I was talking to a friend recently who said that her least favorite Christmas hymn is “Joy to the World”. It wasn’t an issue of theology, or that Christmas isn’t indeed a time of joy, but rather that it’s been overdone. I quickly jumped to the defense of the beloved hymn because of the memories I associate with “Joy to the World”.
I have memories of growing up in North Carolina and being at my grandparent’s house for Christmas Eve. We would gather for dinner with all the aunts, uncles and cousins, and then once we were all fat and happy, we would move to the living room where my sister and I would put on our own Christmas Eve production.
We would have spent the preceding weeks rehearsing…practicing hymns on the piano, how to walk in at the right time, which songs to sing. And so on Christmas Eve as everyone was relaxing on sofas and chairs, my sister and I would process into the living room singing “Joy to the World”. Once we had entered into this make-shift congregation, everyone would join us in singing. Then we would proceed with other hymns…Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in the Manger and Silent Night. My mother would sing O Holy Night the loudest and strongest of all the women. We would include other favorites such as O Christmas Tree, which my grandfather would sing in German, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
Then my grandfather would read the Bible story…the same one from Luke that we heard tonight. Afterward, we’d have a moment of silence. I don’t know what everyone did in that moment of silence. Perhaps they were praying. Perhaps they were deeply moved by the story of God’s most generous gift—the Incarnation. Perhaps they were having a little post dinner snooze. Whatever was going on in that moment was special though because we were all together and we were happy.
Then we would dive into the gifts, “oohing” and “ahhing” at each present received. “Thank you’s” and “This is just what I needed” floated throughout the room. We would conclude the Christmas Eve production with pie and a signing of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”. And no, I don’t know how we got from “Joy to the World” to singing about Grandma drinking too much eggnog.
I don’t tell you this story as a way of providing a measuring stick by which to judge your own Christmas Eve experience. The truth is, it probably wasn’t as perfect as I remember it, because we’re human and it’s family, and it’s always complicated.
I tell you this because what I remember about those Christmas Eve productions was the joy. Without a doubt, there was joy in my grandparent’s living room. Despite the fact that we didn’t have a lot of money, despite the fact that we were imperfect, flawed, and busy with our jobs, school and the farm, joy was there.
In our readings tonight, there is great joy. The prophet Isaiah is rejoicing that a great light has been given to the people who have struggled in exile and persecution. The Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace is present with the people in the midst of their everyday living, their despair and their brokenness, and yet, there is great joy.
The Psalmist is also rejoicing, along with all creation and the heavens at the glory and righteousness of God.
And in the Gospel of Luke, the angels rejoice in the heavens for the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the Messiah, the Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace. There is joy in heaven.
But what we also know from the readings is that joy is never meant to be self-contained…it’s meant to be shared and proclaimed. This is the calling of discipleship that we have as recipients of the Good News…to sing the song of the angels “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to the people on earth”, to “Tell it out among the nations” and to share our joy with everyone.
Tonight we remember the greatest joy and God’s most gracious gift of the incarnation, Jesus, given for everyone to experience love, healing, peace, forgiveness and grace.
What if this Christmas and in the days to come we didn’t just “ooh” and “ahh” over presents found under the tree? What if we also said to God “Thank you…this is just what I needed” and then shared that joy with someone else?
May you be well, may you have peace, may you know the love of the Prince of Peace this night and every night. And may you sing out this greatest joy to the world. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.