I can see the church building from our dining room window, so we’ve got a pretty good view of the big conifer dressed up in Christmas lights, which our two-year-old has been very excited about. Every morning she checks to see if the lights are still on and reports back promptly. The other day we were looking out the window together as the tree and lights were blowing in the wind. “What’s the tree doing, Daddy?”, she asked. At first I told her that the tree was dancing, but then tried to expand on how wind works (foolishly). As you can imagine, my explanations didn’t interest her as much as the idea that the tree was dancing, so we left it at that.
Isaiah 55:12 reads:
“For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Well, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one dealing in metaphors this time of year.
JOY TO THE WORLD
Our carol today, just a few days before the big day, is Joy to the World and is probably among the most famous carols we sing. Every year when planning the Christmas Eve service we ask, “what carols must we sing?” and Joy to the World is always selected. It was written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), who (apparently) as a teenager complained endlessly about the boring way the Psalms were recited in church. The story goes that his father got so annoyed by Isaac’s moaning that he challenged him to pen an alternative, and so Isaac wrote his first hymn. The artist known as father of English hymn writing was born. (Funny that a moody teenager grew up to write Joy to the World, maybe giving some parents out there some hope!) Ironically, Joy to the World was probably not first intended as a Christmas carol at all, but became popular and ended up a favorite in the Christmas playlist. Watts based the hymn on Psalm 98, a poem which emphasizes God’s salvation and authority to judge the world in righteousness. It also depicts the joy that all creation bursts into because it’s in good hands. Psalm 98 reads:
2 The Lord has announced his victory
and has revealed his righteousness to every nation!
4 Shout to the Lord, all the earth;
break out in praise and sing for joy!
Let the earth and all living things join in.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands in glee!
Let the hills sing out their songs of joy
9 before the Lord,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with justice,
and the nations with fairness (or equity).
Now the case has been made, of course, that Psalm 98 and Joy to the World feels more to do with Jesus’ second coming than his first, and so it’s not a very good Christmas carol. But as others have argued, there’s no second coming without a first, and one of the ways we look forward in hope is by looking back at promise. You can sing the carol either way, thinking about Jesus’ first arrival which we read about in the gospels, or his impending return which we read about in Revelation. Either way, the heartbeat of Joy to the World remains: that Jesus’ is the designer and sustainer of all creation, come to put right what’s wrong, and all of creation not only longs for salvation but welcomes it with exuberant joy.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing
The carol isn’t out of step with our Advent reading today, either. Through Mary’s song in Luke 1 we hear a very young girl, standing in the middle of all creation, brimming with expectation and joy, singing about God’s mercy and justice. It is from within creation, literally from within Mary’s womb, from which this renewal and justice will spring. So fitting, when so many women around us embody so much this time of year – loving, leading, providing. Giving birth to endless moments of hope and joy, because, like Mary, they’ve said “yes” to God’s work in the deep recesses of their being. Thank God for Mary, and all women at Christmas!
Psalm 98, Isaiah 55, Mary’s song in Luke 1 and Joy to the World all hold together something about Christmas that we often pull apart. They hold together that it is not just little old me who needs saving and renewing, but all of creation of which I’m a part. Scripture tells us that creation is good and is a gift. But we also learn in scripture that the effects of human arrogance and defiance have unleashed a kind of toxicity which wasn’t contained in the first humans – sin which leads to death – and not just human death, but a death which spreads into the entire created order. And it’s when we read passages from Isaiah 55 or Psalm 98 that we’re reminded of how enmeshed humanity is with the world in which we’re set. Which is why we need to take seriously questions about creation care as Christians. The concerning signs we’re facing with the climate, or the migration and refugee crisis (and other challenges) are at least a little connected to the fact that humans have not taken seriously the interdependence in-built into creation and our responsibility to the world in which we live. “No man is an island unto himself” wrote John Donne, one of Isaac Watts’ contemporaries. We do not live in Tupperware containers, sealed off from one another; we are threads, woven together, and woven into the fabric of creation itself.
But in today’s hyperattention on being an individual we’re in danger not giving attention to our interconnection, and Christians are no exception. We can tend to make Jesus a little too personal at times. Jesus is my personal Lord and saviour, we might say, or that Jesus has come into my heart. Now, there’s nothing wrong with knowing and loving Jesus personally, of course. I’m not saying we should stop singing “Jesus loves me this I know…” Jesus is in my heart and yours. But when we overemphasize “just me and Jesus” we run the risk of missing the bigger story at play. It’s not really just me and Jesus. It is, more accurately, as the carol puts, both “every heart” and “heaven and nature” which needs to receive Jesus – both the micro and the macro in desperate need of saving. And it may be just a refrain, but the repetition of “and heaven and nature sing” numerous times impresses this bigger picture. Jesus wants to renew my little old heart, but he also wants to renew every river, every mountain lion, every forgotten flower on the floor of the rainforest.
We’re going to sing Joy to the World in a few moments together, so what do we need to hear as we sing? Let me point out three things. First, we need to hear about all creation, second about all authority, and third about all joy.
First, the carol hints at the scriptural promise that God will bring renewal or restoration for all creation. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, Let earth receive her king”. If we’ve gotten myopic about Jesus, that should set us back a little. Baby Jesus isn’t laying there in the manger just for Mary or Joseph or the shepherds – he’s come for the sheep too! If we take Jesus’ lordship over creation seriously, we’d even have to say he’s also come for the hay! So it’s no surprise the natural world comes to the forefront at Christmas in our celebrations and decorations when we hang stars, or children play with nativity sets. It’s right to remember this is a cosmic story of which we’re a very small part. That’s a bit of the wonder that comes at Christmas, the light dispelling the dread that all this hangs on us. The “light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it”. Those of course are words from John’s gospel which doesn’t give us shepherds, mangers or magi, but does offer a wider view of things, “He (Jesus) was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light to all people” (John 1.2-4, NRSV). So the next time we gaze longingly at a candle, or eat a mouthful of turkey, or see a lit tree swaying in the wind, breath in with the hope that Jesus cares about you, but he also cares for a great deal more than you. And maybe if we could begin to widen our gaze, our anxieties over his capacity to love us, to forgive us, to handle us, would ease a little. A while back someone wrote a book called Your God is too Small, and maybe that’s a statement we’d do well to mull over this Christmas. I’m reminded of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem under the praises of the crowds and the disapproval of the authorities. Well, said Jesus, if the people don’t praise, then the rocks will break out into song! Christmas is a good time to look around at creation and remember just how weighty this little baby Jesus is. His birthright dwarfed his birthweight! Christmas is a cosmic story and Jesus is the source of all light.
So a Christmas carol like Joy to the World reminds us that Jesus is for all creation. But the carol also sings that all authority is in Jesus’ hands. “Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns…He rules the world with truth and grace…” which is of course central to Psalm 98 as we saw earlier, as it is to Mary’s song in Luke 1. And this might feel a little uncomfortable. Jesus being for and loving creation into renewal sounds very on brand nowadays, but what about this authoritative Jesus? How do we feel about him, or with being told that humanity is central to the created order, even the pinnacle of it, but not the absolute centre or absolute pinnacle? One of the things you’ll hear very often from my generation are the words “don’t judge me”, and here we’re faced with words about God’s righteous judgement in Psalm 98 and Luke 1. My generation also likes to talk about justice, but we’re slowly realizing that we’re not very good at justice on our own. Can we really trust humanity by human merit alone to get judgement and justice right?
It’s carols like Joy to the World which tell us that Christmas comes with a kind of de-throning. If we’ve set ourselves up as ultimate authorities, either in our own hearts or in our houses of parliament (or in our Twitter feuds), the message of Christmas brings us brings down a few pegs. Which is actually a reassuring thing to hear these days, as we’re faced with the cold hard facts about human limitation and incapacity. The governance of the world is not administered by many with an abundance of “truth and grace”. And anyone in any kind of authority can tell you that the more power you’re given, the harder it is to deal in truth and grace daily. Just ask the school teachers among us! The moral questions are never ending, the disappointment from those you serve is constant, the temptation to deal in deception and heavy-handedness grows the higher the office. This is one of the many reasons we should pray for all those in authority over us as scripture nudges. Maybe that’s a good invitation this year, to pray forrather than moan about those in authority. That might be a tall order, but then again, experts say that growth only comes when we have a goal we’re not sure we’ll meet! What I’m trying to say is, at Christmas we’re invited to place our hopes, our expectations, on a ruler who is just, who is gracious, who is true and truthful, who is not us, and who has, in the end, all authority. Scripture tells us that there was a good beginning, and promises that there will be a good end under this character. “No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground, He comes to make his blessings flow, Far as the curse is found.” We long for mercy, we long for truth, for justice, and if we’re disillusioned about the state of things these days, placing that longing on Jesus would be a good step of faith at Christmas.
The other bit of good news that comes along with this is that placing our trust in Jesus as righteous judge doesn’t mean we are sidelined when it comes to living justly ourselves. It means we find our place under that authority, taking on appropriate responsibility as human beings and of course as people of faith. We can still act with truth and justice without the crushing weight that it’s all on our shoulders. I saw a cartoon recently of the climate activist Greta Thunberg with the world literally on her shoulders, with a caption that read “somebody’s got to do it”. Though I can appreciate the passion the artist was channelling, I was troubled by the crushing weight of that message for a younger generation. Of course, we’ve got a part to play in renewal, we need to stand up for conscience and justice, but Christmas says that it’s not all down to us. We can engage with the knowledge that all authority lies beyond the human race, and the heavy burden is lifted when we keep that in mind. Maybe that’s not only a responsible way to engage in justice issues we’re faced with, but a freeing way to engage.
So we’re thinking about Jesus being for all creation, having all authority over creation, which leads us into all joy. Tonight at our Drive in Movie Food Drive we’re showing A Charlie Brown Christmas. You might remember that scene when Charlie Brown goes to Lucy’s psychiatric booth for help (even though we’re pretty skeptical about Lucy’s credentials at this point): “I think we better pinpoint your fears” she says, “If we can find out what you’re afraid of, we can label it. Are you afraid of responsibility? If you are, then you have hypengyophobia. Are you afraid of staircases? If you are, then you have climachaphobia…or maybe you have pantaphobia. Do you think you have pantaphobia?” “What’s that?”, asks Charlie Brown, “The fear of everything.” “That’s it!” Well, you get the picture. There’s a lot to be afraid of these days, and it seems there was in 1965 too when Charles Shultz was writing the Peanuts comic strip. And there was in the 18th century when Isaac Watts wrote Joy to the Word, and there was in the first century when Mary sang her song in Luke 1. What I mean is, every generation faces fear as it takes shape broadly or personal histories. The fear of not having enough, or of never getting well, or the fear of whatever malevolent forces we can’t control at our doorstep. We only have to think of the crises in Afghanistan, or Haiti, or Ethiopia, or the flood ravaged places in our province. Even the fear of one another because we don’t feel safe and can’t trust. Maybe even the fear of myself and what rages inside. Fear is formidable.
This next part is never easy to articulate, but audaciously, Christmas calls fear into question. Not in the sense that our fears are illegitimate or small (really). The message from the angel to the shepherds of “don’t be afraid” isn’t, I think, something we should hear with a patronizing tone, as if we’re being told to grow up and get on with it. At Christmas it’s not as though God is patting us on the head saying, “there, there, it’s not so bad.” But it is precisely because it is so bad, it is so dark, that the joyful light breaks through so dramatically. The message that Jesus brings “good news of great joy for all people”, stands in contrast to all the bad news, somehow outweighing fear. “Don’t be afraid” (the most common command in scripture, we should remember) comes with a reassuring tone. Don’t be afraid, because what is coming and who is coming brings love that bests fear, light which outgrows darkness, life which swallows up death. Don’t be afraid, believe the good news about Jesus, about his authority over things, about his love and attention, so that the burden lifts and you can breathe more easily. Easier said than done, of course. But if we read past Luke 2 and the nativity story, we’ll notice that joy was very often the overwhelming response to Jesus turning up someplace or to some person. When we welcome Jesus, love presses out fear; relief and joy follows. Can we prepare some room in our hearts for Jesus even right now?
LETTING CHRISTMAS BE CHRISTMAS
Later in Charlie Brown’s Christmas when Linus recites the nativity story in Luke 2, he closes with “that’s what Christmas is about, Charlie Brown”. What will our Christmas be all about this year? Will it be all about disappointment, bitterness or fear? Or will we let Christmas be Christmas and bring us the good news for all people and all creation? That’s might be easy for some of us this year. For others it’s going to take some real trust because we know we’re facing some real hardship. But if we’re prone to despair, or even if we’ve been dabbling in despair more recently, today’s the day to sing Joy to the Word from our guts if we can, or at the very least under our breath. Not because we necessarily feel the joy just yet (though some might) but because we are singing to our own chests “let every heart prepare him room”, joining in as little bits of heaven and nature ourselves. So stand up and clap your hands along with trees outside today – “Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns…” After all, “it’s not a bad little tree.”