A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 22, 2013
Luke 20:1-12 KJV
It may surprise you to learn that one of the most popular and best-loved Christmas hymns was not written as a Christmas hymn at all. But, I am getting ahead of myself. First a bit of background is in order. Isaac, who would prove to be one of the most prolific hymnists of all times, was born to a dissenting deacon in a non-conformist (that is, non-Anglican) English church and the daughter of a Huguenot refugee. For the first fourteen years of his life, the family suffered severe hardships and persecution. It has been conjectured that the years of suffering might have been responsible for Isaac’s ill health. He grew to a height of just over five feet and was weak and sickly all his life.
Though he was always weak in body, he was very strong in mind and creativity. He was a very intelligent child who loved books and had learned to read quite young. At an early age he showed great poetic promise. Following a morning worship service, Isaac—who was only fifteen at the time—complained of the terrible hymns they were singing. One story has it that one of the deacons (and another has it that it was his father) challenged him: “If you don’t like the hymns, give us something better, young man.” So Isaac did. By the evening service, Isaac had written his first hymn which was sung in that very service.
When Isaac began to preach in an English Congregationalist church some years later, his congregation also sang the hymns that flowed from his pen. In 1707, the accumulation of eighteen years of work was published in his first book of hymns, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Then in 1719, another collection titled Psalms of David Imitated was published. All in all, over the years Isaac Watts would write more than 600 hymns and would come to be known as “the father of English hymnody.” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” are just two of Isaac Watts’s hymns that you may recognize. There are a total of 17 hymns written by Isaac Watts in our red Pilgrim Hymnal.
It was in that second collection, Psalms of David Imitated, that his now famous hymn sung at Christmas was published. However, as noted above, “Joy to the World” was never intended to be a Christmas hymn. It is actually based on the last half of Psalm 98 that speaks of making a joyful noise to the Lord as King, who will come to judge the earth in righteousness. Isaac reinterpreted the psalm as a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age. Though the birth of Jesus can be inferred in “Joy to the World,” there is no implicit mention of Jesus’ birth in the hymn, or of angels, or shepherds, or anything else we associate with Christmas. Yet, our Christmas season would not seem complete without the singing of “Joy to the World” at least a few times.
It is Isaac Watts’ emphasis upon joy throughout this beloved hymn that I would like to focus upon for a moment today, in conjunction with Luke’s phrase, “I bring you good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10).
The Greek word that Luke employs is chara, which is akin to the word rejoice but can also have the connation of delight. So the verse could almost read, “I bring you good tidings of great delight.” The question is, What is joy? Where does it come from? How do we experience and manifest joy day in and day out?
In a conversation with Suzanne last week, we talked about the possibility of joy resulting from being in harmony or in sync; feeling like you are where you are supposed to be. Joy as such can come from feeling you are in harmony with God, or in harmony with the universe, or in harmony with your job or profession or place of volunteering, or with that special person you love. Theologically one could make the argument that Luke had such a thought in mind. Joy in the Christmas story results from God having sent a “Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” This Savior, in Luke’s thought, brought salvation, reconciliation, harmony between God and humankind. Even the lowly shepherds experienced this joy at being noticed by God’s angels to bring the news of Jesus’ birth. Even they felt a sense of being in harmony with the wider plan of the universe.
Eda LeShan tells the story of visiting someone in the hospital. She watched an elderly couple. The man was in a wheelchair, and his wife was sitting next to him in a visitor’s chair. For the half hour that Eda watched, they never exchanged a word; they just held hands and looked at each other, and once or twice the man patted his wife’s face. The feeling of love was so thick in the room that Eda felt she was sharing their communion and was moved all day by their shared pain, their love, and their joy; the fullness of a human relationship.1 As already stated, perhaps joy is that feeling of being in harmony. Or maybe it has to do with knowing you have a place and would be missed if you were not here. Or maybe it just has to do with knowing that you are deeply loved and appreciated.
Experiencing such joy in daily life may have to do with having our eyes wide open to the connections we have with those around us, to the universe, to Nature, or to God (if that is our frame of reference). It may have to do with giving and receiving love.
One of the characteristics of joy is that it shows itself. Joy is not bashful; it does not hide itself; it is pretty transparent. In other words, joy that exists on the inside of a person manifests itself outwardly in a radiant smile and a pleasant demeanor. Perhaps all of us know, or have known, someone whose bodily presence just exuded joy. Lou, the choir director at a previous church I served, was like that. Lou was always joyful and always smiling. And the joy he exuded was contagious. It was not possible to be around Lou and not catch a touch of the joy he exuded.
In one of her books, Anne Lamott tells of a friend who, as she describes her, “has a big pancake face and feathery brown hair. . . she has peasanty potato features, and she’s too tall, and totally inelegant. But she loves her life. She’s chosen a life of prayer, service, and travel. She’s always in a . . . state of wonder, of appreciating what is, instead of fretting about what she wishes was. But she’s great-looking—everyone thinks so—because of the expressions on her face and the way she looks at you. She is radiant with spirituality and humor.” Then Anne concludes, “Joy is the best makeup.”2
Well, whether Isaac Watts intended it so or not, “Joy to the World!” makes for a wonderful Christmas hymn. Because joy is the spirit of the season. Most of us here at the United Church have many reasons to be joyful. As with the little boy who couldn’t see his Christmas presents for the balloons around the Christmas tree (as in the story I shared with the children), we often can’t see the many sources of joy in our own lives because we are so focused on some current problem.
During this Christmas week, may we be able to celebrate the connections we have with our church family and those close to us in our lives. May we have our eyes open to the many sources of joy that are there just for the taking. May we, too, experience the “glad tidings of great joy” that are unique to this Christmas season, making joy a day-by-day reality. Amen.
1Eda LeShan, Spiritual Literacy, New York: Scribner, 1996, p. 436.
2Anne LaMott, Grace (Eventually). New York: Riverhead Books, 2007, p. 77.