The Good Old Ways

Take a moment to read Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

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Image from: https://www.slideshare.net/Louendi/old-age-sticks-and-modernism-2

Classic One-Liners About Age

* Regular naps prevent old age, especially if you take them while driving. Author Unknown

* I’ve learned that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes. Andy Rooney

* When you are dissatisfied and would like to go back to youth, think of algebra. Will Rogers

* I’m at an age when my back goes out more than I do.

* Whatever you may look like, marry a man your own age — as your beauty fades, so will his eyesight. Phyllis Diller
* Bottom of Form

He’s so old that when he orders a three-minute egg, they ask for the money up front.

* When I was a boy the Dead Sea was only sick. George Burns

* You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.

* It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Woody Allen

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-blumenthal/aging-comedy_b_1128087.html

This morning I want to draw particular attention to our summary statement:

God gives joys and trials at every stage of life.

          The paradoxical thing about that statement is that while it true that joy is a gift, it is also a pursuit.  This is what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes wants us to understand.  It’s not enough to wait around for joy to fall on you, each of us is to pursue the things that are God-given sources of joy.  Effort and intention are necessary for experiences of joy.

We need to also acknowledge the other half of that sentence.  Trials are also gifts from God.  They hurt in varying degrees, but are also rich resources, deep wells of experience that train us much better than joyous experiences do.  Trials help us mature graciously.  We’re not to simply grow old, but our aim is to grow in our spiritual maturity as we age.  Age and maturity aren’t necessarily the same thing.

To help in that line, I want us to take a look at a passage from the OT book of Ecclesiastes.  The author of this book identifies himself only as “the Preacher,” so that is how we will refer to him.  Let’s look together at the Preacher’s comments on aging and see if our thesis holds true.

  1. Let all ages enjoy life (11:7-8).

Given the cloudy, wet weather we’ve endured lately, we can appreciate the statement in v. 7; LIGHT IS SWEET.  It is true of all people – to one degree or another – we need sunlight.  Extensive deprivation causes low energy, depression, etc.  The phrase IT PLEASES THE EYES TO SEE THE SUN is a description of human nature, as is the majority of this passage.

LIGHT is a metaphor of youth and the joys the young can enjoy more fully than the aged; it is SWEET.  LIGHT also stands in contrast with the DAYS OF DARKNESS in verse eight.

The LIGHT-DARKNESS contrast is also a symbol of how human life can progress.  The Preacher looks at youth (the LIGHT years) from a wistful perspective and here catalogs all that age has taken from him in the “dark” years.

The point/counterpoint of LIGHT and DARKNESS reminds us to be temperate; to not be too attached to either the joyous or sorrowful moments.  We need to avoid being defined by our best days or our worst ones.

Verse eight brings a mix of good and bad news, mostly bad.  That’s how Ecclesiastes often seems to us; a surplus of bad news.

The good news is that all ages are called to joy.  However long life lasts, make your days a pursuit of joy even as you overcome trials.

The bad news is that we experience DAYS OF DARKNESS.  To REMEMBER this fact is to keep our perspective in balance.  The pursuit of joy is not to consume every conscious thought, nor is it supposed to take us in the paths of evil.  The Preacher warns us there will be MANY DAYS OF DARKNESS.  This is realism, not pessimism, though the Preacher goes back and forth across that line throughout this book.

  1. Let the young be happy but mindful that life ends with JUDGMENT (11:9-10; 12:1).

The Preacher gave five reasons to go ahead and enjoy our youth.  These are not a license to do sinful or stupid things, but a recognition that it is wise to store up a trove of joy in your heart and memory, especially while you are young.  These memories will help you get through DARK days.

The first four reasons are quite obvious and need no commentary:

BE HAPPY.

LET YOUR HEART GIVE YOU JOY.

FOLLOW THE WAYS OF YOUR HEART.

BANISH ANXIETY FROM YOUR HEART.

The fifth, however, requires a little explanation.  CAST OFF THE TROUBLES OF YOUR BODY means to not allow any weakness of body to inhibit the flight of your spirit and mind.  Be ambitious in ways that go around your physical limitations.

The Preacher listed three things to keep in mind during good times.  The first is to remember GOD WILL BRING YOU TO JUDGMENT (3:17; 9:1; 11:9; 12:14). Choices always have consequences.

On one hand, consequences are one of the primary means for parents to train children and our heavenly Father to train all of us.  The person who remembers this will avoid sinful behavior.  On the other hand, it is a virtue to seek joy.  A 3rd century rabbi named Rab commented, “Man will have to give account for all that he saw and did not enjoy.”  It is a sin to ignore God’s blessings.  What’s called for here is a balanced perspective, one that tempers both joy and sorrow.

The second is to realize YOUTH & VIGOR ARE MEANINGLESS. Young people can feel “10’ tall & bulletproof,” but life has a habit of disabusing us of such illusions.  The optimism and vitality of youth do not, by themselves, create anything of eternal value.

The third is to REMEMBER YOUR CREATOR.  Be appropriately grateful for your life and don’t abuse it or give it up.

In this passage there are three times (11:8+10; 12:8) the Preacher reminds us the things of the world are MEANINGLESS.  We know how that word feels, we also need to know what it meant.  In Ecclesiastes, MEANINGLESS means “a fleeting breath.”  It is also translated as “vanity” because it is temporary, not eternal.  It is subject to frustration because it is worldly, not heavenly.

The Preacher used the word repeatedly.  It was his verdict on the things of this life; the sum of his experiences and the conclusion of his thinking.  In chapter twelve, the Preacher examines how the physical and mental limitations sometimes imposed by age can frustrate us.  Better to make all the progress in spirituality we can before the limitations of advanced age make it harder.

  1. Let the aged be remembered (12:1-8).

Old age is a serious subject, referred to here as THE DAYS OF TROUBLE.  Even so, the Preacher approaches it with a sense of humor that is expressed in eleven clever metaphors of troubles that are typical to the aged.  The preface to the word pictures is a statement that sums up our feelings about the DAYS OF DARKNESS: “I FIND NO PLEASURE IN THEM.”  There are a number of different ways to interpret these word pictures; what I offer are examples; they’re not being offered as exclusive definitions.  One other caveat: not all aged persons experience all these symptoms and modern medicine has invented several ways to relieve these typical limitations brought on by aging.

One = SUN, LIGHT, MOON, STARS GO DARK, CLOUDS RETURN AFTER THE RAIN (2) and LOOKING THROUGH THE WINDOWS GROWS DIM (3) refer to a gradual loss of vision.  Or they may refer to the passing of the seasons and how the weather becomes progressively more difficult to live with: spring is easy, winter hard.

Two = THE KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE (legs) TREMBLE and STRONG MEN (arms) STOOP (3) remind us of how weak limbs and stooping are stereotypes of aging.

Three = GRINDERS CEASE BECAUSE THEY ARE FEW (3) references loss of teeth.  Oy, am I there!  My dentist wants me to put all my money where my mouth is!

Four = DOORS TO THE STREET ARE CLOSED (4) notes how some old folks come to prefer solitude to socializing; the repeated loss of family and friends can have that effect on a person.  Also, diminished senses of sight and hearing can leave a person feeling left out of conversations and understandably less interested in being among people, especially large groups of them.

Five = THE SOUND OF GRINDING FADES AND SONGS GROW FAINT (4) describe a gradual loss of hearing.

Six = MEN RISE AT THE SOUND OF BIRDS (4) is akin to our phrase “up with t chickens,” which is a vestigial habit of rising early, being trained to rise at a certain hour all our working years.  This may also imply a problem with insomnia, more common among the aged than the young.

Seven = AFRAID OF HEIGHTS AND DANGERS IN THE STREETS (5) looks to the added intensity of fear among the aged.  Of course, people of all ages feel anxiety but it more often comes with advancing age because repeated experiences of trials can make us feel wary.  Worse, a symptom of dementia and other mental illness is unfounded fears.

Eight = THE ALMOND TREE BLOSSOMS (5) are white, like an aged person’s hair.  “Snow on the roof” is a modern expression observing the same phenomena in a polite expression.

Nine = THE GRASSHOPPER DRAGS HIMSELF ALONG (5).  We’ve all seen how bugs get sluggish when the weather turns cold.  We’ve also seen how arthritis and other illnesses typical to the aged can slow folks down.

Ten = DESIRE IS NO LONGER STIRRED (5) at varying ages, libido is trumped by the need/desire for a good night’s sleep.  More broadly, the passions of youth typically give way to a more deliberate and temperate emotional nature as we mature.

Eleven = MAN GOES TO HIS ETERNAL HOME AND MOURNERS GO ABOUT THE STREETS (5) refers to the end of life.  The culture of the day required wailing and expressions of grief most of us would consider extreme.  In fact, by Jesus’ time, people would earn a living as professional mourners, performing these dramatic acts of mourning so the busy family members could get on with their daily routines!

In light of the DAYS OF DARKNESS, the young are to REMEMBER the aged.  “Remembering” means to attend to the aged and honor them in their troubles.  The young are to REMEMBER HIM (the aged) BEFORE death occurs, for death is inevitable and irreversible. We are given six word pictures of death here.

One, THE SLIVER CORD IS SEVERED.  This CORD held up an oil lamp.  Once severed, the lamp would crash to the floor and break.

Two, THE GOLDEN BOWL IS SHATTERED; a broken lamp will no longer give light to the room.

Three, THE PITCHER IS SHATTERED.  A broken pitcher is of no use in carrying water.

Four, THE WHEEL IS BROKEN.  If the pulley used to draw water from the well breaks, getting water has become much more difficult.

Five, THE DUST RETURNS TO THE GROUND refers to the creation of Adam from dust and to the decomposition of a body when buried (3:18-21).

Six, THE SPIRIT RETURNS TO GOD reminds us that life itself is a gift from God.  God alone determines birth and death; all life is His to command.  This is more reason to keep our focus on Him.

As serious as they are, the trials of the aged are also MEANINGLESS.  That is, they are temporary.  The only parts of life that endure are the maturity created in the person and the good works we do.

When reading Ecclesiastes, we need to keep in mind that it belongs to a kind of revelation called “wisdom literature.”  The writer did not claim to be a prophet, but used reasoning to persuade his reader to a godly perspective.  He did not wield the authority of “thus says the LORD,” but instead asks, “What do you think about this?”

We should also remember that all parts of Scripture interpret one another.  No single verse or section stands alone to support doctrine.  Instead, our most central beliefs are woven together from the strands of many scriptures.

All that to say this: don’t neglect reading Ecclesiastes because it seems negative.  The Preacher’s observations are included in the Bible to help us form a rational basis for our faith and to weave together personal experience and divine revelation.

When you come down to it, this passage is a matter of time.  In the life span of a human being, we reach the height of our power when ability is at its peak, matched by the breadth of opportunity.

In this case, the Preacher’s observations lend support to our belief that God gives joys and trials at every stage of life.  If we believe God is in charge, then we must accept this essential truth.  The alternatives are to blame the devil for all trials (not true), or to blame randomness (not true).

With God in charge, every experience has some meaning that transcends the moment and offers us at least one lesson to be learned for the deepening of our maturity.  When we believe God is in charge, we understand that everything He does is motivated by love and that it will all work out for good.  If we believe anything else, then the situation is really more hopeless than anything the Preacher described in Ecclesiastes.  Faith in God is the only choice that offers hope for the future and gives meaning to our past and present.

Death Benefits

Please read Philippians 1:18-26 in your own Bible.  I’ve used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Death is the consummation of life: God is in both.

We so typically think of death as an enemy (and biblically, it is) that it sounds strange to talk about “death benefits.”  When I went looking for a definition of death benefits, I was surprised to find out there is actually a website called “Investopedia.”  It seems Wikipedia has really started something and has imitators.  Anyway, Investopedia defines “death benefits” as “the amount on a life insurance policy, annuity or pension that is payable to the beneficiary when the insured or annuitant passes away. A death benefit may be a percentage of the annuitant’s pension. For example, a beneficiary might be entitled to 65% of the annuitant’s monthly pension at the time the annuitant passes away. Alternatively, a death benefit may be a large lump-sum payment from a life insurance policy. The size and structure of the payment in either a pension or a life insurance policy is determined by the type of contract held by the annuitant at the time of death. It is also known as ‘survivor benefit’.”
<Retrieved from http://www.investopedia.com/terms/d/deathbenefit.asp on 10/06/17.>

So, once you can think of death as benefitting someone, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to think of death as benefitting YOU.  In this section of Philippians, Paul wrote about death as being a benefit to him, even something he desired.  Why might he think that?

When you read 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, you get a summary account of all the things the Apostle Paul suffered as he was persecuted for his faith in Christ.  He’d been through a lot and this might be a partial answer to the question of why Paul was entertaining these thoughts.  You could understand if he welcomed death as a release from suffering, which it certainly is.

However, when you read this passage you see something more profound than relief being sought.  Paul viewed death as a means of realizing complete fellowship with Jesus Christ.  Paul was eager for heaven, but not as a place of escape.  He was eager for heaven as a relationship with his Savior in all its fullness.  We who share Paul’s faith must also share his hope.  Let us be encouraged to learn that death is an enemy, but not one to be feared.  Jesus defeated death.  For people of faith, death is the consummation of life; a better life lies beyond this one.  Also, God is with us in both death and life.

  1. Historical context: Paul was in a life & death situation.

Philippians is one of the last letters written by the Apostle Paul.  It is part of a group of letters written while he was imprisoned in Rome awaiting trial by the emperor, AD 61-62.

The events that lead to his imprisonment have been preserved by Luke in the book of Acts.

Paul had been arrested under false charges in Jerusalem, the victim of a plot against him by the Jewish religious leaders (see Acts 21-22).

He endured trials under two Roman officials and a king (see Acts 23-26) until it came to Paul’s attention that the Jewish leaders had plotted to kill him.  To save his life, Paul appealed directly to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen.

The last two chapters of Acts (27+28) record Paul’s journey to Rome.

Conditions in Rome were not good at all for Christians.  The ancient Roman historian Tacitus recorded some of the horrific persecution of Christians perpetrated at that time:

“Besides being put to death, the Christians were made to serve as objects of amusement. They were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs. Others were crucified. Others were set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display and was putting on a show and a circus where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer and drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, for it was felt that they—the Christians—were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual.

Nero was the very man to whom Paul had appealed.  History tells us that Nero condemned Paul to death by beheading.

All that to say this – when Paul wrote to the Philippians about life and death it was because both of them were very real possibilities at that moment.  This was not an academic discussion, but the wrestling of his soul.

  1. Jesus Christ is our reason to live.

In our world, people want to live for various reasons.

Death is an unknown; they fear it.

We dread separation from loved ones and/or have anxiety about how our loss with affect them.

The things of this world hold our attention and we hate to lose them.

Our ambition to achieve can be so great that we fear death will thwart or undo all our achievements.  (This is the “legacy” talk we hear too often.)

Some fear God’s wrath on their sins.

Truth be told, we more often fear dying than we fear death.  Dying is one of those transitional times we typically hate.  We don’t like the thought that dying may involve pain and/or loss of our customary quality of life.

In faith, we have only one reason to live: to be of service to Christ His people: TO LIVE IS CHRIST.  Paul recognized this fact among his deliberations. He foresaw FRUITFUL LABOR (v. 22) if he were to be released.  Isn’t this the part missing in too many of our churches?  He also promised, I WILL CONTINUE WITH ALL OF YOU FOR YOUR PROGRESS AND JOY IN THE FAITH (v. 25) if this imprisonment ended with his release.  We long to experience progress and joy in church life but are so easily thwarted by sin and self-centered folk.

However, life – especially the Christian life – it is not just sorrowful obligation.  As depressing as it may seem, Paul brackets this passage with expressions of joy.  In the beginning (v. 18), he wrote I WILL CONTINUE TO REJOICE.  What brought joy to Paul was the fact that the Good News was still going out; Jesus Christ was being preached.  Would that make you rejoice? Toward the end of the passage (v. 25) he wrote, YOUR JOY IN THE FAITH.  Of all people on earth, followers of Jesus have the best reasons to be joyful.  What a shame when we aren’t!

Discussing death does not have to be doleful and dreary.  Death gives meaning to life and it affirms the things that have been important to us in life.  Paul saw life as ministry and ministry as joy.  If anyone are not characterized by joy, something is wrong at the base of their spiritual life.

  1. Jesus Christ is our hope for life after death.

Paul’s “death benefit” as expressed in Philippians 1:21 is the most important: we will be with Christ.  Jesus Christ is the focus of our hope and being with Christ is the summary of all our hopes for afterlife.  In v. 19 Paul attributed his hope to the PRAYERS and PROVISION offered by that church.  Because the Philippian church prayed, Paul had hope.

Paul predicted the result would be his DELIVERANCE.  Is he talking about DELIVERANCE from Nero or going to heaven?  Why not both?  The text itself does not allow us to make a definitive choice of either, so hanging our hat on both actually makes good sense.

For example, the Greek word for DELIVERANCE has a variety of meanings, but most typically meant to be saved from dying.  It is used in a phrase that is a quote from JOB 13:16.  Perhaps Paul thought he would, like Job, be delivered from his trials and his faith vindicated.

The point is this: because of his faith, Paul believed he was in a “win-win” situation: if he was released from jail, he would win as he would continue to preach the Gospel.  If he was executed, then that was a win, because he was released from the troubles of this life.

Its clear to me that this passage, Paul struggled for a clear sense of which he wants to happen, or which he thinks will happen.  Note the way he described his thought processes.  YET WHAT SHALL I CHOOSE?  I DO NOT KNOW! (22)  I AM TORN BETWEEN THE TWO. (23)

He is certain of one thing: in his life or death he wanted Jesus to be EXALTED.  In either case, his fondest desire is to have SUFFICIENT COURAGE to remain faithful.  His imprisonment was one of many trials Paul had to endure; each one was a temptation to call it quits.  I guess you could say Paul saw benefit for himself and for the Gospel in his life or his death, so whichever one happened was incidental.

He resolved the struggle in vs. 25-26 where he expressed a confidence in his survival and even his release, resulting in continued ministry to them.  Historically, we know that’s not what happened.  He was a martyr for his faith.  He never saw the Philippian believers again in this life.

Was Paul wrong?  Did he display a false confidence to comfort the Philippians?  I doubt it.  Paul’s confidence lay in the truth, so even well-intentioned falsehood was out of the question.

This holds meaning for us as we have faith and pray: we want God to do specific things for us and we faithfully pray about them.  But sometimes God has a different plan and those prayers are answered with a “no.”  It’s tempting to abandon one’s faith in that moment and conclude God is not real or He doesn’t love us after all.

Paul had no such reaction.  It’s clear in this passage he was prepared for whatever time would reveal as God’s will.  Paul had his priorities in order.

“Death Benefits” are also promised elsewhere in the New Testament.  (My thanks to John Piper, who identified four additional reasons that inform us of the biblical scope of Paul’s assertion TO DIE IS GAIN.  In the following Bible quotes, the emphasis in italics is Piper’s.)  (See http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/it-is-great-gain-to-die.)

Our spirits will be made perfect.  Hebrews 12:22–23 = But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and the church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the just which have been made perfect.

We will be relieved of the pain of this world. Revelation 21:4 = He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, f/t old order of things has passed away.

We will receive profound rest for our souls.  Revelation 6:9–11 = I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer.

We will experience a deep at-homeness.  2 Corinthians 5:8 = We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.

I read a wonderfully illustrative story recently.  “A bank in Binghamton, New York, had some flowers sent to a competitor who had recently moved into a new building. There was a mix-up at the flower shop, and the card sent with the arrangement read, ‘With our deepest sympathy.’

“The florist, who was greatly embarrassed, apologized. But he was even more embarrassed when he realized that the card intended for the bank was attached to a floral arrangement sent to a funeral home in honor of a deceased person. That card read, ‘Congratulations on your new location!’

“A sentiment like that is appropriate for Christians, because they move to a wonderful new location when they die. They go to be with Christ, and the sorrows and heartaches of this earthly existence are gone forever. Near the end of his life, Paul said that to be with Christ is ‘far better’ than to remain on earth (Philippians 1:23).”

<Retrieved from http://www.preceptaustin.org/philippians_illustrations_1 on 10-06-17.>

The point of Paul’s message is not to minimize the impact death has.  It is devastating to be suddenly and completely cut off from our loved ones.  The loss is real and we need to be gracious about it, assisting people in their individual expressions of grief.

However – contrary to those who refuse to have faith – we know that death does NOT have the last word.  The word of God reveals to us the great and grand hope that death is a doorway that opens but once and leads us into the eternal presence of God.  Beyond that doorway awaits Jesus and all our loved ones who trusted Him with their lives.

God gave Paul these words to comfort him and his church.  He gives them to us as a living hope and a firm foundation for our faith.

Death is the consummation of life: God is in both.

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.