Joy to the World
Louis Armstrong was born into the segregated city of New Orleans in 1901. August 4, 1901, to be exact. He grew up in poverty, without parents, and with a short stint in a reformatory for unruly boys. He learned to play the cornet and trumpet and later he learned to sing. He was popular on the jazz circuit with songs like “Dipper Mouth Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” In 1967 he recorded and released a classic that went unnoticed until years after his death in 1971: “It’s a Wonderful World.”
I see trees of green, red roses, too.
I see them bloom for me and for you.
And I think to myself, What a wonderful world!
What else did Satchmo see?
Two world wars and a great depression. Poverty, discrimination, and violence.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white.
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.
And I think to myself, What a wonderful world.
The year he recorded those words witnessed the five-day Detroit Race Riots that saw 43 people killed. Three hundred and eighty thousand US soldiers were fighting in the jungles of Viet Nam.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Saying “How do you do?”
They’re really saying, “I love you.”
Yes, I think to myself, What a wonderful world.
Louie Armstrong saw everything reported on the evening news. He saw the world as it is, as it was, as it will be. But he saw something else, he knew something else, he felt something else: the wonder that is in the world, the beauty that is all around, the love that swells up in the soul and reaches out to touch you and me.
We encounter this same double vision when we read Psalm 19. It is a beloved piece of poetry.
The heavens declare the glory of God, it begins;
It ends with this eternal prayer, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
Pray for me and for us as I speak to you today on this theme, It Is a Wonderful World!
The poet of Psalm 19 knew about the great flood: how the heavens opened and poured rain on the earth for 40 days. He knew about dark skies and death as far as the eye could see. Yet, our inspired poet still found in the skies a sign of hope and praise. “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
The poet of Psalm 19 knew about the stillness of the wilderness, the silence, the singular aloneness that overwhelms the straggler, the stranger, the lost and solitary soul seeking to find itself amid the dangers of life.
The poet knew the same psalm we know, that Jesus knew:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from me when I groan for help? My enemies surround me…My life is poured out like water…My strength had dried up like the sunbaked clay… You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.”
Nevertheless, he could rejoice in the voice of God:
“Day after day the heavens continue to speak, night after night the skies make God known. They speak without a sound or word … yet their message goes throughout the earth and their words to all the world.”
The poet of Psalm 19 knew about the dangers of dessert heat. His Hebrew ancestors wandered for two generations in the sands of Sinai. He knew about the wildness of the wilderness and the ugly illusion of what we now call the Dead Sea, how the sun beats down on both incessantly, without mercy, without shade, without sustenance. Nevertheless, he celebrates that sun:
“God has made a home in the heavens for the sun; it bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding.”
What surrounds you today?
What sad or silly situations crowd in on you, pushing out hope and happiness?
What habit or attitude or memory grips your soul and desires to squeeze out of you every ounce of joy or praise or gratitude?
What condition wakes you up n the morning? What conflict goes to bed with you at night? What deadly terrain stretches out before you in every direction?
What threatens your sanity, your sanctification, your satisfaction with life, your rest in the Lord?
Halfway through this week, the police found my adult son wandering in the rain, in the middle of the street, muttering to himself about the angels that only he sees and the voices that only he hears. They took him to the psychiatric hospital for a sixty-day stay.
What is YOUR story of the week, of the month, of the year?
What disappointment threatens to rob you of every word of praise that wants to leap up from your soul to the throne of God?
If the psalmist could look past the floods and flailing of life and write, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies display the craftmanship of God” why can’t you?
Lift up you voice and give glory to God! Open up your soul and let the sunshine in!
Stretch out your hands and let the Almighty fill them with good things! Give thanks, for the Lord is good and mercy is forever.
I love the Bible. I hold in my hand the first Bible I ever bought. It is a Holman Bible, purchased in 1965.
This is our version of what the psalmist called the instruction of the Lord, the commandments of the Lord, the Laws of the Lord.
In his day or her day, the inspired literature included the first part of what we call the Old Testament or what the Jews call the Hebrew Bible. It is known as the Torah. It also included in oral or written form much of what we know as the Prophets. The Psalms are part of the Bible known as the Writings, or the Ketuvim.
While we don’t know exactly what traditions or literature the psalmist had in her mind, we do know this: It included this command:
Anyone who strikes father or mother must be put to death. (Exodus 21:15)
And this: You must never eat fat, either from cattle, sheep or goats. (Leviticus 7:22).
And this: You must put four tassels on the hem of the coat with which you cover yourself: on the front, back and sides. (Deuteronomy 22:12).
The Psalmist knew this; and still she wrote, “The instructions of the Lord are perfect…. The commandments of the Lord are right… The laws of the Lord are true.”
We know these things are tucked away here and there in the Bible, but still we confess, “All scripture is inspired by God, and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.”
Another Hebrew poet wrote these words of revenge: Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks.” (137:8f).
Our psalmist knew that spirit and those sentiments were popular in Israel. She knew her words ran in a different direction, drew from a different well, envisioned a different future. The laws of the Lord are true, she wrote in the psalm before us today, each one is fair, they are more desirable than gold, even the finest gold.”
She was thinking of a law like this: you shall worship the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. She was contemplating the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
There is a great deal in this book that is strange, that challenges our own values, that runs contrary to the spirit and teaching of Jesus. No wonder he said time and time again, You have heard it said, but I say unto you. You read the old law, but I give you a new commandment.
In this spirit and with these words, we pick up the Bible and confess its goodness.
We read the Bible and proclaim its value for us today.
We treasure the word of God and read it like Jesus did. Just days before Allan was confined in a mental hospital he spoke to me of winning the state Bible drill in Pennsylvania when he was twelve years old.
The book, the law of God, the Bible teaches us to honor God, to care for our neighbor, to give generously, pray continually, and sing for joy.
On the days he went to worship, Jesus read the scriptures and found there the glory and grace of God.
On the day he was handed the scroll of the prophets, he turned to Isaiah and read the word his people needed to hear, the word we still need to hear,
The spirit of God is upon me. That spirit has anointed to be bring Good News to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. To announced that the day of the Lord’s favor has come.
Repent, Jesus preached over and over again, for the rule of God, this rule of God is near.
Finally, we come with the psalmist to things closest to us. Not the heavens, not the Bible, but us: our spirit, our heart, our will, our own habits. She asks a question: How can I know what is lurking in my own heart? How can I understand my own spirit, my own motivations, my own reactions?
The poet confesses what we all desire: I want to be free of guilt, I want to be free of sin. This is an ancient way of saying, I want to live right. I want to be the person God wants me to be. I want to fulfill my purpose on this earth, in this life.
But we know this: this poet knew about you and me and also herself. She knew the wickedness, the selfishness, the sinister spin of our own souls.
The human will is wicked too often and fails to live up even to our own desires; I pray often: “Lord, help us be the people you want us to be.”
But the ancients nevertheless saw the goodness of the human soul and the potential for greatness in the human person.
When I look up at the night sky and see the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you set in place, what are we—mere mortals. Why should you care for us, specks of dust in the vast expanse of space.
You, o Lord have crowned us with glory and honor. You have given us charge of all creation: flocks and herds, animals wild and tame, birds in the sky and fish in the sea.
You see us and honor us and love us and redeem us and fill us with the capacity to know you and love you and serve one another.
Nothing illustrates this double vision like our memories of 9-11.
Yesterday, people all over the nation and the world paused to remember. We remember where we were and what we saw and how we felt.
I was with my parents on the way to campus where I was to lead a chapel service. We watch the vicious attack on the United States, the murder of innocent people, the effort to launch a war and defeat a people. I said, “I’d better get to campus.” When I arrived I went straight to the office of the president where campus leaders were gathered to pray and plan.
That day is again like the message of this Hebrew poet: yes, there was wickedness and anger and violence and death. Yes, the innocent suffered and the guilty rejoiced. Yes, many died that day and may died in the months and years afterwards.
Nevertheless, there was goodness and glory on that day; there was heroism and hard work; there was sacrifice and service; there was greatness everywhere.
I watch the ceremonies.
I listened to President Bush.
I read again the transcript of the phone call from Flight 93, from Todd Beemer to the phone operator in California. They prayed together the Lord’s Prayer and recited the 23rd psalm. I listened to some of the music.
The focus of the day was on the resilience of our people, on the courage of our people, on the resolve of our people, on the sacrifice of our people.
It is the same thing as in our lives: yes, there is sin and selfishness and a failure to be and do and say and go; but there is also the mercy of God and the power of the holy spirit and the resurrection of Jesus.
There is the salvation of God and the commission of the church to love God, serve the world, and live out the gospel.
There is the glory of the heavens, There is the truth of the Word. There is the humble heart, the practice of mercy, and the habit of justice.
There is joy, joy, joy, down in my heart, down in my heart to stay.
Joy to the world. All the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Joy to you and me!!
I hope you have this same joy in your heart and on your lips. Even as we once again pray this ancient prayer: May the words of my mouth—sing for joy!—and the meditations of my heart—glory to God!—be acceptable to you, O lord, our strength, and our redeemer.