Sermon for Christmas 2018

The Rev. Jeffrey W. Mello, Rector

“O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear.”  


This first verse of the hymn we know so well finds its source, like much of our Advent texts, from the Book of Isaiah.  In it, we hear two images Isaiah casts; captive Israel, and Emmanuel -- or God with us, or God is with us.


At St. Paul’s this year, we celebrated an expanded Advent over seven weeks.  Each week featured one of the O Antiphons upon which the hymn is based.


For seven weeks we have been anticipating and planning for this night, this very moment, when we would gather and celebrate not just a baby born in a manger, but that time in the future/present when Jesus will come to us again, in our here and now.


A time when God will reveal to us a glimpse of God’s dream for the world. This world that God made using only love as raw material.


But it wasn’t in church that the meaning for this night, for me, in this time, was made clear.



I was actually at home, baking cookies on my day off with the house to myself, geeking out on Advent music I can only play when I have the house to myself.


I was mid peppermint meringue when I heard it; “Ransom Captive Israel” the voice pleaded.  It was one of those moments to which I have learned to pay attention.


Ransom captive Israel.  Ransom captive Israel. Set your people free.  Set us free, God. God, set me free.


And it that moment, it became clear what it was my heart and my spirit was longing for leading up to this night.  It was, it is, nothing short of being set free.


Now, I have only been in prison once.  To answer your raised eyebrows, I will tell you that my dad was a prison guard.  For roughly forty years he worked at the Adult Correctional Institution in Rhode Island.  


And one year, during Christmas break in college, I decided it was a good idea to visit my dad at work.  Unannounced. at 2:30 in the morning.


And so I got to see the inside of a prison cell first-hand, if only for an hour or so, until my dad could introduce me to all of his colleagues.


So much for take your son to work day.


Three weeks ago, during adult education, we heard the testimony of a man who spent several years in prison.  He spoke beautifully about the role God and the church played in his life while he was there.


Prior to his conviction, he was a successful wall street executive with a family and a home in the suburbs.  In prison, he came face to face with the humanity he shared with the others with whom he shared cell.


He lost everything that was important to him prior to incarceration, but talked as though, in prison, he had gained everything that mattered.  Heart and body freed, he is now in seminary and works with those in prison who lack the resources he enjoyed and to which he had access.


Listening to him, and his description of what it was like to be in prison, I heard again the refrain from our Advent hymn.  And I was struck that his release from captivity, as he described it, was not the day he left prison.


It was the day he realized he could no longer pretend to be who he was not.  That he could only live fully if he was free to live fully into who he is, who God made him to be.


Equally striking to me, it was through God made known to him in his relationships with others that he learned this.  God love made manifest to him in his fellow inmates freed him to embraced this freedom; through those he had distanced himself from prior to his time in jail, he had the support and challenge to live into his new freedom, even while still in jail.


I have never spent time in a prison, not really.


But I have known other captivity in my life.  I have known the prison of trying to be someone I am not.  And I have known what it feels like to have been set free, through God’s love manifest by someone who loves me like God loves me.  


I have known the captivity of trying to be the perfect son, the perfect parent, the perfect priest and the perfect follower of Christ.  And I am thankful for all of those in my life who have set me free from those prisons, and who continue to set me free.


And, in this sacred role of priest, I have been present more times than I can number as someone has been set free from captivity, ransomed not with money but by love spent by someone longing to set them free.


I have seen someone get sober.

I have heard a young person’s coming out story.

I have stood by someone who has left a relationship that kept them from being who God needed them to be.


I have sat with someone as they have died, released from a body that brought only suffering, and seen a peace spread across their face, through their body and into the room where loved ones spent their love to set their loved one free.


From birth to resurrection, Jesus was about setting his followers free.  Ransoming those he knew and loved with the love of God in order to free them to become the beloved children of God they were created to be.  And to take up the work of setting each other from the very prisons they created, that we create, that separate us.


We pray for Emmanuel, God with us.  But the truth is, Emmanuel is already a reality.  God is with us, for God is working within us. God is working in us all the time to set us free.  God is working through us to set one another free.


We are called to be free, and to be agents of freedom for others.


Freedom from the real iron-barred prisons in our world; freedom from captivity in camps at borders and in war zones, freedom from addiction and abuse.  but also freedom from fear, freedom from anything that holds us back from being fully who it is God made you to be.


I wonder, this night, from what captivity might you ask God to be freed?  And who in your life might need freeing? Who might be freed by you, through the very love God imprinted on you when you were born;  When you were commissioned to be Emmanuel -- God with us.


In the stillness of this night, can you hear a prison door in you unlock and slide open?  Can you hear shackles on your soul release and fall to the ground? Can you feel abundant love given to set you free?


Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel has come to thee o Israel.


Emmanuel has come to you, ransomed you with a love no prison can hold, in order that you might be free.


Now, go and do likewise.



© 2018 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello


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