Joy to the World

 This is one of the most popular Christmas carols, but when Isaac Watts wrote it in 1719 he was not describing the arrival of the infant Jesus, but the triumphant second coming of Christ the King:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King . . .

He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of his righteousness

And wonders of his love.

This picture of glorious victory is partly based on Psalm 98: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God’.” (v 3, NRSV). The psalm goes on to describe each part of creation praising the Lord’s coming:

“Let 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.” (vv 7 — 9)

Isaac Watts picked up these ideas and developed them in his own way:

Let every heart prepare him room,

And heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns!

Let men their songs employ;

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains

Repeat the sounding joy.

 And then he wrote one more verse, which you have probably never sung, and which does not usually appear in our hymn books. In our Christmas versions this verse is missing. It goes like this:

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.

For this verse Isaac Watts looked back to the story of the Fall in Genesis chapter 3, and focussed on a passage which would certainly bring a chill to the Christmas season:

 “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” (vv 17 – 18)

Perhaps Isaac Watts in the early 18th century was more aware than we are of the hard reality of labouring to produce enough to eat, but we can still see how human sin affects the land and livelihoods of people and wildlife all over the world. Famine follows so often in the wake of civil war. Refugees from persecution leave behind their livestock and fields to be plundered and destroyed.

Rain forests are exploited, depriving people and animals of food and shelter. Farmers ploughing their fields in France and Belgium still turn up deadly weapons from wars long past. The careless use of chemicals kills more than just pests: it undermines the balance of healthy ecosystems, and poisons our food.

 Yet Isaac Watts’ hymn is about victory and blessing – the curse of the ground, along with human sins and sorrows, is also removed by the redemption which Christ brings. Heaven and nature sing with humanity about the promised restoration of everything God made – JOY TO THE WORLD

Pam de Wit (for Earth & Faith)

Epiphany Thoughts

What does ‘The Epiphany’ mean? To a lot of Christian people, the Epiphany just means the coming of the three wise men. But there is a lot more to it than that. For a start, the word ‘Epiphany’ means a “manifestation, or an experience of sudden and striking realization.” It can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Think of Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment in his bath, or Isaac Newton’s realising that the apple that hit him on the head, and the moon orbiting the earth, were being pulled by the same force.

To Christians it means the time when Jesus was recognised by the Gentiles, represented by the wise men, as the Messiah – King of the Jews. The wise men’s research told them that the King of the Jews was to be born at that time, they followed the star, found the infant Jesus, and realised that this was indeed the King they sought. That therefore was their Epiphany.

Epiphany comes just twelve days after Christmas, on 6th January. It is sometimes said to be the feast day that celebrates the final unwrapping of the present we were given by God on Christmas Day. He now reveals God the Son, the human being of Jesus Christ, not just to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.

For hundreds of years the world had been told by God, through the prophets, that he was going to come, himself, in the form of a new-born child, and this child would become, as an adult, the Messiah, the King of the Jews, the Saviour of the world. God was true to his word.

Advent, Christmas and Epiphany should be changing us as it changed the wise men – they studied the scriptures and the skies in Advent, saw the Holy Child after Christmas, and experienced their own epiphanies.

I pray that we will all experience, or experience again, an epiphany in January. That we, like the wise men, will individually realise and understand that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that this knowledge will change us to be more like Jesus.

But, am I being over-optimistic? I sometimes wonder whether in the last two thousand years we’ve moved even an inch further towards bringing the kingdom here. What’s changed? Are we any less cruel than we used to be? Are we fairer, more caring, less vain, less greedy? As Alfred Noyes said, “God, build us that better world, but that’s not done with tongue or sword or pen – God make us better men!”

And in the words of Christopher Wordsworth, (nephew of William) and one-time Vicar of Stanford-in-the-Vale

 Grant us grace to see thee, Lord,

Mirrored in thy holy word;

May we imitate thee now,

And be pure, as pure as thou;

That we like to thee may be

At thy great Epiphany,

And may praise thee, ever blest,

God in man made manifest.

Christopher Wordsworth (1807-85)

May Advent, Christmas and Epiphany be joyful and revelatory experiences for us all.