Through the millennia, our ancestors have struggled with uncertainty and experienced violence that made it seem like the world was coming to an end. How do we find joy ourselves and encourage others when we are inundated with so much negative news?
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
A young man named Isaac once complained to his father about church hymn singing. His father challenged him to write something better. The young man responded with his first hymn in the late 1600s, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb.” Throughout his life, Isaac Watts wrote more than 600 hymns, including “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and another one you have probably heard of, “Joy to the World.” Watts’ hymns were considered controversial for people trying to adhere to the preference of John Calvin to only sing Psalms. Some churches split over singing Watts’ “flights of fancy.” “Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it,” explained Watts, adding that he choose to include the sacrifice of Christ.
Watts’ early life circumstances were far from joyful. His parents were considered dissenters in England because they would not conform to the views of the Anglican Church. His mother, Sarah, had to nurse him on the steps of the prison in which his father was incarcerated. He was frail with health problems throughout his life, but continued to send forth joy and demanded it of congregations: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”
Watts insisted that people could gather together to bring joy, even when circumstances were incredibly challenging. “Joy to World” wasn’t written as a Christmas song. Please remember this when we sing it a little later in the service, even though it isn’t December 24th!
Are you sick and tired of the negativity in the world?
Perhaps we will be well served to heed to challenge from Isaac Watts Sr.:
Write something better!
We can allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our personal problems, political toxicity, millions of refugees, and the magnitude of the violence of all sorts in our country or world. Or, we can write something better, one person and one note a time.
Today’s first Scripture reading came from the prophet Zephaniah. As we did last week in studying Malachi, we’ll look at one of the “minor” prophets to gain exposure to parts of the Bible we don’t always see, and remember that God uses seemingly small voices to change the world. The reading from Zephaniah features a hymn written in a dark time in world history. Zephaniah consists of eight judgment oracles, with today’s reading the oracle of salvation. One of the primary reasons for judgment was social injustice, as is the case throughout the majority of the Bible. Dr. Jennifer Ayres of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University explains, “As a result of the social injustice, the oppressed are fearful and ashamed, while the powerful are haughty and corrupt and reject divine correction. Ayres adds that a key theme of Zephaniah is incarnation, with the prophet seeking to reassure the people that God is present with them.
Zephaniah is a reminder that God is with us!
Emmanuel, “God with us,” Jesus himself, knew that fear could be overwhelming. Even after witnessing numerous miracles and following Jesus during his ministry, his disciples were terrified after his crucifixion. According to the Gospel of John, Chapter 20, they were hunkered down in a locked house, fearful they would be persecuted for their association with Jesus.
He appeared when it seemed that darkness would prevail, saying “Peace be with you.”
But he didn’t leave it at that: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
As God sent Jesus, so the Creator sends us.
Throughout history, God keeps sending us as agents of peace and joy.
As a child, a highlight of the Christmas season was the opportunity to see television specials that only appeared once per year. We didn’t have on-demand video or Netflix, and we had to walk up hill in the snow to watch them—both ways—and we liked it! Ok, maybe not that last part, but it was a big deal to catch one of these shows. In addition to A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of my favorites was Frosty the Snowman, narrated by Jimmy Durante. Jimmy was a very famous comedian and performer from the 1920s through his death in 1980, with many people asking him to do favors to lift the spirits of others.
On one occasion, a group organizing a show for World War II veterans invited Jimmy to perform, telling him how much joy he could bring the veterans. He explained that he was already booked, but agreed to do one quick monologue before leaving for his other commitment. As promised, he took the stage and did his monologue. The veterans’ enthusiasm was uplifting, as the applause grew louder and louder. Jimmy stayed on for 5 more minutes, then 10, and finally 30 minutes past what he committed. He had missed his other radio gig, finally taking a bow and concluding. A panicked producer asked what happened.
“I did have to go, but I can show you the reason I stayed,” Jimmy explained. “You can see for yourself if you look down on the front row.” There were two veterans who had each lost an arm in the war, one his right and the other his left. When they worked together, they were able to make the joyful noise of clapping.
I invite you to consider your call to bring Christ’s joyful noise to the world . . .
 The Center for Church Music: songsandhymns.org/people/detail/isaac-watts
 “Isaac Watts,” Churchhistory.net, Aug. 8, 2008.
 Jennifer Ayres in Bartlett, David L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On the Word, Year c (4 Volume Set). 4 vols. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pg. 50-54.