Joy to the World: The Ruler Loves

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

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
the staff on their shoulders,
and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
and authority will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
establishing and sustaining it
with justice and righteousness
now and forever.

Luke 1:46-55

Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
     He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
 He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
     just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

***

In England in the summer of 1674, a woman named Elizabeth was pregnant with her firstborn son. I imagine she did what most expectant mothers have done throughout history—prepared her home and arranged for midwives and relatives to be there for the birth. But one person would not be there, not in the room, not waiting just outside the door.

Elizabeth’s husband was in prison.

He was in prison because he was a religious nonconformist, a dissenter, in the terms of the day. Elizabeth’s husband was not Anglican. He refused to follow the state religion, where loyalty to the crown was part and parcel of loyalty to God.

There were plenty of Dissenters in England, men and women who professed that Christ alone was the ruler of their lives, that the King had no place in their faith.

Generally Dissenters—like Elizabeth and her husband—were left alone. They were able to worship freely, and seen by the king as an inconvenience, not a threat. But they were not guaranteed the same civil rights as members of the Church of England, and they were frequently harassed. And occasionally, just to prove they could, the ruling powers threw a Dissenter or two into prison.

And so Isaac Watts the senior missed the birth of his first child, who was named in his honor, and in his absence: Isaac.

At the time, women who had given birth generally had a period of confinement, when they stayed inside their home. Elizabeth finished her confinement before her husband. She took young Isaac in her arms and went to the Southhampton jail, and while she had no rights to argue for her husband’s release, she sat on a large stone outside the prison gate, and there she nursed her boy.

I wonder what the guards thought, watching Elizabeth nurse Isaac. I wonder if they saw an embarrassment, a public nuisance, a scandal. Or, I wonder, did they see in her a reflection of another nursing mother, one found in their own sacred cathedrals, the Virgin Mary nursing the infant Christ? I wonder if Elizabeth’s presence, her stubborn reminder that the man they had thrown in prison was a father with a family, forced them to reconsider their own sense of righteousness, of Christian grace.

Whatever the guards felt, Elizabeth’s silent protest was successful. The family was reunited.

Isaac Watts, who wrote Joy to the World, inherited his parents’ independent faith. It cost him much over the years—scholarships, positions, patrons. But as long as belonging to the Church of England meant blurring the lines between loyalty to the crown and loyalty to Christ, Isaac would have no part of it.

I don’t know why the Watts family were dissenters. I don’t know if they were particularly upset with the King at the time, Charles II, who, despite being the head of the Church of England, had been raised Catholic, and probably would have stayed Catholic if politics had not required his conversion. Or perhaps the Wattses were aware that Charles had a collection of mistresses and a bevy of children by them, children he could care for or cast out at will. Or perhaps none of that mattered to them, because it did not matter if the ruler was particularly bad or particularly good: Christ alone had their loyalty. Christ alone was their ruler.

Isaac Watts saw seven Kings and Queens in his life; he saw would-be rulers decapitated and nations conquered; he read the dealings of politics in the newspaper like we do today. I am sure there were some rulers he preferred to others, days the news made him despair and days he swelled with hope. But he never lost sight of where his faith was grounded: in the rule of Christ he heard promised in the Book of Isaiah.

The prophet Isaiah envisions the day when a great light will dawn in the darkness of our daily lives, a child born for us who will grow to be a different kind of ruler than all the ones we’ve known before, carrying titles of Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah rejoices that on that day the rod of the oppressor will be shattered and the blood-soaked clothes of the encroaching armies will be burned for fuel. Those who have been the target of violence, occupation, and abuse will rejoice now as the victors, not victims. And, Isaiah adds, “There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom, establishing and sustaining it with justice and righteousness now and forever.”

This is the kind of kingdom Isaac Watts longed for, the kind he memorialized in the final verse of Joy to the World, when he looked forward to the second coming of Christ.

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

As you might have guessed from the sermon so far, I am a lover of history. But in all my study of history, I have never found a king, emperor, or politician who could fully live up to the vision of Christ’s rule. The best ones have tried, tried to balance a gracious kindness to their citizens with the truth of the country’s laws and morals, but all have fallen short. Some, including some claiming to represent Christ on the throne, have forgotten about love entirely as they wield power.

In Germany in 1933, church leaders met to write a document that would come to be known as the Declaration of Barmen. These leaders, men who had preached their whole lives about the grace of God and the redemption of Christ, saw the ruling powers of Germany tightening the noose on the freedom and safety of their people, led by their newly elected chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Hitler deliberately sought out the support of the German Evangelical Churches, the protestant churches within Germany, and most supported him eagerly, seeing in Hitler’s plan for racial purity the will of God for their nation.

But a few did not. In May of 1934, eighty ordained ministers, fifty-three church members, and six university professors gathered to declare their loyalty to Christ above all. Together they called on all the congregations within the federation of the German Evangelical Church to resist the principles of Hitler’s ruling party, as a threat to the theology of the church, a theology of God’s love, God’s power.

“We reject the false doctrine,” they wrote, “as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.”

You can read the rest of it for yourself in our Book of Confessions. Alongside other statements of faith like the Apostles Creed and the Westminster Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen reminds us who we are and whose we are—citizens of the realm of God before any other nation, loyalists to the reign of Christ before any political party.

In or around the year we now call 1BC, a woman named Mary also learned she was pregnant. She may have wondered if her husband-to-be would be present at the birth, or if he would leave her, if she, like Elizabeth Watts so many centuries later, would also bear her child alone. But Mary, like Elizabeth, was not afraid. She knew her Lord, and so she sang:

With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
     He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
 He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.

Mary, like Elizabeth, like the German pastors, like most ordinary people throughout history, knew the dangers of the world she was bringing her child into. There was an emperor on the throne of Rome who conquered at will, and a puppet king on the throne in Jerusalem who murdered his own people; there were soldiers tromping through the streets and tax collectors squeezing every last penny out of her neighbors; and yet she sang.

Mary felt in her own belly the stirrings of a new world, where God would pull down the proud and lift up the lowly until they could see each other eye to eye, and discover they were meant to be neighbors, not enemies. Mary knew that her son would have power—not the power of armies or edicts, not the power of servants or wealth—but the power of forgiveness, the power of mercy, the power of God. She knew that in the birth of her son, God was putting a crack in the world, a crack in the way things are, a crack that could widen and widen until the realm of God is finally revealed.

Elizabeth Watts nursed her child in protest against injustice. In a way, Mary did too. Bringing the love of God into this world as a man who would call us to a new way of life.

Today we talk about the power of love, and friends, believe me when I say it does have a power, a power beyond armies and laws, a power beyond anything a king or chancellor or politician can wield.

With love, God brought this world into being. With love, God will make it new.

And the nations will prove the wonders of his love.

Amen.

 

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