Joy to the World: The Curse Recedes

Sermon preached for the Third Sunday of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Romans 5:6-17

While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life?  And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.

Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned. Although sin was in the world, since there was no Law, it wasn’t taken into account until the Law came. But death ruled from Adam until Moses, even over those who didn’t sin in the same way Adam did—Adam was a type of the one who was coming.

But the free gift of Christ isn’t like Adam’s failure. If many people died through what one person did wrong, God’s grace is multiplied even more for many people with the gift—of the one person Jesus Christ—that comes through grace. The gift isn’t like the consequences of one person’s sin. The judgment that came from one person’s sin led to punishment, but the free gift that came out of many failures led to the verdict of acquittal. If death ruled because of one person’s failure, those who receive the multiplied grace and the gift of righteousness will even more certainly rule in life through the one person Jesus Christ.

***

In May of 1789, a pastor named Adam Renkin set out from his home in Keene, Kentucky, just south of Lexington, to make his way to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which was meeting in Philadelphia. The reason for his journey? Hymns. Specifically, the hymns of Isaac Watts, hymns like Joy to the World, which were exploding in popularity across American churches. Renkin believed they were unfit for worship, because unlike psalms, which were directly quoted from scripture, Isaac’s hymns included his own paraphrases of religious doctrine. Hear Rankin’s testimony in his own words:

“I have ridden horseback all the way from my home in Kentucky to ask this body to refuse the great and pernicious error of adopting the use of Isaac Watts’ hymns in public worship in preference to the Psalms of David.”[1]

Which goes to prove that the worship wars have been going on longer than we all thought.

Renkin’s petition was not successful, in case you were curious. In fact, eventually his anti-Watts attitude found him on trial for doctrinal differences with the Presbyterian church, and he left the denomination altogether.[2] While he was perhaps the loudest voice complaining about these contemporary musical selections, he was far from alone; churches often split over whether to sing psalms alone or mix in the newfangled hymns.

I couldn’t find Renkin’s take on Joy to the World specifically, but I imagine the third verse, our focus verse for today, would have especially rankled him. Joy to the World is primarily a paraphrase of Psalm 98, about the joyful reign of the Lord, but this third verse, this verse about blessings and curses, is a brand new insert. Watts wanted to Christianize the psalms, and so he added this verse in, about what the reign of Christ means specifically, about sin and salvation.

Ironically enough, I have discovered that many of our modern recording artists drop this third verse from the song—although I suspect it is not out of a desire to remain true to the  biblical psalm, but rather to avoid the odd, unsettling curse talk. Many of my favorite versions of this song on my Christmas albums at home go straight from the resounding joy to the Lord of love, and skip all this messy, confusing, thorny business in the middle.

I even suspect that a few of us in the pews aren’t quite sure what we’re singing about when we chirp out that third verse about “far as, far as the curse is found.” I know that as a child I always found the lyrics odd, although I loved them too.

Listen again to the verse:

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.

It isn’t very Christmassy language, thorns and curses. But it is biblical language, even if not from Psalm 98. Watts was calling back, of course, to the third chapter of Genesis, to that critical moment after Eve and Adam ate the apple—the apple they were specifically told not to eat.

The curse God offers each of them is a curse of pain, of effort, of nothing coming easily anymore. God tells Eve that when she has children, it will hurt. God tells Adam that when he farms, it will be hard. God says, “cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread—until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”[3]

It is not that God has stripped the good things from the world: Eve still rejoices in her sons, even after her labor pains, and Adam can still grow good food from the soil, even though the work is hard.

The idea that God cursed the world, in punishment or revenge, falls strangely on our modern ears. But the ancient Israelites knew that the world was not all it could be; they believed that the world was made good, by a gracious and merciful God; yet they also saw that the world was not good; that there was pain and suffering, toil and hardship, that death came too fast and too often. And so this ancient story resonated with them, gave them a reason why. Why life under the rule of a good God could be so difficult.

In some ways, Adam became a scapegoat. If life was hard, if life was unfair, if being human felt like a curse all on its own, it was because long ago a man ate an apple, and things just got worse from there.

By Paul’s time, this story of the curse had become a metaphor for sin, for the ways sin infests so much of this world. Paul wrote about sin coming into the world through Adam, through his choice to disobey God, and then he says that God put up a mirror to Adam, and sent Jesus, one perfectly obedient man to counter one disobedient one. Paul writes, “If many people died through what one person did wrong, God’s grace is multiplied even more for many people with the gift—of the one person Jesus Christ—that comes through grace.” For Paul, Christ’s goodness—his love, his obedience, his piety, his position as the Son of God—wiped out what Adam did, taking away death’s sting once and for all.

For some of us, this language of curse and sin may seem uncomfortable, archaic even. There are other ways of thinking about it—even ancient ways. Other Christian writers talked about sin as a disease—a genetic disease, even, passed down from generation to generation. More modern theologians talk about sin as a systemic problem—of human structures so infested with unfairness and danger that it’s impossible not to do harm when working within them.

What the ancient authors agree on, whatever their language, whatever their metaphor, is that sin is not always the result of our choice, our badness. We are caught, by curse or infection or system, in situations where there is no perfect choice.

I was amused and delighted last year to see this classic Christian argument laid out succinctly in a network television show, of all things, called The Good Place. In the show, there is, more or less, a heaven and a hell, and a point system to determine where people go after they die. Get enough points, go to heaven; too few, and it’s straight down. The main characters discover, however, that hell is filling up far faster than it used to, because life on earth has gotten so complicated, so, if I may use the pun, thorny.

A thousand years ago, they argue, you could give your grandmother flowers and get points for being a good person, because you would have gone out in the field, picked a few, and been done with it. But now even a kind, loving gesture like giving your grandmother flowers can be tainted by things that are way beyond the control of even the most well-intended person: Who grew those flowers? Did they pay their workers fair wages? Did they use damaging pesticides? Did they displace a smaller florist along the way, squashing local business? How much pollution did their trucks cause? You get the idea.

It was a depressing moment in the show. How can anyone be good enough, if harmfulness—or sin, or curse, or infection, whatever you want to call it—is so pervasive in the world? They haven’t answered that question, by the way. I don’t know if they will, or even can.

I see the world, and it is harsh. I wake up to news of shootings, of abuse, of eruptions. I wake up knowing that I have not loved my friends as well as I wanted to, and compromised on my own ideals about how to lessen my impact on the earth. I wake up knowing that I will sin not just once or twice but a hundred times before the day is out.

Yet I do not despair. And in fact, I wake up singing. Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!

As Christians, we don’t believe the world works by a point system, and we don’t believe God judges us on our own merits. We believe in grace—that we are forgiven, that we are loved, that we are given second and third and fourth and millionth chances. We believe that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, that we were worthy of his sacrifice not because we were so good but because we were so loved.

I try not to sin because I don’t want to hurt others, not because I am afraid God will stop loving me. If we only avoid sin because we want God to love us, or save us, then that is a selfish enterprise. In Christ God has set us free from the fear of sin, and set us free to be as loving as we can, as kind as we can, as generous as we can, even in a messed up world. And so even in my sinfulness I rejoice, that God is with me, leading me to repent, to repair, and to reconcile. On my own, I would be lost. With God, there is hope for a new day.

This is the blessing of Jesus Christ: that we have gotten a preview of the end of the story. That we have seen the depth of God’s love, heard of the peace of the heavenly kingdom, been given hope in that day when death shall be no more. We can be joyful now, right now, today, even when the world is still dark and there is still pain, because we know what God has done, and we know what God will yet do.

And so it is that we have courage, to put up Christmas lights and form new relationships, to work for justice and pray for peace, to get out of bed in the morning, to buy flowers for those we love. We have courage to live and move and work and shop and love in this sin-infested world, because we have not given up on God, who has never once given up on us.

I find myself glad, in the showdown between Adam Renkin and Isaac Watts, that Rankin did not win the battle, even if he is the hometown favorite. I am glad that we sing about curses at Christmas, if only to remind ourselves of the power of Christ’s blessings, a flood to cover the earth, to cover despair with hope, violence with peace, fear with joy, hatred with love.

Sin is strong. The power of Christ is stronger.

That is the deep, true, and everlasting joy of Christmas.

Amen.

[1] https://songsandhymns.org/people/detail/isaac-watts

[2] https://www.logcollegepress.com/blog/2019/2/14/the-first-book-published-in-kentucky-was-by-a-presbyterian-minister-adam-rankin

[3] Gen. 3:17-19, CEB

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