Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2016, Year A.
I hope not too many of you were thrown by the inclusion of our first hymn on this, the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. If you were, let me say a couple things. First, it is perfectly understandable to have been thrown. As a child and particularly a teenager, I would have wondered what is going on to sing this obviously Christmas hymn at church before Christmas Eve. Not a theological objection, but an objection along the lines of the “church’s national anthem”—but that’s the way we have always done it.
Secondly, if in singing this hymn you are brought into the spirit of Christmas—well, there are much worse things to be brought into, and with Christmas a week away, I do not suspect this feeling is out of line in the eyes of God. After all, we are surrounded by reminders of Christmas everywhere we look in Tazewell County and elsewhere, everywhere we listen in grocery and department stores.
Thirdly, and lastly, for those thrown by singing Joy to the World this morning, I simply invite you to look anew at the lyrics, and think about what we are saying about God when we sing this hymn. In particular, what we do not sing about: there are no “details from the story of Jesus’ birth, no stable, no shepherds, no wise men, no Mary or Joseph, no little town of Bethlehem, choirs of angels or silent nights.” God is spoken of as the Savior who reigns, as the and King and Ruler of the world by truth and grace. All true attributes of God Almighty, and Jesus to be sure. And certainly His presence causes people to sing, to praise, to repeat the sounding joy, and to wonder on His love. So rather than being a hymn that celebrates the birth of a little wee child, with His Mother Mary and her betrothed husband Joseph, with the shepherds watching the Host of Heaven sing the angelic hymn, “Glory to God in the highest,”—this is a hymn that celebrates the presence of an all-powerful God in harmony with the world into which He is coming.
Is coming, and in some sense, has already come. That strange sentence, “the Lord is come” is in fact a fascinating one. One might think it better to sing, “The Lord has come.” But to do that puts the emphasis on the action of coming, and seems to suggest that it is Jesus who initiated the coming. Yet Jesus himself, in Saint John’s Gospel, said “the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father.” To sing then “The Lord is come” emphasizes not the coming exactly, but that He is now here. It is a more passive construction of words that has the effect, if you can sense the nuance, of acknowledging that Jesus was sent by the Father to save the whole world, the whole universe.
And Jesus is here, and has been here from the beginning of creation and before it. All things were made through Him, and conversations with God throughout the Old Testament, Christians understand to be conversations with Jesus as He is still coming them, still being realized by them, still becoming clear in their consciences. Jesus was present already, as I have pointed out, in the womb and bestowing His salvific grace to John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zachariah from the womb, as well as to Mary and Joseph.
Brothers and sisters, let us indeed praise the Holy Spirit. Let us praise Him by whose power Jesus was conceived in a young Jewish woman, Mary Ever-Virgin. Let us praise Him who revealed this to her in a way that challenged her yet invited her by love to say Yes to God, to indeed say “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Let us praise the Holy Spirit—the bread and wine we offer today becomes, sacramentally, the Body and Blood of Christ, as it was by the same Spirit that the Virgin Mary gave flesh to the Son of God. Let us praise the Holy Spirit, who spoke in a dream by an angel and announced in love to Joseph the truth, and purified his conscience so as to help him see behind the appearances, deny his own impulse to divorce his pregnant wife-to-be for adultery, to act not with cynicism or betrayal, but to look beyond the superficial crisis and observe wisely a divine plan for deliverance.
May all of our consciences be purified by the daily visitation of Jesus as He is conceived in our hearts. And may Our Lord, when He comes, find in us a room—a mansion—prepared for Himself through our ever-deepening acceptance of Him in all aspects of our lives. And may we, with the fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy. Amen.
Cover image “Joseph’s Dream” by T’oros Roslin is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.