Preachers know the good advice, “Let the text work on you before you work on the text.”
Early in my Blue Theology ministry I was trying to write a sermon about the ocean, called “Water and the Word,” and I was getting nowhere. I went to sleep (mercifully it was only Friday night) to let it work on me. As I woke up I was puzzled to find the hymn tune “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” running through my head. As I made breakfast, the text finally worked on me, verse three; “You are giving and forgiving, Ever blessing, ever blessed, Wellspring of the joy of living, Ocean depth of happy rest.”
Wellspring and ocean depth – God is like a spring and an ocean of mystery and new life and abundance. “The water that I will give will become in [you] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” “The spirit hovered over the deep.” “Deep calls to deep.” The sermon wrote itself.
Presbyterian minister Henry Van Dyke wrote the words for “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” in 1907. He was also Professor of English Literature at Princeton for 30 years, US ambassador to Holland and, near the end of his life, a Navy Chaplain, in World War I. He said of this hymn,
“These verses are simple expressions of common Christian feelings and desires in this present time—hymns of today that may be sung together by people who know the thought of the age, and are not afraid that any truth of science will destroy religion, or any revolution on earth overthrow the kingdom of heaven. Therefore this is a hymn of trust and joy and hope.”
His hymn reminds me of St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun,” how it’s not just us humans singing, but all of creation praising God, “Praise God, sun and moon!” and how all creatures “lift up their voice and with us sing.”
And it’s all about joy. Singing seems to come from joy and produce joy. “Chanting birds and flowing fountains call us to rejoice in Thee.”
Then there’s that curious phrase, “flowery meadow, flashing sea.” Flashing sea? What does that image evoke in you?
But my favorite line is: “Hearts unfold like flowers before you, opening to the sun above.” These sea anemones (painted by German biologist artist Ernst Haeckel around the same time Van Dyke wrote the hymn) are actually animals, not plants, but they are named for the anemone flower. And they sure look as if they are opening their very hearts in joy and praise.
May our hearts unfold like flowers, and sing, with joy.