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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC Combined Christmas Praise Service, 2014-12-21

Text: Psalm 98

 For our opening hymn today we sang the familiar favourite, “Joy to the World.” This carol is so hugely popular that it is virtually a permanent feature in Christmas celebrations all over the world, even though it lacks the details that are found in other familiar carols, like the angels, the shepherds, the wise men from the East, Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph or the babe lying in a manger. The only line in it that is closely related to the events of Christmas is the first one – “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Despite that, it is still the most-published Christmas carol in North America, and it has even been praised as the most uplifting and most joyous of all carols.

But do you know that the lyric-writer of “Joy to the World” never intended it to be a Christmas carol at all? This song was actually a paraphrase of a psalm that should be sung the whole year round. When it was first published in 1719, it was part of a collection in which 138 psalms from the Book of Psalms were paraphrased.

At that time all the psalms of the Bible were already being sung regularly in church worship services, because the Psalter had been prescribed by the Protestant Reformers as the only songs that could be used for worship. The Psalter was nothing more than literal translations of the psalms set into poetic meter to make them easier to sing. But the problem with these metrical psalms is that they lacked the fullness of the revelation of Christ as found in the New Testament. Christ was mentioned only in the types and shadows which are found in some messianic psalms.  It was hard for Christians to use them to offer meaningful praise to God for sending His only begotten Son into the world to save sinners.

Then God placed a burden in the heart of a man named Isaac Watts to do something about this. Watts was talented at writing verses that rhyme – It just seemed to come naturally to him since young. He had grown up attending church services in which nothing but the metrical psalms were sung. He did not like them and felt that something must be done to improve them. However the Lord also called him to be a fulltime minister. And so for about 20 years he was quite busy in preaching and teaching God’s Word in a Nonconformist church.

When Watts was in his 40s his preaching load was reduced because of declining health. This was the opportune time when he embarked on his life-long dream to Christianise the psalms that the church used for worship. In paraphrasing them, Watts sought to imagine how King David would have written the psalms if he had lived a thousand years later, in the times of New Testament. Hence he published them in 1719 with the title, “The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.”

These include some very familiar hymns we sing: “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” (which was based on Psalm 90); “Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun” (which was based on Psalm 72). When Watts came to Psalm 98 he decided to do the paraphrase of it in two parts. The first part was entitled, “Praise for the Gospel” and was based on the first 3 verses of Psalm 98. The second part was entitled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom” which was based on verses 4-9 of Psalm 98. As Isaac Watts meditated deeply on these 6 verses, those famous words of the carol flowed out from his mind to his pen – “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare Him room and heaven and nature sing.” It is said that when Watts wrote this, he was sitting under his favourite tree in Abney Park, a quiet and scenic garden estate which belonged to his friends, the Abneys.

Of all the over 600 hymns and paraphrased psalms that Isaac Watts wrote in his life time, none have been used as often as this one. The words are so well-chosen to express how glad we ought to be about Christ’s coming. That is why in 1839 an American church musician named Lowell Mason sought to compose a tune which would do justice to the words of this song. Mason’s favourite composer was George Friedrich Handel, an 18th century contemporary of Isaac Watts. Mason borrowed some musical phrases from Handel’s Messiahfor his composition and that soon became the permanent tune for “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.” That makes this carol so reminiscent of the majestic strains of Handel’s Messiah, which is also sung often at Christmas time.

This morning we want to learn from this carol, and specifically from the words of Scripture that inspired its writing. Let us turn our Bibles to Psalm 98. From this psalm we can learn lessons on how we should respond to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. You will notice that our Lord’s coming is mentioned in the last verse –“…for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.”But doesn’t this sound more like Christ’s second coming than His first coming? Didn’t Christ Himself say when He lived on earth, “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47)?

Why then do we sing this psalm at Christmas, which is about Christ’s first coming? Well, we need to understand that from the perspective of the OT prophets, the first coming and second coming of Christ were often seen together as one entire event even though they are actually thousands of years apart. For instance, we see this in Isaiah 9:6,7 – “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” This part of the prophecy was fulfilled at Christ’s first coming. But the next verse says: “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever...” This part of the prophecy has not been fulfilled yet – it awaits the time of Christ’s second coming when He will come from heaven as the mighty King of kings and Lord of lords to rule over the entire world and to establish His kingdom here on earth.

The same thing is true of Psalm 98 – It stands as an OT prophecy that anticipates the coming of Christ without making a distinction between His first coming and His second coming. With this understanding we shall now proceed to learn three lessons on our response to Christ’s coming:

1. Acknowledge His Right to be Your King (vv.6,9)

Verse 6 of our text says, “With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King.”This is something we must never forget even in our response to His first coming when He is depicted as a little baby born in Bethlehem. Many today would gladly receive Christ thinking that He is only a harmless little infant who will make no strict demands on them. Isn’t that how He is depicted in all nativity scenes at Christmas time? Well, the truth is that Jesus is no longer a baby, no longer a child. He is the great almighty King who has the authority to demand your loyalty and obedience! This is therefore what we need to focus our thoughts on as we celebrate His birth, as expressed in the opening line of the carol – “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her King.” In His birth as well as in the rest of His life on earth, we must see the supreme and sovereign right of the Lord Jesus Christ to be our King.

In fact, the Kingship of Christ stands right at the foreground of Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth. Matthew begins by tracing the genealogy of Jesus to the royal line of King David. Then he relates how the wise men from the east came to worship Him as the newborn King of the Jews. He records in detail the royal homage that Christ received from them in the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The important question that all of us have to consider this morning is: Have you received Christ as your King? Are you living in full submission to Him? If you are not, how can you celebrate His birth? How can you be singing carols of sincere praise and thanks that He is born, if you do not submit to His authority? Whenever you fail to take the King’s commandments seriously, you are in effect rebelling against Him! To celebrate His birth while your heart is rebelling against Him is not honouring to Him. It is actually mocking Him! That’s what it is.

So what should you do now? Acknowledge fully His right to be your Lord and King. Make sure that you submit to His rule. If there is any matter in your life that the Lord Jesus has been speaking to you about or warning you about through His Word, listen to Him. Jesus says, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) Will you deny yourself and follow Him who is your King and your Lord? If this Christmas sees you consecrating your life afresh to Him, then it will truly be a blessed Christmas for you.

And so, as you celebrate Christmas this week, please do not get caught up with all the worldly revelry, merry-making, shopping and feasting, but acknowledge the right that Jesus has to be your King. Please ask yourself: “If I acknowledge that Christ is truly born to be King, is His Kingdom fully established in my own life? Is He ruling over my life, or am I still trying to rule my own life? Is everything in my life at His disposal, or do I still refuse to surrender every aspect of my life to Him – including my family life, my work life, my social life, and my personal life?”

That is our first lesson about our response to Christ’s coming. We now proceed to the second lesson which is:

II. Anticipate His Final Victory over Sin (vv.1-3)

This victory is mentioned in v.1 of our text – “…His right hand and His holy arm hath gotten Him the victory.”What kind of victory is this? Well, the next verse explains – “the Lord hath made known His salvation.” It must be a victory of the salvation of sinners. This verse and the next also reveal that this salvation is made possible only through God’s righteousness and mercy: “His righteousness hath He openly shewed in the sight of the heathen. He hath remembered His mercy and His truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”  (vv.2,3)

We notice also that the end of v.3 speaks of a time when all the ends of the earth (i.e. the Gentile nations) will have seen this salvation of God. This is  now being fulfilled through the Great Commission – Christ sends the Gospel through His witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth. With all these things considered, let me now ask you: What else can this salvation be, except the one that has been wrought on the cross by our Lord Jesus Christ? And what victory can verse 1 be talking about, than the victory that Christ has won over sin and all its results? This victory is expressed very well in the third stanza of our carol – “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.”

Since the time of Adam’s Fall, sin has been the root of all issues in this world. Every problem of life can be traced back to sin. Every heartache, worry and fear finds its ultimate source in sin. Sin has brought untold misery to our existence. The world we live in is awfully ravaged by sin. This year has seen the eruption of war in Gaza, the conflict in Ukraine which brought down an MAS plane, and the killing of thousands of people in Iraq, Syria and Sudan by militant extremists. The United Nations Children's Fund calls 2014 a devastating year of unspeakable brutality for children, reporting that as many as 15 million young people are caught in conflicts. Just this past week we heard of the deadly Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan where many children died.

Every Christmas we sing, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” But has there been any lasting peace on earth? No. Nations are still torn with constant disagreements, with strife, suspicion and pride. The fact is that no matter which human leader, nation or body of nations assumes control, terrorism, hacking of websites, violence, conflicts and wars still remain. The very best of human efforts can never produce the perfect world peace that people dream of. And even our very best efforts will utterly fail to bring all the nations of the world under one unified rule that will glorify God.

The only One who can do this is the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone has the power to bring about all the needed changes in this world. As expressed in the 4th stanza of our carol: “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.” Therefore we must earnestly pray for Christ to come soon to deliver this world from all its woes. “Come, Thou long expected Jesus. Come and subdue this world. Let Thy sovereign rule over all men be established. As the second Adam, regain now the earthly paradise that was lost by the first Adam.” 

We are not the only ones who long for Christ to do all this. The whole of Creation has also been waiting and yearning intensely for this. Romans 8:22 says, “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” It has been groaning and travailing under the horrible curse of sin ever since the Fall, and it has been waiting for Christ to come and bring an end to it.

That is why the psalmist says that when Christ finally comes, all nature will rejoice together with us. Verses 7 and 8 of our text tell us, “Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together.” We can just imagine all the sea creatures swimming with exuberant joy to welcome Christ when He comes. We can imagine every animal on earth leaping with excitement when their Maker arrives. O how they have waited so long to be delivered from the curse of sin! We can imagine the rivers, which are referred to as the floods in verse 8, gushing with delight in the valleys and breaking into loud applause at the waterfalls. And we can imagine the hills and mountains standing at attention to welcome nature’s deliverer!

If you think what I just said is too fanciful, remember what Jesus Himself said to the Pharisees during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem when they told Him to stop His disciples from shouting with joy. He said, “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” (Luke 19:40) The implication here is that man should always be at the forefront of rejoicing in the deliverance that Christ has wrought. His great victory over sin should mean so much to us, to that we simply cannot keep quiet about it.

And though we are now still waiting for His glorious return, we have already begun to taste the delights of salvation that Christ brings into our lives – We know the joy of having all our sins forgiven the moment we are saved because we are justified by His perfect righteousness. We experience the power to overcome the flesh through the Holy Spirit – and thus we can rejoice in our sanctification. We rejoice in the blessings we receive daily through answered prayers. Many of us also have the joy of seeing our loved ones and friends delivered from the power of darkness, as they respond to the Gospel of Christ.

But all these joys are really nothing compared to the unspeakable joy we will have when we see our beloved Lord Jesus face to face when He comes to take us Home. Then our expression of praise and thanks will know no bounds. We will pour out fountains of joyful gratitude and love to Him who has done marvelous things for us – the One whose right hand and holy arm has gotten Him the victory over sin, over death, and over all the forces of evil that have stood against us! How much do you look forward to that, dear friends? Does it thrill your soul to know that Christ’s final victory is coming?

If it does, please do not wait until then to praise Him. Why should you keep all the joy and gratitude in your heart from flowing out? Aren’t you happy that Christ has come to save you and that He will come again to deliver all things from the ravages of sin? This leads us to the third lesson we can learn about our response to Christ’s coming…

III. Accord Him the Best Praise You Can Give (vv.1,4-6)

You will notice that this is actually the main exhortation of the entire psalm. It begins with the words, “O singunto the Lord a new song.” It emerges again in vv.4-6: “Make a joyful 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.” This instructs us about the way we ought to praise the Lord in our worship – It should be done with much spirit. It may be understandable that we cannot sing with much spirit if the hymn is new and unfamiliar to us. But sometimes, even familiar hymns are not sung with much spirit. Why? Perhaps it is because we tend to regard everything that comes before the message merely as a formality we need to get past in order to get to the message which then becomes our main reason for attending the service. Actually, the entire worship service is important, not just the message alone.

We should put our utmost effort into our singing of hymns right from the time the service starts. Why? It is because v.1 says that the Lord has done marvelous things, and He surely deserves more praise than we can ever give to Him. And singing with much joy and fervency also helps the world to realise how awesomely great God’s grace and mercy must be, that such praise is given to Him. Our singing should inspire the unsaved to seek after Him. Wasn’t it the singing of the angels that inspired the shepherds to say to one another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us”? (Luke 2:15) And they then came with haste to see the newborn King. The singing of the angels had stirred up their hearts to the importance of this event that they could not even wait a few hours until morning came to go to Bethlehem.

And if the angels sang their praises with such unity of purpose and gladness of heart, should we not sing even better than them, since we human beings are the ones who have benefited most from the coming of Christ? We who are saved from sin have every reason to be making the most joyful noise unto the Lord. How can we not sing with more spirit, with more gladness, with more volume and in more melodious strains than all the angels?

When Christ comes, it is only right that we should exceed all other creatures and angels, in praising the LORD for His marvelous works! We should be leading the rest of creation in praising Him, just as the second stanza of our carol says, “Joy to the earth! The Saviour reigns; Let men their songs employ while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.”

I trust that all of us will offer our best praise to God from grateful hearts when we end this service with the closing hymn shortly. And let us sing with joy to the Lord not only at Christmas time, but every day of the year. Remember that “Joy to the World” was originally not a carol, but a psalm to praise God the whole year round. Let us therefore be ready to accord our best praises to the Lord throughout the year, acknowledging His right to be our King, and anticipating His final victory over sin. 

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

December 3 & 10 - Holy Living

Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 2 Peter 3:11