Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve, 7 pm

Luke 2
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

You could argue he was the Most Interesting Man in the World.

Long before Dos Equis and satirical advertising, there was Isaac Watts: father of English hymnody, a gifted theologian, and a noted thinker in the area of logic. Taken in reverse, Watt’s book on logic became the standard textbook for a century, and was followed by another influential book, The Improvement of the Mind, bridging logic and morality. Michael Faraday, inventor of both the electric motor and the electric generator, cited Watts as a key influence.

In theology, he was both a non-conformist and a bridge-builder, trying the draw together orthodox believers and Deists, those who believed that God was some sort of cosmic clockmaker who set the world in motion and then stepped away.

But his lasting legacy is in the area of hymn-writing: Jesus Shall Reign, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross to name just three of his 750 hymns, and most famous of all, Joy to the World. His pioneering work was to move from scripture songs—hymns that simply rewrote Bible passages—to poems that described the Christian experience.

So listen again to the first verse of our first hymn, but notice the way he turns the nativity into a personal experience of the divine:

Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing...

In other words, you can hear the story—you can put on a wire halo, or a bathrobe and towel—but unless you prepare room in your heart for him, it’s just a good story. Further, unless earth receive this tender babe as King of Kings and Lord or Lords, the message is lost. The Lord is come in human form, the most vulnerable human form, and heaven and nature sing for the glory that will last for every age.

And it almost has an echo of the “real meaning of Christmas” question that finds its best expression in a rather famous cartoon. There is the story, found in Matthew and Luke, and then there is the meaning. We love the details, but we long for the experience—room in our hearts for generosity, for concern, and for God’s self-giving. Maybe this is why the pageant is such as an enduring tradition: it allows us to enter the story and move around, the first step toward opening our hearts.

The great irony of Joy to the World is that it wasn’t meant to be a Christmas song at all—it became one later on. Just as Handel’s Messiah was written for Easter and then become a staple of Christmas, Joy to the World was written for the Second Coming of Christ and was later adopted by Christmas. So let’s ponder the Second Coming of Christ as I remind you of some of the words:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,

With new ears to hear, we begin to imagine the Son of Man in his glory, before him gathered the nations of the earth (Matthew 25). We know that he comes to judge the earth with righteousness, and the peoples with equity (Psalm 98). And we know that he will say come inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world—through mercy, hospitality, compassion, and generosity. These are the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love, and will mark the dawn of a new age.

Taken together—the gift of Christmas and the wonder of a new age—we can sing our “joy to the world,” and know that birth and second coming are one and the same. And this points to the remarkable adaptability of this night. A hymn to the new age becomes a well-loved carol. Joy and wonder turn the last days into the first day of a new creation, when heaven and earth (or nature in Watt’s telling) will sing a new song unto God.

Where else do we see the remarkable adaptability of this night? Obviously, ordinary words that we carry through the year work harder tonight, when “fear not” becomes divine assurance and “good news of great joy” brings peace to all. Certainly time changes, as we enter tonight and tomorrow. It feels like no other holiday, passing quickly for some and slower for others, but always out-of-step with ordinary time. And then there is kindness, still surprizing, still assuring, something we long for all year long.

I want to conclude with our friend Isaac Watts, and a little childhood story that illustrates the person he would become. Seems he was poetic from an early age, a poetic handful you might say, who tended to think and speak what was inside him. On one occasion, while saying his prayers, he kept opening his eyes, something contrary to the prayer discipline he was being taught. Chided, he gave this excuse:

A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.

Hearing enough verse for one day, his father expressed his displeasure again, and was met with this:

O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.

I expect he meant it—until the next day, of course. For Watts, and indeed for the other poets that would take up the challenge of putting Christian experience to song, this was an unstoppable urge. It is the only season we enter and leave singing. From ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ to ‘Arise your light has come,’ the words animate the experience, and we are made new.

May the sounding joy of God’s love, come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, turn your prose into poetry and your words into wonder, this night and always, Amen.


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