"JOY TO THE WORLD"

LUKE 2:1-7

DECEMBER 23, 2012

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        We are calling this year's advent sermon series, "A Christmas Carol or Two."  In the series we have been taking popular Christmas songs, some sacred and some secular, and linking them to passages of Scripture.  Let's see if we can name the songs we have chosen this year.  Who can name one of the songs?  Thus far we have looked at "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Elvis' "Blue Christmas," that Christmas Eve staple "Silent Night, Holy Night," and last week "Mary, Did You Know?"  This Sunday before Christmas we look at Isaac Watt's "Joy to the World." 

            Written by the English hymn writer Isaac Watts "Joy to the World" was first published in 1719 in Watts' collection titled The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.   Watts wrote "Joy to the World" as a hymn glorifying Christ's triumphant return at the end of the age, with a focus on Jesus' second coming, rather than a song celebrating his first coming.  Today we only sing second half of Watts' lyrics, those focusing on Jesus' first coming, not his second coming.  I don't know how the song is doing in this century, but it was the most widely published Christian hymn in the 20th century. 

            In response to the birth described in the passage we read earlier, the angels proclaim to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah."

            Good news of great joy.  Good news of great joy.  One dictionary defines "joy" as "the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation." 

            And have you ever pondered what joy feels like, and smells like, and sounds like, and looks like?  Well, one woman pondered that question and here's what she wrote,

 

            Joy feels like ... the moment I place my head on my pillow after 3 days of 14-hour shifts. I also need to include "sleeping in" on a Saturday morning ... a late 8 o'clock in the morning!

            Joy smells like ... the coffee brewing.  I have always loved the smell of coffee and really enjoy the cup that my husband is kind enough to deliver to me before he leaves for work.  I'm not a coffee fanatic, but the two large cups I have each morning are monumental for starting my day.

            Joy sounds like ... my kids goofing around together, while laughing and teasing in a playful manner. I  especially enjoy these moments because two of my children are at the age where they behave much like oil and water ... together, yet separated on most occasions.  So when I hear the giggles and friendly tones coming from them ... aahh joy at its best!

            Joy looks like ... my two dogs tails wagging so vigorously they wag their whole bodies. This happens when I get home.  It doesn't matter if I've been gone for an hour or a day.  It is as if I'm the best thing that ever happened to them.

 

            Of course, few things bring us as much joy as the birth of a child.  And what a birth this was.  Jesus was born in a small town, not so small today, but small back then.  Bethlehem lies about six miles outside of Jerusalem.  It has a long history.  It was there that Jacob buried his beloved Rachel, and set up a pillar of memory beside her grave.  It was where the faithful daughter-in-law Ruth married Boaz and it was from Bethlehem that Ruth could see the land of Moab, her native land, across the Jordan valley.  But above all Bethlehem was the home of David, the "Abraham Lincoln" of Israel, the man after Gods own heart, the great king of Israel.  Joseph, of course, was a descendant of David, and the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in the city of David.

            Christ's birth is part of the romance of Christmas.  Christ wasnt born in Caesars household.  He wasnt even born in the holy city of Jerusalem.  He was born in the little backwater town of Bethlehem.  And he wasnt born in an elite family.  He was born to a blue collar couple, a couple who had to make a laborious journey near the very time of his birth.  And he was born in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. His crib was a rough trough from which cattle fed.  Millions of poor and weary people everywhere find hope for their lives from Jesus' modest beginnings.  It would not be the same if he had been born in a palace.

            Some of you may remember a scene in the action-filled movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Jones is in search of the Holy Grail, believed to be the cup that Jesus used during the Last Supper.  The Holy Grail was supposed give eternal life to whomever drank from it.

            There is a villain, of course, as there is in any Indiana Jones' adventure.  This time its a greedy antiquities dealer.  Indiana Jones, after many harrowing adventures, arrives at the room where the cup is kept, followed closely by the villainous dealer.  A knight miraculously kept alive by the power of the Grail from the time of the crusades, has hidden the Grail among many false cups.  There were large cups, small cups, fancy cups and plain cups, every kind of cup imaginable was present.  The knight warns them that drinking from the true Grail will bring them everlasting life, but drinking from a false Grail will bring them death.  The antiquities dealer assumes that since Jesus was a king, the cup he would use would be the opulent golden cup encrusted with jewels.  So he rushes forward and drinks from the cup.  As soon as he drinks from it, he knows he has chosen incorrectly.  And his end is not pleasant.  Indiana Jones is much wiser.  He recognizes that a plain cup with no decoration is much more representative of the humble carpenter from Nazareth.  And, of course, he is right.

            Born in a stable in Bethlehem to a blue collar couple who could not find lodging in an inn.  Gods own son lying in a rough manger.  The joyous story inspires the imagination and tugs at the heart.

            H. V. Morton once visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  By the way, H.V. Morton was a journalist and pioneering travel writer from Lancashire, England.  He was best known for his prolific and popular books on Britain and the Holy Land.  He first achieved fame in 1923 when, while working for the Daily Express, he scooped the official Times correspondent during the coverage of the opening of the Tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt. 

            Anyway, Morton once visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and as he approached the church he came to a great wall, and in the wall there was a door so low that he had to stoop to enter it.  That stuck with him ... a door so low you had to stoop or bow to enter it. 

            By the way, it's still there.  We took a picture of our son standing next to it, standing a foot taller than the door.  Through the door, on the other side of the wall, is the church.  Beneath the high altar of the church is a little cavern about fifteen yards long and six yards wide lit by silver lamps.  When we were there last month our group sang "Silent, Night."  I don't remember if we sang "Joy to the World" in that little cavern, but we may have, and in the floor there is a star, and round it a Latin inscription, Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  Most everyone in our group, including Trudy and me, bent down next to that star and had their picture taken.

            The biblical commentator William Barclay writes about the little cavern under the great altar at the Church of the Nativity.   He writes,

 

            When the Lord of Glory came to this earth, he was born in a cave where men sheltered their beasts.  The cave in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem may be that same cave, or it may not be.  That we will never know for certain.  But there is something beautiful in the symbolism that the church where the cave is has a door so low that all must stoop to enter.  It is supremely fitting that every person should approach the infant Jesus upon his knees.

 

            There's nothing quite like the joy that surrounds the birth of a child.  And what about this child?  There is an even greater joy because we know who this child was and what he would become. 

            One of the annual Christmas television specials that brightens up the season is A Charlie Brown Christmas.  It first aired on December 9, 1965, pre-empting The Munsters.  Gilligan's Island ran after A Charlie Brown Christmas that year.  It's run every year since then, first on CBS and then on ABC.  In this special Charlie Brown directs a Christmas play and searches for the perfect tree, and Linus expounds on the true meaning of Christmas.  When the special was first shown, the folks at CBS were concerned that the use of actual Bible quotes from the King James Version of the Bible would turn off viewers.  Imagine Christianity intruding into a Christmas special!  But the Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was insistent.  He said, "Who will tell the true story of Christmas if we don't?"  So Linus recites from the book of Luke during the show, reading the same story we read earlier this morning.  There was something, however, I hope you noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas special.  It's already been on this year, so maybe you will notice it next year.  Linus, who is famously attached to his security blanket, lets go of it when he tells the story of Jesus birth.

            And why shouldnt he?  Jesus is our security.  Jesus is our peace, our hope, our joy.  God has come into our world in the babe of Bethlehem.  Why shouldnt we sing for joy this week?  Something very special happened two thousand years ago.  A child born to a human couple made it possible for us to know the love of God.  It doesnt get any better than that.  Joy to the World.  The Lord has come.