“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

Wait, isn’t that a Christmas carol? Why are we going to sing it on Easter Sunday morning?

Yes, the song appears in our hymnal in the Christmas carol section (which is named “Jesus Christ: Advent and Nativity”). Before it is “We Three Kings,” and after it is “The First Noel.” I keep track of the days on which we sing songs in worship, and in my years as pastor at Mt. Haley, we have only ever sung “Joy to the World” in the month of December – or, occasionally, in late November. There is no question that this song is a Christmas-time song.

But we’re going to sing it on Easter Sunday, and I’m excited about that. :)

“Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98. Isaac Watts wrote these lyrics as part of his quest to point all of the Psalms specifically to Jesus. Take a few minutes right now to read Psalm 98 – which, by the way, will be our responsive reading on Easter Sunday, as well.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

If there were ever a day for us to celebrate the arrival of Jesus as King, it is Easter Sunday. After all hope seemed to have been lost on Good Friday, and after a quiet day of somber reflection on Holy Saturday, Christians around the world will celebrate with great wonder the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Who else would we claim as our King?

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns. Let men their songs employ, while fields and flocks, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.

All creation joins in celebration of the new life found in Jesus Christ. Remember that Easter coincides with the early days of springtime. Take a look around you: fields, flocks, rocks, hills, and plains are all bursting at the seams with new life. (Well, ok, maybe the rocks are a little stoic. But maybe not: see Luke 19:37-40.)

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

This is what the Easter season is all about: through his death and resurrection, Jesus has made atonement for our sins. The sorrow of Good Friday has been turned into Easter celebrations. The thorns on Jesus’s crown are exchanged for a royal crown that will never be taken away from him.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.

Jesus came into this world full of grace and truth (John 1:14). His resurrection from the dead proves that the world’s greatest powers – religious and secular alike – are no match for his righteousness and love.

We live in an in-between time, between Jesus’s resurrection and his return at the end of the age. During this in-between time, we remember and celebrate the past: Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the grave. But we also remember and celebrate the future: Jesus will come again in glory, and the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Revelation 11:15). Rightly understood, “Joy to the World” is a song about the second coming of Christ. Won’t it be grand to remember Jesus’s future arrival on the day that we remember his victory over the grave?

Come and worship with us at Mt. Haley on Easter Sunday, April 16, at 10am. We will have a sunrise service at 7am and a hot breakfast at 8am as well.

We live in a divided age. Republicans vs. Democrats, rich vs. poor, English-speakers vs. Spanish-speakers, citizens vs. immigrants, Christians vs. Muslims, good guys vs. bad guys, peaceful people vs. terrorists: we have so many ways to categorize ourselves and our enemies. I use the term “enemies” very broadly to cover opponents, strangers, foreigners, people with whom we disagree, even people whom we choose to unfollow or unfriend on Facebook. Sometimes, given our emotions and our perceived level of risk, we wish harm on our enemies. Sometimes we even enact harm on our enemies. Sometimes we restrain ourselves from physical violence but use words that are quite damaging by themselves.

For people of faith (and Christians in particular), the temptation to harm our enemies is just as strong as it is for anyone else. We fool ourselves if we say we are innocent of this temptation while hating members of ISIS, cheering the latest lethal injection, or even ridiculing fellow church members who voted for the other candidate.

Christians are to follow the example of Jesus, who famously prayed that all his followers might be one as he and God the Father are one (see John 17). We have made quite a mess of Christianity by creating so many divisions, even within single congregations. But church unity is a red herring; God’s real desire is for all people to be reconciled to him and to each other.

The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel writes:

Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign LORD. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:23 NLT)

As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die? (Ezekiel 33:11 NLT)

God is pro-life, in the broadest, most universal sense of the term.

Five hundred years ago, a man named John Redford served as the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He is considered the author of a medieval poem which has been set to choral music, a piece which Tara and I have learned as part of a Holy Week choral service in which we will participate next month. Below are its lyrics:

Nolo mortem peccatoris; Haec sunt verba Salvatoris.*
Father I am thine only Son, sent down from heav’n mankind to save.
Father, all things fulfilled and done according to thy will, I have.
Father, my will now all is this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.
Father, behold my painful smart, taken for man on ev’ry side;
Ev’n from my birth to death most tart, no kind of pain I have denied,
but suffered all, and all for this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.

* Translation: “I do not wish the death of a sinner.” These are the words of the Savior.

As far as I can tell, Jesus did not say the words attributed to him in this poem, but he certainly lived out their meaning. Whether he met a woman caught in adultery, ten lepers, or a Roman centurion, Jesus consistently worked toward their life and well-being. Even his greatest enemies, the super-religious Pharisees, were people whom Jesus loved: after speaking strong words of condemnation against them, he expressed how much he longed to gather them together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matthew 23:37).

What if we lived our lives after Jesus’s example? What if our motto was nolo mortem peccatoris, “I do not wish the death of a sinner”? How would we live differently?

Who is your enemy, and how can you love him or her today?

(You can read the full text of this medieval poem here.)

Worship means much more than “songs that we sing on Sunday morning.” To me, worship means “giving worth to God as the people of God,” or “showing God how much we love him,” or “celebrating God for his own sake.” And that can take lots of different forms, not just through music.

For a few years now, I have had the privilege and responsibility of planning our Sunday morning worship services at Mt. Haley. Today I would like to draw back the curtain a little bit, so that you can see what goes into these preparations and what I hope we can accomplish as we worship Jesus together. Continue reading

John Rutter is one of the most famous composers of choral music in the 20th century. He is known as the founder and director of the Cambridge Singers, and his compositions and arrangements are widely known and sung throughout the world and especially here in the United States.

I recently became aware of a Christmas carol written by Rutter in 1990. The carol is entitled “Christmas Lullaby,” and Tara and I have the opportunity to sing it with a chamber choir this coming weekend. The lyrics to this carol are particularly meaningful to me this year, so I’d like to share them with you here. Continue reading

Tara and I sing with the Midland Chorale, a choral group that presents a number of concerts throughout the course of a year. This fall, we are singing a new piece by Mark Hayes called “The American Spirit.” In three movements, it tracks our nation’s historical emphases on self-reliance, individualism, equality, justice, optimism, and dreams. The second of these movements draws the bulk of its lyrics from a sonnet entitled “The New Colossus,” written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus.

The civil war in Syria began in 2011. For the past four years, violence, oppression, and despair have marked the lives of everyday Syrians. You have probably seen the news, especially in the past month, of how many people have fled from their homes in Syria because of the ongoing conflict. Presently, some four million Syrians have left their country, fleeing – often on foot or via traffickers – to nearby places like Turkey and Lebanon, as well as more distant nations such as Germany and Egypt.

Continue reading

Christopher Smart was an English poet who lived just before the American Revolution. He contributed regularly to a couple of popular magazines in London, but he was eventually locked away in a mental institution by his father-in-law for various reasons. Smart accumulated so many debts throughout his adult life that he was finally placed in a debtors’ prison, where he died of an illness at age 49.

I just learned about Christopher Smart because of a poem he wrote, entitled The Stupendous Stranger, which has been set to music. One of the choirs in which Tara and I sing will be performing this piece of music at an upcoming Christmas concert this month. The poem is rather short, just two verses long. I offer this to you as an Advent reflection:

Where is this stupendous stranger?
Gentle shepherd, now advise.
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
show me where my Savior lies.
O Most Mighty! O Most Holy!
Far beyond the seraph’s thought,
art thou then so weak and lowly
as unheeded prophets taught?

O the magnitude of meekness!
Worth from worth immortal sprung;
O the strength of infant weakness,
if eternal is so young!
God all bounteous, all creative,
whom no ills from good dissuade,
is incarnate, and a native
of the very world he made.

Sometimes the most powerful ideas are contained in just a few words. I fear that anything I write here might detract from the impact of Smart’s poem on my life – and, perhaps, on yours – so I will keep these comments brief.

Jesus is the stupendous stranger whom we meet as the baby in Bethlehem. The contrasts of this poem are remarkable: great and meek, strong and weak, eternal and young, creating and incarnate, strange and native. Jesus is all of these things.

How can we ask “What Child Is This?”, as the Christmas carol goes, when he is the very one who created Mary, the one on whose lap he is now sleeping?

How can we speak “sleep in heavenly peace,” as the Christmas carol goes, when this tender and mild infant is the immensely powerful God of all creation?

How can we sing “welcome to our world,” as the recent song by Chris Rice goes, when this child is not really a stranger to this world at all?

Perhaps we are the strangers whom God graciously invites to approach his manger. Perhaps we are the visitors who get to meet someone who is so unlike ourselves (immortal, strong, creator, master) yet who is very much like us (enfleshed, weak, vulnerable, native). Perhaps we are the gentle shepherds who are called to escort others to the manger, to the cross, to the tomb, to the Table.

Perhaps we are simply those who read Christopher Smart’s words and pause in awe and thanksgiving. The Stranger is now native. The Creator is among us. The Baby is eternal. The Weak is our Strength.

Pastor David

This season, Tara and I are preparing to sing several musical selections with the Midland Chorale at our annual “Holiday Extravaganza” at the Center for the Arts. One of the songs we are practicing is called “Christmas on Broadway.” This is a medley of holiday tunes from different Broadway shows through the years: “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” “My Favorite Things,” that kind of music.

The final tune in this medley is called “God Bless Us Everyone,” from the musical version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”  The lyrics, written by Lynn Ahrens, are simple yet meaningful:

In your heart there’s a light as bright as a star in heaven.
Let it shine through the night, and God bless us, everyone.
‘Til each child is fed, ’til all men are free, ’til the world becomes a family…
Star by star up above, and kindness by human kindness,
Light this world with your love, and God bless us, everyone.

These words alone are worth pondering: the tasks of feeding each child, freeing each person, and counting stars are seemingly endless tasks. But global problems must be approached one person at a time, because each life that is changed is worth the investment.

Last Monday, we ran into an interesting musical problem while rehearsing this tune.  When we sing the line “and God bless us, everyone,” there is a big leap downward from “and” to “God.” Some of the singers in our choir were struggling with this jump downward, so our director paused and said, “it sounds like some of you are having trouble getting down to ‘God.'” Then he looked at me and said, “Getting Down to God would make a good sermon title!”

A lot could be said about “getting down to God.” Is God somehow lower than us? Do we try to make God too complicated, when really God should be simpler than we make him? Are we guilty of thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought?

But think about this: “getting down” to a lower note, vocally speaking, means reducing the frequency of the pitch being produced by your voice. In terms of sound waves, lower frequency means the waves somehow slow down (technically, the speed of sound doesn’t change; the period of a sound wave gets longer as the frequency drops). “Getting down” to a lower note means slowing down, taking more time, as if the sound waves are paying more attention to the world around them.

As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?”Jesus asked. (Luke 8:42b-45a NIV)

Jesus slowed down and paid attention to those around him, even though he was being crushed by the crowds. While on his way to another (life and death!) ministry situation, Jesus paused to have a conversation with a woman who trusted him for her healing. (Read the whole story in Luke 8:40-56.)

What if “Getting Down to God” means moving slowly through our world, like Jesus did?  What if it means paying attention to those in need around us and doing what we can to alleviate suffering, to raise quality of life, to bring redemption and healing in the name of Christ?

‘Til each child is fed, ’til all men are free, ’til the world becomes a family…