O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lowly exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
In Micah’s day, Israel had not yet gone into captivity…but it wouldn’t be long. It could be said that Micah is among the angriest of the prophets in the Old Testament. And that’s saying something…because the writings of all the prophets in the Old Testament can blister the ears of the casual reader!
Micah is, apparently, a farmer, furious with the carrying-on of folks in the big city. He calls them thieves, false preachers, more interested in superficial social problems like drunkenness while injustice runs rampant in the city. They’re greedy for wealth, these cities folks, who “hate good and love evil, eating the flesh of the poor, flaying their skin from off them, breaking their bones in pieces, chopping them up like meat in the pot, like flesh in a cauldron.” One hopes that the prophet is speaking metaphorically!
These people, says Micah, “cry ‘peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against Him who puts nothing into their mouths.” Micah’s disdain drips with sarcasm, picturing these fat cats, satisfied and indolent, murmuring peaceably when they are stuffed with rich food, but turn their fury on those who fail to keep them comfortable. It is a very modern picture!
O Come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Micah is no one to be trifled with. But together with the other prophets of the Old Testament, they are not merely a bunch of angry, angry men, speaking on behalf of an angry, angry God. They are not engaging in a kind of religious blackmail, making people feel guilty enough about the conduct of their lives so that they will listen and take to heart some good news. No, the prophets do not play good cop/bad cop.
They paint the world of Judah and Jerusalem in their day (a picture eerily similar to our own world today) they paint it in such dark, dark terms in order to show exactly the sort of mess into which God Himself is going to step. To clean it up? Well, not yet, anyway…and not in the way anyone expects. He intends to join them, to join us, right here in our mess. And when the prophets turn to that news, it’s a night and day difference in their language.
O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
That’s where we are now: darkness, sadness, grief, gloom. We need light. We need cheer. We need hope and more. In short, we need Emmanuel, God with us. We believe His promise that He is with us, that He is present with those who suffer in a small community whose school will never be the same again and all over this world where homes and lives and everything a people might hold as secure in their corner of the world is overturned by tragedy. God is with them. But sometimes it’s hard to see; sometimes hard even to believe.
Advent is a time of waiting. But it seems of late that the waiting has become interminable. At times like this, we need to remember—and remind each other—that we do not, any of us, wait alone. We are in this together as the family of faith spread across the globe.
Some wait for healing this Advent season, and we wait with them. Others wait for the touch of human love, and we wait with them, as well. Some wait for work, others for word of their loved ones, and some wait for the numbness and pain to go away, even while they fear what life is going to be like when it does. We wait with them all.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Any mention of Bethlehem in the ears of the Jews in Micah’s day would immediately bring to mind the great king of Israelite history, the mighty David who was born in the tiny village of Bethlehem, and chosen by the prophet Samuel as king. He was the least, the youngest child of an unknown chieftain, named Jesse. But the prophet points to another David-like king who will defeat their enemies and bring Israel back to its days of glory in the eyes of God. Except…not in the way that anyone thinks…perhaps, not even Micah himself.
O come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
Free them from Satan’s tyranny
That trust Thy might power to save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
The world looks to the centers of power. For Jerusalem that was Nineveh, Babylon, and, in time, Rome. For us it’s Washington, London, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing. If anything is going to happen, anything of consequence, it must come from there! So intently do we gaze in the direction of power that we don’t see what God is doing in the little places, the least places, the insignificant places…the Arlingtons…far from the corridors of power.
For the Lord makes low the mighty, but He exalts the humble. He has regard for the humble estate of His servant Mary, so that all generations would call her blessed. He calls poor fishermen, tax collectors, even prostitutes. He shames the wise of this world and glorifies the foolish. He turns weeping to joy, sin into righteousness, and death into life. He is at His greatest in the moments of His lowliest…a manger, a cross, a grave.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of peace.
In the midst of all of Micah’s fierce anger there remains peace. It is a sign of the God for whom he speaks. Micah points to Bethlehem. Little Bethlehem. He points to us here in little Arlington. To us who know too well the woe that this world holds. To us who know how powerless we are to do anything much about it. To us, whose sleep is often anything but heavenly.
To us, as to Jerusalem, Micah sings at the end of his book, “Who is a God like You…? [Who] does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love, [who] will again have compassion on us, [who] will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
The world, like the prophet Micah, is so very angry these days. But not because God is playing religious blackmail with us. He is not making us squirm so that we welcome some good news. The world is so very angry so that we can see so very clearly just what God is stepping into to join us. The greatest comes to the least. And at little Bethlehem we see.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
[Has] come to thee, O Israel.