Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the First Sunday of Advent.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.
There once was a child who complained to his father about how dull the songs at church were, and how unenthusiastic the congregation was about singing them. His father turned his criticism around, saying, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?”
The boy’s name was Isaac Watts. Isaac rose to challenge, writing his first hymn for that Sunday’s worship and launching a lifetime of song writing that has given us such standards as O God, Our Help in Ages Past, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and of course, Joy to the World.
It was 300 years ago that Isaac Watts wrote Joy to the World, and for me, it’s hard to imagine Christmas without it. Those opening, trumpeted notes are everywhere—at the mall, in the car, on TV commercial parodies. I probably have about a dozen versions in my own collection of Christmas music. And growing up, I knew it was Christmas Eve when we sang Joy to the World—my pastor always held it for that night. I knew that baby Jesus was really in the manger when the sopranos hit that high note at the end.
I know I’m not alone in loving Joy to the World. In a study done a few years ago, it was the most-published carol in North America. Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, atheist—we all need a little extra Joy this time of year.
And so I was shocked when I learned in seminary one of our hymnal’s best kept secrets: Joy to the World isn’t a Christmas carol at all.
At least, it wasn’t written as one. In 1719, Isaac Watts wasn’t writing Christmas music; he was writing paraphrases of Psalms. In the English church in the eighteenth century, Psalms were considered the only proper texts for congregational singing, because they came straight from the Bible—no original words, no new experiences of God. Isaac thought those Psalms, sung to interchangeable dirge-like tunes with no rhyme and plain meter, were far too measly to sing God’s fully glory. So, while he stuck to Psalms as his source material, Isaac wrote paraphrases that gave them life and poetry in the English language, interpreting—and sometimes completely inserting—material as he went.
The Psalms, of course, are a Hebrew text, written before Christ’s coming. While we do see a hope for a messiah in some of the later prophets, the Psalms are mostly content to sing the glory of the God the Hebrews knew, a God of love, mercy, and rescue. Isaac, though, felt that Christian churches should sing about Christ, and so he rewrote the Psalms to put Christ in them. “They ought to be translated,” [Watts] wrote “in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.” And in fact, his hymnal was called Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.
While I don’t know how our Jewish siblings feel about their holy songbook being rewritten for Christian purposes, I do know that Isaac’s songs beautifully link across the Old and New Testament in a way few hymns and even fewer Christmas Carols do.
All of this is to say, Joy to the World is primarily a paraphrase of Psalm 98, and we read the relevant portion today. (There are actually three more stanzas of the hymn that correspond to verses 1-4, which you can find on your own if you are a hymn nerd like me). And for Watts, the key verse of Psalm 98 is the final one: “Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
Through his Christian lens, Watts saw in this verse a prediction of Christ’s ultimate return, not his first visit that began in a manger. Watts saw the hope of Christ’s second coming, the return in glory, the final judgment, however you wish to call it. And so for Watts, Joy to the World wasn’t written for Christmas but for anytime during the Christian year where we look forward to Christ’s return.
Some of you may be feeling suddenly uncomfortable. We don’t talk much about the Second Coming, especially as mainline Presbyterians. We tend to leave that up to our friends of the more evangelical or even premillennial persuasion. We prefer to focus on the baby in the manger, who we know came among us, and leave questions of the future on the table.
I get why. There’s some truly terrible—and terrifying—theology around Jesus’ Second Coming, much of it quite recently come up with. I want to reassure you now, that from the best of my wisdom in reading scripture and from the best of my faithfulness in knowing God, that the rapture is not biblical, that Jesus is not coming as a warlord, that the final judgment is not something to flee from. After so loving the world that God sent the only son, it makes no sense that the son would come again to destroy it—or us.
And yet we do have passages like the one we read from Matthew’s gospel today, words from Jesus’ own lips, that feel unsettling. I never understood as a child why we had to hear scriptures like this during Advent, when all I wanted to hear about were angels and shepherds and adorable donkeys. Yet every year, we had to wade through something about the second coming that I didn’t buy and that most of the people around me didn’t seem to believe.
Jesus gives us three images of his second coming, his return trip. The first is of the flood that swept most of the earth’s population away in Noah’s time; the second of everyday folks at work being suddenly separated, one to go with Jesus, one to remain behind; the third of a houseowner who hasn’t coordinated schedules with the thief who’s on his way. They are an odd little trio of images, each a little disturbing, and to the best of my knowledge make no appearances in any of our favorite Christmas carols. Together, the main idea is that we don’t know when Christ is coming; that it will be a surprise. But let’s take them one by one.
Jesus says that the Son of Man (which is how Matthew has Jesus talk about himself when he wants to be coy) will come like the flood of Noah. It does sound like a violent image at first glance, and taken literally, would be terrifying. We know the ravages of floods. But in the fairytale structure of the Noah story, the flood sweeps away all that is evil in the world, renewing and refreshing it for a less violent future. So if Jesus comes like a flood, it is a flood of hope, to renew the world. That is what is always on the other side of Jesus’ return trip: a new world, where heaven and earth look more alike.
The second image, of the field workers and the grain millers being suddenly separated, is also frightening, especially when linked to the rapture theology of the late twentieth century. But there’s no reason to think that when one woman is “taken” and the other “left behind” that she’s been whooshed up into the clouds to be with Jesus while her co-worker is left to a fiery death on earth. The Greek for taken is not to be taken up, but to be taken along with, and I think more about the disciples who were taken from their nets to follow Jesus along the road. Especially sandwiched between two images of Jesus coming here, to earth, as flood or thief, it makes no sense to say that suddenly Jesus won’t come back, but will watch from heaven as the earth burns. It makes more sense to read in this little story that when Jesus returns, the men and women who have prepared themselves will drop everything to go with him; he will take along with him the ones who are ready to be his closest disciples, just as he did before.
The final image is perhaps the oddest, of Jesus the thief; we don’t tend to compare our Lord and Savior to a criminal. But it is a powerful image; what might Jesus take from us if we have barred our doors to him? Fear? Hopelessness? Cynicism? Violence? When Jesus returns, will we be ready to go with him, to leave our barred homes and workplaces, to join with him as the earth is washed clean of hunger and heartbreak?
I stand here to make a claim that is thoroughly orthodox and yet somehow feels strangely radical: I believe in the Second Coming.
I believe that God is not done with our story. I believe that Jesus is not content to rest upon his laurels. I believe that—sometime, somehow—Christ will return to finish the work that he began so long ago in Galilee, and that has been in our unsteady hands for two thousand years. I believe that Christmas will have a sequel.
During Advent, our work is to prepare for Christ’s coming. Not only to remember his first, not only to wallow in nostalgia, not only to look back to when things were good, but to look forward, to stay alert, to be prepared for the very source of life to walk among us again.
It is a much higher, harder task than simply decking the halls. To prepare for the Second Coming, is, in a way, to prepare for being disappointed: generations of Christians have prepared their hearts and yet not seen God restore this broken earth. It is hard to me to believe Christ might come in my lifetime. It seems impossible. It is unlikely. And yet, I work and pray and struggle to wedge the door of my heart open, so that if—if Christ comes, it won’t be as a thief, but as a guest.
The only reason to be afraid of Christ’s Second Coming, friends, is if we prefer the world the way it is now. If we prefer the poor to suffer so we can have cheap things. If we prefer the wars to rage on for our own security. If we prefer to chew up the earth for our own comfort. If we prefer our faith to be an opiate, not a call to action. If we prefer Christ to be safe and contained in that manger, and not the voice of God calling us to new ways of life.
But if our hearts are prepared: if we are ready to see a world reborn; if we are ready to see the last vestiges of sins’ power shattered, to see the prisoners go free; to see the hungry filled with good things and the new heaven and new earth meet like old friends; then there is nothing to be frightened of in Christ’s return.
Isaac Watts was not afraid. When he thought of the King coming to judge the world, the feeling that swelled up in him was joy. So this Advent, prepare room in your heart, and speak of hope, not fear. Sing Joy to the World, the Lord is Come, because friends, it will be joy. Pure, blessed joy.
To the Christ who was, and is, and ever will be. Amen.