Finding Strength In Joy (Sermonette)

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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. Then 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. (Nehemiah 8:8-10)

When I was growing up, my parents thought that I had ADD. And to their credit, there may be some truth to that. But they thought this because I was constantly all over the place. I was like the dog from that movie UP. I’d be in the middle of something and suddenly a squirrel would run by and I’d be like “squirrel.” Seriously though, I was the kid in church who was running down the halls, into everything, under everyone, not intentionally, but often causing havoc.

In school I was no better. I wasn’t the kid always talking, but I was the kid distracted by what was going on outside, or in the hallway… Or I’d get lost reading ahead in the book, only to be brought back to the present to the sound of “Arthur…. Arthur… Arthur!” That was the usual refrain from my teachers. It took my name being said at least 3 times for them to regain my attention.
Now, it wasn’t that I was a bad kid. There was just so much going on around me that I hated to miss any of it. You see, I found the "awe" in everything. It was the simple joys that made this life so great. The way the leaves fell off the tree… The way the students lined up in the hallway. The way my Sunday School teacher cursed when she couldn’t find her key but then tried to teach us kids about being holy…

I was in Whole Foods the other day, in line waiting to purchase my lunch, and there was this young mother in front of me holding her child. She was clearly exasperated a bit, but this little boy she was holding was having a blast. At one point, his eyes caught mine, and I smiled and waved. And his reaction was just priceless. He looked at me and when I waved, his eyes got so big that they looked like they were about to pop out of his head. His jaw dropped, and he had this face of complete astonishment. I felt like I could read his mind as he looked at his own hand and slowly raised it in the air. He was thinking, “These thing-a-ma-jigs can do that?! I thought they were just for sucking!” As he raised his hand toward me, his astonishment turned into this face of pure joy and awe. It was brilliant. How often do we find the joy, the awe, in the little things of life?

Contrary to this, I was in the airport the other day, flying back from Tampa after some meetings with some colleagues. While I waited for my plane, there was this little girl sitting across from me with her mother and family. As I sat there watching Homeland on my laptop with one ear bud in, and the other out to make sure I didn’t miss my flight, I watched the following scene unfold…

The little girl was holding a box of crackers. She had been playing with the crackers for a little bit, not really eating them but more so making a mess. Her sister was next to her playing with a doll, and her mother was on the other side of her with a sippy cup and a bottle of orange juice. First, the little girl saw the doll and went to snatch it from her sister. The mother, attempting to keep this scene from blowing up politely asked the older sister to let her little sister play with the doll. At the same time, she went to remove the box of crackers so that the girl had free hands to play with the doll. Big mistake. The little girl not only wanted the doll, she wanted the crackers too. Then she saw the sippy cup and the orange juice also… Long story short, it turned into this big scene as the girl wanted everything, but being maybe no more than 2 years old, could not possibly hold everything. Needless to say, a bunch of screaming ensued. She failed to find the joy in the small things that she already had.

What’s my point? It’s easy for us to find awe and joy at the times when things are good. It gets harder to find this joy when our circumstances take a turn for the worse.

I love the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These are 2 that I find myself coming back to often. In Nehemiah 8:10 we read, “Then 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.” 

For context, in this passage we find God’s chosen people at the end of the reconstruction after the exile. They’d been exiled at the hand of the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, and Jerusalem and the 1st temple were destroyed. Slowly though, across the reign of a few different Persian kings, they began to return and to rebuild the temple and the walls of the city. Their efforts of course weren’t without obstacles and antagonists. The surrounding nations and people weren’t happy to see them return, the city or the temple rebuilt. So they sought to thwart them at pretty much every turn. In fact, a few times, the reconstruction halted as the Israelites became overwhelmed or frustrated. I imagine that these hard times made it hard for them to find the joy of the moment.

So, fast forward to Nehemiah chapter 8, vs 10, and we find the people having finally completed the wall under the leadership of the then governor Nehemiah. They’re now in the square before the Watergate, and the priest and Scribe Ezra have just read to them from the book of the Law - the Scriptures. And they’re beginning to cry. Some are convicted because of how they’ve been living. But others are overwhelmed by the joy of the moment.

The point here, even though their circumstances were bad, even though they were surrounded on all sides by the enemy that sought to thwart and destroy them, they found joy in the hope and promises of God found through the Word of God. Nehemiah and Ezra commanded the people to “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.” In other Words, they told them, “Look, times have been bad. But be encouraged. Go home and celebrate because even in our bad times, we still have the hope and promise of God. If we hold onto Him, we can’t help but be joyful. 

The theologian Charles Spurgeon put it like this,”… the man who possesses the joy of the Lord, finds it his strength that it fortifies him against temptation.” Spurgeon went on to say, “Such a man is, moreover, made strong to bear affliction; for all the sufferings put upon him are but a few drops of bitterness cast into his cup of bliss, to give a deeper tone to the sweetness which absorbs them.”

In other words, even though we may sometimes find ourselves in our darkest hour… though we may experience illness and loss, suffering and persecution… when our bank account is empty and all of our friends and loved ones have left us,… none of it compares to the fullness and greatness that we find and have in our God. 

It’s hard to be in awe in our darkest hour. It’s hard for us to see the joy in the midst of our pain. But nevertheless, we must strive to be like that first child that I met in Whole Foods. Despite the hardships going on around us, no matter how weak we feel, we must hold on to the joy of the Lord that can be found in the simplest things of life… As simple as a wave and a smile.