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Singing the Story: Joy to the World

Psalm 98 - NIV

1 Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. 2 The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. 3 He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

4 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; 5 make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, 6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. 8 Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.  He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.


When is a Christmas carol not a Christmas carol?

When it has nothing to do with Christmas obviously!

Did you know that the worlds most popular Christmas song (Jingle Bells) is actually not about Christmas, never even mentions it actually, it is just a northern hemisphere sledding song that has been associated with Christmas celebrations.


Why am I telling you this? We are definitely not looking at Jingle Bells today.

No, we are looking at a Christmas carol. Or so I thought.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that “Joy to the World” is not a Christmas carol!


So two weeks into Advent, 2 weeks into wanting to look at the well known Christmas Carols and where they come from, we are 0 for 2. Two strikes, whatever you want to call it. We still haven’t hit what we could describe as an honest-to-goodness Christmas carol!


Who knew, honestly, that Joy to the World was not actually a Christmas Carol? I didn’t. I knew it didn’t mention Christmas as such, and that you could sing it at any time of year (except maybe apart from Good Friday, not a great time for joy).

But I thought I was being radical, singing it at other times in the year, using it as an attempt to remind people of joy, and get them to concentrate on the words so that when they did sing it at Christmas, it would mean a bit more.

But if we look at the history, I am not a radical. I am a died-in-the-wool traditionalist!

If we want to go and see a church rebel, a bad boy, a controversial figure, we need to look at the writer!

Isaac Watts.

You may laugh when I say that if you know your church music history.

Isaac Watts was the author of such outlandish songs as: “O God our help in ages past” and “when i survey the wondrous cross”.

These are old staple hymns, so loved that we use them in the Lutheran tradition, even though he was a calvinist. Not outlandish at all!

But at the time, leaders in his own church said that no “sound Christian” would ever sing a hymn authored by Isaac Watts!

At Watt’s time if you wrote a song, a hymn based on the words of the bible and didn’t quote the scriptures exactly, but paraphrased or rearranged them, you were not seen very positively! And that was exactly what he did, to try to make them speak more expressively to the people of his day. Martin Luther did a similar thing in putting the words to a lot of the hymns he wrote to popular pub tunes.

That was radical too.

And that is not even to mention the trouble that was caused in churches when all manner of musicians have tried to bring instruments into worship that people knew and loved.

Isn’t it amazing how things change.


I remember being in a church that had an argument about using drum kits in worship. According to some they were tools of that evil rock and roll music.

Before that the controversy was over guitars, and before that, I am told the instrument that caused the most controversy when they tried to bring it into churches, because it was an instrument used to play popular secular music and they were worried about it being used for the sacred in worship. Do you know what it was, this most controversial of instruments?

Right, it was the pipe organ!

Isn’t it amazing how things change.

The word of God never changes, the message of the Gospel never changes. But the job of the church, as I have said over and over again, is to attempt to make this timeless truth relevant to a modern generation. And as soon as you think you understand a modern generation, it is gone and you are on to the next one.

I once had an older gentleman in a church tell me that when he died and I buried him, we were to use the original words to the Lord’s prayer, not this new wording. Imagine his surprise when I asked him if he knew Aramaic! After all, that would have been the language Jesus taught the Lord’s prayer in!





But back to Joy to the World.

This carol isn’t based on the nativity story, or the words of the angels: I bring you good news of great joy”, as I would have guessed.

 No, it is based on an old Testament psalm!

Psalm 98.


All too soon on Christmas morning when the last piece of wrapping paper has fallen to the floor we can forget the joy of Christmas, and we soon find ourselves lamenting that so many toys are not made to last, and so many gifts are used up or broken by New years. In fact, to find a Christmas present that actually is practical or useful for a long time leaves us feeling surprised, and amazed.


This Song, (which for our purposes we will call a Christmas carol, seeing that is how we have come to use it) can be a reminder for us, that the joy of the original gift of Christmas, the baby Jesus, wrapped not in paper but in swaddling clothes and straw, does not fade after 1 day of Christmas, or even 12 days of Christmas, but for us, it is a source of joy that keeps us going through all of our lives!

Because Jesus came at Christmas, we can have joy in suffering, because we know that we are not alone in it, and that it is not the end.

Because Jesus came at Christmas, we can have joy at funerals, because we know that only in God becoming flesh could he pay the price for sin and defeat death and we have the sure and certain promise of eternal life.


Because Jesus came at Christmas, we can sing at pretty-much every time of year: “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!”

Now let’s live that joy in our lives.

Let Earth receive her king.


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