Texts: Luke 2:1-20;
Isa. 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14
HEAV’N AND NATURE SING
Christmas is a time for joyful singing, so I thought I’d take this time of brief reflections on the Christmas Gospel to take a closer look at one of our beloved carols, “Joy to the World.” Please open your bulletins to the first page, where the words are printed out for us.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive its King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare him room, and heav’n and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let all their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains Repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sin and sorrow grow; Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow Far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness And wonders of his love.
What I’d like us to notice is the scope of the joy for this day. In our Gospel reading itself, the angel says it will be joy to all people. The words of this hymn go far beyond that: Joy to the world, joy to the earth. Let heav’n and nature sing — fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy. And when it talks about sin and sorrow ceasing, it includes the thorns. In other words, the joy of this day takes in the whole universe.
The Christmas story is somewhat unusual in this way. Its magnitude goes beyond the world of people and heaven to include the realm of nature. Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. So we generally assume that animals were present at his birth. Angels appear to the shepherds and the heavenly host sounds like it takes in the stars themselves. Those shepherds run to see the holy child. Did they take the smallest and most vulnerable lambs with them? Did the wise men bring their camels? When we dramatize the nativity scene these days, many churches bring the animals right into church. Yes, this king of all creation, born on this day, brings joyful glad tidings to the whole earth. Let heav’n and nature sing!
Now, the thing I want us to notice here is the possible contrast to our most common hopes for the typical Christian faith. Does the following sound familiar? Our ultimate hope and faith is that when we die, we’ll go to heaven. If pressed a bit further: when we say “we,” we are usually talking about our souls, right? And so heaven is some ethereal place where God is and where our souls go. So our most typical hope is that when we die, our souls will go to a place called heaven where God dwells, and where we can then dwell forever.
But then the question is: why are all the animals, why are the “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains” so joyful on this day? Do you see? If Jesus comes only to take the souls of certain people to heaven some day, then why is the whole universe joyful at his coming, if he’s the savior just for human souls?
What I want us to consider this evening, if you haven’t thought about it much lately, is that our most ultimate hopes of the Christian faith might need some considerable expansion. The faith of our Jewish brothers and sisters — which we graciously inherit through Jesus and the apostles since they are Jews and we are gentiles — is for the whole creation. Their faith in God, which is so unique, is in one true God who lovingly created the entire universe. So would our ultimate hope be only for human souls? To be honest, that comes more from the Greek philosopher Plato than it does from a good Jew like Jesus. No! A Jewish-Christian hope must be for the whole creation which our God takes great care in bringing about. In fact, God is still working on it. It isn’t finished yet. You and I aren’t finished yet. So that’s what a good Jewish-Christian hope for the world is about: namely, that the creation would finally be finished. That it would at last come to fulfillment and perfection. That the lion would lie down with the lamb. That even the thorns would cease investing the ground. Heav’n and nature sing today because the Savior of the whole world came into the flesh to bring salvation.
In fact, that’s why Jesus was born in the first place. Jesus, the Word who was with God at the beginning of Creation, became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. His light was the life of the world. Why would he have come into this human flesh if it didn’t matter? It does matter. And this is a joyful day because Jesus came into this world to show us how and why it matters. It matters because of love, because of God’s infinite love for each one of us, and because through Jesus Christ, and the love of the cross, we can truly begin to share that infinite supply of love and life not only with one another but with this precious earth and all its creatures.
But you might still be wondering one important question: So what happens to us when we die? Don’t our souls go to heaven forever? And aren’t our loved ones alive even now in heaven? Yes, I believe that our loved ones are somehow alive with God in heaven right now. Jesus repeated the common Jewish faith in the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob. Those folks had long ago died before Jesus’ time on this earth. Yet he expressed a faith that they were somehow alive in God, because God’s power of life goes far beyond our imagining. But we need to be clear here that the Bible never talks in terms of disembodied souls. It’s a mystery, yes, that our loved ones who have gone before us in death are somehow alive in God right now — whatever “now” even means exactly to our eternal God. But how they are alive in God is not the promise of our ultimate hope. No, that’s just not overall the picture we have from the Bible of our ultimate hope. Like I said, the picture of souls dwelling in heaven forever is more like the philosopher’s Plato picture of things. No, our hope is more like what we pray for every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: we pray that God’s kingdom come, and that God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, our ultimate hope is not for our souls to go to heaven but for heaven to come to earth. Our prayer and our hope is that someday God’s power of life will bring the whole creation to fulfillment, that God’s loving will finally be completed here on earth. On that day, all those who have died but are alive in God, will be raised to live in this heaven and earth that will be like new.
That’s why heav’n and nature sing! That’s why “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.” Because the salvation which our Lord Jesus was born into this world to bring is for the whole creation. The forgiveness which he brings begins to renew us so that we will join in God’s continuing work of creation. As St. Paul says in Romans 8, the whole creation is groaning, waiting for us children of God to get our acts together in being the stewards of this earth that we are created to be. The whole Creation is longing for us to follow Jesus in loving each other and in caring for the earth. We are called, you and I, to follow the child born on this day of joy. We come here tonight to sing with all of heav’n and nature for the salvation he brings into our lives. We come to be fed at his holy table of celebration. And we leave tonight to share that joyous Good News with others and to live in the peace that his forgiveness brings. Joy to the world, the Savior reigns! Let all their songs employ! Let heav’n and nature sing! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, December 24, 2003