O Antiphons: An Introduction

The O Antiphons of Advent are antiphonal refrains that make use of seven Old Testament names given to Christ. These antiphons/prayers have been used by the church since the 8th Century. In many larger parishes worship services were (and still are) offered on a daily basis. These O Antiphons were highlighted during the daily evening service of Vespers on the last seven days of Advent (December 17th through December 23rd). The popular Advent hymn “Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel” is based off of these prayers. We will carry on this tradition here at Let the Bird Fly! with short devotional thoughts leading up to Christmas.

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Romans 6:12-14

St. Paul has proclaimed sin’s tyrannical rule in our bodies overthrown. The body of sin and death has been destroyed. Now what? Was destruction the end result? No, “let not sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” Before we were like a donkey, driven this way and that by the will of Satan and the passions of the flesh. Now, however, our cruel rider has been cast off, and a new Master, Jesus Christ, leads us. Not only have we been freed from sin and its horrible reign, but we have also been freed to serve, given a new will in moral matters, so that, through faith in Christ and empowered by Christ and in Christ we can now serve and love Christ in and through our neighbor. In this way, we can cease doing what is contrary to our renewal and begin doing what is in keeping with it.

St. Paul does not say this is easy. Oftentimes rebuilding after removing a tyrant takes as much or more time than removing him. Our mortal bodies have been ravaged by sin, our members knowing sin’s pleasures, our minds knowing sin’s thought processes. Thus, tearing down, building again, and then, and only then, providing service is no easy task. St. Paul tells us to present our “mortal” bodies. Our bodies are still subject to the passions of the flesh, and for this reason our resistance must be vigilant, constant, prayerful, and well fed. No one would hire a starving man to guard a priceless treasure, and Christ does not expect a starving man or woman to protect his priceless treasure, his instruments of righteousness, his living sacrifices. He feeds us with Word and sacrament, encouraging and instructing us for battle.

St. Paul gives us commands today in the first two verses of our lesson, but like a good preacher, like Christ himself, St. Paul doesn’t end without a promise. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” We are under grace. We are forgiven, and, when we are forgiven we are empowered. Sin win its battles, but it has no dominion, it has no reign, it has been thrown off the donkey. All we need to fear is that we—not God, but we—choose to let him get back in the saddle. In Christ, through Christ, with Christ we surely never will. “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” Christ has presented us as righteous to the Father, taking our sin and giving us his righteousness through his death and resurrection. Let us present ourselves as righteous as well, doing what the righteous do, going where our Master leads us. 

Romans 6:1-11

And the font sits in the corner. And the certificate is somewhere in the attic. And the date goes unremembered and uncelebrated. And the concept as a whole is just plain lost even though we claim to be Lutherans who cling to Word and sacrament. And what is it but word and water, the sacrament of baptism?

Why would God give us such a sacrament, one that kills and makes alive, drowns and saves at the same time? Why would God give us such a sacrament, one that is relived daily through the confession of our sins and God’s forgiveness? Why? Because what wretched men and women we are! How quickly don’t we run back to sin and death, like a dog to its vomit and a sow to wallow in the mire! Why do we shower every day, or several times a day even? Because we get so dirty. Why must we return to our Baptism every day, pleading our union with Christ and his death through it, begging God’s mercy? Because we get so dirty. Because we are in constant need of newness of life. Because, by grace, God gives it again, just as he first did in baptism, by grace and grace alone, God brought many of you to the font in the arms of parents, without asking you beforehand, without giving you any opportunity to run away, and he made you his just like that, and he has kept you that way to this day, even though, as your legs have gotten stronger they have so often raced you away from the cross, the font, the altar, the pulpit, the Bible.

Now what? Live in newness of life. Do not sin that grace may abound, but also do not become so foolish so as to despair as if grace did not abound, because it does. The gospel is not an excuse for sin; the gospel is the forgiveness of sins. The gospel does not merely pronounce a freedom from bondage, but a new freedom to serve as a slave to the Savior and not only to the Judge. Why serve? “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”  

You have been crucified with Christ. You have died with Christ, and the death Christ died was a death to sin. Consider yourselves dead to sin. It is no longer your master. It is no longer the measure of your happiness. It is no longer the object of your addiction. It is no longer the center of your universe. It no longer sets your equilibrium; rather, it disturbs your balance and walk with Christ. Have you sinned? Be baptized. Drown your sin in those waters of salvation, confessing them to God, confessing them to your pastor, who speaks in God’s stead, if they particularly trouble you. Drown your sin, but don’t just drown your sin. Drown yourself as well, because that is what happens when the absolution is proclaimed: death. No, not a death like Adam’s death, but a death with Christ to sin, and a death that, as we heard yesterday, brings life.

The font should never sit in the corner. In fact, you should never see or pass this fountain of grace thoughtlessly. The certificate should not be packed away in the attic; it should be more prominent than some trinket you bought at a garage sail or a painting of a barn. The date shouldn’t go unremembered or uncelebrated, because it is your better birthday, the date you were born with Christ to new life rather than born with Adam to die. No, it should never be just a concept you learned in catechism class or heard pastor wax eloquently about in bible class. Concepts are abstract. Water is concrete, and water with the Word hits the old Adam and the hardened sinner like concrete, knocking the old way of thinking out of their ears and proclaiming a new Life, a new Way, a real Truth. In short, it shouldn’t be any of these things listed in the first paragraph, because it should be baptism, and baptism is never just a place or certificate or date or concept, baptism is death with Christ and life in his resurrection. Baptism is freedom from slavery and freedom to serve. Baptism is the voice that every morning cries into your ear: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Tune down all the distractions and hear it, because baptism is Christ and Christ is in your baptism.

Romans 5:12-17

Therefore is an important word. It tells us to look back, because what follows goes with what precedes. These verses explain the significance of Christ dying for the ungodly, of Christ reconciling lost sinners to the Father. These verses make it clear that Christ’s death and resurrection are the single most significant events in human history. Before Christ came, the most significant event was the fall into sin, which brought death into the world. The lingering impact of that event was clear, because all died, whether slowly or quickly, after leaving the womb. The very same womb that brought forth life in essence brought forth death. But a better, greater, more significant event would come, as God promised, through the more blessed womb of a virgin.

Christ came. God became man. Did you stop to think about those two short sentences, those five words? Probably not, because we speak of these things as if they were old news or run of the mill events, but they are not. Christ came. God became man. Life was sown through death so that through dying we now enter life. Christ has done what no man can do: he has cured death. Christ has done what no man can do: he has restored paradise. Christ has done what no man can do by undoing what man has done. Christ has done what no man can do by becoming man.

Grace abounds. Undeserved love abounds. Grace and love abound because Jesus Christ was shown no grace and was stripped of his Father’s love on Calvary. Christ drank the cup of God’s wrath down to the dregs so that the cup of his grace may never run empty, always flowing with his blood as the widow of Zarapheth’s oil jar once flowed with oil. Sin abounds, but grace abounds more. Death abounds, but life abounds more, for no longer do we Christians die, but rather sleep to awake at our Lord’s return. The Seed of Adam was placed in the ground and died, as seeds do. But the Seed did not stay dead, but rather brought forth what Adam could not: a harvest of life. We too like him will die, but we will not die Adam’s death. We will die the death of our Savior, the Seed, which is no death at all, but a new birth into life. Grace abounds.

Romans 5:6-11

Weak—what does that mean? We might think it’s cut and dry, but it’s not. Pistons fans know Ben Wallace was “Big Ben.” Yet, imagine if the first time you saw “Big Ben” he was standing next to Shaq. He’s not so big then. Back in the day, I often had to chuckle when I saw “Big Ben” guarding O’Neal. Think about what life must be like for a basketball player. All week they’re giants—even most guards—and then they show up for the big game and are little men—little men!—that is, until they stand next to a fan. Big and little, strong and weak, depending on the task and setting.

Because I like to lift weights (I should get back into that habit more regularly now), Nicholas, my son, liked to lift weights as well in our basement when he was little, so we got him some tiny iron to pump. My wife joked that we were Hans and Franz. It was rather humorous. We’d finish a set, grunt, because he liked grunting, and then look at our muscles. I’d tell him, “Oh, you are so strong.” And he felt strong, because he didn’t realize that his weights are much lighter than mine. But then he’d show how endorphins affect the brain, because, with adolescent testosterone flowing, he’d go to pick up Daddy’s weights. You should have seen the shock on his face when he couldn’t lift them. He just went from being strong to being weak, because his weakness was measured according to the feat of strength he attempted. So also, St. Paul tells us what task we were and are too weak to accomplish, no matter how strong we may feel in other matters. We are too weak to achieve reconciliation with God.

Paul writes, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ died for sinners. The word “sinner” means one who misses the mark or falls short of a standard. The archer sins when he misses the target. The piece of clothing sins at Hanes when inspector #246 deems it unsatisfactory and throws it out. Christ died for sinners. Christ died for us. aViewed through the eyes of a perfect, holy, righteous God, we were hardly up to par. We missed the mark in numerous ways. We fell way short of his standards. Yet Christ not only risked his life to save us; he gave his life. The strong saved the weak, which is not so common in our world.

From little on, we human beings learn the value of strength. We learn that the strong win and the weak lose. Thus, the strong boy bullies the weak one in grade school, and then the weak boy gets revenge when he uses his mental strength to start a business, delighting while the bully struggles in the real world. The strong nation conquers the weak one. The strong team not only beats the weak team, but trounces them, stopping only when the ump intercedes with a call for mercy. Even in our familial relationships, we use our strength to our advantage, throwing out another’s sins to beat them into submission, using financial leverage to control each other. Yet Christ did not use his strength that way. Christ used his strength to save the weak.

“Don’t say sorry unless you mean it.” How many times did mom say that? Maybe you really did mean it, but your parents wanted you to suffer a bit. Maybe you didn’t mean it but just wanted to get them off your back. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to repairing, that is, reconciling broken relationships, sorry is a powerful weapon, as we refuse to say it or say it even though we don’t mean it. Even worse, sometimes “Sorry just doesn’t cut it,” as you may have been told.

God could have said to us “Don’t say sorry unless you mean it” and “Sorry just doesn’t cut it.” As weak, ungodly sinners and enemies of God, even if we did say sorry, we certainly couldn’t fix the damage we’d done. So Christ came. He not only said our sorry but fixed our damage, even though he didn’t have to. He became strong in weakness, dying to save us, to reconcile us to God and restore for us a right relationship with him—a relationship made possible through Christ alone and sustained through Christ alone.

You have been reconciled to God. By entering our human weakness and bearing our human sin, Christ has brought us a new strength and free forgiveness. Rejoice in this reconciliation, as St. Paul says a Christian will, reflecting it in your relationships with others. Be strongest in weakness as you use your strength for the weak and work forgiveness where sin has reared its head. Serve each other even when you think the other doesn’t deserve it and falls short of your standards. Realize that, no matter how strong you may feel at times, you are always weak standing before God, as “Big Ben” is little next to Shaquille O’Neal. Like Nicholas with his weight, imitating his father, be spurred on by Christ’s strength, and grow in your own by looking to Christ, watching what he’s done, imitating it, and, most importantly, making his strength your own, letting him lift your weight when your weak little arms can’t bear as much as you imagine they can. You are weak, but Christ is strong, and thank God for that, because in Christ’s strength you have a strength you yourself could never muster; you have reconciliation with God.