Joy to the World!
December 19, 2021 – Rev. Drew Stockstill
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Visit of May to Elizabeth, Father George Saget, Senegal, 1963
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and we come to the end of our sermon series, “Sing all Ye Citizens,” looking to Christmas carols as our source of hope and inspiration this season. We began with the most popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” voicing the hope and prayer for Jesus to come to us - God with us. A hope echoed in the Hebrew Bible’s prophecy of a messiah who shall come and save the people of God. Next, we sang of the arrival of the angels, “Angels we Have Heard on High.” Then last week we heard of the good news the angels shared, singing together, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Their message: praise of God for the arrival of the newborn king, the heaven born prince of peace, the incarnate deity, Jesus Christ. Which brings us to our final carol: “Joy to the World.” Once you have prayed for a savior, the heavens have opened and angels have come to tell you your prayers have been answered and God himself has come to be your savior, well, the only appropriate response to that kind of news is JOY!
Now, before we get into this, I have some exciting news to share with you all. I just can’t wait to see how your respond. OK. You ready? Here it is: God is coming to us! God. Yes, and God loves you, God forgives you, God will never leave you, and God has saved you. We will be with God in a completely healed creation with no more pain, no death, no sadness, united with all we have ever loved, with nothing but beauty and praise for all eternity. Just receive that love, be at peace, and share that love with others.
I know it’s a lot to take in. I’ll give you a minute just to process this news. Maybe you didn’t quite catch it. God, author of the best-selling book, “The Bible,” and also CREATOR of the universe; God who has more power, influence, and celebrity than any human you can imagine, knows YOU, and loves YOU, and is chiefly concerned with YOU, and is moved by YOUR prayers, has come to save YOU! That’s it! I mean, that’s literally greater than ANYTHING.
Wow! Really? OK. You had already heard. But if I told you Oprah heard about our little church and health ministries and she’s here today to renovate our building and also, look under your pew because you’re all getting a new Kia! People are weird. Humans take to the streets when their candidate wins an election, but tell us the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ, remind us that though we may die we will live, invite us to a feast every week that joins together angels and all people on earth and in heaven with Christ the host…eh. Old news, I guess.
This is the remarkable challenge of Christian faith – to hold onto the joy of God with us when there is so much in life that takes a toll on our joy. The news we receive at Christmas is so beyond our comprehension that it has become mundane, ordinary, and our response, if we muster one at all, cannot match the size of the gift. We sometimes say in the Prayer of Confession: That we have not loved God with our whole heart. We love God with some of our heart, some of the time, and
never in proportion to the love we receive from God. But, we are only human. Plus, the weight of
the world is always upon us. It’s hard to be always lost in the wonders of his love when the
burden of wonder-less work is bearing down, grades are due, sales calls, a backlog on the warehouse floor, half the staff out sick, yet another doctor’s appointment, all this stuff demands space in our minds and hearts. What’s left to ponder the gifts of eternity? It’s not easy to repeat the sounding joy when worried about the next school shooting, or when a two-mile-wide tornado drops out of the sky and tears your life apart in a second.
The wonders of the love of God in Christ Jesus can be the best news we could ever receive but we’re also so utterly overwhelmed by the struggles and pleasures of this life. The grace of God is so good we don’t know what to do with it. Because we don’t have to worry about earning it, it’s pretty easy to forget. I’ll just tuck the love of God away in this drawer and maybe it will be useful, like this half-drained AAA battery and twist tie. Rather than live in a constant state of thanksgiving for the gift of Jesus, we might need set an alert on our phones to remind us to take time and thank God for literally everything good and beautiful in the world.
One of the reasons I love the Advent and Christmas season is we get some help stirring up the feelings about what is so great we scarce can take it in. Advent gives us some language for praise. In this season we come to church and immerse ourselves in the music and poetry and scripture and art, and for a moment our hearts are perhaps lifted into the realm of glory where the mystery of all we say we believe takes hold of us and we are really grateful and hopeful and praising God, “Joy to the World.”
Isaac Watts was a prolific hymn writer in the 18th century. When he was younger, Watts attended worship with his father and complained about how dull and somber it was. He said, "To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion." He wondered, how it could be that these Christians could be singing words like Psalm 98, “Make a joyful noise all the earth. Break forth into joyous son and sing praises,” but so dully, without smiles, without joy. So, his dad did what many other parents might. He said, “What? You think you can do better? Why don’t you write some hymns?” So, Isaac did. He published the hymnal, “Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament,” in 1719, in an attempt to put Biblical praise in the language and poetry of his day. He wrote what we’d now call, Contemporary Christian music. “Joy to the World,” first appeared in that hymnal 302 years ago. It’s Watts’ interpretation of Psalm 98, which we read together. Watts gives us music to sing with our hearts what our minds cannot even comprehend: the whole creation responding to the glory of God who comes to us. Watts was using the Hebrew Bible to imagine the same anticipation, not for the birth of Jesus, but for his return to us all. That’s why some hymnals today have it in the Advent section, because Watts was pointing our joyful response to the news that, as I said earlier: God is coming to us to wipe away every tear, to join our hearts with all creation in constant praise. He’s not remembering the birth of Jesus, he’s telling us today to get ready to receive our king and “let every heart prepare him room.” That means we take time to set aside all the worries, the demands of work and technology and we make some room for God to come into our reality today. He is coming and this is joyful news for all the earth.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, sang the very first Christmas song, and it came straight from the heart using the language of her Jewish faith which had long prayed for this savior. It is commonly called Mary’s Magnificat. Mary was pregnant with Jesus and went to visit Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. When she arrived, she burst into song. She proclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Surely, she knew how remarkable it was the long-awaited savior would be born to an unwed young woman from rural Judea. And she knows this gift not only elevates her for all generations as the single woman who carried God in her womb and bore him into the world, but that this gift was not only the gift of an expectant mother, this was a gift for the whole world. Mary proclaims the true radical nature of this gift. She sings of the power and justice Jesus brings, “he has scattered the proud, he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Even if for a moment, Advent creates the space for us to let our imaginations join with the reality of Mary who knows how the birth of her child will impact the world, especially those who struggle, and with Watts whose used his creativity to try to help us feel through song what is really, truly the greatest joy. Sometimes it takes some intentional imagination to entertain the truth that God has come into the world, and God is coming again out of pure love. It takes some will on our part to choose joy over all the other competing emotions of this moment. But we have music to help us sing, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!” We’re ready. We’ve been ready for this gift. We need this gift.
Watts sings the joy of Christ’s salvation signals the restoration of all Creation as it was in the beginning; a setting into right relationship humanity with God and creation, “No more let sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” The gift of Jesus’ birth is not just for Mary who praises the birth of her son, not just Israel, who received its long-awaited Messiah, but for all people, of all nations, faiths, in all time, for all heaven, and all earth. And so, Joy to the World, echoing the words of so many Hebrew psalms, proclaims joy to the earth! Let the fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy, “let heaven and nature sing.” This can make a difference in you and me, and when we let the hope of this news transform our hearts to joy, no matter the conditions of our life, perhaps we may find ourselves participating in bringing joy and justice, hope and possibilities to others, which in turn lifts our hearts in joy. That is how the joy of the gospel creates the reality it hopes for.
And I’m wondering where you may find opportunities to experience such joy this Christmas, for the promise is a true and real as ever. Heaven and nature are singing, and so shall we…