Sunday, December 23, 2018

Joy to the World


This year, my distaste for many Christmas carols has been especially pronounced.

Grinch that I am, I have never been a great lover of holiday music. Sure, the melodies bring fond memories of childhood. However, the lyrics leave much to be desired. That is certainly true of the secular holiday jingle, just as commercialized and fake-snow-dusted as the rest of the season. It is also true of much Christian holiday fare. While there are exceptions, few of the familiar Christmas hymns have much depth to them, and some contain downright falsehoods (baby Jesus definitely cried, the magi were neither three nor kings, etc.) They also tend to lean toward the saccharine rather than the substantial.

That general grumpiness has been sharpened this year as I've walked through the season weighed down with my wife's progressive struggle with cancer. We exchange haunted glances in even the sweetest moments, uncertain of whether we will get to do this again. I lie awake and stare at mortality and feel, down in my guts, how absolutely helpless I am before it. As a consequence, my threshold for sentimental tripe is especially thin.

While that is generally true, there is one song that has the capacity to break through my foul disposition and draw a grin. It has this power, not due to familiarity or melodic grandeur but because it actually speaks hope to people like me. It is, I have long held, the best familiar Christmas carol, perhaps one of the greatest hymns ever written. If the title hasn't given it away, it is Joy to the World by Isaac Watts.

Let me explain why.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n, and nature sing.


First off, right up front, we get the correct proclamation. Too many hymns focus only on the baby; Watts understands Scripture's emphasis that what matters is that this is the birth of a king. "The Lord," God Himself in His glorious power, "is come." He has come in the form of Jesus the Christ. "Christos" isn't a Greek last name but rather a title, "Anointed One." Jesus is the Messiah, the divine-human king come to fulfill all the wildest hopes of Israel for the line of David, to rule the nations and usher in peace and life. While this kingship has a personal dimension ("Let every heart prepare Him room"), it also has a cosmic one. All of creation is joining to sing in joy at His birth.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

Here we continue the theme of kingship, but now the king has been coronated and is reigning. Jesus was laid in a manger at His birth, but today He sits on a heavenly throne ruling over the universe. As a result, humanity is drawn to offer Him praise. More than that, as we are compelled to worship, so also all of nature echoes with the sound of it, joining us in our chorus.
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 money verse. Creation, up until that first Christmas, was all an outworking of one story. Humanity rebelled against God, and as a consequence sin and sorrow spiral outward in a cycle of destruction and death. We are cursed, and the world along with us, because of that sin. The thorns of Watts' lyrics call back to God's curse upon the ground, in which fruitful labor now becomes painful and resisted by the earth.

Yet the kingship of Jesus is at hand, and so the curse is beginning to come undone. The blessings of His reign are flowing outward. Sin and sorrow do not dominate anymore. The thorns and thistles do not have the last laugh. Instead, Christ's rule is spreading redemption out until every last drop of sin's consequences is undone. If the curse is found anywhere, to that place His blessings will come.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

That is the story begun at Christmas, and that story is continuing. Jesus Christ is ruling the world with truth and grace. People from every tribe and tongue and nation are being drawn to His banner, claiming His name and following Him. That is true right now - we celebrate this Christmas alongside 400 million African brothers and sisters, 70 million in the persecuted Chinese church, 30 million Indians and another billion-and-change believers of every language and culture and ethnicity imaginable. While the nations might seek to oppose this spread of the kingdom, even in their resistance they cannot help but prove the power and glory of Christ's righteousness and love.

Christmas is not a warm reflection on a postcard nativity scene. It is the celebration that an atom bomb of hope was detonated in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. The curse is shriveling up before the onslaught of His blessings. The Lord has come into His creation, and He is at work saving that creation from all the ravages of sin. 

We must rejoice, this hymn reminds us, not because Christmas is some "magical time of the year" that makes us forget our struggles but because our sorrow is a beaten enemy. Sin wounds and weighs us down, but it is also in retreat. Christ came and dealt the serpent its death blow, and while it still thrashes about in rage, its doom is sure. When He returns, all that is evil will be cast out of this world and life will pour out in its stead.

Jesus is reigning, and His kingdom is growing, and while in this age there is still much broken about our world and about our own hearts, the One on the throne will ultimately prove His righteousness and love are greater than the brokenness. Nothing, not the schemes of nations, not the power of the grave, not my wife's cancer or my grief, is greater than that reality.

The Lord has come. The curse is broken. What is wrong is being undone.

Merry Christmas.

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