Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21
January 24, 2010
“The joy of the Lord is our strength.” Does that make sense to you? There are a number of songs and hymns out there that say just that – some of them literally! But does it seem right? Is “the Joy of the Lord” really “our strength?”
What about you? Where does your strength come from? “When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes…” What is your “bridge over troubled waters?” (Did you recognize those lyrics?) When you need strength, do you think to yourself, “I wish I had more ‘joy of the Lord’?” Or do you pray, “Lord, give me strength”? Of course it is our wish at times that we would have more joy. And certainly that’s true that when we’re going through difficult times. But do we think of that joy – the joy of the Lord – as our source of strength?
Those words come from our reading in Nehemiah 8. And I’d like us to remember that the book of Nehemiah was written in a time of great difficulty for the people of Israel. And it was an amazing statement to say to those people, “the joy of the Lord is our strength!”
I’d like to take you back a little bit this morning. I’d like you to think about what comes right before our reading. At the end of the book of II Chronicles, we find that there had been a series of wicked kings in Jerusalem, including one named Jehoiachin who was only eight years old! Can you imagine an eight year old as king? As you can probably imagine, it didn’t work out. He only reigned for three months and ten days! But the thing is that he, along with the other kings “did what was evil in God’s sight.” They led the people down some bad roads, and more specifically, they led them away from God.
Well, all that time God sent his prophets, “because he had compassion on his people and on Jerusalem.” But, they mocked his messengers and ridiculed his prophets. So, finally God allowed them to be taken into exile in Babylon, and made slaves. That’s one of the big events in the Old Testament. They were in Babylon for many years, until the Persians arose and conquered all the lands, including Babylon. And when the Persians came into power, Cyrus, the king of Persia, decreed that the people could return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem and their destroyed Temple. You can find all that in II Chronicles, chapter 36.
Then, as we move into the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we find that wasn’t as wonderful as it may have sounded! Returning to the land wasn’t as easy as packing their bags and leaving Babylon. There seems to have been three or four different groups who returned at different times to attempt to rebuild their city. And one of the problems they had was that there were now other people living there. And they didn’t like the Israelites coming back and reoccupying the land. (That kind of sounds like modern day Israel, doesn’t it?)
At one point the people did complete the rebuilding of the Temple under the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. (We remember their names from the books of the Old Testament, don’t we?) Then later, another group under the leadership of Nehemiah began rebuilding the walls of the city. By the way, I hope you’re getting all of this. Because there’s going to be a quiz next period! (I know some of you are thinking, “Do we have to know this for the final?”)
I’m telling you all of this because it really sets into context these last words in our passage “The joy of the Lord is our strength.” You see, these had been some dark times for the people of Israel. And despite the rebuilding of their lives and their nation – even against opposition – the one thing they didn’t do a very good job of was rebuilding their relationship with their God! As the book of Nehemiah opens, they were still seriously lacking in that area.
So in our passage for today, the great prophet Ezra stood before the people and read to them their Law – the Torah. He read to them the story of how they had gotten there. He read to them of Abraham and Moses and the faithfulness of God. And beside him stood Nehemiah, the governor, and a whole bunch of the other leaders of the people. (We left their names out of the reading this morning, to the mercy of today’s lay leader!) And then, when the reading was finished, they called the people to sanctify themselves and rededicate themselves to God. (Sort of like we did here a couple of weeks ago!) And Ezra told them, “For the joy of the Lord is our strength.”
That was quite a statement, considering all they had gone through, and where they stood that day. Because those people knew that they would need strength! Remember, they were just completing the rebuilding of the walls of their city. And why did they build the walls? Because cities needed walls in those days! They needed strong fortifications in case of attack. And the way empires and kingdoms were being built and swept away, attacks were a very real threat!
Yet here was Ezra and Nehemiah telling the people that the walls would not save them! Being faithful to God, rebuilding their relationship with him, that was what would protect them. That was their strength. And I ask you, do you feel that’s your strength too? Sometimes we pray that God will give us strength, as though he imparts power into us in some way. But do we think of our actual relationship with him as being that strength? Instead of praying for strength, maybe we should simply be praying for a closer relationship!
Well that wasn’t all. Ezra said something more specific. He didn’t actually say, “The presence of the Lord is our strength.” or, “The relationship with the Lord is our strength.” He said the words we’re focusing on today. He said, “The joy of the Lord is our strength.” Our strength is being in a joyful relationship with God. And I ask you again, is that true for you? Is your relationship with God joyful? And is that a source of strength for you?
Remember what we were saying just last week. Remember that God delights in us. Ezra would tell us that God’s delight is part of this! And think of it the same way we did then. When he said “the joy of the Lord,” did he mean God’s joy? Or was he talking about “the joy we have when we are in relationship with God? Is that what gives us strength”? It seems to me it’s both of those things! This is about relationship. And in any joyful relationship, there’s joy on both sides. When we please God and he is joyful, that is our strength. And when we are in that joy ourselves, that’s also our strength. For when we have that joy in the Lord, we have a better perspective on our problems. When we know that joy, we know what’s really important.
So, with all that in mind, I return to the previous question. Is the joy of the Lord your strength? Are you able to face whatever comes in this life because God delights in you and he shares that joy and delight with you? Maybe you’ve never thought about it like that before. Maybe when bad things have happened, you’ve thought about your relationship with God, knowing your faith should help, but you weren’t sure how?
I saw another one of those statements the other day that said, “I believe everything happens for a reason.” Some people see that as their strength in tough times. And that always gets to me a little. What does that mean? To me it seems like that’s all about figuring out what God is doing, and why! And that somehow that will make things better – or at least more acceptable! But does that really help? It you think about it, that presumes that “the reason,” if we discover it, will be acceptable to us! What I always want to know is, what if we know the reason” and it’s not acceptable to us, what then?
I really feel like the “why” question causes us to miss the relationship part of this. And it reduces our interaction with God to a matter of “cause and effect.” God does things, we react to them. No relationship is needed. It also means that we have to “figure out how God works.” And that’s very difficult! Too often we make it too simple. And I really believe that whenever we think we’ve got God all figured out, we’re probably farthest from understanding him!
When something bad happens, instead of asking the “Why” question, it’s much better to ask the “What” question. “Now that this thing has happened, what will I do?” You see, that leaves open the possibility of trusting God. That makes the relationship take precedence, not the explanation! And it brings it back to the first person. Instead of saying, “If I only knew the reason…”, we can begin to say, “God, thank you for being with me.” “May I know your joy even through this time of trial, for your joy is my strength.” Do you see the difference? It is in relationship with God that we have strength. And I know that when I fall down in my relationship with God, that’s when I feel the weakest! It is through sharing his joy that we are able to face whatever this life throws at us.
I know I’ve only scratched the surface of this. I’m sure that this statement by Ezra is much deeper than we can begin to imagine. So, will you continue to explore it with me? In that hope, I’ll leave you to ponder Ezra’s words. I hope you will let them ring in your mind, over and over. And, “when you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes…” may your strength be the same strength you have when you are happy and joyful. May you remember as Ezra told the people of Israel, “The joy of the Lord is our strength!”
Eternal God, we thank you that you are our strength. But we know that we only have your strength when we are in relationship with you. So help us to grow closer to you. Help us to know the joy of sharing all of our lives in your presence. Help us to know your spirit living within us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.