Joy To The World is probably the most famous Christmas carol, after Silent Night. Everyone knows the first line, and most Christians seem to know the rest of the first verse. Naughty little children (I never was one) have been known to change the words now and then. As humorous as those lyrics can be, I want to talk about the real ones.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare him room
And Heaven and nature sing
The words speak for themselves. They are straightforward and clear.
Isaac Watts was trying to do a musical paraphrase of the 98th Psalm which begins with the line, “Oh Sing to the Lord a new song! For He has done marvelous things.” The Psalm continues to say that we should shout, compose songs, and play musical instruments to express our joy. We should do this the psalmist says because the Lord is coming to judge the earth and to heal it of all of its sicknesses. The Psalm tells us that if we will sing, shout and play our instruments in worship God that nature itself will be healed.
Isaac Watts wanted to express those thoughts in this song. He was not trying to write a Christmas Carol, necessarily. His intent was really more to teach us about the Lord’s Second Coming. But whether we are talking about the Lord’s first coming or His Second Coming, the message is the same: when God shows up, things are going to change.
We know that already, of course. We all want God to come into our lives. But our frustration is that God works in ways that we simply cannot see and sometimes we honestly wonder if he is doing anything in our lives. So how can we be sure that God is at work in our lives? How can we know that the Lord has come to us?
This carol seems to say that the chief sign that God has shown up is the presence of joy in our lives. Joy is our inner radar going off, a resonating of deep inner chords of our soul, telling us that our lives are moving toward God and toward the purposes for which He made us. This means that when we do not have joy, something in our lives is askew. It means that our lives are not moving on, moving toward God’s purpose for us. We may be good people, we may be trying to do our best, but if we do not have joy, either we have taken the wrong turn or there is some new important turn we should take. Well, maybe you have never heard it put like that but it rings true. It’s still frustrating! How do we learn how to move toward joy, and thus toward God and toward His purpose for us?
Obviously, joy does not result from the things we hear people admiring. Time and time again I have watched people whose lives were apparently miserable, perhaps living in poverty or illness of some sort, who nonetheless were full of joy. The presence or absence of joy seems to have little to do with security, fame or fortune. Those things are wonderful and I have known famous and wealthy people who were full of joy. Certainly poverty and loneliness don’t bring joy either. But joy seems to flow from one state of being and that state alone: the state in which our soul feels connected to God and to the purpose for which He created us.
If God created you to be an artist and your Father convinced you that artists can’t make a living, even if you became a very successful banker, all the complements and awards people send your way will not bring you joy. Your soul knows that it has plugged into the wrong place in life.
A friend of mine who is an intelligent, godly, hard working person experienced this a few years ago. He has repeatedly been called upon to lead others. He is responsible and healthy. But last year he decided to attend a painting class. He was embarrassed that as he began to pull the brush across the canvas that the tears were flowing down his face. Great emotion was stirring inside his being. “What was that?” He asked. “Were you sad?” I asked. “Goodness no”, he replied. “I felt incredibly happy!”
As he told me that I recalled that a few years ago my wife bought me dancing lessons for my birthday. You need to know that my church taught that dancing was evil. My wife and I have never danced. As the dance instructor showed us the steps and coached us on how to do what many of you have taken for granted, my emotions nearly overwhelmed me. I got in the car and wept like a baby. I was embarrassed and confused about that emotion. But if you were to force me to name the emotion I was feeling, I would say it was joy. Joy for being able to hold my wife and move to music, joy to know that I was free from damaging rules that inflicted needless pain and which kept me from one of the most enjoyable doors to intimacy with the person I want to love and know the most. Also I love music. My body wants to move to music. I have been suppressing that need all of my life because in the places I have lived and worked, moving ones' body to music is a sure sign of instability and flakiness. On the floor with the dance instructor and my wife, clumsily endangering all feet within reach, something in me was breaking out, reaching to become what I really am, an expressive, musical, emotional person. Being who I really am brings joy. Because by being who I really am I glorify God. By being who I am, I say with my actions – you made me well, my God. I am happy that you made me as I am.
Does God care if I dance? Yes. It is not the world’s greatest tragedy if I do not dance. I doubt that now I will ever really learn how to dance well. There are many things much more important in my life than dancing. I can live without it. But my point is that dancing was a part of what I was made to do that I have not done, and so it has gone unexpressed. The day I danced with my wife gave part of me a chance to live, and that became a moment of unexpected joy! The joy was a sign that I was moving towards being who God made me to be.
The reality of life is that we will not get to be all that we were created to be. That is what Heaven is for. But we must not needlessly restrict ourselves from being what we were created to be. Not only for happiness' sake, but because God made each of us to be something that brings life to the world. If we miss being what God created us to be, the life He wants to flow through us will be restricted. The sign that this life is beginning to flow is joy!
When God shows up there is joy. When God is near, when we have turned toward God in some way, our soul feels His presence. Our soul knows that He can heal us. It understands that He is our source of life. When our soul realizes that He is closer in some way, it leaps. It knows what our conscious mind has often forgotten to remember, that God has the power and wisdom to deliver us. He can deliver us from ourselves and from all the false moves we have made in life away from Him and away from our true selves. He is our Shepherd. He restoreth our soul.
So let every heart prepare Him room! For if we let Him in, He will begin the work of making us into what we most long to be. Heaven and nature will then sing a duet. Heaven and human nature are harmonized when the Lord comes.
The third verse of Joy to the World is probably the heart of the song, though it is the one most often omitted. Isaac Watts made the most powerful statement of the song in that verse.
No more let sin and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
The curse to which Watts refers is the curse of sin. Christians believe that this curse has invaded every part of human, animal and natural life. Once you know that, what we call the doctrine of original sin, you will understand why Jesus came, and why he is coming again. It tells us why we say what we do during the celebration of communion: “Here then is the mystery of our faith, that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.” Why has Christ died, risen and coming again? Watts tells us. “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
Well, where is the curse found?
The curse is in our bodies: we get sick and die.
It is in our minds: we get ill in our emotions and thoughts.
It is in our families and marriages: we get out of sorts with those we love, our ability to experience intimacy gets restricted and sometimes even destroyed.
The curse is in our eating. It’s in our sexuality. It’s in our art and science. The curse is nothing less than the erosion that eats at all the good things of life and breaks them down so that they become dysfunctional.
The result of this curse is sadness and sin. But the carol writer tells us that when the Lord comes, He brings healing: “No more let sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” You already know what that means! The rose is beautiful. It smells so nice. Its velvet petals invite us to tenderly touch its softness. So we get closer and then, “OUCH!” a thorn draws the blood. In this fallen world, beauty comes with a price. But the Lord is coming and He comes to change things. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.
I don’t know about you, but I have some thorns in my life, thorns that sometimes break the skin and draw the blood. There are things in my life that sting and bite. But then I stop the whining. I remember that I am a Christian. I recall that the Lord has come into my life and will soon come physically into the world. He intends to “make His blessings flow far as the curse is found”.
Isaac Watts urges us to keep confessing that our Lord is sovereign. He is king over all. As He works to remake our world, we should not weep and pine. We should sing.
Joy to the world the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods
Rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding Joy.
Nature itself joins in when our lives really worship God. You begin changing your surroundings the day you begin to allow God to change you and God begins to change you the moment you begin to worship Him.
I left the last verse to last because I sometimes struggle with what it proclaims.
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And Wonders of His love
Truthfully, if God rules this world, he sure rules it differently than I would rule it. He allows his enemies, those who rebel against Him to have their say and to inflict pain on others. Is this any way to rule a world?
I have discovered that when I try to govern things under my authority that way, it just seems to undermine all that I want to do. Why does God allow the injustices and miseries of the world? The answer is that God has not yet abolished evil from the world. He rules fully only in our hearts. As we really become His people by living how He taught us to live, the blessings which come on our lives as a result, transforms us. Then that transformation in us is supposed to spread through the world. That is the part that sometimes staggers me. I wonder sometimes if it could be true.
Does God reign? Despite everything, something deep inside my soul says that He does, and there are times that He makes it extremely clear that He does reign.
A few years ago, my sister and brother-in-law were driving from Juarez, just the other side of El Paso, Texas on their way to Amarillo. They had been to Juarez to visit a sick person in the hospital. On the way back they got into a terrible snowstorm. The snow got so bad that Josias couldn’t see. It was in the early morning hours and the car just wouldn’t stay on the road. They were frightened and didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, they say the lights of a vehicle in front of them. The vehicle was moving slow and they discovered that they could follow its lights and stay in the road. After a while, the vehicle put on a turn signal. Neva and Josias decided to do the same. They made the turn in the blinding snow and found that they were in the parking lot of a church. Josias stopped and looked for the vehicle in front of him. There was none. He got out. There were no tracks. He and my sister waited a couple of hours until daybreak and until the snow had lifted, safe in the house of God.
He rules the world in truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of his love. God doesn’t always avert tragedy. He doesn’t always remove pain and sorrow. But when we move toward Him, He gives grace even when we do not understand. The soul can know joy even when the way is hard...if the Lord is there.
Joy to the world!