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Sun, Dec 02, 2018

Joy to the World

Duration:10 mins 44 secs

Our Scripture Reading for today comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 21, verses 25-33. In this text we find Jesus in Jerusalem during the last week of his life, teaching in the grounds of the temple. I will say more about why we hear this text on the First Sunday of Advent in just a minute, but first let us hear this Word of God.

25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Now you probably know why I did not want to give you too much introduction to this text. We must admit that the 21st chapter of the Gospel according to Luke is an odd way to begin our preparations for Christmas. Especially this year here at Reid Memorial because we have chosen the theme: “Comfort and Joy: A Celebration of Christmas Hymns,” for our Advent and Christmas services. We are going to be using our new hymnal to sing our way to Christmas with all our favorite Christmas carols. Comfort and joy; light and celebration, that’s what Christmas is all about, right?

So then why do we hear Jesus share an apocalyptic vision about the end of the world: “Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Jesus is talking about a cosmic, cataclysmic event. The entire creation in turmoil. The powers of the heavens are shaken. People are fainting from fear and foreboding. Where is the comfort and joy?

My friends we begin the season of Advent and our journey to Christmas with these words because this season is not just a time of preparation for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago. No, today we are expecting Christ’s return, Christ’s Second Advent. That is the journey that we are Christians travel today; that is what we are expecting. And so we begin with Jesus’ own words about the coming of the Lord.

These are hard words to hear even if they do sound so very familiar. But what I do not want you to miss this morning is that in the midst of Jesus’ dark vision of all that is to come he also includes a promise. As the world around us is descending into fear, Jesus tells his disciples, “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” When the world appears to be falling apart, the disciples are to stand up and raise their heads. They are to not be afraid.

Their confidence is not because they have some secret code indicating when the Lord will come. They are not somehow better readers of the signs of the times. No, as Pastor David Lose suggests:

Across the board, Jesus promises not to abandon his disciples amid the tumult and trauma of the world but to be with them, strengthen and encourage them, and equip them not merely to endure the challenges of the day but to flourish. Jesus’ promises, I want to be clear, do not eliminate fear or hardship from the lives of his disciples – then or now – but rather create courage, the ability to be faithful, to do one’s duty, to retain vision and compassion and empathy, even while afraid.

Which means that even amid the tumult and trauma of our age, we are not helpless. While we still wait Jesus’ complete redemption, yet we have good work to do in the meantime. And we undertake the good work of being Jesus’ disciples in the world … not because we believe our actions will change the world, but because we know Christ’s resurrection has already changed the world. We act, that is, in the confidence that Jesus’ promises are trustworthy.

Yes, my friends, even when the world is falling apart, we can stand up and lift our heads, we can undertake the good work of being Jesus’ disciples in the world, because we have confidence that Jesus’ promises are trustworthy. We know the one who holds the future.

Now, if we are honest, I am not sure we typically hold that kind of trust in the future – certainly in our culture but even as the church. We tend to be people who are skeptical of the future. We tend to be fearful of what is coming. We tend to be wary of what might be expected of us with something new and different.

This has always been the case. It was English Congregational Christians who resisted when a non-Conformist clergyman named Isaac Watts published Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707. The Lutherans had been singing hymns for over a hundred years, but John Calvin had urged his followers to sing only metrical psalms. The English Protestants had followed Calvin's lead. In Hymns and Spiritual Songs Watts did not reject metrical psalms, he simply wanted to see them more impassioned. He wrote, “They ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.” Suddenly the future of church music did not look exactly like the past.

And critics pushed back. These paraphrases were not the psalms with which they were familiar. For example, how could this new hymn in Watts’ 1719 collection The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, be a paraphrase of Psalm 98? It added new images like, “Let every heart prepare him room.” It even omitted entire verses about harps, and trumpets, and cornets from the original psalm. The critics were fierce, yes fear is a powerful motivator, but Watts prevailed in the end and a new tradition of English hymns was born.

American Presbyterians held out even longer, maintaining they were only to sing metrical psalms. Thus, it was not until 1819 that the General Assembly even approved forming “a sanctioned hymnal committee.” You know how we love committees. After much work and several revisions, Psalms and Hymns Adapted to the Public Worship became the first official American Presbyterian hymnal in 1831. And one of the hymns contained was an Isaac Watts paraphrase of Psalm 98 better known as “Joy to the World.”

Today we cannot imagine a Christmas season without “Joy to the World.” We know all four verses by heart, right? And yet let me encourage you to pull those new red hymnals out of the pew rack and turn to hymn 134 so we can look at it together for a minute.


In this most beloved Christmas carol, see if you can find any mention of shepherds or angels or magi or mangers. They are not there. Instead, we find a cosmic vision of heaven and nature singing; fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeating the sounding joy; thorns no longer infesting the ground; and the nations proving the glories of His love.

You see, Isaac Watts did not set out to write a Christmas hymn, although he did make clear that “the Lord” his version of Psalm 98 referred to Jesus Christ. In fact, instead of a sweet Christmas carol, it almost sounds like Watts is writing a counterpoint to Jesus’ apocalyptic vision in Luke 21.

When the Lord comes it will not be like a whisper in the night, but the whole creation will join in the song of praise.

Signs in the sun and moon will be replaced with singing rocks and hills.

The nations which totter in Jesus’ vision will witness to the glory of Jesus’ love.

Jesus told his followers to stand up and lift their heads, to have courage and not be afraid. Isaac Watts lived into Jesus’ promise and has given us a vision of what the kingdom will be like when the Lord and his redemption have come.

My friends, can we live with that same kind of vision and courage of Isaac Watts in the midst of the fear and fright which seems to so occupy our world? Can we embrace a “Joy to the World” kind of faith in the midst of an apocalyptic kind of world? Can we join our voices with all of creation as we stand up and lift our eyes to see the coming of the Lord?

By God’s grace we can.

So, have faith, take heart, sing out, for our redemption is near.

Thanks be to God.

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