Sermon Seeds: Sing with Joy
Christmas Day Year B
Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
Additional reflection on Psalm 98 and John 1:1-14
Sing with Joy
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by Karen Georgia Thompson
One of the many gifts of Christmas is the number of carols that begin to fill the airwaves weeks before Christmas Day. Secular and sacred, they bring to mind the stories that capture what Christmas is for us in the church, but also bring tales of snow, sledding, drinking hot chocolate and finding presents under the Christmas tree. Sometimes it seems that the songs about sledding and snow, dreams of Santa and gifts under the tree far outnumber the songs that tell of the birth of Jesus in the manger. The news of the angels singing and of the shepherds making their way in haste is not as prominent on the airwaves these days.
Psalm 98 is no Christmas story. Diane Bergant notes that Psalm 98 “belongs to the category of enthronement psalms, praising God as king over all (v.6). It opens with a summons to sing a new song to God (cf. Psalm 96). The reason for this new song is the marvelous things God has done. The psalmist follows this summons with an enumeration of some of the acts of God (vv.1b-3)” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). Where is the story of Christmas on this Christmas morning as we read this enthronement psalm which praises God as king over all? This psalm praises God as the judge of the world in the midst of celebrating the birth of the Christ child with all the joy, hope and expectation for peace in the world and good will among all people.
“O sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things” (Psalm 98:1). There is a bold invitation to join the psalmist in celebrating God because of all God has done. God as celebrated here is God made known to the people as one who is victorious and acts on behalf of the people. God is God of love and faithfulness, ever present in the lives of the people. There is much for the psalmist to sing about as God is remembered and acknowledged in the lives of the community. This tale of God victorious gives pause at first glance, but the psalmist points us in a direction that is joyful for this Christmas season and always.
The psalms provide a distinction between praise and thanksgiving. Our varying traditions as Christians bring us different expressions of praise and certainly of what it means to “sing with joy.” S. E. Gillingham points to the unique nature of the psalms of thanksgiving: “It is possible to see the thanksgiving as another form of the hymn, in that it praises God for the particular act of restoration, rather than being more general in its orientation” (The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible). The inclination in our worship at Christmas might be one of thanksgiving and gratitude for the gift of God given in Jesus. There is much room for gratitude but our gratitude should include praise – a new song expressing the joy of receiving the gift that is inherent in the meaning of the Christmas story.
Praise – “the act of expressing approval or admiration; laudation; commendation” (www.dictionary.com) is not static but a dynamic expression that is exuberant at best. Praise is not a lukewarm expression. The psalmist issues a second invitation to all: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 98:4). Joyful noise, joyful song and songs of praise are the order for this new day. The realization of God’s goodness and faithfulness are the source of inspiration for this time of celebration.
Beth Tanner captures this exuberant expression as she expounds on the celebration of God as “King, Creator, and Judge of All.” She writes: “We are called to sing a new song, for it is a new day with God and God has done marvelous things. But we are not alone in our song; we are to join with all the earth. Using every instrument we have, we are to make a great deal of noise! Our song should reach the heavens. On this day that we celebrate the coming of God to live among us and our weekly Sabbath worship, praise should be unleashed as a celebration where little kids twirl and old gentlemen laugh with tears of grateful thanks. In the psalms its gets noisier still as the creation joins in its grateful song. Everything and everyone, just for a moment, shares a time of joy” (New Proclamation Year B 2012).
The corpus of Christmas songs brings to mind this exuberance. Songs of the angels singing provide visions of praise and adoration that are reflected in our own singing as we sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” with its resounding refrain of Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o! This well-known hymn also includes all involved in praise as the mountains echo their reply to the angels singing.
Angels we have on heard high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
To that we could add “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “Joy to the World” and other Christmas staples that paint the picture of angels, trees, mountains, shepherds praising God and singing of God’s grace and mercy. These were written many years ago. They are classics in their own right. We revisit them each Christmas season and know them so well that we no longer notice the praise that emanates from these songs. Is there room for singing a new song among us?
The new song is more than just providing new lyrics and a new tune. In New Proclamation Year B 2008-2009, Brian K. Peterson notes that the call to rejoice goes out to the people in the Temple, those who have experienced God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. They are to sing a new song to replace the old songs of lament: “In the final verse the reason for such praise is given: what God has done for Israel, God will do for all the world, bringing righteousness and equity. This verse turns attention away from what God has done in the past to what God is doing now and will do in the future to set right what is wrong. In the church’s celebration of Christmas, it would be easy to think only in terms of what happened so long ago, but our joy is also over what God is doing now, and what God will still do to heal our lives and the world.”
A new song awaits us this Christmas Day! We sing with joy with all of creation. This awareness of all things singing with joy is a reminder that we need to care for all of creation. We sing in community, a reminder that we are one people created in the image of the Divine. We are reminded in these moments that we are to care for each other. There is much to sing about. There is much to celebrate.
A new song implies that there was an “old” song. James Limburg comments on the invitation for the people to sing a new song: “Here is a call to break out of traditional ruts and bring some fresh music into the worship service!…There must have been those who wanted only the ‘old songs’ (the good old hymns that everybody knows) and those who wanted to make use of contemporary ones. This psalm…is on the side of those who want to try something new” (Psalms, Westminster Bible Companion).
What is there for us to sing about as we consider the presence of God with us and among us on this Christmas Day? What are the new songs of praise for us to sing? Will we make room to sing with joy this Christmas?
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations with the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. (Thompsonk@ucc.org)
Additional reflection on Psalm 98 and John 1:1-14:
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
At Christmas, we look at the manger scene, we sing songs about what happened long ago, we re-tell – again and again – the ancient story of the birth of Jesus. We celebrate at Christmas, filled with joy at what God has done. Our psalm reading for this day, Psalm 98, calls us to sing “a new song” because of what God did in the past but also because of what God is still doing today and will continue to do in the future. At the core of their religious observance, the people of Israel remembered God’s faithfulness in their history, but also recognized the presence of God in their midst at that moment, judging the people, judging the world God had created: in a sense, then, continuing to create and re-shape, to re-create it all along.
We might be taken off guard by this notion of judgment entering our Christmas celebration, but Beth Tanner reminds us (well, at least those of us who live up north) that the warmth of the Christmas season “gives way to the long, cold winter,” a good time to “change how we live so that others can live.” Simply put, she says, “The psalm calls on us to party for the equality of all” (New Proclamation Year B 2012). That certainly brings our celebration this morning into coherence with our longing for God’s justice and healing and peace, not just for some but for all the world that God loves so well. That surprising note of judgment reminds us, too, of Mary’s beautiful song, The Magnificat, when the high will be brought low, and the hungry filled. No wonder Mary’s son would talk the same way, one day.
On this Christmas Day, then, we look back, but we strive to open our eyes, too, to the presence and the workings of God’s promises, the unfolding of God’s will just as much for all of us and the world today as for one young woman, full of grace, long ago. The psalm calls us and all the world, not just our congregation, not just the wider church, not just folks who believe as we do, but all the world, all creation, to sing this new song. As nature breaks forth in praise and a melody of its own, the singing of birds and brooks, the music of the spheres, the hum that lies beneath all life, our voices raised in Christmas carols are joined with the rest of God’s good and beautiful creation, opening our hearts to the One who is Gift to us all, the One John speaks of in the opening to his Gospel as “the Word,” “the life,” and “the light.”
Christmas seems to be a time when we linger on tender memories of joy that had no material reason but was deeply spiritual and profoundly connected to all that surrounded us at the time. There have been times in our lives, hopefully, when it was impossible to contain our joy, when, as the old song goes, we couldn’t keep from singing, not unlike the psalmist or the evangelist, John, as he begins the story of Jesus.
The first verses of John’s Gospel, of course, are often heard as a kind of hymn rather than simple story-telling. Music, like other arts, expresses our feelings better than spoken or written words. It seems that the world almost verges on “getting” this, each Christmas, that some common ground is almost found, or is found, fleetingly: our common hunger for joy, and generous sharing, and peace. We may even dare to hope for reconciliation in our personal relationships and families, just as we dare to dream of peace among the nations. We suspect that this is the deepest longing of the human heart, and in the midst of Christmas celebrations, underneath and through them, that’s the longing we’re trying to express with each twinkling light (a star in the sky?), each colorful ornament, every carol sung. Do you agree with this claim, or do you think we have wandered too far from “the true meaning of Christmas,” and reduced “joy” to “happiness over getting what we want”?
We celebrate Christmas in many ways, among them gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts, holding pageants, and sending cards. Perhaps the most moving and memorable way we celebrate Christmas, however, is singing Christmas carols. Our musical memory lasts through the years, from our childhood into our old age, the melodies familiar and comforting, the words hauntingly beautiful and instructive at the same time. The readings for this morning are like songs, too, and their lyrical celebration of God at work in the world, saving, vindicating, calling, and comforting, links us to our ancestors in faith who shared our common hope and longing. We sing along with them today.
What is the good news we are waiting to hear, or waiting to see fulfilled, on this Christmas Day 2014? Perhaps we are waiting for a messenger who will tell us that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God is still with us. Or, perhaps we have secretly, privately, given up hope, in spite of our best efforts at decorating, cooking, visiting, and even gift-giving. Worse, we may have reached the point of assuming that it is all up to us to bring the peace our hearts long for, all up to “little old us” and our best efforts, with God not bothering to intervene at all. Can we even begin to make everything right? And yet, isn’t Christmas about God intervening in human history? Isn’t Christmas about God telling us not to give up hope after all, telling us not to believe that we are all on our own?
In some ways, we might experience ourselves, or at least our culture, our nation, the world, as “a city in ruins,” like Jerusalem so long ago. How does this image strike you? And yet, God is still speaking good news to us, today, in the “ruins of Jerusalem,” in every broken dream, every heart-breaking loss, every contentious public issue, every insurmountable obstacle….God is speaking still, God is bringing good news. What are the broken things, the malfunctioning systems, the things that need to be made right? How does Christmas morning do more than remind us of what God has done but instead proclaims that God is active in the world today, in this setting of history? What is the new thing that God is doing in the life of your congregation, in your own life, in the life of the United Church of Christ? In this day, how is God revealing God’s own self in the life of the community?
The reading from John is more familiar than many, but its profound meaning often goes over our heads. On this Christmas morning, what is the Word that we long to hear, that we long to feel anew in our lives? The baby is small and vulnerable and sweet, yet the God revealed in this human flesh is clearly – from our readings – a mighty God, above our imaginings or description. We can hardly begin to relate to such a Presence and such a Reality. And yet we can relate to a baby, a mother, and, strangely enough, the shepherds who came to give homage.
Perhaps this paradox explains why singing the carols begins to express the inexpressible: we cannot put into words the incredible mystery of God-made-flesh, and yet we have known it in our bones. We have felt God with us even when we could never explain how that could be. Christmas is our communal recognition, our shared celebration, that God is with us still, God is still speaking, God is still acting in our lives and in the life of the world that God loves so well. God is still with us, and we celebrate, and we sing our songs this Christmas morning. But how will we continue to sing these songs, in the days ahead? How is this morning not only unlike all other mornings, but indeed like every other morning of our lives?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
O sing to God a new song,
for God has done marvelous things.
God’s right hand and holy arm
have given God the victory.
God has made known the victory;
and has revealed God’s vindication
in the sight of the nations.
God has remembered having steadfast love
and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth
have seen the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to God,
all the earth;
break forth into joyous song
and sing praises.
Sing praises to God 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 Ruler, the Sovereign.
Let the 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 God,
for God is coming to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
(For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son; today I have begotten you”?
“I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.”
But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
“In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like clothing;
like a cloak you will roll them up,
and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end.”)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)