Some of our most beloved Christmas songs, when you stop to consider the lyrics, are not really about Christmas. Jingle Bells, Sleigh Ride, and Winter Wonderland are more about the winter season than they are about Christmas. My Favorite Things is from the musical The Sound of Music and takes place when children are frightened by a storm. Finally, Let It Snow and Baby It’s Cold Outside are about…well…not Christmas, that’s for sure.
And then, there’s the beloved Christmas carol Joy To The World, which as it turns out, is not really about Christmas at all.
Joy To The World, sung mostly at Christmastime, has more to do with the second coming of Jesus than the first. Isaac Watts, the English poet and originator of the lyrics, draws the song’s initial inspiration, not from the birth of Jesus narrative in Luke 2, but from Psalm 98. He paraphrased Psalm 98 in his collection titled The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Joy to the World was taken from his portion titled The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom based on the following from the King James Version:
Make a joy noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together. Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity. Psalm 98:4-9
So, how did the song become a Christmas song? Possibly from the combination of the poem by Isaac Watts with the music of George Frederic Handel, composer of The Messiah orotorio. Even though Handel and Watts may have known each other, they did not work together to create the Joy To the World song we sing today. A third party combined the Watt’s words with musical portions from Handel’s Messiah to create the tune that is sung today in North America. Since Handel’s Messiah is associated with Christmas and contains a “Christmas” section, the breakaway song, Joy to the World, has always been associated with Christmas.
So there you have it, one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time is not a Christmas song. Does it matter? Not really. Enjoy it and use it to worship the Lord, who was born in Bethlehem as a baby and will one day return to judge the world with righteousness.
A few years ago, as Christmas approached, I was going through some personal struggles and even considered leaving the ministry. However, as I sat to review the worship music for the beginning of the Christmas season, I couldn’t stop singing the lyrics to Away In A Manger, one of my favorite Christmas carols. I love the simplicity of the song and am always impressed by the childlike faith it evokes.
Here are those first three stanzas:
Away in a Manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head. The Stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky, and stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever and love me I pray. Bless all the dear children, in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.
However, as I sang, I felt the song wasn’t complete, so on that day, I wrote two extra stanzas. Doing so help restore my faith and hope in the Lord. I pray they minister to you as you read them below.
No longer a baby, He grew to a man, sent to us from heaven to fulfill God’s plan. He died on a cross to atone for our sin, then rose from the dead to be alive again.
This precious Lord Jesus is all that we need, if we make him our Savior and our Lord indeed, Oh please, wondrous Jesus, be with us today. Fill us with your spirit, we now humbly pray.
*photo courtesy of Unsplash
I am greater than you.
Even if we aren’t aware of it, we say it all the time, in different ways to multiple people.
Kids say it on the playground.
Teenagers express it through segregation at lunchtime.
Adults express it when they drive off of the new car lot.
Pastors, deacons, teachers, and worship leaders convey it in their attitudes toward each other and toward others in the church.
I am greater than you.
Huge ministries sometimes fall because of leadership corruption and abuse, small church plants often begin out of spite, and confusing divisiveness invades the worship services, Bible studies, and prayer times of countless congregations. And all the while, the unchurched learn more about our vindictiveness and positional desires than our Christlike compassion and concern for their eternal destiny. What they see is the Body of Christ pointing fingers at each other, declaring to the world and the rest of the church:
I am greater than you.
Jesus had the same problem with His disciples. Shortly after His transfiguration, Luke reports that His disciples began arguing about which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:46 NLT).
I first heard this story when I was a child in the 70’s. I envisioned the disciples walking behind Jesus, saying “I’m greater than you and you and I’m certainly greater than you.” Even as an elementary student, it seemed so childish and stupid to me that the disciples were standing right behind Jesus, God the Son, and they had the audacity to argue with each other and say:
I am greater than you.
I love how Jesus handled the situation:
But Jesus knew their thoughts, so He brought a little child to His side. Then He said to them, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.” (Luke 9:47-48)
In Jesus’ day, children were not regarded as highly as they are today. This helps us see that He was saying that whoever welcomes and is willing to serve the lowest of the low welcomes and serves God Himself. It’s not hard to discern that this is not an attitude most often exhibited from those who want to exalt themselves over others.
The apostles learned this lesson when James and John asked Jesus if they could sit on His right and His left in the kingdom. The Bible reports that the other disciples were angry with these brothers because of their request.
“So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give His live as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45)
Jesus, the greatest person who has ever lived, took on Himself the attitude and position of a servant. He did this, even though He could have looked at us all and said:
I am greater than you.
If Jesus, the Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve others, shouldn’t we be able to do the same with each other and with the world around us. If we do, we’ll be showing the world and other Christians that we believe:
He is greater than us
Honesty may be the best policy, but deception and dishonesty are part of being human. That sentence is a direct quote from a recent article I read in a National Geographic article (June 2017) titled Why We Lie. The article even stated that Learning to Lie is a natural stage in child development. I’m not one who is overly prepared to discuss human development, but I do know that it’s not hard to see that dishonesty is prevalent in our society today. It is also rampant in our churches as well, especially in corporate worship.
Let me explain.
Charles Spurgeon once said, A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. He makes a good point, and Christians should be the first ones to understand the importance of truth, especially since we worship the One who is the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life. (John 14:6) However, instead of heralding truthfulness, we often champion deceit, inaccuracy, and falsehood, especially when we’re with other Christians in corporate worship.
To quote A.W. Tozer, Christians don’t tell lies, they just go to church and sing them.
I know we look like pillars of integrity when we stand to sing, sometimes with our hands raised high, but the question remains, do we honestly, wholeheartedly, sincerely, mean the words that are coming out of our mouths?
When I was a child, one of my favorite hymns was My Jesus, I Love Thee written by William R. Featherstone. The first stanza contains the lyrics, “For Thee, all the follies of sin I resign…” Even when I have the opportunity to sing that song now, I belt it out with all my heart, but when I reflect on the words, I must ask myself, “Have I really resigned from all follies of sin?” Sadly, the answer is most often, “No, I haven’t.”
One of my favorite worship songs now is When You Walk Into The Room by Bryan and Katie Torwalt. However, there are lyrics within the song that cause me to doubt my level of honesty with the Lord. For example, one line says “We can’t live without You, Jesus…” I’m lying if I say I always keep Jesus at the center of my life. Being a selfish person, I constantly try to live my life without Jesus’ influence. So, often, when I sing those words, I feel more conviction than rejoicing.
So, is the answer to stop singing and participating in corporate worship? Absolutely not. These internal struggles are part of the process of worship. In worship, we come to terms with the holiness of God and therefore, reflect on our own sinfulness. In Isaiah 6, which I learned in college is a textbook example of an ultimate worship service, Isaiah sees the Lord. He’s awed by the power that is before him. He hears the seraphim singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Heaven’s armies! The whole earth is filled with His glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). As Isaiah is taking all of this in, he is completely overwhelmed by the Lord’s holiness, and then he comes to grips with his own sinfulness. He cries out, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips.” (Isaiah 6:5a)
Isaiah knew that if he were to join the seraphim in singing “the whole earth is filled with His glory” that his own life would need to reflect the glory of God. The same is true for us with the songs we sing in worship. If we’re going to sing, “The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning, it’s time to sing Your song again…” (10,000 Reasons – Matt Redman), then we should be willing to rise in the morning, remembering who He is, and being willing to lift up His name in song, and willing to submit our day to His will.
So, let’s determine to sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs to the Lord with hearts that are pure and ready to confess. As we enter into worship, let’s encounter his holiness and repent of our own sinfulness. Let us be filled with integrity in our worship, lifting Him up in Spirit and in TRUTH.
King David was a king, a warrior, and a man after God’s own heart. He was also an artist, a musician and a writer. Who else but a sensitive person with an artistic heart could have written so many heart felt psalms? Who else but a talented artist could have played so skillfully that demons fled from Saul as he listened? The church needs artists today. We need people who cry when listening to beautiful pieces of music. We need people who stop running so frantically and see the beauty, hurt, and awe around us. We need people who pay more attention to God’s creation than business plans. We need people who feel deeply and have the ability to communicate those feelings to the rest of us.
Rory Noland, in The Heart of the Artist, writes that “Everyone with an artistic temperament has been told at some point in his or her life to develop a thicker skin. That’s nonsense! The world doesn’t need more thick-skinned people. It needs more people who are sensitive and tender.” I agree with Rory’s sentiment for the most part. I suggest that artists, in the church, need to be thin-skinned people when experiencing beauty and hearing from God but then be willing to put on spiritual full-body armor when experiencing evaluation, criticism, and spiritual warfare.
I am a firm believer that God determines what He wants someone to do by who He made them to be. I also believe that everyday, as we grow closer to Him, experience life’s victories and defeats, learn new skills, and tolerate pain and resistance, that we are in a constant state of becoming. So, the two questions are, “Who did God create you to be?” and “How has God being creating you recently?”
Did He create you to be an artist of some kind? Then keep reading.
The world pushes artists of all kinds down from the time they are young. Think about it. Adults ignore or laugh at children’s artwork when presented to them, kids taking artistic lessons are often downplayed by those in sports leagues, Jr. High students are merciless in their teasing of classmates trying to express themselves in any creative way, high school and college standards weed out those who simply want to create art for enjoyment, and then adulthood comes along and presents us with the immediate priorities of financial obligations, thank you very much. I know, I know. Life happens and people have to grow up and find real jobs in order to stay alive. That’s true, but what fun is life if there isn’t some kind of beauty we can experience along the way? What good is the money we make if we are numb to art and beauty?
I want to encourage artists, especially those in the church, to not be afraid of your own sensitivity. Feel what’s going on around you. Experience it. Live it. Make it a part of you. Then communicate it to the world around you in beautiful, unique ways. Write, sing, sculpt, paint, draw, play, act, compose, speak, direct, form, whatever…
Just don’t stop.
If you do, it’s not just you who loses.
It’s all of us.
When I was in college, I attended a large student conference in North Carolina. One day, as I was waiting for my friends, an older woman struck up a conversation with me. She asked me if I was enjoying the conference. For some reason, I told her I was really disappointed because I hadn’t been selected to sing the solo with the choir for that evening’s worship service.
She replied, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,’ in spite of that it still belongs to the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,’ in spite of this it still belongs to the body.” (1 Corinthians 12:15-16) Do you know why I stopped to talk with you?”
“No,” I replied.
“I wanted to tell you that each night when the choir sings, I watch you worship and it encourages me. You are unique and loved by God. He doesn’t want you comparing yourself to others. He wants you to rejoice in what He’s given you.”
I walked away encouraged.
That evening, I was surprised to see that very woman introduced as the keynote speaker. She walked to the podium, looked out at 1500 college students and said, “You are unique and loved by God.”
I noticed a girl on the front row wiping her eyes. She needed that message as much as I did.
We all spend so much time comparing ourselves with others that we forget that God loves us just as we are and made us that way on purpose.
So, before I go, let me remind you – You are unique and loved by God.
*Warren Wong Photo courtesy of Unsplash
Everyone, everywhere seems to have an remarkably meticulous opinion of what or how worship is supposed to be or happen. Interestingly enough, most of these opinions do not refer to true worship in a biblical sense, but are more about musical preference, sermon methodology, tradition (or the absence thereof), and permissible clergy clothing.
However, when Isaiah saw the Lord in Isaiah 6, he experienced the greatness of God, realized the extent of his own sinfulness, and witnessed his sin being atoned for. The end result of his worship experience was when Isaiah said “Here am I, send me.”
God shaped us after Himself so that we could experience His presence and accomplish His purposes. When we realize who He is and all that He has done for us, our only reasonable response to Him is worship and absolute surrender.
Many years ago, during a British conference on comparative religions, experts were discussing whether there was any belief that was truly unique to Christianity. Creation, incarnation, and resurrection were quickly eliminated because of similar examples in other religions. C.S. Lewis wandered into the room and enquired as to the topic of conversation. When told about the debate, without hesitation, Lewis replied, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
Grace is so simple that it baffles the experts. Grace is what makes Christianity unique. Because of it, we have the opportunity to know Jesus as Savior and Friend. Grace helps us understand the difference between happiness and joy. It allows us to conquer all of our fears. There is nothing we can do to earn grace and there is no way that we can destroy it. In Ephesian 1:5-6, the Apostle Paul wrote: He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved.
His grace really is amazing.