This article is an excerpt from the Rev. Tim Harrison’s sermon titled “The Gift of Joy,” preached at Chapel by the Lake in Juneau on Dec. 18.
One of the most beloved traditions of Christmas is singing Christmas carols. Most schools host some sort of music concert, and most music teachers organize recitals. To quote Buddy the Elf: “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” In fact, today I am rehearsing with a worship team to lead a special mid-week Christmas music service, and we’ll have four services this weekend full of special Christmas music, including music by our excellent Bell Choir. Nothing says Christmas like Bells!
It is believed that the most published Christmas carol in North America is “Joy to the World.” However, the journey of this most-famous carol is interesting and took quite a long time to blossom. It began with Isaac Watts.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was an English minister some deemed a radical reformer. He thought the music of his day was uninspired and monotonous. He saw no joy or emotion in the hymns of his day and complained of the archaic language. At a very young age, after earning his stripes, Watts became a successful and well-known minister and hymn writer credited with over 750 hymns.
(A little side story: a woman named Elizabeth Singer was so impressed with Watts’ writing that she wrote him fan mail. After a while, she wrote and proposed marriage, which Watts accepted. However, when she came to meet him, she wrote “he was only five feet tall, with a shallow face and a hooked nose, prominent cheek bones, small eyes and deathlike color. She left! Some people believe this event caused Watts to forever forsake women and pour himself into his writing.)
One day Watts was studying Psalm 98:4-9:
“Shout to the Lord, all the earth; break out in praise and sing for joy!
Sing your praise to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and melodious song,
with trumpets and the sound of the ram’s horn.
Make a joyful symphony before the Lord, the King!
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the earth and all living things join in.
Let the rivers clap their hands in glee!
Let the hills sing out their songs of joy before the Lord,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with justice, and the nations with fairness.”
He wrote a four-stanza poem titled Joy to the World in 1719.
In 1792 in Medfield, Massachusetts, Lowell Mason was born. While he was a gifted musician, he did not see a career in music, so he moved to Savannah, Georgia, and became a banker. He studied Handel, Haydn and Mozart, and was repeatedly rejected when he tried to publish his music. Eventually, his music caught on, and he returned New England and began to teach music. Mason is credited with putting music to the words of Mary had a Little Lamb. Mason eventually
became the Director of Music at the 5th Ave Presbyterian Church in New York City.
In 1836 Mason was inspired to write a new tune inspired by Handel’s Messiah. He titled the tune Antioch because the city of Antioch was the starting point of two of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys. However, it took Mason 3 years to find words to match his tune, and he discovered a book of poems by Isaac Watts, took the words to Joy to the World, and in 1839 a new hymn was born!
Neither Isaac Watts nor Lowell Mason intended their work to be delegated as Christmas carol. In fact, the scripture that inspired the words was from the Old Testament. Yet, at the end of the 20th century Joy to the World was the most published Christmas carol in North America!
I share this story for three reasons. First, I think it illustrates how God weaves inspiration and collaboration is ways beyond anything we might imagine. Joy to the World flows from Psalm 98, Handel’s Messiah, a poem by am English minister and music by an American banker. Second, God uses our work in ways we cannot imagine. While Joy to the World was not intended to be a Christmas carol, it is hard to imagine a Christmas worship celebration without it! Third, and most importantly, joy is an outpouring of God’s love and grace found uniquely in Jesus Christ:
Joy to the World! The Lord is Come!
Let Earth receive her King!
May you know true joy this Christmas season!
• The Rev. Tim Harrison is senior pastor at Chapel by the Lake. He and his wife Karen (also an ordained pastor) have been in ministry together for over 35 years. They served Presbyterian churches in Florida, Washington, New Jersey and Wisconsin. Their son Noah lives in Florida.”Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Friday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.