O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.
One of the most well-known and beloved Advent or Christmas songs begins with a cry for freedom from captivity. The ransom of those who are imprisoned. It’s kind of a weird thing to sing this time of year. It doesn't fit on a Black Friday sale sign: "All prisoners 30% off." Maybe it’s because most of us have never experienced anything remotely like prison of any kind. I say most, because I know that this gathering of the body of Christ consists of both clean records and ex-cons. Some of us probably get what this means right off the bat. But for most of us the idea of imprisonment is so far away from what most of us experience. That the idea doesn’t mean much to us. If anything all.
Being held captive may not strike a huge cord with us. But the Bible is filled with stories of imprisonment. Both of our scriptures this morning are prison stories.
The first, from the book of Isaiah chapter thirty-five, is about exile in a foreign land. Isaiah’s people are held captive with little hope of escape or return.
His country was surrounded by enemies on all sides. Many were killed. And many more were captured. Many were dragged off in chains. Away from their homes, their communities, and even their families. They were taken to the homeland of the world’s leading superpower. And put to work serving their new masters.
What’s worse, is that many, including Isaiah, saw this as God’s punishment on his people. They had been so spiritually blinded, so deaf to their situation, that the people brought this destruction on themselves. They’d become so closed up in themselves, so self-deceiving and self-destructive. Their spiritual exile resulted in a physical exile.
So they long for a day when they no longer have to work under foreign dominance. Where they can leave their homes and walk down their streets without suspicion or surveillance. They long to go home. But guards stand at the doors. And there’s a huge, impenetrable desert stands between and the land they call home, and the land of their captivity. Because they are prisoners.
Now, I’m not sure quite what to make of the part about God punishing destruction and exile. It seems like God’s business is homecoming first, rather than exile. But regardless of if it’s their own fault or not, Isaiah’s people are exiles. They are held captive. There’s no way out. No way home.
So this is where that cry “come o come, Emmanuel, ransom captive Israel” comes from. It’s made by people who long for release. And while this text was originally all about a particular historical situation—something way back in the past. This sense of imprisonment has gradually evolved, through the New Testament, and the longer Christian tradition. That this sense of being held captive describes what it’s like to be human. That there are forces, relationships, patterns of behavior in our lives that exert such a powerful sway over us, it’s like being imprisoned by them.
Some captivities are more obvious. On occasion, I offer help, support and guidance for people who are moving through a twelve-step recovery program for alcohol or drugs. If people are new to recovery, or are just trying to get on their feet, nine out of ten will describe their life before sobriety as a prison of some kind. That it’s a chain around their neck that dictates the movement of their life. Then there plenty of others. There’s sex, porn, gambling. And of course, there’s shopping, the one that stands front and center this time of year. Buying, purchasing. One of our culture’s most widely spread, and officially sanctioned addicting enslavements. One that lands us in a cell not built out of cinder block, but one built out of squandered opportunities to do good, strained and broken marriages and families. And soul crushing, life crippling debts.
But then there are the sentences that we have become so accustomed to that we don’t even really know we’re imprisoned by them simply by being born in to our world. Think about the endless cycles of human conflict, war and violence. Think about the millions who live trapped in cycles of poverty and crime. Think about indigenous peoples right here in Canada who continue to be held in chains by events that took place long ago. Think about the fact that our lives, economy and jobs have become so dependent on the very fossil fuels that seem to be harming God’s creatures. And causing irreparable harm to God’s good creation.
Think about it, and you’ll spot yourself through the bars in the prison window. Somewhere. Think about it, and you’ll know what that old hymn means when is says “O Come O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Because we are all prisoners of one kind or another. Prisoners of our own brokenness, prisoners of the world’s brokenness. Captive. With no obvious way out. No way home.
No way out. No way home. Even so, Isaiah issues a promise. Isaiah issues a divine promise of freedom for captives.
“Strengthen the weak hands,” he says. “And make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… He will come and save you." Even though his people are hopeless. Even though his people live in captivity. Even though the prison is of their own making, Isaiah delivers a divine promise. The promise of God’s own presence among the people. And when God shows up, Isaiah says, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” Then the desert that blocks their way home will bloom with vegetation and life. And God will lead them on a heavenly highway through that desert home.
Isaiah tells his people to be strong, to keep up hope. Because God is coming. And one day their captivity will cease. And will lead them home.
Freedom one day. One day. But you’ll notice in our reading from Matthew that John the Baptist is himself in prison. He sends word to Jesus, asking “are you the Messiah, the one to come?” Are you the real deal? Jesus responds not just with his own words. But the same words from Isaiah, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." The difference is that Isaiah’s promise is that the blind will receive their sight. The deaf will hear. The poor will have good news brought to them. Sometime in the future. But Jesus says that God’s saving presence is already here. The jailbreak has already begun. In Christ, God comes to us as a fellow prisoner. To secure our release from the inside.
God comes to us as we are, where we are. In all of our prisons. Whether they are prisons of addiction, or prisons of selfishness and greed. Prisons of hard-heartedness and pain. Prisons of lives wasted and squandered. Prisons of economic and social injustice. God comes as a fellow prisoner to bear our burdens, and to mend what needs mending. To put an end to our violence. To open our eyes, to soften and melt our hearts and to heal our pains. Just when we thought we were captive with no way out, God makes her way in to our lives. To set us free of those things that enslave us. And to lead us out. For good. There is a way out. Freedom is no only possible one day. But it’s possible to-day. For those who, like us, find ourselves in the company of Jesus.
This is the good news of Christmas. The coming of Christ. Of God-in-the-flesh. That God comes to us, to me, to you in all of our captivities. Here and now. Where we are. God comes to us in our grief, our brokenness and our pain. Here and now. Where we are. God comes to us in the darkness and hopelessness in our work. Here and now. Where we are, and the jail cell door has been flung open wide. We can see life beyond all of the barbed wire fences that hold us in. God has begun one mighty jailbreak. One that sets us free from the chains that bind us, and our world. We can experience the freedom we were made for here and now. And are set on a path, a Holy Highway. One to bring us to our home. Our home in God. Our home in God for good. And forever.
So “Hark, the glad sound! The Saviour comes,
the Saviour promised long:
let every heart prepare a throne,
and every voice a song.
He comes, the prisoners to release
in Satan's bondage held;
the gates of brass before him burst,
the iron fetters yield.
He comes, the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure,
and with the treasures of his grace
to bless the humble poor.”
So, friends, strengthen your weak hands! Make firm your feeble knees! Be strong, do not fear! Sing a song for joy, for here is your God! Go and tell that world that this Christmas our salvation has come near!