Bible Text: Psalm 98, Luke 1:26-38 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
Imagine being a young boy and travelling to the prison gate with your Mother to sing hymns to your Father who was imprisoned due to the fact that he would not conform to the state church in England. Imagine that father telling you that if you don’t like the hymns found in the hymnal to write your own and so you begin with just a few and end up writing hundreds. Imagine writing one such hymn and it becoming one of the greatest Christmas carols despite the fact that you do not actually celebrate Christmas. Isaac Watts did not need to imagine because it happened to him. Mr. Watts never intended for “Joy to the World” to become a carol. The extreme version of protestantism that the family practised prohibited them from acknowledging Christmas. The hymn is in fact based entirely on our psalm reading, psalm 98. You may have noticed the words of joyful noise and that heaven and earth are truly singing in one accord. Sing to God a joyful song, for God made a world of wonders! In the original hymn the first verse reads “Joy to the World the Lord will come” rather than the version we have “the Lord is come.” In the original hymn Watts is not referring to Christ’s birth but rather Christ’s second coming. In fact there is no direct reference to Christmas, the nativity or the Gospels in the song.
As I mentioned Watts was exposed to hymns at a young age when he and his mother would travel to the prison to sing hymns to lift his father’s spirit. He began writing hymns in
earnest at age 15. Over his 74 year life Watts wrote over 750 hymns none of them meant to be Christmas carols. He became a minister at 21 years of age and he even managed to write a book on logic. This book later became the standard textbook on the subject at Cambridge and Oxford for over a century despite the fact that Watts was banned from either school due to his rather strict religious leanings.
Joy to World was first published in Watts’ collection entitled Psalms of David in 1719. In 1839, American, Lowell Mason put the words to music. Mason later admitted that he stole the tune from Handel but as yet scholars have been unable to find any evidence of such a tune in Handel’s repertoire. It wasn’t until the 1940s that people began to sing this hymn at Christmas time and since then it has been moved from the general hymns section in many hymnals to the Christmas section.
For me this hymn be it a carol or not resounds with words fitting for the season. Joy, love, singing and all of creation exploding with rejoicing for the coming of Christ. The hymn echoes what we have reflected upon throughout this advent season. The carol Away in the Manger reminds us of the vulnerability and humility found in Christ’s first arrival and the hope it brings to the least and vulnerable of our world. Lo, How A Rose e’er blooming reflects the words of Isaiah and brings a sense of peace just as the simple word lo brings attention to a major miracle. The Huron Carol reflects Mary’s song of Joy. It speaks to the language, history and experience of God’s people. Joy to the World reminds us that the love that came at Christmas will come again- in fact it has the capacity to come each time we act as Christ to our neighbours or even act as Mary, bearing God to the world.
This is the only time of the year when we truly delve into the life and mystery of Mary. The church, throughout history, has had a difficult time knowing how to regard her. Protestants tend to ignore Mary’s role in the drama all together and yet like certain words and hymns she is as much a part of the season’s fact and mythology. Like a familiar carol, Mary’s presence is essential to the story. Luke’s Gospel is the only one to spend time with Mary. In Mark, her most memorable appearance is the account in which she and her other sons come to take Jesus home and essentially call him crazy. She doesn’t fare much better in Matthew, though she is present at the empty tomb. John never mentions her by name and Paul makes no reference to her at all. But in Luke, Mary is the most Christ-like person in this passage.
It is hard to say whether or not Mary was filled with joy the moment she saw Gabriel. I doubt that her initial reaction was anything like psalm 98. We know from last week that joy and love eventually came but, what went through her mind that very moment? This is one very unplanned pregnancy. She likely had her own plans, certainly Joseph thought that things would happen a little differently. How do you love a child that turns your world upside down and who you know will love the world so deeply that he will spare nothing to save it. Mary believed that Jesus would bring new life to all who believed in him, that no more sins and sorrows would grow, that he would come to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, that he would make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.
As I mentioned Mary’s story reflects in a lot of ways that of other women in the Old Testament. She likely knew their stories and obviously she found comfort and refuge in Elizabeth’s house. History has made Mary into a saint, a feminist and throughout the medieval period she was even considered a God. But looking at the Gospel reading, hearing this sacred conversation, we see another image, a more comprehensive symbol. Mary is the first disciple and it is in her discipleship that I find a joy and love akin to the words in psalm 98.
Mary’s responses to Gabriel are more fearless and less humble than often interpreted and it shows hints of the kind of fierce love that she will have for the child. It is entirely understandable that initially she would be perplexed upon seeing the angel. When she questions him it is not due to fear but rather an effort to understand the extraordinary words and experience coming at her. Luke does not call her a god, does not even acknowledge her as a mother let a lone a woman. He calls her favoured one. Luke claims Mary to be much more than anything labelled by her gender. She is the ideal follower of Christ, the ideal Christian. Her words to the angel are a direct parallel to what Jesus later prays at the Mount of Olives, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Love for God, love for Christ is ultimately expressed in these words. Not my will but yours be done. When she is confronted with an unprecedented proclamation she accepts her unique call with faith and trust, two essential ingredients for a disciple.
Mary clearly has faith because when Mary approaches Elizabeth, the elder calls out, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken.” Yes, Mary is blessed because she is about the be the physical mother of Jesus but Elizabeth acknowledges that the true reason is because she believed in God’s word. It is a blessing we can all share. We cannot be physical parents to Jesus but we can believe that God’s word has been and will be fulfilled.
Mary shows trust because Luke’s final verse in this passage is “for nothing is impossible with God.” Despite the strange vision, despite the awkward words, despite the impossible Mary calls herself a servant of God. She questions, she ponders, she accepts God’s will for her life because she trusts in God. Often trust can be harder to achieve than faith. Trust is built up over time. But Mary finds that through trust she is able to achieve exactly what God is calling her to do.
The reason why so much of Mary’s experience recalls stories of prophet’s births in the Old Testament is because Mary really is being called to a prophetic task; to bear and raise Jesus. She is bearing Christ, within her. The orthodox church calls it theotokos, or God-bearer. Although it can be a controversial topic and has split denominations I really believe in some way we are all God-bearers in that we are all tasked with being disciples and witnesses, bearers of God’s love. Mary is blessed not because her womb bore Jesus but because of her devotion, her faithfulness and trust to the word of God. Joy to the world may not be about Christ’s birth but in our own trust and faith we realize that it is not only about having faith and trust in the familiar story of Christmas but also about what impossible things God will do for us in the future and of the wonders of Christ’s love. Joy to the world indeed! Amen