Isaac was an amazing little boy. When he was 5 he was becoming proficient at Latin. 4 years later, he began trying to learn Greek and then 2 years later French followed by Hebrew as he moved into teenage years. You might think that all work and no play would make Isaac a dull boy but that was not the case. His wit jumped out at the dinner table as he was caught by his father with his eyes open during the prayer. Young Isaac responded with a rhyme, “A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up the rope to say his prayers.” Not amused, during the corporal punishment that followed by his dad, Isaac cried, “O Father, father, pity take and I will no more verses make.”
Isaac went on to benefit others from his rhymes. In fact, as a bored 18-year-old sitting in church one day, his dad questioned why Isaac was less than enthusiastic in his singing. “These songs are dullsville, Dad” Isaac’s dad did what any good reverse psychology thinking dad might say, “If you don’t like the songs we sing, write new ones that are better. Isaac did write - a new song (using the Psalms) for his church every week for 2 years, enough so that eventually he wrote hymns using 132 of the 150 Psalms. By the time Isaac Watts would live his 74 years, he would become known as the "Father of English Hymnody", credited with some 750 hymns. One of the all-time favorites was “Joy To the World.” What was the occasion? A Christmas Eve service, a staff Christmas party? Something for the family to sing prior to opening their gifts? Not any of those constituted the reason for this beloved Carol. In fact, Joy to the World has nothing to do with Christmas and was never intended as a seasonal favorite. As we sang, you noticed nothing about shepherds, mangers, wise men or angels. Instead it describes the Lord’s Presence which might have just escaped young Isaac. His life might have been considered anything but joyful. His father was thrown into prison twice because of his extreme views about the church. Isaac was offered a college education by a group of Physicians thinking that with an intellect that could learn Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French by the time he was barely a teenager, surely he would become a fine, outstanding Priest- even perhaps a rector in the church. Instead, Isaac turned down the offer, joined an Independent church and lived with the pastor during his education. Isaac was only 29 when a violent fever racked his body making him homebound for over 2 years. Many would have given up, grown bitter at life and turned inward but not Isaac. His writing of verse that began for him as a young child continued throughout his life and so Isaac Watts, channeled what might have been a life of despair into the poems that would become the hymns – one of which has brought immeasurable joy to millions for 300 yrs.
Dutch Jesuit priest, Henri Nouwen wrote, “ Joy does not come from positive predictions about the state of the world. It does not depend on the ups and downs of the circumstances of our lives. Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world in which we live is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world. Jesus says it loudly and clearly: “In the world you will have troubles, but rejoice, I have overcome the world.” The surprise is not that, unexpectedly, things turn out better than expected. No, the real surprise is that God’s light is more real than all the darkness, that God’s truth is more powerful than all human lies, that God’s love is stronger than death.
This is described beautifully in our two examples from scripture this morning. John the Baptist is in prison. This scripture happens much later than the narratives about Jesus’ birth. John had believed in Jesus before he spent any time listening to him. John had even baptized Jesus when asked. When people came claiming that John was the Messiah, he deflected and pointed them back to the actual Messiah – Jesus. But after his arrest, it looked as if it had all been a sham. He knew that he would die there and for what. He sent word to Jesus that spoke volumes narrowed to one powerful question, “Are you he who was to come or should we look for another?” Are you who you say you are? Many people share that same sentiment. Is Jesus, is the church, is Christmas all it’s cracked up to be? Is he, are we telling the truth? Have we been shammed like the rest? Here we are in desperate situations with the world spinning out of control. Notice the answer to John’s question that Jesus sent back. Jesus asked in return, “What were you looking for John? A priest dressed immaculately. A prophet predicting the future. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Things are happened that you might not have noticed or paid attention to. God is at work whether you feel it or see it or are even experiencing it for yourself. Notice something amazing about Jesus’ list of things for John to notice that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. All miracles. Read on - the poor have good news brought to them. Not a miracle. Just hard-core love and acceptance because in that day (and in ours) the poor have less than anyone to be joyful about. Sometimes joy happens to us, sometimes in spite of us, but is never a product of our external circumstances.
Author Shauna Niequist writes in her book “Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life”
“I want a life that sizzles and pops and makes me laugh out loud. And I don't want to get to the end, or to tomorrow, even, and realize that my life is a collection of meetings and pop cans and errands and receipts and dirty dishes. I want to eat cold tangerines and sing out loud in the car with the windows open and wear pink shoes and stay up all night laughing and paint my walls the exact color of the sky right now. I want to sleep hard on clean white sheets and throw parties and eat ripe tomatoes and read books so good they make me jump up and down, and I want my every day to make God belly laugh, glad that he gave life to someone who loves the gift.”
Joy isn’t something that is a product of our own making. Joy is a product of what God has done and is still doing. The message of Advent is that God has promised to rescue us from our despair and misery, and it is the Lord who does the miracles – not we ourselves. Joy is not something we create because the birds are singing, or the checkbook is happy. Joy happens when God’s work happens within and around us and does what we cannot do for ourselves. In fact, when we try to imitate joy it never works. Try as we might, we cannot work miracles. Joy happens when we are reminded that the Lord has come and indeed rules the world with truth and grace. Thank you, Isaac, for reminding us that joy really isn’t distinctly a Christmas thing and that joy is not something any of us have the capacity of creating but every ability to experience it measurably even when it makes no logical sense.
Henri Nouwen again, “Joyful persons do not necessarily make jokes, laugh, or even smile. They are not people with an optimistic outlook on life who always relativize the seriousness of a moment or an event. No, joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence and at the same time are not imprisoned by it. They have no illusion about the evil powers that roam around, “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), but they also know that death has no final power. They suffer with those who suffer, yet they do not hold on to suffering; they point beyond it to an everlasting peace.