The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength!
Text: Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10
3 Epiphany, C
Nervous, more than a little cautious, and still, if truth be told, nervously watching over your shoulder, you find your place in the gathered congregation. The work is not yet all done. The danger not truly past. But today, today at least, will be a day of respite and joy. And so the celebration has been called. A special wooden pulpit has been built high above the expected crowds … like you, who gather attentively, eager, respectful and ready. Yes, despite your hesitation you are ready to worship the God who has seen you through such a time of difficulties and griefs. That and the political enemies who wanted nothing more than for you to fail, to lose your livelihood and security, all in the hopes you would pack it all up and go somewhere far, far away from them. But God had a different plan for you, so here you are. And here comes the officials. The gathered people quickly hush.
1All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And ... Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month ... 6And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground … and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The few and faithful people had returned after the exile in Babylon. The once great city of Jerusalem was in ruins. The Old Testament promises seeming in tatters. The peoples surrounding their ancient homeland wanted it to stay that way. First they tried politics, then threats, then they tried muscle. So the first order of business was rebuilding the wall. With determination and hard work and swords at the ready they had finished. But the rebuilding was far from over. For their hearts and their faith in the Lord God was in nearly as poor a state as the city they were reclaiming. And so the sacred assembly was called. And the leaders spoke and the priests preached and the people heard again the Law of God and the holy calling of being God’s people in a hostile world.
And knowing their own hearts, their fears and their doubts, their weaknesses and their failings the people who had survived against all odds were cut to the quick and cried tears of repentance and remorse. But God said to put the tears away. For the joy of the Lord would continue to be their strength. But what exactly did Ezra mean by that? Is the joy of the Lord the people’s joy in God, their Saviour? Or is it God’s own joy in His redeemed people? Well, in a word, YES! God’s joy in saving us is the source of our joy in being saved.
And maybe we who are here know better than we would like just how they felt. The old way of life is in ruins and the church seems to be in tatters. After years of being told to live in fear everyone is jumpy. And it becomes clearer by the day that there are those who would be very happy if Christian Churches would just close up and disappear. And we can’t help but wonder if we haven’t brought at least some of this upon ourselves. Become too complacent in your faith and you may lose it when you need it most. Ignore or abuse God’s gifts and He will take them away and give them to another. Hear again, then, God’s Word to you. “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The worse this life gets, the more trouble seems to weigh down on your soul. The harder it is to continue on day after day, remember that God has always been in control. You never face any of this alone. God’s joy in saving us is the source of our joy in being saved.
2So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly ... 3And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law … The Joy of the Lord is your strength and that Joy is found in God’s Word of Promise! The Book of the Law Ezra read to the people was the Pentateuch – Israel’s salvation history as those chosen and delivered by the very hand of God upon their history. Just as God speaks to you of your salvation history each Sunday in the reading of Holy Scripture. Law and Gospel to diagnose and recognize our sin and failures and the promise of forgiveness in Jesus to grant us healing and joy. We deserve every bad thing we have to deal with and so much worse. But Jesus has paid for our sin and gives us the treasures of heaven and the joy of knowing that these temporary trials and setbacks will one day be gone forever, thus giving us the strength to stand and face what may come!
But God’s Word is not our only joy and strength! 10Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine. This was a reminder and a call to God’s people to receive from the Lord’s gracious hand with thanksgiving – for all our blessings come from Him. But Eat the fat or eat choice food as it might also be translated should also remind us Christians of the bread and body of the Lord’s Supper, just as drink sweet wine should remind us then of the wine and the blood of that same Holy Supper. Certainly the celebratory aspects of the Lord’s Supper are most compatible with Nehemiah’s festive urging. Our place at God’s heavenly table is shoulder to shoulder with all the faithful of every time and place. This is your welcome (and safe) home in every time of trouble! And what greater joy can we have than knowing our sins are forgiven and our faith is strengthened in the Holy Supper.
But their is yet more joy in the Lord that gives us strength. 1All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. Is it so very far-fetched to notice that the site of the Israelites’ celebration is near to the Water Gate? And in doing so, to see in it a reminder of that water in Holy Baptism through which God’s Word communicates His salvation to us, enabling us to enter that narrow gate that leads to life. Baptism is that water gate to the life of God both here and hereafter. It is Holy Baptism that brings us together as one body in Christ. It is Holy Baptism that brings us the joy of knowing we are God’s beloved children and His love for us is unconditional! It is Holy Baptism that gives us the everlasting inheritance of Heaven before life in this world is finished.
So dear Baptized Christians, always remember that God’s joy in saving us is the source of our joy in being saved. And God strengthens us in that joy through His precious gifts. In the Word and the Sacraments you have everything you need … and more … to put your worries and your fears behind you. Everything you need to leave your failures and your sins in His forgiving hands. In those means of grace you have everything you have ever needed to live a life of joy and faith and celebration in Christ Jesus your Lord and Saviour.