On December 20 I had the opportunity to preach at the Dominican Center at Marywood. They observe the tradition of the “O Antiphons” in the days that lead up to Christmas. Antiphons are names for Jesus from the Old Testament prophets. These evening services go back perhaps as early as the 6th century and were firmly in place by the 8th century. My passage was one I didn’t remember reading before and certainly had not much pondered. The title for Christ I was given was Key of David. Here’s what I offered to those gathered in the beauty of the chapel at Marywood.
A Reading from the Prophet Isaiah Is. 22:22-25
I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open. I will fix him as a peg in a firm place, a seat of honor for his ancestral house; On him shall hang all the glory of his ancestral house: descendants and offspring, all the little vessels, from bowls to jars. On that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg fixed in a firm place shall give way, break off and fall, and the weight that hung on it shall be done away with; for the LORD has spoken.
THE WORD OF GOD.
O brother. Oh my goodness. Oh dear! Oh baby! Oh no! Oh, for heaven’s sake. O LORD God. O Antiphons. Oh.
I learned that the “O” in “O Antiphons” is called a vocative particle. Who knew? Not me! A vocative is a word that let’s you know that you are being spoken to directly. It’s also an exclamative—to precede a word or expression with the word “O” turns it into an exclamation, more than just a statement of fact. The scriptures for December 20 directly address each one of us as we turn to one of the titles for Jesus: O Key of David.
Have you even been entrusted with the key to someone’s house? Did your boss present you with a key to the business at some point, knowing that you wouldn’t abuse that privilege? We joke about how many people have a key to our church building for a variety of reasons. One woman who never slept very well would make her way down to the church in the middle of the night when wrestling with the weight of the world. She quietly prayed in the sanctuary. My only clue that she had been there was if I noticed that the big Bible beneath the cross had been opened to a new psalm, prophetic utterance or gospel reading. To be given a key is a privilege, a responsibility. It indicates that the key-holder has some authority and power. That makes janitors some of the most powerful people in the land! Have you ever felt how heavy their key rings are?
God speaks through the prophet Isaiah about a very important key—it gives access to the beloved King David. This key determines who will get an audience with the king! It ushers the bearer into the very presence of Royalty. In Isaiah’s time the Hebrew King was chosen and anointed by God. So this is not someone elected by popular vote of the people. The Key of David brings us before the throne of God’s Savior! Now that’s some privilege! O mercy me!
When we put this passage in context we see that it involves two men with authority, Shebna and Eliakim. The two are portrayed so differently that they almost become caricatures. From Isaiah 3:3 and 2 Kings 18:18, we learn that Eliakim is in charge of the palace. This pair of men represent varied forms of leadership and politics. Oh boy! Shebna was arrogant. He was overseeing a sort of public works project: the building a grand and glorious tomb for himself hewn out of rock. He abused public funds to ensure that his name would live on in memory long after he was gone. He reeked of vanity and made plans independent of God.
In comparison Eliakim was almost too good to be true. He set a high mark for the role and behavior of a trusted ruler, one anointed by God. The authority that had belonged to Shebna would be given to Eliakim and he would use it as a father uses his power over his son or daughter: with love and wisdom. He would not seek to preserve his own memory but would be given honor for the way that he led out of a love for and commitment to God. This change of leadership would bring about stability and security for Jerusalem.
Often we hand off a task to those who are already managing other chores. When we find a reliable, hard-working person, we hang more responsibilities on them. They perform admirably—until there is a breaking point. This was the case with Eliakim. He was a politician who first conferred with God to determine his course of action. He was a peg in a firm place and all the glory of the House of David would be draped upon him: descendants and possessions, generations worth of things. This was a great blessing but also an increasingly heavy burden. One of the commentators stated, “No human can bear what is meant to be rolled onto the LORD.” So Isaiah prophesies that the balance would shift at some point and the peg that had been so firmly in place would break because of the weight upon it. The responsibilities that had been suspended from that hook would fall to the ground in a heap. Oh my goodness.
So what does it mean to be an Eliakim rather than a Shebna? To emulate Eliakim we stop sitting on our hands and begin to reach out in service. We don’t worry about how we look to others or what our image is in the mirror. We see ourselves through the eyes of God and reflect the Divine image to those around us. It is this Holy Presence that we know through the Son of God that equips us for all holy labors. John Oswalt, in the NIV Application Commentary reminds us, “Even in a broken body, our spiritual health may be radiant and robust, in spite of our carrying impossible loads. If we have learned how to carry those loads to the Master, and leave them there, we will not be broken by what we are called to shoulder for the sake of others.” Oh glory!
In this Advent season, as in our very lives, we have waited for Jesus. We have yearned for His presence, His power and equipping. We have run toward Him so that we can drop our load at His feet. In these long nights we have waited for His Light for what seems like an eternity. We echo the words from Isaiah and cry out in the darkness, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down—to make your name known.” Through the quiet beauty of the O Antiphons we hear the promise of Jesus assuring us, “Tomorrow I will come…”
Oh my God! Glory be! Amen.