“Joy to the World,” a beloved Christmas classic, turns 300 this year. Composer Isaac Watt’s interpretation of Psalm 98 invites us to sing a “new song”–and it is a powerful cosmic performance of all creation being renewed and freed.
This Advent season, rather than “joy” being yet another word for “happiness,” let us discover together that the depths of joy can be found especially in the midst of suffering, the work of justice, and the presence of compassion – all part of the coming of Jesus to this world and a message the world still so desperately needs.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn makea joyful noise before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap
their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for God is coming to judge the earth. God will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Today, we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent: the season of the church calendar when we prepare our hearts for the birth of a child, and not just any child, but the Christ child, the one for whom we have all been awaiting. Advent reminds us that no matter how many times we’ve celebrated Christmas, each year requires special preparation; each year holds new possibility; each year is pregnant with hope, love, joy, and peace, just waiting to be born in our lives and into the world yet again. But today’s scripture lesson is not even about the birth of Jesus himself. It’s about the birth of the one who will prepare the way for Jesus. He will grow to become John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, born to Elizabeth and Zechariah. And scripture tells us that even his birth – not Jesus, but the one who will make a way for Jesus – is foretold to bring great joy. John’s ability to help others get ready for and understand Jesus will be cause for great rejoicing. And in this season of Advent, as we prepare the way for Christmas, we are all John the Baptist, preparing a way for the Christ child in our lives and in this world. And we all have the capacity this year, to not just experience joy but to bring joy and to cause rejoicing in others.
This year at Calvary, our Advent theme is “Repeat the Sounding Joy” from the beloved Christmas classic “Joy to the World.” This year marks the 300th anniversary of its composition by Sir Isaac Watts. Believe it or not, when he first wrote it, he didn’t intend it to be used primarily for Christmas. It was one of many hymns that Watts wrote based on Psalm 98. And Watts wrote these new songs because, unlike any of us here at Calvary, he was a little bored with church music. He found the songs on Sunday morning unrelatable and uninspiring; he thought they were too somber and melancholy. So he decided to sing to the Lord a new song using the 98th Psalm, parts of which Chloe read for us this morning. And joy was at the center of this particular hymn.
Watts is said to have written nearly 750 hymns, including “Our God Our Help in Ages Past” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The version of “Joy to the Word” we find in our hymnal today was put to music attributed to Handel and arranged by Lowell Mason. And it has become a Christmas staple. But in it, there’s no story of the nativity; no mention of Bethlehem or Mary or Joseph or even the baby Jesus. It speaks more to the return and the reign of Christ than the birth of Christ, and in this way, it is a song fit for Advent that prepares us for the birth of Jesus while holding in tension that Christ has already come but not all is yet complete.
In this time of waiting and anticipation, in this season of Advent, we choose JOY. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk says, “Joy is that kind of happiness that does not depend on what happens.” You see, “joy” is not just another word for “happiness.” Happiness is often circumstantial; dependent on what we have, what we get, and what we do. But joy is deeper than any of that. Joy is a way of life. Henri Nouwen says, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
These next few weeks, as we journey together to Bethlehem, we hope to discover together each week, that the depths of joy can be found especially in the midst of suffering, the work of justice, and the presence of compassion which are all part of Jesus coming to this world with a message that we still so desperately need. And so on this first Sunday of Advent, when we light the candle of hope, we choose to hold on to HOPEFUL JOY, knowing that there is so much pain and grief and loss in this world, and yet believing that hopeful joy is a form of resistance to the powers and principalities that would take all hope and all joy from us.
Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar reminds the church that, “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in society that lives in despair.” This week, we light the candle of hope, knowing that as God’s people, we are charged with the task of expressing hope in a society that lives despair. On this particular Sunday: December 1st, we also remember that it is World AIDS Day: a day that the international community has dedicated to raising awareness about AIDS caused by the spread of HIV infection.
On World AIDS Day, we raise awareness, yes, but we also mourn those who have died of AIDS and walk in solidarity with those living with HIV. There was a time when being diagnosed with HIV was a death sentence. Many here at Calvary walked with those who received that diagnoses and then did die of AIDS. We remember the names and the faces of those who sat in these very pews; you walked with them into the valley of the shadow of death and accompanied them through death to new life. Since then, medical advancements have made it possible to have HIV and to lead a relatively healthy and incredibly hope-filled life. It is no longer a death sentence.
As a community of faith, we are to help keep that hope alive. We have the responsibility of walking with and standing with those with HIV who seek affordable access to medication and health care, those with AIDS who seek healing and a cure, and with all who seek to raise awareness and understanding about HIV and AIDS. A shocking new survey reports that 28% of young adults today admit that they would not hug, talk to, or even befriend someone with HIV. That is more than a quarter of young people who would allow un-founded fears to rule their relationships with others.
So it is no wonder that 90% of those who are HIV positive are afraid of losing friends and family and worried about experiencing emotional, mental, and physical abuse. We have come a long way, but there is still so much education and understanding to be done. Advent is when we acknowledge that while Christ has already come to make all things new, all is not yet made complete until Christ comes again. To live in this tension, in this waiting, in this dare we even say hope, is to live in Advent.
World AIDS Day is a unique and tangible embodiment of this reality. And this year, in spite of all that is happening in our lives and in the world, in spite of alarming reports of growing fear and intolerance, we unabashedly choose to “Repeat the sounding joy” of the Word of God made Flesh that came and dwelt among us. A momentous conversation between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the 14th Dalai Lama is captured in a book called, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. And it captures a dialogue that the two share as they explore together this concept of “joy”. They converged on eight pillars of joy saying: “Four were qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance. And four were qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.”
That first one, perspective, is key to finding hope. They say, “Opening ourselves to a different perspective can bring a sense of hope in the midst of despair— allowing joy to creep in no matter what. Opening to the perspectives of others can shift our fear to compassion, turning swords into plows. Salvation is near, says scripture, when we wake up, when we prepare room in our lives for new Light, new insight, new hope to enter.” Hope. In spite of all the evidence we see before us that should cause despair, we can find hope. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, who represents this district in the U.S. House of Representatives often says that people ask her everywhere she goes where she finds hope. “Where do you find hope?” they ask her. In this political climate, in this state of the world, where do you find hope? And her reply remains the same. She says, “hope is where it’s always been, between faith and love.” She, of course, refers to the well-known scripture from I Corinthians 13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.”
Between faith and love, we find hope, glimpses of hope; hope that refuses to give up; hope that presses on and perseveres; hope that abides and strengthens and gives us the courage to change fear into love.
So where have you experienced hope this week?
Where have you seen hope this month?
What has given you hope this year?
Each Sunday of Advent, we invite you to worship with us and to join us in Calvin Hall for fellowship and Coffee Hour. There you can get cookies and tea and coffee. But this year, you are invited to also participate in an Interactive Advent Candle display on the wall of Calvin Hall. We want you to share with one another and with us where you have seen signs of HOPE, LOVE, JOY, and PEACE.
The “candle” for the week will be lit, this week is hope, and we invite you to add your voice and share your stories using the sticky notes to fill out and help create a candle beneath the hope shelf. There are directions in your bulletin and in Calvin Hall to help you with the process. It will be more clear once you see it. So when the last note of the postlude is played, please move from this space of worship, to that space of fellowship and continue the conversation about hope.
The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop write, “Hope is the antidote to despair. Yet hope requires faith, … Hope is also nurtured by relationship, by community, whether that community is a literal one or one fashioned from the long memory of human striving… Despair turns us inward. Hope sends us into the arms of others.” And so, perhaps, that is why, we as followers of Jesus, come together, as The Book of Order says, “regularly and frequently enough” around the Table: To experience the arms of others in deep community. To find hope. To find joy.
Invitation to the Table:
So come to this Table whether you are hope-filled or hope-less this morning.
Come whether you know joy deeply, or long for just a taste of joy.
In this season of Advent, hope, love, joy, and peace await to be born in us again.
And our faith and the faith of all who have come before cries out, resilient, like a baby from a manger bed.
From that Bethlehem beginning, Jesus, baptized in the Jordan, spent his life serving others that all might know the compassionate attention of a loving God. Today, Jesus serves us yet again, as we gather at this Table prepared for us. This is not my Table or Calvary’s Table or the Presbyterian Church’s Table, but the Table of our Lord Jesus Christ. All are welcome at this Table. All can find healing and hope at this Table. So come, not because it is I who invites you, but Jesus the Christ whose birth we await in this Advent.