Ransom Captive Israel

This is an excerpt from “12 Days of Christmas Carols,” a devotional which unpacks lines of familiar Christmas carols you’ve sung for years but perhaps have never really thought about.

The Old Testament ends on a strange note of anti-climax. The exile, which technically had ended after seventy years in Babylon, lingers on. Despite all prophetic hopes to the contrary, God’s people are slaves in their own land. God has not restored David’s Kingdom. He has not returned to his temple. The anguished cry of the faithful was, “How long, O Lord?” Yet for centuries, heaven’s answer was a stony silence.

Into this groaning, waiting silence, the opening sentence of the New Testament explodes with world-altering, epoch-defining significance:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1)

“Here he is!” the gospel writers trumpet. The promised King at last had come to end the long night of exile. Freedom, life, and the new creation were dawning. All the promises were coming true.

Yet the rollout of the long-awaited fulfillment proceeds differently than we all expected. The Kingdom doesn’t invade with shock and awe, but with stillness and quiet, in a manger. The King’s enthronement doesn’t take place at the center of empire, but on a bloody hill outside of Jerusalem. The new creation that the prophets heralded doesn’t split the sky; it walks out of a garden tomb. The King ascends into heaven and sits down on his throne, leaving the rest of us to work and wait for his return.

This means that in the twenty-first century we find ourselves in a different sort of limbo than they did in the first. The King has indeed come. Sin and death have indeed been defeated. The Kingdom is coming, in the colonies of the church, on earth as it is in heaven. But the long night of exile continues. We are not yet home, we have not yet come into possession of our inheritance, and we are still waiting for the promises to come true.

So, in between the first and second advent of the King, our prayer echoes the prayers of the faithful down through history: “How long, O Lord? Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!”

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