Of anyone on the planet, Christians should be the most joyful. Not because life suddenly becomes easy when you become a Christian but because we are wrapped up in a relationship of love, grace, mercy and forgiveness with the almighty, all-righteous judge of the earth. We have his word which describes not only the judgement for sin but the forgiveness of it as well. We have his Spirit which speaks to our spirit to confirm our adoption. And we have a personal relationship with the God of the universe. In short we have access to the Joy of the Lord.
I would like you to open your Bibles this morning to the Book of Nehemiah. Now you may be familiar with the first portion of Nehemiah. He was cup bearer to the king â€“ a very trusted position. The first half of the book revolves around Nehemiah discovering that the city of Jerusalem was in a state of unprotected disarray. He was so moved by that news that after much prayer and fasting he asks the king for permission to rebuild the city walls and gains permission. It takes a period of 52 days to rebuild the wall, an unheard of success in a very short period of time brought about by the Gracious hand of God.
Immediately after that success1 Nehemiah calls an assembly in which Ezra the Scribe is asked to read out loud for the entire assembly â€œthe book of the Law of Mosesâ€. This is the event of Nehemiah chapter eight which we are about to read. Please join with me in reading Nehemiah 8:1-12 and we'll discover the joy of the Lord. And hopefully restore your joy as well. Read Nehemiah 8:1-12
As you read this you should note that Ezra as the reader is not the focus. The focus is on the people and the word of God. That by the way is a really good reminder. The â€œChurch serviceâ€ is never about the music or the preacher. It's about the people and the word of God.
There's a story I heard a number of years ago that's probably apocryphal but maybe not. It seems that a rather famous pastor of a large church was on vacation and when it was discovered that the pulpit would be filled by a guest preacher, disappointed people who were hoping to listen to the famous pastor began to get up and leave. The guest preacher paused a moment and then said, â€œthose who came to worship the regular pastor this morning may leave, those of us that came to worship Jesus will wait for your departure.â€2 I'm assuming a great many embarrassed people took their seats with humility that morning.
We seek for joy in a great number of places and even people. We look for joy at the bottom of a beer can or amid the laughter of the crowd or maybe we'll find joy in the middle of the growing pile of â€œthingsâ€ we gather around us. Generally we look for joy in whatever it is we think we're missing. Joy, we believe, is to be found in having enough money, enough time or enough health. Or maybe joy comes from a new car or a better sweater. Single men will say â€œIf I only had a wife!â€ while some married men would say, â€œIf I only had a different wife!â€ Think about what you've been pursuing of late and ask yourself the question why is it occupying your time? Is your quest for the next big thing a quest for joy?
The pathway to the Joy of the Lord does not involve any mere human being or even around circumstance or items. Like any journey, getting to the Joy of the Lord demands knowing your destination. You need a roadmap. I have an atlas at home with all the fifty United States in it. It contains thousands of roads going in all different directions, but for all of those roads won't take me where I want to go, only one will.
If you want the Joy of the Lord you need to look to the Bible which will tell you two things. It will point out sins that won't get you where you want to go, and it will demonstrate the obedience that will.
If you walk quickly through these verses you'll note the following. They received the word of God with Expectancy. Notice if you will that in verse one the people had asked Ezra to come and and read the word of God to them. And down in the fourth verse we discover that Ezra is standing on a large platform created for this purpose. That tells me that Israel came expecting to hear God's word. It is from this point forward that the people began their journey to the Joy of the Lord.
On Sunday morning when you come to the church service your earnest expectation should be to hear and understand God's word. Sola Scriptura â€“ The Bible Alone was one of the rallying cries of the reformation because men like Martin Luther understood that God's word was the only measure of truth and the only standard by which we may judge our lives.
The people also heard the word of God with Understanding. In fact somewhere around six times in this passage the fact that the word of God was explained and that the people all understood it is emphasized again and again.
They embraced the word in verse 3 with Attentiveness. That means they were listening to hear what God was going to say to them. A great deal of literature goes about today blaming the preacher for people not listening to the Word. I don't doubt that poor preaching is a rotten evil, and I hope that I am not guilty of the same. But there is something to be said for coming with an eager expectation to hear from Almighty God.
The Israelites stood from early morning until noontime listening intently to the word of God, to it's explanation. They Participated in worship as you can see in the sixth verse â€“ they were anything but passive receivers of whatever nuggets of truth might accidentally fall onto their ears and stick to the waxy buildup.
They listened intently to the word of God â€“ the same way that James exhorts us to not merely hear the word of God and go away doing nothing and in that way deceive ourselves. Rather we are to look intently (James 1:25) into the word of God which gives life and be transformed (Romans 12:1-2) by the renewed mind it gives.
It is this final act of Response which opens the passageway for the Israelites into the Joy of the Lord. Turn your attention to the ninth verse and following with me (Nehemiah 8:9-12).
As the word of God begins to dawn upon them, they begin to understand not only the law of God but also to comprehend the gravity of their having broken it. It is in the middle of hearing God's word with eager expectation, attentiveness and worship that their hearts are broken and they begin to weep out loud because of their repentance.
Water is a wonderfully bizarre chemical among it's outstanding physical and chemical properties is the fact that it is a near universal solvent. It can take tons of heavy machinery to tear up and move a few tons of rock, but expose it to running water and the boulders will be effortlessly moved and the mineral rock itself will in many cases be dissolved away.
Most often the journey to Joy needs to be through a path carved through stony hearts by tears of repentance.
And so it is that as they heard God's word and attended to it they found themselves conscience stricken and they wept tears of grief. Twice in verses 10 and 11 the people are told not to grieve. These were tears of repentance my friends. Tears which come too infrequently to God's people because God's people are too infrequent in their passion to be changed by His word.
We want the easy joy of laughter and the pleasure of earthly things but in our pursuit of these idols of the flesh we forsake the greater joy which God has preferred for us â€“ a joy not based upon wavering and transitory features of this life; but rather a joy based upon the accepted forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ and the resulting relationship with His Majesty the Lord God Almighty.
But that forgiveness and relationship are not attained in any other way but through the sorrow and repentance for lawless rebellion and the willful self worship of sin.
When Nehemiah saw that the people were weeping; he joined with Ezra and the Levites and began to urge the people not to cry first because the day itself was Holy. It was to be a day unlike other days. This day, had been set apart to rejoice – it was intended to be a festival of worship to the Lord. It was not a holy day for "them" it was a holy day for the Lord. God himself had decreed this holy day should happen (Nehemiah 7:5).
It is the â€œwhyâ€ which Nehemiah offers however which grips my attention this morning. Look at the way that Nehemiah says it. Initially in verse nine he says, the day is holy don't weep. But it's in the tenth verse that he gets personal with his reasoning saying, â€œDo not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.â€
When he says strength he uses a familiar Hebrew word meaning â€œfortressâ€ or â€œprotectionâ€. It is deliverance which is in view here. Pay attention to the context of the event. This celebratory Bible Conference is being held immediately after the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt together with its gates. They were standing in front of the water Gate, one of the most frequently used gates of the city as people would constantly go in and out to get fresh water. Everywhere they looked they saw their newly resurrected Jerusalem as a symbol of strength and protection. Marauding armies could no longer simply trample them down. In order to overcome them as a peopleâ€“ their enemies would have to face the formidable stone walls of Jerusalem.
Yet their exposure to God's law revealed their true vulnerability lay not in broken walls and burned gates of the city but in broken commandments and burned bridges of unholiness in their very own lives.
As they wept over their sin they mirrored Nehemiah's response of weeping when he heard in chapter one that â€œthe wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.â€ (Neh 1:3)
Seeing the repentance of the people in their tears and knowing that the day was Holy to the Lord Nehemiah calls them to turn away now from grieving because he knows that the protective fortress of God's forgiveness has come upon the hearts of the repentant ones and he urges them not merely to stop grieving over sin now forgiven but to take joy in the deliverance of God which has occurred, â€œthe joy of the LORD is your strength.â€
The joy of the Lord is irrevocably tied to His word. It was the word of God which caused the people to mourn over their sin. And yet in the twelfth verse they celebrated because they understood what they had heard. It is not just hearing God's word but knowing what it means and responding to it appropriately that gave them this joy. I wonder if perhaps that is why sometimes we have so little joy. We neither understand nor internalize God's word to the extent of applying to our life.
The Joy of the Lord is also joined to God's forgiveness. Where the weeping was the right response to sin, rejoicing is the only right response to forgiveness. Warren Wiersbe states, "It is as wrong to mourn when God has forgiven us as it is to rejoice when sin has conquered us."3
The pathway to the joy of the Lord cannot be found in the externals of new cars, more money, nice houses, or even in good people, fond friends, clever sermons or in anything of this earth. It requires taking the word of God into your heart and mind and allowing it's stark light to illuminate and isolate the burned barriers of righteousness and crumbled walls of holiness which we ourselves have torn down with our arrogant self sufficiency and willful sin.
It requires being motivated beyond weary acceptance of the status quo into the humbled and helpless state of repentance and transformation brought about by expectantly and Attentively understanding God's word in such a way that it's very message does more than condemn sin it also invites you into a relationship of forgiveness, grace and mercy with the Great God of the Universe! And once we have seen our sin for what it is in all the fullness of it's horror we are prepared to arrive at our destination of the Joy of the Lord because, â€œ[t]he more we are aware of the extent of our sin, the greater our joy in Godâ€™s forgiveness.â€4
Real joy is found in hearing and believing the word of God in such a way that your life produces obedience and conformity to it. Not in the carnal and sensual pleasures which pass away but which are easier to obtain.
But if you will walk this hard path of hearing and obeying then you shall have a joy that exceeds circumstance. You shall have the joy of the Lord.
Now in this sacred moment it is your choice. Will you turn to God's word with expectancy seeking to understand it and apply it with tears of repentance or deeds of action? Or will you reject the true joy of living in God's grace in favor of the shifting sands of the temporary pleasures of the flesh?
I choose Joy.
1The wall is completed on the 25th of Elul (Nehemiah 6:15) The sixth month. Chapter eight begins with the seventh month.
2I'm almost certain the story was connected to Charles Stanley but I was unable to find support for it.
3Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Determined, On Cover: An Old Testament Study–Nehemiah. (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996, c1992), Ne 8:9.
4Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996), 319.