Joy to the World!
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
December 14, 2014
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
How is your list coming? You know the list of all the things you are supposed to do to have a good holiday season. Have you bought the gifts? Wrapped the gifts? Baked the cookies? Decorated your home? Put up a tree? Attended holiday parties? Drank hot chocolate? Watched a Christmas movie? Done something kind for someone in need? Drank some egg nog and some cider? Listened to Christmas music? Planned the meal?
You know we do the same things year after year, and of course every year is different but it seems we are trying to make it exactly the same. In minister circles we often joke about the added pressure of preaching on days like Christmas Eve and Easter because there are more people in pews than usual and yet those are the two days when people do not come to church seeking some new perspective but instead they come to church wanting to hear the story, the same story we tell every year. At Christmas we do not want to hear about the latest in theological thinking, we want to hear about the angel that came to Mary – we want to hear about Joseph’s decision to stay, we want to hear about the journey to Bethlehem and the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, we want to picture the animals and feel the awe of the shepherds as they heard the angels song, we want to follow the bright star along with the magi. That is all we want…the same old story, and the same old songs every year.
So, since most of you have probably heard the Christmas story a time or two, I have a little Christmas Quiz for us…
Mary was told by an angel that she was to give birth to Jesus. What was his name?
D Gabriel (Luke 1: 26)
When Mary became pregnant, Mary and Joseph were:
B Engaged (Matthew 1: 18)
C Just good friends
What did Joseph want to do when he discovered Mary was pregnant?
A Run away
B Quietly divorce her (Matthew 1: 19)
C Send her back to her parents
D Have the child given away
Which Caesar decreed that all the Roman Empire should take part in a census?
A Augustus (Luke 2: 1)
What animal did Mary ride to Bethlehem?
B Small horse
C Actually, she walked!
D The Bible does not say (It only says that Mary came with Joseph)
Which animals does the Bible say were housed in the stable?
A Cows, donkeys, sheep
B Cows, goats, sheep
C Cows, doves, sheep
D The Bible doesn’t say (There’s no mention of animals in the nativity story)
What sign did the angels give the shepherds, to help them look for Jesus?
A Look for a stable with a star shining above it
B Look for a barn covered in Christmas lights
C Look for a baby lying in a manger (Luke 2: 12)
D look for three wise men
What does the name Jesus mean?
A God is with us
B The Lord saves (Matthew 1: 21)
C The Lamb of God
D Chosen by God
Some surprises! We think we know the Christmas story but some of what we know has been imagined, and some details it is easy to overlook. One thing this tells me is that even though we hear this story every year, some of you have heard it only a few years whether you are young or new to the church, some of us have heard this every year of our life (which on average would mean 29 times right, because most of us here are still 29), but I guess if you consider we hear it all during advent the number would be more like 120…and for those in your 70’s, 80’s and 90’s …I am just going to say you have heard this story a time or two …hundred!
We know the Christmas story. We know the Christmas songs. We tell the story and we sing the story year in and year out. We set aside an entire night each year to tell the story in it’s entirety, to hear it all together, some years even acting it out so we can see it with our own eyes. (Let me diverge for a minute to invite you to very special Christmas Eve service here at Good Shepherd at 7pm on December 24th. We’ll have the usual songs, scriptures and candlelight, but this year we’ll also include a spontaneous nativity, inviting all of the children and young people present to spontaneously choose which part they’d like to play and come up front to help us make the story come alive again! It’ll be holy and joyful for all ages – invite your friends!)
Why do we do this again and again? Why sing the same songs with the same candlelight exit? Why not find something new to talk about, a different obscure scripture to read instead of the same ones over and over again?
Probably, we could extend that same question to much of what we do as church? Why do we sing familiar songs? Why do we hear a sermon most weeks? Why do we take an offering rather than just mailing in our donations? Why do we receive communion every Sunday?
I have heard from many of you that you come to church because it puts your week in focus and sets you on the right path. From others I have heard that communion gives you the spiritual nourishment to live the way God asks you to live. And yet some disagree and could name another reason you’ve joined us today.
And there are others who aren’t here, because they think they know what they will find: “it’s probably the same church my grandma went to…” was a reply I heard a few years ago from a friend when I asked her why she didn’t go to the local church just down her street. Without a doubt, the 21st century teaches us that repetition is boring. It seems society believes once something has been said once or done once we should move onto something new. Now, I agree that we should never get stuck in our faith or in our worship, doing the same thing just for the reason that it’s always been that way – and yet the rituals, the story of Jesus’ birth, Holy Communion – these are not one time wonders. We do not, we cannot fully experience scripture or song or stories of Christ or Communion in one single time. In fact we do not, we cannot fully experience these things in a lifetime. If we’re truly open and listening, God always has something new to show us each time we return to the story of Mary, each time we sing the carols, offer the prayers, receive the bread.
One of my favorite styles of worship is called Taize. It originates in a monastic community in the heart of France. It is quiet, contemplative, and excessively repetitive…saying the same prayer over and over again, repeating the same line of a song 5-10-20 times. The idea is that we do not need something fancy but the simple and profound truth that God is Good – God is Good – God is Good – God is Good. Did you experience something different the 4th time than the first? A life of faith believes in truths that are different from those of the world. The world tells us that to be entertained and happy we must jump from one thing to the next, but a life of faith tells us we have all we need, even if it’s simple, we’ll find what we need if we allow it to sink deeper.
That is what I hear in our carol for today.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king!
Receive. We don’t have to choose or elect or appoint our king, we just receive him.
Let every heart prepare him room…
This is a common theme in advent – prepare the way of the Lord. But part of receiving Christ is making room for him in our lives, in our schedules, in our priorities, in our budget and in who we choose to love instead of who we choose to judge.
And heaven and nature sing…
We make room for Christ and we celebrate with song
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and heaven and nature sing.
Heaven and nature singing together speaks of the unity of God with our world. Some call this a thin place…the places where it seems heaven and earth are only separated by a thin line…they seem so close to one another almost nothing seperates them.
Sometimes the Christmas season can seem more full of these thin places than other times of the year – is it the flickering candle or firelight? The effort that many go to to be more generous and kind to one another? The peaceful flutter of snowflakes and the joyful laughter of children making snow angels in freshly fallen powder?
Or is it that we pay closer attention at Christmastime? Watching more closely, making more room in our hearts and minds, preparing room for the birth of the holy in our world, the coming of the Christ child? It’s a thin place, for sure, when we are able to see and hear heaven and nature raising their voices together in song!
And heaven and heaven and nature sing.
The second verse tells us of this singing.
Joy to the world the Savior reigns…Let all their songs employ
Their songs, our songs. What if every song we sang, every song we listened to, every song we hummed spoke of our joy to the world in Christ…?
But it is not just our songs that this carol speaks of. This goes far beyond records and ipods, radio and spotify…
While fields and floods, rocks hills and plains…
And this is the best part…
Repeat the sounding joy
Did you hear what I said…repeat the sounding joy
No really, did you hear me…
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
This line is the message of this song. Repeat. The writer of Joy to the World is a very accomplished hymn writer named Isaac Watts. He penned over 750 hymns in his lifetime and even began rhyming as a child. The stories go that little Isaac Watts had to explain why his eyes were open during prayer time, to which he responded: A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say its prayers.
While being punished for this remark he cried out:
O father, father, pity take And I will no more verses make.
He used rhyme and rhythm to make his point even more than the words he chose. And the same is true with this song. Repeat the sounding joy is exactly what he does, that is why so many people know this hymn by heart because we repeat…we repeat the sounding joy…
And heaven and nature’s sing
Repeat the sounding joy
And wonders of his love.
We repeat these phrases again and again and again in this song just as we repeat much in worship each week, just as we repeat the traditions of Christmas each year. But we do this not just to fill space. Isaac Watts wrote this song to repeat these words, not because he couldn’t think of anything else to say but because we need to hear some things over and over and over again for them to really sink in. Actually studies show that when we are presented with new information we have to hear it three times to commit it to memory. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat, repeat the sounding joy!
Our scripture today is a song of praise, much like Joy to the world
Surely God is my salvation…for the Lord God is my strength and my might…
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation and you will say in that day:
Give thanks to this Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the nations…shout aloud and sing for joy!
The message for us in this scripture and in this song is the well of salvation Isaiah calls on us to draw from…with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Many of us have experienced droughts before – seasons in which the rain rarely falls. Riverbanks dry up, the mud and dirt cracks, everything gets dusty. There are dry seasons in our weather and also dry seasons in our spiritual lives. It’s possible to come to church every Sunday (or not) and still feel spiritually stagnant. It’s possible to pray every day (or not) and feel dry. Seasons of illness, or depression, or financial struggle, or relationship difficulty can all be times of spiritual drought. For some, the season of Advent is a painful time and even these holy weeks can feel dry, cracked, and dark.
But that doesn’t mean the carols hold no meaning, or that Isaiah wasn’t speaking to us. Maybe it’s that we need to hear it again, just like a Taize song, opening us up and taking us deeper. Deeper, to where the water of the well awaits. Deeper, to the place where Joy isn’t glitter and elves, shiny packages and perfect table décor. Ultimately, that stuff has more to do with Martha Stewart than Jesus of Nazareth! Deeper, to where the Joy of Christ bubbles up real and true, to sustain us through all the seasons of life.
This song and this scripture call us to dig deeper into a well full of joy that we are able to draw from…over and over and over. To draw from the sustaining well so that when we are struggling we can still…repeat the sounding joy!
Like filling our well with the sound we’ve heard in worship so often lately, of dozens of little feet hopping and skipping back into worship after Sunday School…praise God!
And when we see Jim Hensley in worship, after lifting so many pleading prayers for health just a few weeks ago….hallelujah!
And even in the midst of death and pain, the sound of the prayer chain being sent, many voice saying “how can I help?”, extending care to those who are grieving…amen!
And the opportunity to partner with the Emergency Assistance Center this week, opening our doors so that parents who wouldn’t be able to afford them, can come choose brand-new gifts to give their beautiful children on Christmas Day! Holy, holy, holy!
Dear ones, there is much that is hard in life. There are dry seasons and difficult times. But there is also joy around us and among us each and every day. The songs, the scriptures, the word of God and the sound of the holy…they ask us to repeat the sounding joy. Every time you see joy, taste it, overhear it...repeat it! Again and again and again until it fills that well of salvation that Isaiah speaks of. Come to worship. Allow yourself to be fully present. Soak up the Word and the Spirit and the Light. Fill that well, dig deeper into the moments of joy so that when you need it you can draw water…shout aloud and sing for joy!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
December 7, 2014
23 Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, that glorious song of old…
Midnight. It’s an hour that I’d rather not see, since I’m usually conked out on the couch by 9 pm, but one that I’ve seen fairly often lately. I’ve also seen 2 am and 4 am pretty regularly as well. And although I grumble a bit every time I hear the cry that pulls me out of my dream state and into the exhaustion of reality, I was caught breathless a couple weeks ago as I walked past my bedroom window with a newborn in my arms. The room around us was dark, but the light outside, even at 2 am was blinding.
I glanced outside to see the snow falling like a blanket from the sky, sparkling and shimmering in the light of the streetlamp. The clouds above reflected the lights of the city so brilliantly that it almost appeared to be daytime. But I knew it wasn’t daytime for the stillness of all but the falling snow. Not a living soul moved outside and I could almost hear the quiet rustle of every snowflake falling from the heavens.
Midnight can be a holy hour, can’t it? It certainly was on the night we recall with longing this time of year…
Many churches hold Christmas Eve services at midnight to stand just a bit closer to the holy moment we sing of, the dark night of the sky illuminated by the brightest star. We will worship at 7 pm on Christmas Eve at Good Shepherd, and this year we have a sweet new element planned to include participation of the youngest among us – but whatever time we might choose to worship on Christmas Eve, whatever the liturgy, one thing is certain. Every year, we will sing.
We talked a bit about music last week. The way music, singing in particular, aligns our whole bodies, our entire brain, our spirits all with the holy in a deeper way. Something about the harmony and melody, the rests and the lyrics comfort us or challenge us, the words that are on our lips slowly sink into our minds and hearts. Music is important in the life of faith all year long, but there is something special about Christmas music. It is holy. Literally. Holy means set apart; That is probably why we love Christmas Carols so much – because they are set apart from the rest of the year, like egg nog and peppermint mochas. (Perhaps even more so because we don’t start singing Carols in worship at Halloween when egg nog goes on sale or in August when stores start selling Christmas wreathes.) We sing these sacred songs only a short time each year. The carols of Christmas are holy and set apart for they tell a certain story…
It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold…
This carol is ironic in that it is a song about a song. Listening closely, the words are not actually about the birth of Christ but about the song that the angels sang on that night, the sound of the music that floated in the air.
Harps no longer hold a position as a mainstream instrument and yet most of us have heard the soft song of a harp. A friend of mine tells of the meaning of the harp for her at a time her young daughter was very ill.. She says, “When Elliana was at Children’s hospital a woman came around playing a harp. She stood outside the door and just played. I have no idea what she played but it moved me to tears. It was like a prayer really that someone else offers for you where the brokenness of your heart but also your deepest hope is expressed. The harp was that prayer for me that day…” so maybe it was just the right instrument for the Angels to play as they sang,
Peace on the earth, good will to all, from Heaven’s all Gracious King. The World in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Peace. Peace is the candle that we lit this morning. Peace is something we hope for and strive for every day. It’s what parents of young children yearn for when their preschoolers are having a meltdown in the middle of the living room floor, and the prayer of an anxious heart fearful of the future. It is the call of God’s Spirit to center ourselves and to create space for the Holy. This time of year Peace is often portrayed by images of quiet snowfalls, Christmas trees aglow and a dinner table set with a chair for every family member. But that image of peace is incomplete. Too often we get caught up in nostalgia and forget that peace has been the cry throughout human history; a cry for more than quiet and contentment.
Peace has been the cry of men and women ravaged by war, injustice, and fear for generations. We look at the wars of our time in Afghanistan and the Congo, Israel and Palestine and Syria - the tensions in Egypt and with Iran. We read the news and we pray for justice and peace in communities like Ferguson and Cleveland and New York, but also peace and justice for black families and young people with dark skin or the wrong citizenship or the wrong social status. We consider the way of our world, with religion pushed to the margins of society, the increase in consumerism and the decrease in family time or faith time and we cry to God for peace. The peace of which the angels sing…
But a look at any point in history shows that in some ways times haven’t changed. Wars have been raging since the beginning of time, the war in the holy land is documented in scripture and while there are seasons of peace, we have yet to see a lasting peace. The angels were speaking a good news that was needed on that midnight clear just as it is needed today. Peace. But there is nothing in this song that suggests that the peace the angels sang of was some kind of magical friendly serum.
This Christmas Carol sings of peace amidst the conflict and chaos of life. It is not warm and fuzzy like some others. Other Carols sing of a sweet sleeping baby who is snuggled up with his mom, but this song, it places the song of the angels exactly where we need it, at midnight and evermore.
Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,
Cloven, by the way means split, the angels split open the skies – and opened their wings…their peaceful wings as if to give the world a hug…
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world.
This line is my favorite in this song because it makes me wonder when we have heard this heavenly music. When have we heard the music of angels in the midst of our own weariness? Where have you heard the heavenly music of peace? Was it in worship as you tasted the cup of Christ? Was it in the moment when you said goodbye to your loved one who was suffering? Was it when you were finally able to offer forgiveness? Was it in a prayer when you gave God your hurt or your worry or your anger? The song of peace doesn’t usually show up when things are going well, when you find a 20 in your pocket, have a great meal that just hits the spot and the sun is shining bright! There are other gifts on days like that, but the song of peace comes to us when life doesn’t make sense, when we are overcome with fear or anger or sadness or anxiety or despair…that is when the angels song is heard the loudest and the clearest…
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing, and ever o’er its Babel Sounds the blessed angels sing.
You remember Babel. We read of this story in Genesis 11 – the people gathered together, all speaking one language and decided to build a tower all the way to the heavens but God said, this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. So God confused them by giving the people different languages. The sounds of Babel were sounds of confusion, sounds of failed plans, sounds of chaos and sounds of conflict. These are sounds we know very well…but over, above, maybe even within and through our Babel sounds the angels sing:
And you beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow…
This is not a pretty picture. In verses prior we have heard the words weary, sad, lowly, Babel – and this verse is the heaviest.
The writer of these lyrics was a man named Edmund Sears. He was a Unitarian Pastor who lived in the 1800’s. These words were first published in December of 1849 and the reality of the world in which Mr. Sears lived tells us something about this crushing load, the toil and the painful and slow steps of which he speaks. 1849 is most remembered for the frantic Gold Rush in California but it was also the year Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery which tells us that the tensions between the north
and the south were already high and moving toward the civil war a decade later. The industrial revolution in New England brought its own level of chaos and social upheaval. There was a lot going on but certainly there were conflicts at the time of the writing of many of the carols we sing. What makes It Came Upon a Midnight Clear different, is his hope, his hope for peace. In the moment when there was a coming war, and tension and poverty and chaos… that was the moment to listen, to look:
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.
Within these words Sears points to Jesus’ words in our scripture this morning. In our text, this baby we are waiting for is all grown up. It is the final hour, the night of the last supper and the cross is looming before him and yet he is speaking of peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
When we discuss peace and when we pray for peace, we are usually seeking the lack of something horrible. We think we will have peace when there is no more sadness or no more war or peace will come when our world is without – as Sears’ said: toil and weariness. But is peace only the lack of something negative?
If so, it is easy to consider why we fail to hear the angels’ song - because we are not there – we still have war and toil and sadness and weariness. 150 years after this song was written, 2000 years after the angels first sang at midnight, we have yet to obtain the kind of peace that comes from an absence of chaos and pain. But in Christ’s words, in our scripture, we hear about a different kind of peace.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.
What if peace is more than a lack of something negative? What if peace is possible even-especially in the face of struggle? What if peace itself is a positive; The addition of something holy into the reality of chaos all around us? That is what it sounds like Jesus is saying to his disciples on the night he told them his body would be broken and his blood poured out. In the midst of brokenness he is offering them peace. Because peace exists even when you are beneath the crushing load…peace is not static but creative, restorative, enduring, it is both bold and gentle. And it is already here. The angels sang of it 2000 years ago and while conflicts still rage in our world and burdens remain heavy the peace of Christ has come. My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you…I do not give to you as the world gives…
What if we have been looking for the wrong kind of peace? What if the peace the world lures us with: images of perfect families, plenty of time, snuggly puppies and well-behaved toddlers, each of us perfectly healthy and happy and content with everything around us…what if the reason we never seem to achieve it is that it’s false advertising? Impossible. What if we could stop working so hard for the world’s peace and allowed ourselves to hear the song the angels sing…of the peace of Christ? A peace that is sung through the burdens and crushing loads, whispering steadily through the shouts of chaos all around us and as the song reminds us: a peace that the angels continute to sing about even now over the weary, above the sad and lowly plains over the Babel sounds and beside the weary road. The angels sing of peace…peace on earth.
For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old when with their ever circling years shall come the time foretold; when PEACE shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
Today we light the candle of peace, lifting up a prayer that the peace of Christ would cover all the earth. It is a prayer that is being answered even in the midst of our struggles. A song that is being sung over the protests and tears, the loss and the fears. It is a song that reminds us in its lyrics that through the circling years shall come the time foretold in our scripture; when PEACE shall cover all the earth. And the last line calls each of us to share in that yearning and hope: that not only the angels would sing but the whole world would sing back to the angels their song: a chorus of angels and creation, men, women, white, black and brown, rich and poor, joyful and united, singing together the song of Christ’s peace.
That is our prayer. Let us sing it together….
Pastor Melanie is a preacher, mother, singer, and too-much-coffee-drinker. She is passionate about creative worship and finding God in the midst of our every-day.