The Joy of the Lord is Our Strength
Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
There is a verse in the Bible which says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice”. I’ve always thought that was another of those easier said than done verses. I’ve always found it pretty easy to be happy when something goes my way, when the long putt finds the hole, or when the stock market goes up or my weight goes down. But, when it’s the reverse, when the putt rims out or stock market goes down and my weight goes up I usually feel a bit glum.
Most of us are prisoners of our feelings, and most of our feelings are determined by the circumstances that surround us. But, what if they weren’t? What if our thoughts and feelings were guided by something or someone else? What would that be like? Our scripture today tells the story of a people who discovered that the joy of the Lord can indeed be our strength.
Let’s pray together: Living and loving God, you have made yourself known to us in many and various ways. We’re grateful today for the written Word in which you reveal yourself to us. Keep our eyes open to read it, our ears open to hear it, our minds open to understand it, our hearts open to feel it, and then loosen our energies to act on it. Amen.
After God used Moses to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land they enjoyed many years of peace, prosperity and security. Under King David they became a world power. But as the years passed, the Israelites grew careless and cynical about their faith. Walter Brueggeman, an Old Testament scholar said, “Prosperity causes amnesia. People with amnesia don’t know who they are, what they’re expected to do, or to whom they’re accountable” So, they took their freedom for granted and forgot those who had given so much to insure it.
Does this sound familiar? Do you recognize the tendency of children to rest on the laurels of their parent’s sacrifices? Doesn’t seem to you that people today take for granted the blessings provided by those who came before us?
This goes a long way toward explaining how the Israelites ended up being overrun and carted off to Babylonia. They had assumed that simply because they were God’s chosen people, they could receive without giving, enjoy without working, and sin without consequence. Because of that attitude they were few who were willing to stand on the wall when the Babylonian army approached. This “let someone else do it” mindset led to their downfall. So, for seventy years they lived in exile and in slavery. By the time Cyrus the Great told them they could go home, many of them had forgotten their roots and forgotten their own religion. They forgot who God was and they forgot who they were.
The Israelites’ return home was a crushing disappointment. Grandpa had told them stories of the land “flowing with milk and honey” and told them stories of the glory of Solomon’s Temple and vineyards that stretched as far as the eye could see, but when they arrived they found the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins. The great temple was a mound of rubble. The countryside was a wasteland. But, a hard-nosed administrator named Nehemiah and a priest and scribe named Ezra stepped up and organized a series of urban renewal projects that included building a new temple and new city walls. They began to rebuild.
When the work was finished, everyone in Jerusalem, including the children who were old enough to understand, gathered in the town square. The Israelites were safer now, and they had a place to worship.
But their situation was still bleak. The Persians still dominated and taxed them heavily. External enemies still threatened them. Internal divisions and injustices still set neighbor against neighbor. The Israelites needed guidance and assurance. They needed something to hold them together.
They asked Ezra to fetch a scroll he’d brought with him from Babylonia. The scroll contained the Torah, first five books of the Bible as we know it. Although many of them had heard or read these words in years, they returned to them now in hope they would find something to carry them through.
This is something President Obama seemed to understand. He often pulled quotes from scripture to help comfort victims’ families after several mass shootings during his presidency. In a speech at a Colorado hospital after a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora earlier this year, Obama quoted the Book of Revelation as he spoke to the families of the 12 who had died. In a memorial service in Tucson, Ariz., after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot, Obama quoted the Book of Psalms and the Book of Job.
Following the shooting at Newtown, the President quoted 2 Corinthians to the grieving families. “Do not lose heart, though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day.”
He used these words from scripture, I think, because he understood they convey a power greater than his own. God’s Word can reach deeper into the heart than any other words from man.
Ezra opened his scroll and began to read its stories–stories of creation, of Noah and the ark, of Abraham and Sara, of Joseph and the coat of many colors, of God releasing the Children of Israel from Egyptian captivity, of Miriam and Moses, of the Ten Commandments and God’s other instructions for creating a community. This was their family album. When they turned the pages and looked back, they remembered and they smiled.
But these stories were written in Hebrew, and by then the Israelites were speaking Aramaic, the language of the Persian Empire. So Ezra translated the stories into the people’s everyday language. Meanwhile, thirteen priests circulated among the people to “give instruction in what was read,” Nehemiah says, and to “explain the meaning.”
That’s the point of reading scripture and the goal of preaching. A big part of my job is to help you understand what the stories in the Bible meant back then and what they mean today. My job is to help you see and experience the same connection Nehemiah’s people had with God’s Word.
The people in Jerusalem hoped there were connections between Ezra’s scroll and their circumstances that would apply to everybody. That’s why they asked Ezra to fetch it. That’s why he translated it. That’s why the priests explained the meaning of it.
And then hundreds of years melted away and the crowd experienced it at that moment. Those former exiles discovered where they were in the story God was writing. They had wandered so far from God and had forgotten so much about their faith that there was a huge gap now between the way God wanted them to live and the way they were living.
A sense of loss and shame overwhelmed them and they broke into tears. Ezra said, “Don’t grieve, and don’t cry. This is a day of remembering who we are and who God is. Go home, prepare a feast, and share it with those who don’t have anything. Because this day is holy to God and the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah’s account ends with the people celebrating and sharing gifts of food and wine, because their long season of amnesia was over. Their sacred memories were alive again. They could face the hard work that lay ahead assured of God’s presence, God’s love, God’s guidance, and God’s strength.
Now, this happened a long time ago. Could something like that happen again? I hope so, because I think many in the church have forgotten who and whose they are. They have spiritual amnesia. They do not know who God calls them to be or what God calls them to do because they do not read nor understand God’s Word. They are shaped more by the culture around them, the images they see on a television screen, or by the attitudes and actions of their neighbors. Consequently, there is little awareness of being called and set apart by God for greater work. That’s why we all need to immerse ourselves more and more in God’s Word.
The Bible is a gift. God speaks to us in a variety of ways: through the arts, science, culture, dreams, friends, experience. But the primary way God speaks to us is through the Bible. So the starting point for discovering the truth about God and about ourselves is to open the gift and use it.
For some of us, that means taking our Bibles down from wherever they’ve been gathering dust and beginning to read them. Today would be a good time to start. Mark’s Gospel is a good place to begin because it is the earliest account we have of Jesus’ life, and you can read it in less than an hour. Then read Acts, the history of the early church. If all of this is new to you, start with a translation or a paraphrase that sounds current and conversational, like Eugene Peterson’s The Message. In March I will be teaching a Bible Study on the resurrection of Jesus and our own.
My goal is to give you the meaning of what you’re reading. As many of you know the Bible is not so easy to understand. Sometimes you need some help when you’re wrestling with difficult or confusing passages. You’ll want someone to talk it over with when the Bible disturbs or challenges you. Above all, you’ll want to learn how Christians have read the Bible over the last 2,000 years, so you can interpret what you’re reading in the light of what we believe about Jesus Christ. He is the lens through which Christians read scripture. In God’s Word we can experience the joy of the Lord which gives us strength.
No less of a theological authority than the movie actor Brad Pitt, made this observation. This is not how it works, he said. In an interview published in a theological journal called Rolling Stone he said,
I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us—the car, the condo, our version of success—but if that’s the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more impotence and isolation and desperation and loneliness? If you ask me, I say toss all this—we have to find something else. Because all I know is that at this point in time, we are heading for a dead end, a numbing of the soul, a complete atrophy of the spiritual being. The emphasis now is on success and personal gain. Well, I’m sitting in it, and I’m telling you, that’s not it. I’m the guy who’s got everything. But I’m telling you, once you’ve got everything, then you’re just left with yourself.
The Apostle Paul describes his experience:
“Through glory and dishonor; bad report and good report; dying, yet living on; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Where did that confidence come from? He tells us, “In the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God.”
In other words, it comes from a partnership between the Lord and us. There are things we can work on: sincere love and truthful speech for example, and there is a power that can only come from God.
An early American Presbyterian pastor named Jonathan Edwards put it this way:
“The joy of the Lord is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied…. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows, but enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, God is the ocean.”
All that remains for us to do then is to step in that ocean and let the waves of God’s grace and mercy wash over us, and then smile and sing:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
 Rolling Stone (10-28-99)
 2 Corinthians 6:7-10