This is post 1 of 13 in the series “CHRISTMAS IN THE CAROLS”
- Joy To The World
- Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
- We Three Kings Of Orient Are
- O Little Town Of Bethlehem
- Away In The Manger
- What Child Is This?
- O Come All Ye Faithful
- There’s A Song In The Air
- Angels From The Realms Of Glory
- It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
- The First Noel
- Silent Night, Holy Night
- I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day
Christmas In The Carols: Joy To The World
I read to you now from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the fourth chapter. I’m going to begin the reading at the fourth verse. This is the Word of God. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say it. Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance, for the Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
When I saw them, my first thought was, “What next?” You see, last evening, Tricia and I braved the crowds of shoppers at the mall. Moses had an easier time in the Red Sea. And in one of the stores, Tricia pointed out to me a pair of hot mitts, which, when they are used to pick up something hot from the stove, break forth immediately in music box versions of Christmas carols. And I thought to myself, “What next?”
You see, the carols of Christmas have become so familiar to our human experience that I fear we are in danger of missing their message. We hear them played and sung with such frequency absolutely everywhere that we turn at this time of the year that we tend to forget, I think, that they are, first and foremost, songs about Christ. And therefore, during these next Sundays together, I want us to try to recapture something of the great Gospel message contained in some of our most familiar Christmas carols.
And I want to begin today with a carol written by Isaac Watts, the carol “Joy to the World.” There is a sense, I think, in which it is the most unusual of all the Christmas carols. For while the first verse does announce that the Lord is come, that is the only phrase in the entire carol that is directly related to Christmas and the birth of Jesus. We find in the carol no mention made of the things we normally expect to find in carols. No mention of star or shepherds or wise men or a manger or infant. And yet, who would ever want to deny this particular song its place of prominence among the carols of Christmas? For this carol, maybe better than all of the others, with its exuberant joy and its deep spiritual insight, provides us with a glorious picture of the impact that the coming of Jesus makes upon our world and upon your life and mine.
I’d like to show you what I mean in just a moment. But first, let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, oh God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Christianity is unique among the religions of this world. That is true for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important of those reasons is the fact that Christianity is a singing faith. No other religion, no other faith, no other belief system on Earth has singing as an integral part of its practice. Confucianism has no chorales. Hinduism has no hymns. Shintoism has no songs. Muhammadanism has no music. And atheism has no anthems. Christianity is the one faith, the only faith which sets our souls to singing. In fact, I think I would go so far as to say that Christianity is not truly Christian unless it lifts our hopes and cheers our spirits and straightens our shoulders and puts a song of joy on our lips and in our hearts.
That is certainly the truth which comes home to us when we read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The prevailing mood of that letter is one of joy. In fact, the letter is frequently called the Epistle of Joy. While the letter is rather short, just four chapters, the words joy and rejoice appear in that letter fifteen times. And it’s all summed up I think best in that magnificent verse in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians where Paul cries, “Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I will say it. Rejoice.”
Now, if you were to sit down and read that letter, having no clue as to the author’s identity or circumstances, you would be tempted to say, “Well, here is a fellow who is happy because he obviously has life going his way.” But the fact of the matter is, Paul, when he wrote these words, didn’t have life going his way. He wasn’t writing these words out of the buoyancy of good health or out of the contentment of worldly comfort or out of the flush of earthly success. Paul, in fact, had none of these things. His health was very bad. He had very little of this world’s goods. And the table on which he was writing was located in a jail cell on death row in a Roman prison. And yet, out of the midst of that circumstance, Paul could say, “Rejoice in the Lord.” He could speak of his own joy and wish his readers joy as well. How could he do that? Well, the answer is that Paul didn’t just wish his readers joy. He wished them, quite specifically, joy in the Lord.
There is a big difference. You see, Paul understood that Christianity is more than being baptized or believing in the virgin birth or going to church or serving the needs of others. Paul understood that people could do all of those things and not be joyful. In fact, sometimes, they can be downright miserable. No, Paul understood, you see, that Christianity is so much more than those things. Christianity, for Paul, is life in Christ. Paul understood that if he lived every single day in the presence of Christ, that then his life, in whatever circumstance he might find himself, his life would be overflowing with a deep, unshakable joy. And that is the kind of joy that Paul has in mind when he delivers to us this command, “Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I will say, rejoice.”
Christians, you see, can rejoice in any and every circumstance, can rejoice in Christ because in Christ, we have reason to rejoice.
We can rejoice, for example, in Christ’s coming into this world and into this life.
How does Isaac Watts put it? “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let Earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing.” There is joy in the coming of Jesus into this life.
I don’t know if you have ever encountered Samuel Beckett’s very cynical and, frankly, very dull play, Waiting for Godot. It’s the story of two miserable souls huddled under a tree, waiting day after day, year after year for some symbolic, God-like character who has promised to come to them but who never does. The name of the character is Godot, which literally means little god. And so these poor, hopeless, despairing, miserable souls wait and wait and wait for this little pipsqueak god to come along and rescue them. And he never comes. The two of them argue, and they cry. They sneer and they sigh. They never laugh because there is no reason in their hollow existence for laughter. They just wait for the coming of the little god. And he never comes.
If you’ve ever made your way through that play, you will be left with a feeling of numb despair. But suppose, yes, just suppose that the big God, not some little pipsqueak god, but the big God, the God who is the creator and the ruler of everything that is, the God who is the source of all life, yes, suppose this big God has come to us under our own tree, has thrown His lot in with ours, has bound Himself to us so that you and I need never, ever feel helpless and alone in life. Wouldn’t that be reason for rejoicing? Well, you see, the message of Christmas and the message of the carol is this, that this great God has come to us in Jesus Christ. Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
And so Paul could encourage his friends at Philippi to rejoice in the Lord always, regardless of their circumstances because he knew that God has visited this plundered planet in the form of Jesus Christ. He knew that God has destroyed the kingdom of darkness and evil and inaugurated the kingdom of light for all who believe in Him. And that’s why Paul, even in prison, even with one wrist chained to the wrist of a Roman guard, even in that circumstance, Paul could say, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” The Lord is come. Therefore, we, as Christians can rejoice in Christ’s coming into this life.
And then, we also can rejoice in Christ’s companionship for this life.
How do we sing it in the carol? “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He came to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.”
You know, people can affect our morale in life. Spend some time, for example with a gloomy person, and I promise you that very soon, you will catch that gloom yourself as if it were a kind of infectious disease. And the opposite of that is just as true. Spend time with people who are joy-filled people in life, and you will discover that their joy is actually communicated into your own life. Jesus is the perfect example.
I love the story about that self-righteous pastor who didn’t get along with his congregation because he was such a gloomy and negative person. And one Sunday in worship, he announced to the congregation that he was going to be moving on to another work. He said, “Sisters and brothers, I wish to announce to you that the Lord who first sent me to you is now going to send me away,” whereupon the congregation stood and joyfully sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
What a friend we have in Jesus. And in that friendship, Jesus gives us great joy in our experience. That’s always the way it was when Jesus walked the roads of this Earth. He was the most radiant personality in all of Palestine. He could lift the temperature of a crowd the moment He entered it. You can almost trace His journeys through Galilee and Judea by the trail of joy He left behind Him. Joy welled up in that great, loving heart of His like water in a well, and He longed to pour it into the dry, thirsty, empty, barren lives of men and women. That’s the way it was when Jesus walked the roads of this Earth. But remember, please, that Paul didn’t know that Jesus. Paul didn’t know the physical reality of Jesus. No. The Jesus Paul knew was the risen Christ, the spiritual reality of Jesus. And yet, it’s important for you to see that Paul drew from that spiritual reality of the risen Christ the same kind of joy.
And my beloved, if what was true for Paul is not true for us, then we need to ask ourselves if we are spending enough time in the companionship of the spirit of Jesus Christ. Have we walked with Him through all of the pages of the Gospels? Have we talked with Him in a time of daily prayer? Have we kept our appointment with Him in public worship? Have we given ourselves to some significant service in His name? If we haven’t done those things, then we’ll never experience the joy of Jesus in our lives. Oh, understand me, please. I’m not talking here about life’s pleasures. No. Pleasure, you see, has a limited capacity. And pleasure, in fact, decreases as you grow older. That’s right. I have a friend who said that all of his life, he hoped he would get to the point where he could afford to buy new golf balls, all the new golf balls he needed. The problem now, he says, is that he can afford to buy the new golf balls, but he can no longer hit a golf ball far enough to lose it. You see, pleasure in life has a diminishing reality.
Oh, but joy, that’s something else. Joy doesn’t diminish in life. Joy increases. When you, when you give yourself to some worthy cause that is bigger than you are, when you surrender yourself to a daily adventure of faith in Jesus Christ, when you offer your life in obedience to God, when you feel the excitement and the exuberance of the Spirit coursing through your life and out into the lives of others, oh, then you know what a joy-filled life really is, and that joy does not diminish with time. It increases with time.
Who was it who said, “I have had more fun than any human being who ever lived”? Was that said by some great adventurer or some noted entertainer or some successful businessman? No. You know who said that? You know who said, “I’ve had more fun than any human being who ever lived”? Dr. Frank Laubach, the missionary to the world’s illiterate. He so took delight in teaching people to read in the name of Jesus Christ that he just couldn’t contain himself.
Or I think of Dr. David Seel, one of the men I most admire in this world. For many years, the medical director of the Jesus Hospital in Cheongju, Korea. He is one of the world’s leading authorities on cancer surgery. If he had chosen to practice in the United States, he would have been commanding an income in six figures, perhaps even seven. Instead, he spent his life working from dawn to dusk in a little hospital out in the middle of nowhere in Central Korea on a Presbyterian mission stipend that provides him enough food and clothing and to keep a roof over his head. Why does he do it? He says, “Because I believe that my hands are the hands of Jesus.”
The thrill, the joy, the excitement, the exuberance that comes from spending every day in the companionship of Jesus Christ is a joy unparalleled in this life. As His Christians, we can rejoice in the Lord. We can rejoice, always, in His companionship for this life.
And as Christians, then, we too can rejoice in Christ’s conquering of this life.
How do we sing it? “He rules the world with truth and grace. And He makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and the wonders of His love.” My friends, the pages of the New Testament throb with the sound of victory. And the victory they celebrate is the victory of Jesus Christ over the powers of death and evil in this world.
There is a very moving picture in the museum at the concentration camp at Dachau. It is a picture of a mother and her little girl. They are on their way to the gas chambers. The little girl walking ahead does not know where she is going. The mother walking behind knows where they’re going, but knows there is nothing, absolutely nothing she can do to stop this terrible tragedy. And so this mother, this mother does the only act of love left to her. She takes her hands, and she puts them over the little girl’s eyes so that the little girl will not have to see the horror that faces her. People in the museum do not move quickly or easily from that picture to the next one. And as they stare, transfixed, you can feel the emotion, and you can almost hear them cry, “Dear God, don’t let that be all that there is. Somewhere, somehow, set things right.”
Do you understand that the message of Christmas in general and the message of this carol in particular is that, yes, God in Jesus Christ has set things right. That means that nothing in this life will ever be able to separate us from the loving power or the powerful love of God in Jesus. That means that, yes, we do still have to do battle with sin and sorrow and suffering and pain and evil and death. Yes. But now, now we fight on the winning side. Now, the victory is ours because “He rules the world with truth and grace.” And in that, we rejoice.
You know, I think the most frustrating thing about preaching is to try to find words to describe things which cannot be described in words. I feel like Alfred Lord Tennyson when he said, “I would that my tongue could express the thoughts that rise within me.” The joy that comes from knowing Jesus Christ in life is beyond my capacity to describe. It is beyond words. It has to be experienced. I’m not talking about something for striving and for earning in life. No. I’m talking about just opening up and letting Him in. For when He comes in, then life takes wings, and we begin to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
Let us pray. Almighty God, as we try to live each day in Christ, let us experience the joy that comes from Christ alone. Amen.