Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

O Antiphons – O Wisdom


St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The First Sunday of Advent (November 27, 2016)
Isaiah 11, Luke 1 – “O Antiphons – O Wisdom”

A little background to how we came to this Advent theme: the Worship Committee was meeting a couple of months ago and Mike Scionti wisely said, “For Advent, let’s pick some traditional theme since we’ve done a lot of creative, different, and provocative themes during the fall.” And he asked me, “How about something old and classic?” “Something old and classic? How about the 8th Century?”

The “O Antiphons” it was!

Maybe I find these interesting because I was sort of a liturgy geek in seminary, but I think this old, old tradition has value for us. No one knows who came up with the idea, originally, but Christians have been praying or chanting the O Antiphons possibly as far back as the 7th Century. Monastics prayed them at evening prayers during the 8 days leading up to Christmas; in Latin, of course. But what are they? They are seven prayers addressed to each messianic title drawn from the prophecy of Isaiah and fulfilled in Christ. O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Radiant Dawn, O King of Nations, O Emmanuel. If you flip that order, in the Latin the acrostic reads, “ero cras,” which means, “tomorrow, I will come.”

You’ve heard these before: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” was based off the O Antiphons.

So what we’ll be reflecting on in this sermon series is how the messianic expectations of Israel found their expression in Christ (Christos is the Greek word for Messiah, “anointed ruler”). By rehearsing the hopes of ancient Israel, we might learn something about our own yearnings this Advent, and maybe how Jesus fulfills those, as well.

Check the front of your bulletin. Today’s is “O Wisdom.”

Hear now the reading from Isaiah:

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout from his roots.
The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.

And the second reading, this one from the Gospel According to Luke:

“When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

What’s true here is true elsewhere in life: there’s a gap between our expectations and real life.

Isaiah’s words weren’t originally a messianic prophecy, but a coronation hymn. Much like the poems and prayers at our Presidential inaugurations, people would compose pieces that expressed the nation’s hopes for the new leader. I still remember hearing Elizabeth Alexander’s words at Obama’s first inaugural while freezing to death on the National Mall:

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

And I remember thinking,“Yes! We’re on the cusp! Everything’s about to change! Racism will be dismantled, we’ll peel back from these wars, Washington won’t be so toxic.”

And here we are… What we hope for is one thing, what we get is another.

The same was true in Isaiah’s time. These words were penned when Hezekiah became king. And he was a wise and just ruler, and a reformer, too. But during his reign, Northern Israel fell to the Assyrians and Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians. Dashed hopes, to say the least.

But what does any of this have to do with Jesus? What’s the bridge from Isaiah to Luke?

At the risk of oversimplifying it, as the early church pondered Jesus’ life, they looked back on the messianic anticipations in the Hebrew scriptures and perceived some sort of fulfillment of those in the life of Christ. They went back and thought, essentially, “Yes, exactly, what that said, but in a different way.” There was obviously a gap between what they were expecting in a messiah, in an anointed ruler who would usher in God’s reign, and what they encountered in Jesus.

The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.

“A spirit of wisdom and understanding…” I think many people can agree that Jesus was wise. I’ve heard people say often, “I’m not sure what I believe about him, but I like his teachings.” Part of me can connect with that. Some church doctrines can be difficult to swallow. And some branches on the Christian family tree have all but ruined Jesus for many people, yet his teachings are provocative enough to pay attention to, and maybe even to try to apply.

But then another part of me says, “What?! You like his teachings? Have you read them? Or tried them?” Jesus’ brand of wisdom isn’t conventional, and it’s far from simple. Think about it…

  • Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself (so much easier said than done!).
  • Turn the other cheek.
  • Forgive 70 times 7.
  • The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
  • You can’t serve God and money at the same time.
  • To save your life, you must lose it.

If those weren’t enough, take the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God,” with “woe to the rich, for you have received your consolation;” and “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” and “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will weep later.”

And this one sounds inspiring, until we have to actually put it into practice, “For I was hungry, thirsty, imprisoned… Just as you did to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Oh, and this is one of my favorites: “Don’t worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Good luck!

And to teach most of this through asking questions more times than giving answers, telling stories instead of easy-to-memorize maxims, offering parables instead of concrete solutions— parables of workers getting paid the same wages and prodigal children being welcomed home, and such. Is that wise by ancient, let alone our modern standards?

And not just the wisdom in Jesus teachings, but in his actions. Taking on the Roman empire and their puppet rulers through love. Ushering in God’s reign by feeding multitudes, touching and healing lepers, and giving sight to the blind. Starting a revolution by recruiting fishermen and tax collectors and women as disciples. Not a lot of power there two thousand years ago. And willingly go to a cross, being crowned with thorns. What a strange way to inaugurate a messiah!

Was this the sort of wisdom Israel craved, and even prayed for, in a leader?
Is this the wisdom we want in a teacher? Is this the way of life we choose as disciples?

Maybe it’s the case that our ways of wisdom don’t quite cut it. Just as he embodies a different kind of reign, an “alternative regime,” Jesus also reveals deeper wisdom, divine wisdom. Rather than offering up a quick fix for our problems, he opens up broader possibilities for us to live into.

As we begin this Advent season, it’s worth the time to take stock of what role this wisdom plays in our lives. As we rehearse the hopes of ancient Israel and the church throughout time, Advent begs some questions.

  1. By what standards do we measure truth, character, and how we allocate our time and resources?
  2. How do we go about ordering our thoughts and decisions?
  3. Is this the wisdom that governs our lives?
[The soloist sings…]

O, come, thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest 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.