Last week, a member of Zion offered me a suggestion for our service today. He said, “Since we’re having Christmas in July, we should sing ‘Joy to the World.’” I was way ahead of him; I had already included it in order of worship. But, there’s a funny thing about this beloved song: it wasn’t written as a Christmas carol.
Isaac Watts was a preacher in England in the early 1700s. He was also a prolific hymn-writer. He didn’t write as many hymns as our own Charles Wesley but, still, he has about 750 of them to his credit. He often wrote hymns to be sung after the sermon, to summarize the message he had just preached. The psalms were also typically sung in worship (rather than being read), but Watts didn’t think the vocal arrangements were very good. In fact, he didn’t like much of anything about them. He thought the rhythm was off. He thought the tunes weren’t very pleasing, and he wasn’t impressed by the poetry of their lyrics.
When a fever eroded his health and forced him to cut back on his pastoral work, he set about creating new musical versions of the psalms. Back in 1719, he wrote a hymn called “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom” for Psalm 98. The song we now know as “Joy to the World” is based on verses 4-9:
“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
As I read all this about Watts and his hymn, though, something kept nagging at me. Psalm 98 is about the Lord coming in the future. That makes sense, of course; it was written before Jesus’ birth about God’s promised future. But, according to Watts, there should be joy in the world now because “the Lord is come.” Why did Watts choose the phrase “the Lord is come” when he was paraphrasing a psalm about the future?
I think that Watts was doing more than just composing a new arrangement of an old song. He wanted us to sing this old psalm from a new perspective. He wanted us to sing an Old Testament song with a New Testament understanding, because we do know that the Lord, whose coming the psalmist anticipated, did indeed come, embodied in human flesh, on Christmas Day.
But, I think there’s even more to it than that. Watts doesn’t say that the Lord “has” come. He says that the Lord is come. Now, some grammar experts say that this is just the way people talked in the 1700s: people used the word “is” like we use the word “has” to describe something that happened in the past. But, while Jesus’ birth was a one-time event that happened in the past, his coming simply began on that day and continues to this day. His coming began in the past, but we also experience his coming among us now, in the present. The Lord is come!
Past, present, and future have always been a little challenging for Christians. We believe in a kingdom that exists in the world today but isn’t yet complete. We believe in a kingdom that came near in Jesus, is all around us now, and will completed sometime in the future. We believe in a Savior who was born, died, and was resurrected in the past, but who is with us in the present, and who will come again. We believe in the “was” and the “is” and in the “not yet.” When we sing “the Lord is come,” we confess our faith in the Lord who came on Christmas Day and who still comes to us today.
Jesus speaks of another “is” in our passage from John’s gospel. “Very truly I tell you, the hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus had been making himself very unpopular among the religious authorities prior to speaking these words. There’d been the incident in the temple courtyard, when Jesus drove out all the animals and dumped out all the coins at the moneychangers’ tables, before overturning the tables themselves. He had healed a man at the pool of Bethsaida on the Sabbath, which was bad enough in the Pharisees’ eyes, but then he called God his own Father, making himself equal to God, and that sent them over the edge into plotting his death.
Jesus responds to their outrage with the words of our passage. “Look, I’m not doing what I’m doing on my own. I couldn’t do it on my own. Like a child who learns a trade at his father’s knee, I see what my Father is doing and I do that. Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so do I. God—my Father—has the authority to judge all people but has given that role to me—the Son, and all who honor the Father are expected to honor the Son in the same way.”
Jesus continues with that line of thought for the rest of the chapter, but it’s the final verse of our passage that I think is so powerful. “The hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Being raised from death to life is not simply a promise for the future. Life after death is a reality that we can experience today.
In the Apostle’s Creed, we affirm our belief in a future bodily resurrection after our physical deaths. But there are lots of other kinds of deaths in this world besides the death of our bodies. These are the deaths that kill the spirit. Sometimes they’re fast and sometimes they’re so slow that we don’t even realize that we’re wasting away. Sometimes the thing that can kill us is glaringly obvious, and sometimes it’s like a spiritual radon gas that seeps through the cracks and holes of our lives and silently poisons us. Sometimes these lethal weapons even come masquerading as something that will enhance our lives. But always, they kill off what makes us fully human.
Death can come through messages that make us doubt our worth as human beings. Advertising tells us that we’re not attractive enough or successful enough on our own—only their products can make us acceptable. Social media tells us that we don’t have enough friends or that we’re not having enough fun, or that our kids aren’t keeping up with the Jones’s kids. There’s always another product to buy or another button to click that will make us more acceptable, though never acceptable enough. This is death to the spirit by a thousand cuts, as our confidence in our self-worth ebbs away.
But, when we hear the voice of the Son of God, we pass from that death into life. We hear him call us his beloved—his heirs, his children. His voice drowns out all those other voices that seek to kill our confidence in our value as human beings. “The hour is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
Death can come through holding on to attitudes and opinions, even when they cause harm to ourselves or to others. The disciples were shocked to learn that Jesus had been talking to a Samaritan woman at the well because, you know, you just shouldn’t associate with people like that—people whose beliefs or ethnicity or gender or reputation or whatever put them outside the circle of acceptability. We kill the spirits of others every time our words and actions indicate that someone is an outsider and that we’re going to make sure they stay that way. The wounds we inflict may not be fatal in and of themselves, but they combine with all the wounds inflicted by others. Together, they grow into spirit-killing systems, and they become so entrenched that we think that’s just the way the world is and always will be.
This not only hurts others, it hurts us as well. When we refuse to let go of old patterns of thinking, we are unable to envision a different kind of world and deny the possibility of change. We kill off the opportunity to grow in love for others, and our inability to grow in love for others prevents us from growing in our love for God. The walls we build to keep others out become prison walls where our spirits end up on death row. But, when we hear Jesus’ voice and listen to his words, we find the courage to leave behind our death-dealing attitudes. We enter into new life ourselves and become the channels of life for others. “The hour is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
Death can come when we slavishly adhere to rules rather than to the purposes behind the rules. We have so many rules that were meant to enhance life but now limit it for no good reason. Many of us remember when women were expected to wear a dress in church, and wearing anything else would have been disapproved of. (I still hear my Grandma Williams’ disapproving voice in my ear whenever I even think about wearing slacks to church, and she’s been dead since 1978.)
This is what the Pharisees and so many other religious bigwigs of Jesus’ time never figured out. The rules against working on the Sabbath, for example, were intended for good. They ensured time for rest and worship—time for focusing on the life of the spirit. But the Pharisees got so caught up in following the rules that they forgot why they were given the rules in the first place. The rules were intended as a means of creating as rich and full a life as possible. But they started focusing on the rules as the end, rather than the means to an end.
I heard a story about this kind of death-dealing rule-following. A woman who was a fairly new member of a church went to worship one Sunday. She was accompanied by a young man no one recognized—a man who wore his baseball cap throughout the service. Everyone knows that a man is supposed to remove his hat in church. A number of disapproving looks were sent his way, but the cap remained in place. After the service, more than one person took it upon themselves to tell the woman and the young man that he should have removed his hat out of respect; that was the rule, after all. It wasn’t until later that they learned that the young man was the woman’s son. He had come home so that she could help care for him while he was being treated for cancer. He had lost all his hair and was uncomfortable without his cap. He never returned to that church. Neither did his mother.
The Sabbath rules that the Pharisees so treasured were intended to enhance life. Jesus healed on the Sabbath because that, too, was a way of enhancing life, but all the rule-followers saw was a broken rule. They never stopped to think about what the rule meant, or how what Jesus did was in keeping with the spirit of the rule. They were willing to allow the man at the pool—and so many others—to continue in conditions that were body- and soul-killing, just so they could keep the rule alive and well.
If they had listened to the voice of the Son, they could have passed from death to life, right along with the man who was healed. When we offer life to another, we also receive life. We are released from the tyranny of rule-following for the sake of rule-following and given the freedom to live according to the kingdom values that good rules—God’s rules—are meant to uphold. We are freed to explore how rules can be reimagined so that can be the life-giving aids they’re intended to be. “The hour is now here” when we can hear the voice of the Son of God and live.
We can pass from death to life because Jesus is, in all the roles that Isaiah spoke of. He is the Wonderful Counselor, who guides us when we need direction. He is the Prince of Peace, who teaches us to live in peaceful community with others—especially others we might never have imagined being in community with—and he shows us how to have peace within ourselves. He is the light that shines on us when the world seems to be shrouded in darkness.
He is one with the Mighty God and Son of the Everlasting Father and, because he is, he can offer the forgiveness and grace that God alone can give. He offers us joyful freedom from sin and guilt. Did you pay attention to the words of the third verse of “Joy to the World”? “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.” Joy to the world; the Lord is come.
Jesus is the one who walks with us through our daily cares and lends his strength as we bear our burdens. The angels continue to sing of the good news of abundant, eternal life: “Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heav’nly music floats o’er all the weary world.”
Today we are celebrating God’s breaking into history at Jesus’ birth. But our celebration of Christmas is bookended by another celebration of what is—our Easter celebration of the resurrection. The angels in the tomb reported the once-in-history event of Jesus being raised from the dead, but Christ the Lord is risen today!
Christ is our risen Lord, and because he lives, we can pass from death to life in his name now. “Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted Head; made like him, like him we rise; ours the cross, the grave, the skies!” The kingdom he brought near at his birth surrounds us today. The salvation he secured for us in his resurrection is ours today. He reigns as Lord of heaven and earth today. Joy to the world, the Lord is come, and Christ the Lord is risen today—whether it’s a snowy day in December or a balmy day in the spring or a sweltering day in July, or anytime in between. Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Christ the Lord is risen today! And the hour is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young