“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”
It’s a familiar part of our Advent repertoire, but what does it mean?
The concept of “ransom” is something we usually associate with crime drama. A kidnapper calls and demands an exorbitant sum of money in small, unmarked bills to be placed in a duffel bag at a train station at exactly 8 p.m. in exchange for the ambassador’s wife or some other VIP.
God’s ransom looks a bit different. In the exodus, God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and eventually led them to the promised land. Perhaps the story should have ended there. But the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah observed that even after their liberation from Egypt, God’s people continued to languish in spiritual captivity as slaves to sin. The need for God to intervene — to ransom captive Israel — was again necessary. The price was enormous: the Incarnation. To free his people from the chains of sin, God became man, placing his very self into this messy world. This is Emmanuel, God with us.
In the year 2020, we are no more free than the ancient Israelites. The forms of captivity change, but our need for God’s ransom endures. What chains have we today? Certainly, in a year of pandemic, we face the bonds of illness, isolation and loneliness. Crippling fear and mistrust of others hold us captive. For much of the year, we have been exiled from public life, exiled from our schools and workplaces and at times even exiled from our houses of worship. Religious liberty is suddenly a front-page issue, bringing into clear focus our priorities as a church and as a larger society.
Recently on a prominent evening news show, in an interview with a prominent national health official, a prominent journalist surmised: “So, Christmas is probably not going to be possible.” The experts agreed.
What an ugly, but accurate display of the cruelest captor in our society: a frantic and hopeless secularism. A people that believes Christmas won’t happen without the season of travel, parties, mall Santas and school plays is deeply enslaved.
It is difficult to be certain of anything these days, but here is something you can bank on: Christmas is not cancelled. The experts are wrong. After all, Christmas is made for captives. It’s tailored especially for years like this, when the oppression seems extra harsh. I have never been more sure that Christmas is right on schedule.
Satan will place a call, demanding an exorbitant sum for the release of our souls. Once again, and exactly on time, the price will be paid in full and we will be set free. Don’t doubt it. The hefty price of the Incarnation will be left, not in a duffel bag at the train station, but in swaddling clothes in the manger.
Ransoms only work when the captives are extraordinarily precious; when the prisoner is so beloved, no amount is too high to make the exchange. And that is how God feels about us. Let’s all be clear: Christmas is not only possible this year, it’s absolutely certain.