I have a confession to make. This last Sunday, I did something pastors are not supposed to do. I had our congregation sing “Joy to the World.”
You see, even though we hear Christmas music being played everywhere at this time of year, traditionally Christian churches don’t sing Christmas hymns in worship before Christmas Eve. Don’t get me wrong, the Bible doesn’t forbid the singing of Christmas songs before Christmas, it’s just that we are still in the season of Advent.
During the season of Advent, we prepare ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Advent is a time of repentance – a time to remember why Jesus came in the first place. And as we prepare our hearts to receive our King at Christmas, we also prepare ourselves for his second coming at the end of the world.
Because such preparation is good for us, we try not to get ahead of ourselves. We traditionally wait to sing Christmas hymns until Christmas Eve. Yet, this last Sunday, there we were, singing “Joy to the World.”
Don’t tell anyone.
“Joy to the World” is one of the most popular Christmas hymns ever written. In fact, it is the most published Christmas hymn ever in North America. The only problem is, “Joy to the World” is not actually a Christmas hymn.
Look at the words. It doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem, a manger, Mary, Joseph, shepherds or angels.
“Joy to the World” was written nearly three hundred years ago by a man named Isaac Watts. At that time in England, the only music allowed in the church were the Psalms – the songs of the Old Testament. The Psalms, however, were always sung slowly and methodically.
Watts found the singing depressing. He thought the music should reflect the beauty of the words. He thought the words of the hymns should show how the Psalms pointed ahead to Jesus.
So young Watts would often complain to his father, who was a deacon in the church. His father finally told him one day, “If you think you can do any better, go ahead.” So he did. In fact, during one period of his life, Watts wrote a new hymn every Sunday for two years. Isaac Watts wrote hundreds of hymns in his life, including “Joy to the World,” a hymn based on Psalm 98.
If you read Psalm 98, however, it doesn’t talk about Christmas. It doesn’t talk about the Messiah coming to live and die for our sins. It talks about the Messiah coming to judge.
Underneath the title of “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts wrote the inscription: “The Messiah’s Second Coming and Kingdom.”
“Joy to the World” wasn’t written about Jesus’ first coming at Christmas. It’s about his second coming on Judgment Day.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room.
And heaven and nature sing.
Don’t get me wrong. “Joy to the World” does make a wonderful Christmas hymn. It makes an even better Advent hymn, though. Jesus came and is coming again. Joy to the world.
For many people in our world, however, Jesus’ coming on Judgment Day does not inspire them to sing, “Joy to the World.” Judgment Day scares a lot of people.
Have you ever noticed how, when Hollywood makes movies about the end of the world, they are always horror movies?
Yet we can sing, “Joy to the World” because we know he already came once. In that barn in Bethlehem, he took his first steps to the cross of Calvary, where he won forgiveness and heaven for all people.
All those who believe in Jesus don’t have to be afraid of Judgment Day. Jesus is coming to take us to heaven. That’s why he came two thousand years ago. That’s why he is coming again.
That’s why we can sing, “Joy to the World” even though it’s not Christmas yet.