The beautiful, almost haunting song O Come Emmanuel is one of my favorite Christmas carols, even though there is very little mention of traditional Christmas in it at all. There are no angels, or shepherds, or magi, or even mention of a baby born in Bethlehem. To someone who has only a passing knowledge of the nativity story and what it means, O Come Emmanuel might be a little confusing.
In some of the older versions of the song, we have some interesting names for Jesus: Emmanuel, Son of God, Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David, and then we have Adonai, Lord of Might. Many of those titles might be unfamiliar to us. They sound old. Archaic. They sound much more Old Testament, don't they? Not quite the same as the baby in the manger, born under a star.
But that is where Jesus, as Emmanuel, began. Back in what we, today, call the Old Testament. Within a heartbeat of mankind's fall to sin in the garden of Eden, God announced his rescue plan. God declared that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent's head—speaking of Satan—and the serpent would strike his heel. God put this rescue plan in action through a nation, the nation of Israel.
Today I want to tell you a short story inspired by Israel, told as if the nation was a woman. The idea of Israel personified a woman comes from the Bible itself, notably in the book of Hosea. My intention is, that by looking at Israel as if she was a person, we will be drawn into the epic history that spans thousands of years. As you listen, you're going to catch bits of famous Bible stories you know and love. This short story can in no way replace the power of reading the entire history for yourself. My aim is to present an overarching picture of Israel as a dramatic story of failure and hope.
The Birth of a Nation
Before Israel was born, her purpose was set. She was created to be different. Righteous. Set apart. She was born into a land that was promised to her forefathers, yet she did not have even a blade of grass to call her own. From her infancy she was told about her grandfather, Abraham, and that God himself had come down to make a covenant with him. God had promised Abraham that because he had not withheld his beloved son from the Lord, God would make his name great, and through Abraham's descendants, all the nations of the world would be blessed. (Genesis 22)
We can forgive the child Israel, if that task seemed so daunting, that it was easier to worry about later. How can she bless the whole world? She's small, after all, and the world is so very big. For now, it is hard enough to keep food in her belly as a drought sweeps over the promised land.
Just as she begins to fear she might starve to death, her neighbor Egypt offers her both food and shelter. Relieved, she packs up her tent and moves in. (Genesis 46) When the drought ends, it is easier to stay than to go back to a land she doesn't even own.
The years slide by and her kindly neighbor passes away, leaving everything to his cruel son. This son hates Israel. He is threatened by her, and he takes her as his slave. He does everything he can to crush her, body, and soul. Israel weeps bitterly and dreams of freedom. She remembers the promise made to Abraham. She prays in the darkness of the night, “God, have you forgotten your promises? Come and rescue me!” But for a long time, God is silent. (Exodus 1-2)
One day she looks up and sees a man striding out of the wilderness. He declares that God has sent him to rescue her. Could it be true? The man named Moses marches off to face her captor and Israel waits with bated breath.
Egypt laughs in Moses' face. Israel helplessly watches as Moses and Egypt face off in an epic battle. Moses, filled with power from God, strikes blow after blow. Egypt buckles behind his shield but refuses to surrender. Finally, after a crippling strike against Egypt, God not only frees Israel, but repays her for her slavery and suffering. In a great Exodus, she walks free, laden with everything she had come with, and more: gold and riches. She can hardly believe the miracle! (Exodus 7-12)
Finding Israel's Place and Purpose
Once they are far away and safe, Moses sits her down and reminds her of the purpose for which she was born. She is supposed to be the chosen one among the nations. With her neck dripping with jewels and dressed in the rich robes of her former master, she nods eagerly. “I can do this.” Moses teaches her how to act as the chosen nation. (Exodus 35:1 and following)
Before she becomes too impressed with her position among men, Moses warns her that the God who rescued her is so holy that she can not come before his presence full of sin as she is. Blushing with shame, she knows Moses is right. But Moses assures her that God has a plan to make things right between them. She learns how to offer sacrifices that will atone for her sins. (Leviticus 1-7)
Moses then leads her back to the land she had abandoned, the promised land. But in the time she has been gone, it has filled with people. She will have to fight for her home. As she stares at the fortified cities and the soldiers who look like giants, she cries out, “I'm too afraid!” Moses is grieved at her cowardice, and he marches her back into the wilderness. He keeps her there for forty years, using the time to remind her of her role. (Numbers 13-14)
When the time is right, a man named Joshua leads her up to the land she had been promised. She stands with her toes at the river that divides her from her future home, takes a deep breath, and draws her sword.
The following years are hard. She has to follow Joshua's commands, and sometimes he asks her to do the impossible. Yet, in the end, she stands in the promised land and breathes a sigh of relief. She has done it. She is home. She packs away her sword and turns her hand to planting vineyards and fields, raising sheep and children. (Joshua)
Israel's Search for a King
Times are good, and it is easy to forget her struggles in Egypt and the way that God rescued her. She makes friends with her neighbors and finds their cultures enticing. She begins to imitate their ways, and listen to their stories about their gods. She forgets that she is supposed to be an example to her neighbors, and instead takes them for her example.