An Unexpected Source of Strength

(Please read Nehemiah 8 in your favorite Bible.  The NIrV is cited in the following article.)

God gives joy as a source of strength.

In her book, Simple Words of Wisdom, Penelope J. Stokes described a scene in the 1997 film Amistad.  The movie recounts the true story of how a group of Africans who were illegally taken as slaves, escaped their bonds and took over the slavers’ ship.  They tried to return home, but were captured and brought to America where a legal battle occurred over whether they were property or not, and whose property they were.  A personage no less than John Quincy Adams argued for their freedom before the United States Supreme Court.

The scene to which Stokes referred is one that had a bit of humor in this very dramatic tale.  While the various sides were arguing about their fate in court, the Africans beheld a sight strange to their eyes – a group of Abolitionist Christians gathered to pray for them.  This group of men and women got on their knees, bowed their heads, and began to pray.

Seeing this, one of the Africans said, “It’s some sort of dance.”

“It can’t be,” another responded, “they look too miserable to be dancing.”  From that point on in the movie, the former slaves referred to the Christians as “The Miserable Ones.”

Stokes wrote that people in the theater laughed at that scene.  What makes me unhappy about it is my suspicion that people found that funny because they already shared that viewpoint.  In secular culture, Christians are seen as The Miserable Ones, judgmental and unfriendly.  This is, of course, to be blamed on bad theology in the Church, which places more value on being right than being righteous, on holiness without love, a graceless and mirthless misrepresentation of the Bible.  Here’s the truth: Joy is a sign of the reality of our faith.  It should be our characteristic emotion.

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS:

A Comparison of Biblical Mentions of these Contrasting Emotions

JOY (218)

(With cognates enjoy (39), enjoyed (9), enjoying (3), enjoyment (4), enjoys (3), joyful (16), joyous (1), joyfully (11), overjoyed (5), rejoice (133), rejoiced (16), rejoices (18), rejoicing (24) and synonyms happy (24), happier (3), happiness (6), pleasant (20), pleasantness (1), please (115), pleased (78), pleases (40), pleasing (58), pleasure (34), pleasures (6), delight (69), delighted (15), delightful (4), delighting (1), delights (21), mirth (1).)

GRAND TOTAL on the SMILE side: 991.

SORROW (36)

(With cognates sorrowful (3), sorrows (4), sorry (2) and similar words like sober (2), serious (8), seriousness (1), grief (33), griefs (1), grievance (2), grieve (18), grieved (22), grieves (1), grieving (3), grievous (7), sad (9), saddened (1), sadness (1), distress (84), distressed (24), distresses (2), distressing (1), contrite (4), remorse (1), penitent (1), affliction (21), afflictions (5), woe (102), woes (2), dejected (2), adversity (2).)

GRAND TOTAL on the FROWN side: 367.

  1. The problem: a lack of joy steals our strength.

Their problem: the reading of the Law intimidated the Israelites.

First, some background on their situation.  The situation: because of their disobedience the people of Judah had experienced 70 years of captivity in a foreign country; Babylon.  In spite of pressures to conform to that foreign culture, they kept their spiritual and ethnic purity.  Just as God promised, they were freed and allowed to return to Jerusalem, to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem.  The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah detail the challenges the returning remnant faced trying to rebuild their city and nation.  Our passage takes place after the rebuilding of the walls, which sparked a renewal of interest in returning to their lost faith & rebuilding the temple.

Second, as the passage makes clear repeatedly, it was the reading of the word of God (THE LAW OF MOSES) that was at the center of this movement.  The people had an emotional (see verse nine), visceral reaction to the word; they took it seriously.  More importantly, they obeyed what they heard.  More on that later.

Our problem: we see joy as a benefit, not as a necessity.  Well, that’s half right.  Joy is a benefit.  It is something God gives to His people who will read His word, learn His will, and obey it.

But that’s not all: joy is necessary for life.  Not all people are naturally joyful, but joy is a mark of spiritual maturity for everyone.  Joy is not an “unrealistic” attitude or an avoidance of problems, but it is, instead, the reward for overcoming them in as positive a way as possible.

My problem: I let adversity get me down.  I mistakenly think that trials are the typical situation and joy the exception.  I focus on the problems and fail to see the solutions or the benefits.

  1. God used the leaders to encourage His people.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites corrected their understanding of the word and lead them in worship.  It is clear in verses seven and eight that the leaders were doing more than just reading the Word of God to the people; they were explaining it and enlarging their understanding.

Worship was part of the people’s response.  They feasted and observed the Festival of Booths all in the way God commanded (see verse eighteen).

If we support our leaders, we create a more joyous environment.  Negativity most often exists to serve selfish purposes, not divine.  It steals our joy and makes us nervous about our relationships.  In this passage, the people were attentive to the godly leadership they were receiving and supported their initiatives.  For example, it says in verse three that they built A STAGE so that their leaders could address the people.

How about me?  As a leader, am I characterized by joy?  Here are four questions that can be used to evaluate one’s own “joy quotient.”

– Do I look for and focus on the good in persons and situations?

– Do I live in the present moment, not dominated about regrets from the past or anxiety about the future?

– Do I laugh easily, deeply, and often?

– Do I value my relationships more highly than getting my way?

  1. The people responded with obedience and received joy.

They observed the feast and Festival of Booths.  Generally speaking, it’s easy to get people to join a party.  But they partied God’s way.

The Festival of Booths (“Tabernacles” or “Ingathering”) was commanded in Exodus 23:16. It was both an agricultural (firstfruits of harvest) and religious (a reminder of what it was like for Israel to live in tents for 40 years). It was also the end of the year in the Jewish calendar. These were understandable occasions for joy among God’s people, celebrations of the life of faith.

Turn your attention to your group – your business, family, or church – ask: are we characterized by joy?

We all come to understand that life is a mixture of emotions; sometimes joy, sometimes sorrow.  We also understand that one circumstance can create simultaneous feelings of joy and sorrow. (The older I become, the more often I’m mixed up!)  So when we note in this text that the people’s first reaction after understanding the LAW, was to weep, we can sympathize.  We’re not told why they were weeping, but it seems likely that when they heard the righteous demands of the Law, when they understood and felt the extreme contrast between God’s holiness and their sin, they despaired.  Their sorrow was regret for their failure to obey and the failure of their ancestors.

Whatever the reason for their weeping, you will notice the counterpoint, the multiple affirmations of joy:

– V. 9 = Sadness does not honor God. Also v. 10 = “THIS DAY IS HOLY, SO DON’T BE SAD.” Regret over sin and quiet reverence can be part of worship, but sadness is not.  Perhaps this is because it is contrary to faith in God who works everything out for our good.

– V. 10 is our key verse, with three affirmations.

– “GO AND ENJOY SOME GOOD FOOD AND SWEET DRINKS.” = It was a day of feasting, not fasting.

– “SEND SOME TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T HAVE ANY.” = Service – not selfishness – is a source of joy.

– “THE JOY OF THE LORD MAKES YOU STRONG.” = Joy makes us strong in every way.  It is empowering.

– V. 12 = They feasted and CELEBRATED WITH GREAT JOY.

– V. 17 = THEY HADN’T CELEBRATED THE FEAST WITH SO MUCH JOY FOR A LONG TIME. THEIR JOY WAS VERY GREAT.

Get the message?  God gave them joy as approval of their obedience and worship!

Where do I need to be more obedient to God? The bottom line is obedience.  We must obey God’s commands to us.

– First, it is the way we love Him.

– Second, it is the source of our joy.

Obedience can be motivated by duty or responsibility, but it is at its best and highest when we obey because it gives us JOY.

Too often people reject Christianity as sour and negative.  How sad.  How much responsibility do I bear for that characterization?  God is my constant companion and heaven is my destination!  No earthly sorrow can compare with that!  We ought to wear a genuine smile and radiate a transcendent joy that demonstrates the true STRENGTH of our faith!

  1. JOY is STRENGTH because…

It comes from our relationship with God.

It comes from our relationships with one another.

It encourages and empowers us to dream & dare.

It is contagious in a positive way.

It is an outward sign of spiritual maturity.

It helps us endure difficult seasons and motivates us to overcome obstacles.

It contributes to physical and mental well-being.

Of course, communicating this understanding of joy is a challenge, but that’s something every believer experiences.  Most commonly, we see this in the Sunday School classroom.  For instance, there was a teacher of a junior high class who was trying to illustrate what was meant by the word “miracle.”

“Boys and girls,” he said, “Suppose I stood on the roof of a ten story building, lost my balance and fell off.  Then all of a sudden, in mid-air, a whirlwind swept me up and brought me safely to the ground.  What word would you use to describe this?”

After an uncomfortable silence, a boy raised his hand and ventured a guess, “Luck?”

“Ah, it could be luck,” the teacher conceded.  “But that’s not the word I wanted.  I’ll repeat the story.  There I am on top of the ten-story building again, and I fall.  A whirlwind catches me in mid-air and places me safely on the ground.  Think now, what word would describe the situation?”

“Accident!” cried one girl.

“No, no,” answered the teacher.  “Listen carefully for the third time.  I’m on that same building, I fall and am swept to safety by a sudden whirlwind.  What word would account for my safely reaching the ground?”

The boy and the girl said, “Practice!”

Let me suggest to you that “practice” is the answer if joy is the question.  We must practice obedience to God first.  Then we must practice seeing ourselves and the world around us as God sees us.  Then we must practice the joy that will inevitably come when we have done the first two things.

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