Joy To The World!

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” (Psalm 98: 4-9 ESV)

It is certainly one of, if not the most, well-known Christmas carols. Most of us learned it at an early age and will sing it at least once during this Christmas season. As the Grinch would say, “It is both joyful and triumphant!” It captures so well the awe, wonder, and exuberance the shepherds must have felt that fateful night when an angel of the Lord appeared and announced “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11 NIV)

imageThat is the image it brings to mind when we sing Joy to the World. However, it is not the image Isaac Watts had in mind when he wrote that familiar song. It was originally published in his 1719 hymnbook titled The Palms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship. How’s that for a catchy title?

Like many young people today, Watts found much of the congregational singing in the England of his day very uninspiring and lacking in passion. He once remarked “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”

Seeking to energize congregational worship, Watts set out to write hymns based on the Psalms “in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.” Some have called Isaac Watts the Chris Tomlin of his day.

Watts composed the words of Joy to the World based on Psalm 98, specifically the verses cited above. If you focus on those familiar lyrics, you can’t help but notice that there is no mention of those scenes and characters we all know so well from the Christmas story as told by Luke.

That is because Watts wrote the lyrics of Joy to the World with the Second Coming of Christ in mind, rather than his birth.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come: Let earth receive her King!…. Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns: Let men their songs employ! … He rules the earth with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

Several years ago, I began the practice of reading a different gospel account each month while continuing to read through the rest of the New Testament every six months. Following this schedule means that each December, I find myself both in John’s Gospel and in Revelation, John’s account of Christ’s return.

The combination of those two books of the Bible remind me that I live between two world-changing events – Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection and his promised return to gather those of us he died to save.

Just like a child on Christmas morning, as we celebrate his birth this year, may we equally anticipate and prepare our hearts for his promised return. Like Watts, may we long for that glorious day when the nations will indeed “prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

May each of you enjoy a Christ-filled and Christ-focused Christmas this year.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. … He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22: 17, 20 ESV)

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The Word Became Flesh

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 16-17 ESV)

While our most familiar Christmas accounts are found in the pages of Matthew and Luke, in recent years I have been drawn more to John’s account. As I mentioned in my last post, my annual Bible reading plan brings me to John’s Gospel each December. John’s presentation of the Christmas story is very unique from the other synoptic gospels because John’s purpose was uniquely different. Those other gospels focused heavily on presenting the detailed events of Jesus’ life. John’s purpose was to capture the person of Jesus Christ.

imageJohn’s account of Jesus’ birth was very plainly spoken. Only nine words in length, it can be easily memorized. But while short on words, it speaks volumes theologically. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14 ESV)  We sometimes miss the awesome impact of that simple truth in our own Christmas traditions. We are thrilled each year by the thought of the spectacle of that night. We imagine the majesty of the angel and the heavenly host that appeared to the shepherds; the simple, yet touching manger scene with the precious little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

I love what Luke says concerning Mary’s reaction to all the events of that night. While the shepherds gazed in awe and wonder at the spectacle and all who heard their story “were amazed at what the shepherds said to them”, Luke says Mary “treasured” them up and “pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19 NIV) At Christmas, we could all use a little less hustling and bustling and a lot more treasuring and pondering … treasuring and pondering the person of Jesus Christ – who He is and why He came. And nobody answers those questions better than John in the pages of his gospel.

My wife and I have a grandson who has Asperger’s Syndrome. After his initial diagnosis, I sought to learn more about his particular form of autism spectrum disorder which, while often highly functioning, is still characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. One of the more interesting books I read was The Journal Of Best Practices by David Finch. What made that book unique is that Finch actually has Asperger’s. He recorded this journal to help him remember basic rules for social interactions that most of us learned early in life through everyday experiences.

As I read his account, I was struck by how well the author describes his thought processes as he deals with situations most of us never even think about. Prior to being diagnosed, Finch and his wife suffered more than the usual marital conflicts. After his diagnosis, many of those conflicts began to resolve themselves as his wife learned more about Asperger’s. She began to understand why he responds differently to things than she does and he began to understand why the things that seemed perfectly normal to him were so upsetting to her. He started keeping the journal to train himself to act more in line with her expectations.

Finch was able to articulate his thought processes in a way my grandson cannot. When I read books about autism and Asperger’s, I know more about my grandson. But there’s a big difference between knowing about someone and truly knowing someone. After reading this very personal account from someone who actually has Asperger’s, I feel as though I truly know my grandson more intimately and personally.

From his unique perspective as the self-described “disciple whom Jesus loved“, (John 13:23) John offers us the most comprehensive and insightful look into the heart of God found in all of Scripture. He understood better than anyone that Jesus came to show us the Father; that he spoke to us the very words of God so that we can better know the Father more intimately and personally ourselves. 

Only through John do we hear Jesus tell Phillip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  (John 14:10-11 NIV)

That is the unparalleled message of Christmas – that Jesus came to show us our Heavenly Father – a message so uniquely  and profoundly articulated by John with those memorable words, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” 

I pray that this Christmas you will ponder those words, treasure them in your heart, and reflect upon their implication for your life. El Shaddai, The Almighty God, is also Immanuel, God with us. May you experience the reality and the power of His presence this Christmas as never before. And the Gospel of John would be an excellent place to start!

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3 ESV)

(Note: First published Dec. 17, 2015; edited and redistributed 12/23/2016)

Joy To The World!

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” (Psalm 98: 4-9 ESV)

It is certainly one of, if not the most, well-known Christmas carols. Most of us learned it at an early age and will sing it at least once during this Christmas season. As the Grinch would say, “It is both joyful and triumphant!” It captures so well the awe, wonder, and exuberance the shepherds must have felt that fateful night when an angel of the Lord appeared and announced “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11 NIV)

imageThat is the image it brings to mind when we sing Joy to the World. However, it is not the image Isaac Watts had in mind when he wrote that familiar song. It was originally published in his 1719 hymnbook titled The Palms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship. How’s that for a catchy title?

Like many young people today, Watts found much of the congregational singing in the England of his day very uninspiring and lacking in passion. He once remarked “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”

Seeking to energize congregational worship, Watts set out to write hymns based on the Psalms “in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.” Some have called Isaac Watts the Chris Tomlin of his day.

Watts composed the words of Joy to the World based on Psalm 98, specifically the verses cited above. If you focus on those familiar lyrics, you can’t help but notice that there is no mention of those scenes and characters we all know so well from the Christmas story as told by Luke. That is because Watts wrote the lyrics of Joy to the World with the Second Coming of Christ in mind, rather than his birth.

As I have prepared my heart for Christmas this year, I have found myself focused on the return of Christ perhaps as much as his birth. Several years ago, I began the practice of reading a different gospel account each month while continuing to read through the rest of the New Testament every six months. Following this schedule means that each December, I find myself both in John’s Gospel and in Revelation, John’s account of Christ’s return.

The combination of those two books of the Bible remind me that I live between two world-changing events – that of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection and of his promised return to gather those of us he died to save. As we celebrate his birth this year, may we be equally as anxious and prepared for his promised return, just like a child on Christmas morning. Like Watts, may we long for that glorious day when the nations will indeed “prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

May each of you enjoy a Christ-filled and Christ-focused Christmas this year, celebrating his birth while anticipating his glorious return.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. … He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22: 17, 20 ESV)

The Word Became Flesh

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)

It is always challenging as a teacher, preacher, or a blogger this time of year to approach the account of our Savior’s birth from a fresh perspective. The story from Luke’s gospel is so familiar to us all. One of the ways that I did that as a teacher was to explore some unique perspective of the Christmas story through whatever book of the Bible we were studying at the time. That was especially challenging the year we were studying Ezekiel. But even in Ezekiel, I found it not nearly as difficult as I had anticipated. Because the Christmas story- God’s plan for mankind’s redemption- is woven throughout Scripture.

Of course, the most familiar Christmas accounts are found in the pages of Matthew and imageLuke. But in recent years I have been drawn more to John’s account. You might argue that John did not write of the birth of Christ in his gospel, but you would be mistaken. As was his style, John just presented it in a different way because John had a different agenda or purpose for his gospel than the synoptic gospel writers. Those other gospels focused heavily on presenting the detailed events of Jesus’ life- John focused on capturing the person of Jesus Christ.

John’s account of Jesus’ birth was very plainly spoken- it can be easily memorized- but it speaks volumes theologically. It is found in John 1:14 which says “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” We sometimes miss the awesome impact of that simple truth in our own Christmas traditions. We are thrilled each year by the thought of the spectacle of that night. We imagine the majesty of the angel and the heavenly host that appeared to the shepherds; the simple, yet touching manger scene with the precious little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. We gaze in awe and wonder as skilled actors, musicians, and singers attempt to recreate the majesty of that night in drama and song.

All of that is part of the Christmas experience as we celebrate it each year – the Christmas traditions that connect us with other Christmases going all the way back to our childhood. It is all part of our effort to keep Christ in Christmas. And it is all good and pleasing and very much needed in this increasingly secular world we live in. But sometimes we let even that focus on keeping Christ in Christmas cause us to miss the most important truth about Christmas – that when Christ was born in that manger in Bethlehem that night, God himself left the splendor of heaven, humbled himself by taking on flesh, and made his dwelling among us.

I love what Luke says concerning Mary’s reaction to all the events of that night. While the shepherds gazed in awe and wonder at the spectacle and all who heard their story “were amazed at what the shepherds said to them”, Luke says Mary “treasured” them up and “pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) At Christmas, we need to spend less time hustling and bustling and more time just treasuring and pondering … treasuring and pondering the person of Jesus Christ – who He is and why He came. And nobody answers those questions better than John in the pages of his gospel. Nobody makes a stronger case for the deity of Christ than John. Nobody knew Christ more intimately than John. And nobody moves us to know Christ more intimately ourselves than John.

My wife and I have a grandson who has Asperger’s Syndrome. After his initial diagnosis, I sought out much information about this particular form of autism spectrum disorder which can be highly functioning but characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. One of the most interesting books I read was “The Journal Of Best Practices” by David Finch. This book was unique because it was actually written by someone with Asperger’s. Prior to his diagnosis after his marriage, Finch’s condition caused tremendous conflict in his relationship with his wife. He recorded this journal to help him remember basic rules for social interactions and problem solving that most of us learned from an early age through everyday life experiences, but which never registered with him because his brain processes information so differently.

As I read his account, I was struck by how well the author describes his thought processes as he deals with situations most of us never even think about. After his diagnosis, many of the conflicts with his wife began to resolve themselves as she learned more about Asperger’s and began to understand why he responds differently to things than she does and as he began to understand why the things that seemed perfectly normal to him were so upsetting to her. He began the journal to train himself to act more in line with her expectations.

Finch was able to articulate his thought processes in a way my grandson cannot. When I read books about autism and Asperger’s, I know more about my grandson. But there’s a big difference between knowing about someone and truly knowing someone. After reading this very personal account from someone who actually has Asperger’s, I felt as though I truly knew my grandson more intimately and personally.

I thought of that as I reflected on this simple passage from John. “God became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Jesus came to show us the Father; To speak to us the very words of God so that we can better know the Father more intimately and personally. He told Phillip, “The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10) Jesus walked in our shoes; He faced the same temptations that we face; and yet was without sin- thus qualifying Himself to make atonement for ours.

That is the unparalleled message of Christmas- a message so well articulated by John with those memorable words, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” I pray that this Christmas you will ponder those words, treasure them in your heart, and reflect upon their implication for your life. El Shaddai, The Almighty God, is also Immanuel, God with us. God Most High is also God Most Nigh. May you experience the reality and the power of His presence this Christmas as never before. And the Gospel of John would be an excellent place to start!

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

Note: All Scripture references from the New International Version (NIV)