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!