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Of Itzakh, Isaac, and “The Wonders Of His (Christ’s) Love”


Luke 2:1-14
Col. 1:15-20

Many people who are musically sophisticated regard Itzakh Perlman as the world’s finest violinist. Yet his violin-playing isn’t the most noticeable feature about him. Anyone who has seen him winces when he walks, if it can be called “walking.” Perlman had polio as a child and ever since has barely been able to shuffle along, ever so slowly, each step laboured and clumsy, swinging his caliper crutches in a monumental struggle just to get onto the concert-hall platform, while an assistant carries his precious violin for him. Perlman is the only violin virtuoso who has to sit to play.

Not so long ago in Lincoln Centre, New York City, Perlman was only a few bars into a violin concerto with the N.Y. Philharmonic Orchestra when a string broke on his violin. He waved his bow to the conductor to stop. Perlman removed the broken string from his instrument and signalled the conductor to begin again. Then Perlman played the entire concerto on the three remaining strings of his violin. Thunderous applause greeted him at concerto’s end. When it had finally died away Perlman said to the hushed audience, “Sometimes in life we have to do our best with what’s left.” Then he handed his defective violin to his assistant, retrieved his caliper crutches, and shuffled haltingly off the platform, once more doing his best with what was left.

Many people who appear — and are — extraordinarily gifted nevertheless have had to do their best with what was left. One such person was Isaac Watts, known throughout Christendom as “the father of the English hymn.” He wrote hundreds of hymns, many of which will never be forgotten. What few people know is that Watts was deranged frequently, and deranged for extended periods of his life. There were protracted periods when he wrote nothing, did nothing (apart from survive in the care of a kind family that protected him) as he waited until sanity returned. There were periods in his life when it would have been just as accurate to speak of episodic sanity as of episodic derangement. What did Watts write when sanity caught up to him and his suffering abated? “Come, let us join our cheerful songs with angels ’round the throne; ten thousand thousand are their tongues but all their joys are one.” Or again, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth his successive journeys run.” As ill as he was for so much of his troubled life, Watts could still write from his heart, “My God, how endless is thy love!” Perhaps he is best known for “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.” Certainly we’ve all sung his splendid Christmas carol, “Joy to the World!” It’s plain that Watts’s literary output was a matter of doing his best with what was left, what was left of his sanity. He always did his best.

God does his best, too, with what’s left. Yet there’s a difference here. When God does his best with what’s left of a fallen world, does his best with a disfigured creation, does his best with an evil-riddled cosmos; when God does his best with this he doesn’t merely extract bravely whatever good remains in it. Rather, he restores it. When God does his best with what’s left of a warped world, he recreates that world.

Isaac Watts knew this so very well. He articulated it for us in his Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.”


I: — “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground”, cries Watts. Plainly it’s a reference to Genesis 3, the old, old story of the world’s fall. What has happened? God has never been indifferent to humankind’s root defiance of him and root disobedience to him and root ingratitude; he’s never been indifferent to the primordial posture we assume before him, a posture wherein our “know-it-all” smirk casts aspersions on his goodness, on the goodness of his promise to us and his claim upon us. His claim upon us is rooted in his promise to us; his promise to us is rooted in his own heart. Heart and promise and claim are one in wanting only to bless us. We, however, assume he’s an arbitrary spoilsport out to make us miserable. We doubt him, defy him, disdain him, disobey him.

Contrary to what the person-in-the-street thinks, God always gives us what we want. No longer pressing himself upon us, he takes a step back from us. (This is what we want: a little more distance between him and us.) As he takes a step back from us, the crown of creation, he thereby takes a step back from every aspect of the creation beneath its crown. A vacuum opens up between him and the creation. Into the vacuum there pours all manner of evil. Now the creation is marred and disfigured and warped. “Thorns and thistles” infest the ground, as the old, old story in Genesis tells us. In a primitive agricultural society, thorns and thistles infesting the ground bespeak frustration; so much frustration, in fact, that only ceaseless labour and ingenuity stave off utter futility. (Everyone with even a backyard vegetable garden knows that only ceaseless labour and ingenuity stave off the frustration of having the vegetable-enterprise end in utter futility.)

As for “sins and sorrows”, they are as endemic in a fallen world as thorns and thistles. Jesus says, without argument or proof, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.” Foregoing argument or proof, he assumes that anyone who disagrees with him is incorrigibly stupid. “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.” Since we all sin, we are all in bondage. Sorrows? “Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows”, says the psalmist. The Hebrew verb can as readily mean “run after” as “choose.” “Those who run after another deity multiply their sorrows.” The fall of humankind means that we do run after other gods; and just as surely do we multiply our sorrows.

Yet Watts can write his carol, “Joy to the World!”, because he knows that the coming of Jesus Christ means that the curse upon the world is overturned; it’s reversed. The coming of Jesus Christ means that the blessings of Christ are as far-reaching (and known to be as far-reaching) as the curse has been. While our Lord’s pronouncement is unarguable, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin”, equally unarguable is his declaration, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” While those who run after other gods unquestionably multiply their sorrows, those who join our Lord on that Way which he is, join him in running the race of life, always looking unto him who has pioneered the way for us — these people unquestionably multiply their joys. As for frustration, frustration so intense as to border on futility; in so far as we do the work that he has given us to do, kingdom-work, our work will never prove futile and we ourselves shall never go unrewarded.

“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.”


II: — Watts has even more to say about the joy that has come to the world in the coming of Jesus Christ. “He rules the earth with truth and grace.” The same Lord who restores the world now rules it, and rules it with truth and grace.

Christ’s rulership is remarkable. After all, the rulers we are acquainted with do rule, to be sure, but they don’t rule with truth. They rule with something other than truth. They rule with disinformation. (Think of the Gulf of Tonkin incident with the American warship. The U.S. government arranged this bit of disinformation in order to bring the U.S.A. into the Viet Nam war.) Or they rule with duplicity. (Think of Toronto Councillor Howard Moscoe. When asked, two weeks ago, why charity casinos would be installed in North York after the citizens of North York had voted in a referendum against charity casinos, Moscoe unashamedly replied, “The referendum meant nothing.”) Or they rule with propaganda. (Think of the federal government’s promise a few years ago never to implement wage and price controls. Within ninety days of being re-elected it introduced the controls!) Or they rule with sheer, simple, self-interest and self-enrichment. (Illustrations here are superfluous.) Rulers rule, to be sure, but they don’t rule with truth.

Neither do they rule with grace. Our Lord, however, does. He rules with grace. Grace, throughout scripture, is God’s faithfulness to his own promise ever to be our God. Grace is his undeflectible resolve never to quit on us in anger or abandon us in disgust or dismiss us in impatience. Grace is God’s unalterable determination to remain true to himself in his promise to us regardless of our unfaithfulness in our promise to him. Since grace collides with our sin, then when grace meets our sin grace takes the form of mercy. And since mercy, so far from being mere benign sentiment, is effectual in the face of our sin, mercy issues in salvation, shalom, peace. For this reason the threefold “grace, mercy and peace” is found over and over in scripture. (Once again, in its collision with sin grace takes the form of mercy, and mercy triumphs so as to effect our peace with God, our salvation.)

Unlike the rulers we read about every day, our Lord “rules with truth and grace.”


III: — Several minutes ago I spoke of our need to “do our best with what’s left.” Perlman and Watts have done so. But in doing their best with what was left, were they merely doing what they could to prevent a disaster from sinking all the way down to total disaster, unrelieved disaster? At the end of the day are you and I realistically doing no more than this? In doing our best with what’s left, are we merely doing what we can to prevent a calamity from sinking all the way down to complete calamity?

No! In view of the fact that when God does his best with what’s left (a wounded, warped creation) he restores that creation wholly; in view of this our doing our best with what’s left is much more than merely salvaging a catastrophe: it’s an anticipation of the day when God’s perfect restoration is going to revealed; it’s a preview of the day when God’s restoration is going to be rendered as undeniable as it is unmistakable. Watts did what he did not because there was nothing else to do besides fall into total despair; Watts did what he did, rather, because he foresaw the day when he, like the deranged man in the gospel-stories, will be found seated, clothed and in his right mind. Perlman did what he did in anticipation of the day when he, like so many whom Jesus touched, will be found no longer lame but now leaping and cavorting, unhindered and uninhibited in every aspect of life. When you and I “do our best with what’s left” we aren’t merely trying to put a happy face on a monumental misfortune; we are anticipating the day, says Watts himself, when our Lord “makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”


IV: — All of this being the case, what are we to do at this moment? Watts knew what we are to do: “Let every heart prepare him room.” We are to receive, or receive afresh, him whose blessings flow far as the curse is found. We are to receive, or receive afresh, the one who rules with truth and grace now and who is going to make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.

We are to receive our Lord. We are going to do so as in faith we receive bread and wine, the vehicle of his self-giving to us now, as surely as body and blood were the vehicle of his self-giving for us then.

“Let every heart prepare him room.”

                                                                       Victor Shepherd     

December 1997