December 1, 2019

Joy to the World?

 

Psalm 98; Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14

 

Today on the first Sunday of Advent, we begin a series focusing a bit upon the 300th anniversary of the hymn, Joy to the World, focusing specifically on the word, “Joy.” First, a bit about the history of this hymn, which I absolutely have to sing at least once or it just doesn’t quite feel like Christmas to me. The hymn’s text was written by one of the heavy hitters of hymnody, Isaac Watts, a prolific hymn writer from England who lived from 1674-1748. Watts also wrote the text of many other hymns we still sing -“My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “ Our God Our Help in Ages Past,” Jesus Shall Reign Where’re the Sun, ” just to name a few of the more than 750 hymns he wrote the lyrics to in his lifetime. If there are any Elton John fans out there, he was the Bernie Taupin of his day, a fantastic lyricist.

 

The tune is attributed to none other than G.F. Handel (1685-1759), according to a later collection of hymns from the 1800s. Handel, best known today for his masterful work, The Messiah, wrote 100’s of different music works including operas, oratorios, sacred cantatas, hymns, anthems, and orchestral works. Later composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart said of Handel, "He is the master of us all. Handel understands affect better than any of us -- when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” He definitely was an Elton John of his day.

 

The tune is indeed joyful and even has some echoes of the Messiah in it. The first 3 notes are also the first 3 notes in the chorus, “Glory to God” from the Messiah. This tune sticks in your head. Watt’s focus upon the text of the hymn is the joy that comes to us through Jesus Christ. Christ has come as a king, to claim our hearts, rule with truth and grace. The Savior reigns and the words echo in nature. Christ comes to make his blessings known- the forgiveness of sin far as the curse is found. All of these things about Jesus bring joy to the world.

 

What is the joy Watts speaks of? Is it, as the dictionary defines it as “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness, caused by something especially good or satisfying; keen delight, elation.” Or is it more? I tried looking for that kind of joy in three places over the last week or so, first when I attended the Paddington Stations 46th annual open house. The main reason I went was to listen to my daughter Abigail sing carols of the holiday season. Secondarily, I was there to see if I could find something for my wife for Christmas.

 

I arrived about 15 minutes early and stood in line with the others, who appeared to be there to shop. They had that veteran shopper look about them. Once we got into the store, the Youth Ensemble sang, and I stood downstairs listening to their joyous sounds, singing about Jesus, and Santa and Christmas in general. I found a smile creeping across my face for a bit, clapping for each piece they finished singing. However, after about 10 minutes, the store was PACKED with people. Soon it was hard to move anywhere without bumping into someone else. Moreover, those veteran shoppers I mentioned who were in line prior to the store opening? They began their shopping in earnest, which meant I was constantly in their way, which meant I was elbowed and pushed a few times, sometimes with an apology and sometimes not. Whatever bits of joy that had been creeping into my spirit left abruptly, and after about 15 minutes, I was ready to leave. Abby and I stuck it out for one hour, just to see if we might win a raffle prize, but the only joy I felt in that moment was in being able to get out the door and into the street once more.

 

My second attempt to find the joy Watts wrote about occurred this past Friday morning. I was listening to Handel’s Messiah as I was writing this sermon, looking at the snow upon the ground and upon Mt. Grizzly. I remember in particular listening to the chorus, “For Unto Us a Son is Given.” I began to feel some joy, but as I was listening, I was also dealing with a homeless person in our bathroom with some mental health struggles who had used our phone and was rearranging his belongings for over an hour. I was focused upon helping him and making certain he eventually moved on. So much for joy, although I think Handel’s music and the lyricist Charles Jennens pointed me in the right direction.

 

Finally, on Friday evening, my wife Paula and I had the pleasure of being elves in the Santa Parade downtown. We dressed up in elf costumes and took our place along the side of the sleigh. We were there for a couple of reasons - First, to portray elves (although both of us were a bit too tall to be elves), and second, to keep the crowds from trying to get onto Santa’s sleigh. Being happy elves was fun, and we did enjoy ourselves. Little children and some adults were clearly taken when they saw Santa and Mrs. Claus. In those moments, I was happy, albeit cold. As the parade went on, it did become clear, as Mrs. Claus forewarned us, that as the sleigh got closer into the town square, the crowds would close in, and people might really want to get into the sleigh, so we had to be vigilant elves. I did not have to use my big plastic candy cane, but I was ready, just in case. Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. C got out of the sleigh and up to the balcony to turn on the lights and lead us in singing Jingle Bells. Overall, it was a fun experience that both of us would love to do again. I do not think it gave me the kind of joy Watts wrote about, however.

 

Joy, even at this time of year, can be difficult to find. It is hard to see joy on the surface of things. What kind of joy was Watts speaking of, and where can we find it? Sometimes you have to dig a bit.

 

There’s a story published recently in the New Yorker magazine about an amazing world of complex life just below the surface of most forests in the world, an underground network where deals are made, lives are saved and lost in a complex web of friendships, rivalries, and business relations. It is a network that scientists are only beginning to untangle and map, and it is leading some researchers to rethink what it means to be intelligent.

 

Plant scientist Merlin Sheldrake is an expert in mycorrhizal fungi and had been studying the effects of these fungi in the ancient Epping forest just outside of London, England. This forest was first designated as a royal hunting ground by King Henry the II in the twelfth century and encompasses more than 6,000 acres of land. Sheldrake has learned through study underground that certain kinds of fungi exist in subtle symbiosis with plants, bringing about connection. These fungi send out gossamer-fine fungal tubes called hyphae, which infiltrate the soil and weave into the tips of plant roots. In this way, roots and plants are joined together by an underground hyphal network that Sheldrake calls the “Wood Wide Web.” This web is ancient, around 450 million years old and largely one of mutual benefit-In the case of the fungi, they siphon off food from the trees. The plants, in turn, obtain nutrients that the fungi have acquired from the soil, by means of enzymes the trees do not possess. There is more, however. Through this fungal network, plants can redistribute resources between one another. For example, a dying tree might divest itself of resources to benefit the rest of the connected community, or a young seedling in a heavily shaded area might be supported with extra resources by its surrounding neighbors. Even more remarkably, the network allows plants to send one another warnings. A plant under attack from aphids can indicate to a nearby plant that is should raise its defensive response before aphids reach it. This wood wide web exists in forests all over the world- an incredibly complex web of life that we cannot see, but now know is there.

 

The kind of joy Watts speaks of is kind of like that- not just a feeling of delight or happiness, but something deeper, something we may not be able to see at first, yet exists all over the world.

 

The biblical definition of this kind of joy, or Xara (Cara) in Greek means, “Calm Delight.” Where might we find calm delight during this often frenetically paced busy season? On the surface of things, the world looks bleak. We have to look below the surface of things, to dig a little to find it. But it is there and does exist.

 

Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu in the book, Discovering Joy, says, “Joy does not save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

 

We find that joy in the story of Christ’s birth. It is a story that reminds us God loves us, is for us, and wants to be in relationship with us. We are valued creations of our Creator. That is a story I have known in my heart since I was a small child, and it is what brings me Xara (Cara) or calm delight - not some fake smile or fleeting happiness. It is a joy that helps me to have hardship without becoming hard, heartbreak without being broken. It is a joy that allows me to hold onto future visions of what the world can become through Christ’s teachings- a world of Hope. The prophet Isaiah held such hope as he prophesied of a day of peace when all the people of the earth shall gather together and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Isaiah’s faith in God guided him and gave him lasting joy.

 

The passage from Romans reminds us that as we have “Put on Christ,” we remember our own baptisms, our initiation into a community called to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken world. Christ has claimed us in the waters of baptism, and we remember who we are and whose we are.

 

 

So let me encourage you to dig down a bit during this season of Advent - beyond the shopping, the decorating and Santa (no offense, Dennis and Sandra) underneath the surface of things. Dig deep and imagine what the world can become. Find that calm delight in the story of Christ’s birth, and you will find the joy Watts wrote about. It is a joy that sustains and lasts, that helps us be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, and helps us all have hardship without becoming hard, and heartbreak without being broken. Alleluia. Amen.

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