December 15, 2019

“FAR AS THE CURSE IS FOUND”

Psalm 103:8-12; Matthew 1:18-21

Sing-“No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found far as, far as the curse is found.” This is the 3rd verse of the hymn, Joy to the World, our worship focus for the first 3 Sundays of the Advent season. It almost seems a bit out of place. The first and second verses have more joyous content, at least at first glance-"Joy to the world. The Lord is come!”…”Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns!”  Then comes this third verse, talking about sin, sorrow, and thorns infesting the ground. It just doesn’t seem to fit with Advent, Jesus being born and joy. In fact, some hymnals have omitted the third verse all together, as singing “far as the curse is found” repeatedly just doesn’t seem very festive or appropriate for this Advent and Christmas season. So perhaps people are justified in taking out this verse? This issue goes beyond hymnody, however.

Many of you are aware we are studying the scriptures and music from Handel’s Messiah this Advent. Theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, in speaking about the Messiah says, “Modern audiences find the portions of Messiah regarding the suffering and death of Jesus disturbing to their thoughts about the birth of the baby Jesus. Modern conductors may feel justified…by excising those portions, thus transforming the oratorio into a Christmas cantata, and ‘Hallelujah’ into a Christmas carol, when it is in fact a celebration of the victory of life over death and sin, and the resurrection of Christ.”

We have an uncomfortableness with the death and atonement of Christ, especially at this time of year. Yet, because of the birth of Christ, we have freedom from sin. Therefore, despite our uncomfortableness, perhaps this hymn verse and this topic are appropriate for the Advent season after all. What did Watts have in mind in inserting this verse about sin and suffering?

The text of the entire hymn is based upon Psalm 98, except for this verse, which comes after Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge in Genesis 3:17-18. Here God addresses Adam, saying, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…” I believe Watts wanted those who sang this hymn to understand that the story of Christ’s birth and the joy it brings is about more than just joy at the manger. The birth of Christ is also about sin, forgiveness, and mercy.

We Human beings are sinful. God made life for us full of freedoms and choices. We can choose good or evil, light or shadow, and due to that freedom, we human beings at times choose to turn away from God and towards sin. Paul speaks about this struggle with sin in Romans chapter 7. Paul writes, “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh. I can will what is right, but cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in the members of my body another law at war with my mind…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”(Romans 7:14-25) Paul tries to apply the law, the 10 commandments to his daily life, but struggles and fails. We, just like Paul wrestle with sin, and do and say things we do not want to do and say, and it is through the sacrifice of Christ that we receiving grace and mercy, freedom from sin.

Sin has consequences. First, sin harms our relationship with God. In Proverbs 6:16-19, it says, “There are six things God hates, seven that are an abomination to God: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” All of these actions are sins, which tells us God hates sin. So, when we sin, our closeness to God, our relationship with God is weakened.

Also, our relationships with humanity are harmed as well. When we sin against someone, we damage relationships with others and break the world into fragments, keeping it from the way God intended.

One of my favorite statements of faith from the Presbyterian Book of Confessions is the Brief Statement of 1983, which says, “In sovereign love God created the world good, and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community. But we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator. Ignoring God’s commandments we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care…” Sin harms and destroys so much. Yet there is good news.

First, we look at our first passage of scripture, Psalm 103:8-12- God’s nature with sin is full of grace. God is slow to anger, merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love. God does not deal with us according to our sins but will remove us from our sins as afar as the east is from the west. After trying various covenants including the 10 commandments, and God writing God’s law upon the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31:33), and the people still struggling with forgiveness, a new covenant was needed. The old covenant under Moses was filled with grace and mercy, and through animal sacrifice at the temple, people could be absolved from their sins. However, you held onto those sins until you could go to the temple.  In addition, one could only be fully forgiven for their sins once a year on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. A temple priest would take a goat, known as the “scapegoat” (yes, that is where the term originates) and ask God to place all of the sins of the people over the past year upon the goat, who would then get a slap on its rear and run out into the wilderness, and the people’s sins would be separated from them. (Leviticus 16). Something new was needed.

This brings us to our New Testament passage for today, Matthew 1:18-21.  Verse 21, in particular, is important to focus upon. “She will bear a son, and you are to call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is more than the incarnation of God, more than a master teacher of what God desires for humanity and the world. Jesus is our Savior from sin, the new covenant. He declares this to his disciples in Luke 22 at the Last Supper, “…saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”(Luke 22:19)

 It is through Christ’s suffering and death, through the cup poured out for us that we are as it says in Matthew, “saved from our sins.” For me, this is an appropriate message on this third Sunday in Advent, when we light the love candle, for it was through Christ’s great love for us that he died upon the cross. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NLT)this perfect love has as the bulletin says filled our hearts, ignited our souls and changed our lives.

Through that sacrifice, we receive grace upon grace upon grace, always being forgiven and renewed for our sins when we seek it. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, in speaking of this gift of grace writes, “Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word ... it's that God makes beautiful things out of even my own mess. Grace isn't about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - like saying, "Oh, it's OK, I'll be the good guy and forgive you." It's God saying, "I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” (From the book, Pasterix)

Watts was correct in having that third verse in Joy to the World, for that knowledge of grace upon grace upon grace can bring us joy, a sense of calm delight. Therefore, we give thanks for God’s mercy and grace; that God looks upon us with favor and does not let sin define us and be the final word.

Anne Weems masterfully brings the idea of Christ’s sacrifice into the manger in her poem, “The Cross at the Manger.”

She writes,

“If there is no cross at the manger, there is no Christmas.

If the Babe doesn’t become the Adult,

There is no Bethlehem star.

If there is no commitment in us,

There are no Wise Men searching.

If we offer no cup of cold water,

There is no gold, frankincense, no myrrh.

 

If there is no praising God’s name,

There are no angels singing.

If there is no spirit of alleluia,

There are no shepherds watching.

If there is no standing up, no speaking out, no risk,

There is no Herod, no flight into Egypt.

If there is no room in our inn,

Then “Merry Christmas” mocks the Christ child,

and the Holy Family is just a holiday card, and God will loathe our feats and festivals.

For if there is no reconciliation, we cannot call Christ, “Prince of peace.”

If there is no goodwill towards others, it can be all be packed away in boxes for another year.

If there is no forgiveness in us, there is no cause for celebration.

If we cannot go now even unto Golgotha,

There is no Christmas in us.

If Christmas is not now,

If Christ is not born into the everyday present,

hen what is all the noise about?”

Let us in this Advent season remember the fullness of the story of Messiah, not just focusing upon his birth, but also remembering the cross, his sacrifice and the new life that comes to us and brings us joy. “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found far as, far as the curse is found.” Alleluia! Amen.

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