up in the mountain in smoke and fire that they missed the God who’d made plans to dwell among them. They were so busy worshiping an image crafted from their own jewelry that they forgot the One who delivered them.

Even then, God still did not forsake the Israelites. He again created order from their chaos and set them on the right path with a new law and a new focus for the journey ahead.  

God said, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.” (Exodus 33:14)

He dwells in fire and clouds of majesty and awe. But rejoice! The waiting may be dark. The journey may be winding and unclear. He may seem far away. But this God who dwells in fire and clouds also wants to dwell with us. Emmanuel, in darkness and winding paths and wilderness waiting, will see us through to the end.

Day 2: When Paths are Unclear, Emmanuel

Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

(You can read Day 1 of the series here.)

You’re in the desert, wandering, thirsty, nothing but desert…and more desert ahead of you. You’ve been climbing that mountain for a long time and have run out of food. The only way is down. But how?

“I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble…” Jeremiah 31:9

The safest path down a mountain to where the grass is? It’s not straight down. It’s not linear. It’s not Point A to Point B, straight up, no questions asked. You can’t graph it. You can’t really even map it. You can’t stand at the top of the mountain, look down into the valley, and see the whole path down.

The safest path is a circular one that winds around the mountain. And the Shepherd alone knows the way.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me…” (Psalm 23:1-4)

The Scripture talks of these paths of righteousness, and we tend to think of them figuratively, but shepherds know better. These are literal paths. And the only way to go safely down the mountain is to use one of those paths. Yes, they’re narrow. Yes, they’re long. But the mountain won’t nourish. The mountain won’t feed. The mountain won’t heal. The mountain is a stop on the way, a place of perspective, but the valley is where the food is. The valley is where the streams run to.

I think of the Israelites and all their centuries of waiting. All their centuries of pleading for deliverance. They could have made a break for it. They could have packed up and run. But they didn’t know the way. Had they tried to strike out on their own and find their own way, they would have tried going straight down the mountain. They would have fallen over the precipice and met their demise. They’d have missed out on His best.

I’ve learned that when it comes to climbing mountains, the best thing to do is to stay close to the rock, only looking for the next step and the step after that, trusting His light to guide us. Because we may be walking narrow paths. That light may only guide our very next step and nothing more. We may feel like we’re winding around and around and around a mountain, never reaching the end of the path. But we aren’t the first ones to walk the path, and we won’t be the last. And His light will never grow dim.

(Psssst! You absolutely must check out the amazing photographs and video about the paths of righteousness here. It may be the best five minutes you spend all day.)

Day 1: When All is Dark, Emmanuel

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

I recently watched the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings (and definitely recommend it). In it was one of the most striking depictions of the suffering of the Jews and their journey to freedom. “We’re going to Canaan”, they said. “We’re going to Canaan”, they said for 400 years. “We’re going to Canaan”, they said for 400 years, still believing, still hoping. Still waiting.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion! How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

Beaten. Tortured. Taunted. Forced to build altars to inferior gods. Waiting. 400 years of waiting and still, “We’re going to Canaan.” Still pining for rescue. Still praying for ransom.

They could have given up the ache for liberation. They could have resigned themselves to their fate. They could have wallowed in defeat, the towering pyramids around them mocking them, asking for songs. “Where is this Cannan you speak of? Has your God delivered you yet? Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

Still they told stories of the Emmanuel to come amidst the darkness of their present exile. Still they passed down the stories of old, lighting candles of destiny, of hope on the lamps of their children’s hearts. Still they prayed and believed this God who’d not moved His hand – YET – because their deliverance was promised. Their future was secure. Their freedom would come. And in the meantime, in the waiting, He was Emmanuel: God with us.

He still is.