Perhaps that’s not the song you came to church to hear today, but that’s what we just sang in the psalm together. “Let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord.”
What is joy? When do we experience joy in our daily lives? Novelist Zadie Smith argues in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books that though we humans often experience pleasure—perhaps over a great tumbler of whiskey or a dog’s sweet companionship, joy is a much more rare and complicated emotion that is necessarily overwhelming and entangled with fear. It is the sort of thing that we could not bear to experience often, but when we do, we laugh and cry and can’t catch our breath and whether or not the event or its results are sustained, our lives are forever different for having experienced it.
What a miracle happened on Christmas! As we glimpse the enormity of this moment—just as when the shepherds saw the whole sky filled with bright angels—we burst forth with shouts of joy. In this moment, a joyful song we’ve sung before doesn’t fit—we need a whole new way of communicating to try to express this new age of God’s rule. This marvelous thing so unlike anything that’s happened before, we need a new song, a fresh account of God’s deliverance. Even the past looks different now that we know that God is here, in this place. Now.
There’s little else we can do with our joy but to sing, even the hills and seas are alive with the Promise that God fulfilled in becoming human on Christmas Day. After centuries of oppression, exile, and dispersion, The Promise has come to fruition. God has come to earth, he’s come into the middle of the mass of humanity and become human himself. God has made himself as close to us as he possibly can. It’s like how doctors treat pre-mature babies in the hospital—they’re administered skin-to-skin contact from their parents as if it was medicine. Resting on their father’s chest, or feeling their mother’s hands on their back, is as powerful as any manufactured pharmaceutical we have devised. God’s touch, his own hand and arm, as the psalm tells us, brought forth this miracle for our sake. God came in Jesus to heal us.
God has made good on his Promise now—today—Christmas. We are so precious to God that, given the choice to exist in peace and quiet and perfection for eternity, which, after Christmas morning with little kids, might sound pretty good, or to exist with and among humanity, he chose us. God has chosen never to be except to be in relationship with us.
Joy isn’t the only thing we feel today, nor is it the only thing that Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and others at Jesus’ birth felt. Just as they had questions about what life would mean and look like in light of this new reality, we do too. God’s companionship is the only answer to all the questions. Why can’t a brother and sister acknowledge the brokenness between them and reconcile on Christmas? Why can’t parents and grandparents set aside their pride and stubbornness and entrust their son and grandson to God’s capable hands? Why are children shot and spouses beaten and people starving? Our only answer to evil is that despite its presence in the world, God’s presence is with us too, and God’s love is more powerful than brokenness and death and destruction. The Promise God made to Abraham and to his descendants, the Israelites, is the same promise we can now claim as humans, because Jesus came as a human to save all people. God gave us Jesus out of his love, and Jesus is the touch that allows us to survive. He is the image of the invisible God. Jesus is God-with-us.
This truth, this joy that is revealed to us in Christ’s birth, this is the steadfast love that God is showing us. God has remembered his mercy and truth toward the house of Israel, he’s fulfilled his promise this morning. We sing a new song because a new thing has happened—something incomparable to all other experiences we’ve ever had. God reaches out and touches us.
To offer back to God our joy and thanksgiving at this marvelous gift, we gather together our harps, our trumpets, our organs, and pianos, and violins, and flutes. But even with these and with our own voices, the effort is paltry in comparison to the new thing God has done. Let us gather up the noise of the whole world—the roaring sea with its clapping waves and the ringing music of the mountains—all oriented to shout praise to God for this great gift he has given to humanity and to all creation.
Joy to the world!