Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night

December 1, 2014   First Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 2: 1-5   Matthew 24: 36-44

Charissa Clark Howe


Advent is a really difficult time in the church calendar for choosing hymns because there just aren’t many advent hymns out there. Perhaps it’s because advent is about waiting and most of us don’t like waiting, let alone singing about it. But there is one advent hymn that seems to have captured all of our hearts – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

We sing this hymn every advent. I think nearly every church on the planet sings this hymn every advent. Even at our home church where the musical style tends to avoid the hymnal, we sing this song every advent. It’s become a part of the Advent liturgy even for churches who would balk at the word, “liturgy.”

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to sing this hymn multiple times every Advent. I actually think it’s a good idea. The teachers among us know that the key to teaching is saying the same thing over and over and over again. One thing that is wonderful about good church music is that it can help us to really digest big theological ideas in repetitive and easy to remember ways.

But sometimes, when we’ve heard something enough times, we start to gloss over it and don’t really listen to it anymore. Sometimes, even when we’ve committed the words to memory, we haven’t taken them to heart. This hymn can become just another sound in the bustle leading up to the holidays.

Today let’s step away from that bustle and listen and wait. Advent is for waiting. Big, full, mysterious, holy waiting.

O come, o come, Emmanuel

Emmanuel means, “God with us.”

It seems funny to spend all these weeks leading up to Christmas waiting for a Savior we know has already come. Immediately, it’s easy to commit this song to history rather than apply it to today or tomorrow. Jesus has already come! But that does not mean we merely echo words of the past. Jesus has already come, that is sure. But Jesus is also here and Jesus is also coming. In seminary, we often hear the term, “Already and not yet.” This plea for Emmanuel is “already and not yet.” We don’t wait simply in hope for tomorrow. We don’t wait simply in remembrance of the past. It is the memory that allows us to wait in hope.

Karl Barth says that we live “between the times.” Unlike some religions that see time as cyclical – birth, death, rebirth, repeat – ours is rooted in a sense of history. We see an arc of history from creation to re-creation.  We look back at what Jesus has done for the world, we look back at what Jesus has done for each of us individually, we look to what Jesus is doing today, and we look hopefully forward to what is yet to come.

O come.

O come

Emmanuel. . .

And ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here

            For many, exile is the last thing on the mind this time of year. But here it is, right in the middle of one of our favorite songs. For others, this time of year feels like exile. Loved ones are estranged or far away or have passed away.

            Whether we are in exile or better times, we are always remembering. We are looking backwards, sideways, and forward all at once. Israel remembers her exile and we remember the spiritual exile we were in before Christ’s freedom. We remember the mourning and exile that still cry out for healing and hope in the world around us. We look forward to the world’s release from exile.

            This waiting is not without great tension.

Until the Son of God appear

“But about that day and hour, no one knows.” Israel did not know when the Messiah would show up. For many of us, our first encounter with Jesus in this lifetime was a surprise. For some of us, it may have been a series of surprises that finally got through to us. The hour of our death – another important encounter with Jesus – is unknown to any of us. The day and time that Jesus will be back again in the end of times is an utter mystery. Jesus is unexpected and surprising!

When we look to this passage in Matthew, we see echoes of the great flood of Noah’s time and also reminder that while we wait expectantly for the end, we must do so humbly remembering that we have no idea of the when of it. But what this passage also affords us is a reminder of the claims that God makes on us right here and now. Every day we must ask ourselves if we are trusting Christ, living in Christ, focused on Christ, because every day matters. Every day the Son of God is present. Be ready for the unexpected appearance of Jesus!

O come, Thou Dayspring come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here.

            There are words in many of our hymns that we just don’t use anymore. “Dayspring” is one of those words, but it’s a very important piece of all this timey wimey business. It helps to tie together what it is that we’re waiting for.

  dayspring noun

synonyms beginning, alpha, birth, commencement, dawn, dawning, genesis, onset, opening gun, start[1]


We are waiting not for a simple end, but for the very beginning. Jesus says “I am the Alpha and Omega; the Beginning and the End.” Here we cry out both with remembrance of the past and hope for the future, “Come to us. . . start us! Bring the dawn of a new day!” The end IS the beginning. Christ’s Advent brought, brings, and will bring new life.

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

The lectionary text from Matthew today seems a strange choice at first for an advent passage. We’re looking to Christmas, not the end of times, right? Let’s talk about baby Jesus coming to a manger! The apocalyptic stuff can wait!

But it can’t! The two are too interconnected to pry them apart. Neither this text nor this hymn are just about tomorrow. They’re about yesterday and about today. Today is confusing and it’s OK to admit that we’re confused by some of the things around us! We don’t know what’s going on when, where, and why most of the time.

I wish I could tell you otherwise, but as those living in between times, we still experience gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows that bring with them confusion. But gloomy clouds and death’s dark shadows flee from Jesus. That’s what we look forward to in the future, friends! That’s what we celebrate in the past and that’s what gives us hope to live today. That’s what Christ has done, is doing, and will do! The gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows flee from our Messiah.

O come, desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy strife and discord cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

            Our passage from Isaiah says, “4He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” There’s an old spiritual I love that says, “I ain’t gonna study war no more.” Maybe I’ll recommend that one for later in the advent line up this year.

The sentiment in that spiritual and in this verse of today’s hymn are a direct echo of Isaiah and this is a line in which we cannot forget today for sight of the future. We must look forward, but we must look to today too.

            Newspapers are frightening to read. TV network news shows are heartbreaking. We need to exercise caution not to read them only as terrifying signs of brokenness and signs of the end times to come. And we must be careful not to blow them off as something that will eventually end later on whether we do anything about them or not.

I can’t put it any better than one of my commentaries which says:

 “Those Christians who are agnostic about last things are tempted to fall into a state of perpetual apathy. Those Christians who are focused on last things are tempted to fall into a state of perpetual anxiety. Our passage encourages faith rather than apathy and hope rather than anxiety.[2]

Faith and hope.

We look at the world around us with faith and hope. Faith and hope that all people will become of one heart and that strife and discord will cease. Jesus Christ is the the dayspring of peace. He is the answer to the plea in Isaiah.

My favorite part of this hymn has always been the very last line – the line that is sung after every verse.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel shall come to thee, O Israel


I can feel the electricity of the moment when that line rolls around! We know that Emmanuel came to Israel! God answered their pleas! We know that in our gloomiest, darkest, scariest times, Emmanuel is coming! And we know that at the other end of the times we live between, Emmanuel shall come.

That line of this hymn has always been my favorite part of Advent. After weeks of anticipation, of crying out for Jesus to come,

Emmanuel shall come!

Emmanuel is coming!


The “Christmas rush” is difficult to avoid, unless you live in a monastery.  Christmas music is playing in the grocery store. Toy catalogs are arriving in the mail by the dozen. Family is beginning to schedule all the grand events of the season. But let’s not forget that in all the rush, in all the planning, listing, and coordinating, there is a call to waiting:






waiting for Emmanuel.


O come! O come! Emmanuel!



[1] Merriam-Webster, I. (1996). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate thesaurus. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

[2] Bartlett, D. L. (2010). Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 24:36‒44. (D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor, Eds.)Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.