While we are locked down for pandemic safety, Knox has Podcast Services. For those who can’t access these we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my sermon notes into text.
The Joy of the LORD
Our Nehemiah reading ends with these remarkable words: The joy of the LORD is your strength”.
That’s not something that automatically jumps to mind when you consider Christianity. For generations we have been raised with the idea of fearing God. During my lifetime some churches refined that to replace the word “fear” with “respect”, but this emphasis on joy is rare today.
Why? Our call to joy is certainly Biblical. Last week’s lesson about the wedding in Cana declared that Jesus represents a joyful perspective on God, combining the images of a joyous wedding feast and generous supplies of high quality new wine.
Nehemiah’s people didn’t start off joyful. Maybe they had hoped for joy when they came together. This was a big day for them; they had returned from exile in Babylon and this was their first gathering in the newly reclaimed city of Jerusalem.
I’m sure they wanted to hear something hopeful. They were exhausted after their long overland journey; they had faced the discouraging sight of Jerusalem’s broken walls and the destroyed temple. And they had met their neighbours, the Samaritans who were not at all happy to see them arrive.
So they probably wanted a rousing speech from their new governor Nehemiah and their new priest, Ezra, promising that the temple would be rebuilt and that Jerusalem would be safe again behind restored walls.
Instead, they heard a reading of the Law of Moses. According to scholars, it is most likely that what they heard from was the book of Deuteronomy; the oldest book of the Bible.
So instead of glowing political promises, they heard the requirements of the law. And they wept because they knew that they hadn’t managed to keep many of those laws while were captive in Babylon. They were afraid that if God were angry with them, they would fail in this promised land. They imagined a hard life ahead.
But look at the reaction this got from their leaders: “Don’t weep! Don’t feel bad! Don’t feel guilty! This is a holy day, a joyful feast day; the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
The message is clear: don’t be afraid of God but celebrate instead! The celebration was for everyone: notice that those who had plenty were told to share with those who had nothing prepared so that no one would be left out.
Nehemiah makes it clear that God wants no one left out whether they are poor, or merely poorly organized. The community is to share, to pull together so that everyone can rejoice. We know how this feels: every Christmas we re-create this to some degree with food and gift baskets in hopes that everyone may feel the joy of Christmas.
We also know that deeper work is needed to solve the problems of poverty and social injustice. Charity at Christmas helps a few people for a short time but it doesn’t fit the kind of vision that Nehemiah gave to the returned captives: the vision of a community pulling together; not just to survive or to overcome a crisis; but to be able to share in joy into the future.
In our Luke lesson Jesus makes a dramatic announcement that carries strong echoes of this vision.
Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Some of that looks obvious: good news to the poor; release to captives; sight for the blind; freedom for the oppressed. The Year of the Lord’s favour is less obvious but very significant,
This is often associated with the Year of Jubilee: the event that the law demanded for every 50th year, where all slaves were released, where the land was allowed to lie fallow, where land sold by families was returned to them. This was a year of major disruption. It prevented the rich from accumulating too much wealth; it prevented people from being stuck in poverty or worse, slavery; it was intended to restore the balance of God’s people.
It was like a sabbath day for the whole country, where the people and the land itself could have time to celebrate and enjoy God’s favour, God’s providence. It would be a time of great joy.
Luke shows us Jesus claiming this for himself as the beginning of a ministry designed to lift people up, to restore God’s balance, to bring joy from God to everyone, with no one left out.
Now you can get technical about this passage and raise questions. Many scholars suggest that Jesus couldn’t read, since he didn’t leave any of his own writings, although he did know scripture very well and probably had this Isaiah reading memorized.
But whether or not it happened literally this way, the followers of Jesus understood his ministry this way and we are given this bold announcement as a vision for our own faith.
Joy is supposed to be at the core of our religion; not fear, not legalism
and certainly not rule-bound oppression.
That part of things is so damaging and dangerous. I was reminded of this earlier this week as I watched a Fifth Estate report on Grenville Christian College where the civil courts have recognized a history of abuse – physical, emotional and sexual – and talk of sin and guilt were regularly used to control the children and staff and make them more compliant. It is disturbing and offensive how often this kind of abuse has been wrapped in judgmental church language and it’s distressing to see how with these revelations all of Christianity gets painted with the same brush.
We can’t deny that our past has allowed this kind of thinking to thrive.
We should always have known better!
Right from the beginning we have been called to joyfully share God’s favour and to do the challenging but worthwhile work of transforming an unbalanced and unjust world into a place where people really can share, really can celebrate together, really can work with our differences and diversity and live lives where everyone has a place where all can celebrate.
God doesn’t want anyone left behind or left out. Nehemiah and Ezra made that clear even in the middle of a very challenging time. Jesus proclaimed that his ministry would revive this understanding and be a great cause for joy, even while living under the power of an occupying foreign army where the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and people were abused as a matter of course.
In both cases, it’s clear that improvements were needed and not all of the work will be quick or easy: whether it’s rebuilding Jerusalem; challenging the heart of Roman power; or re-structuring 21st century society. It’s going to take time and effort.
But it is clear that we are called to this as to a joyous task. Not a chore to be done reluctantly. Certainly not because we fear judgement but because God loves us and wants us to be joyful together.
Thanks be to God.