Last month has been among the hardest our family has ever had. We’ve made two trips to Michigan to deal with Joy’s mother, who died on December 28. Her brother and father have financial problems and my niece in Atlanta has had an emergency appendectomy.
It has been hard month for others, too. Ray Benfield passed away. Robert has been in the hospital. Beth’s mom has gone on hospice. One friend lost his wife to cancer. Another posted that she is dying and has been given last communion. One took a medical leave of absence to help her daughter who has renal failure.
Because of all these tragedies, I want to talk this month about the joy of the Lord.
For most people, joy becomes because of good fortune. Our team wins the championship so we celebrate. Our mother comes home from the hospital and we throw a party. Joy is like a flag that we fly on our car when our team wins a victory.
But in the Bible, joy is not a victory dance we do when things go well. Joy is a realization that our fortunes are not bad, nor is our situation hopeless. It is a recognition that God is still in control.
Let’s look at two Bible stories. The first is from Nehemiah 8: 9-10. It is a celebration held in Jerusalem around the Fifth century BC. In 587, the Jews were run out of Judah and Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. Then seventy years later, brought them back under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra.
At first, the place was a mess. They fought for even basic necessities, and were vulnerable to their enemies. But with God’s help they got a wall and they were relatively safe. Nehemiah and Ezra threw a party.
What were they celebrating? It could have been their good fortune, but Nehemiah and Ezra said it wasn’t that. They celebrated because the Joy of the Lord is our strength. They weren’t celebrating their accomplishments, but the Lord. He accomplished all that was done.
It’s easy to say this, because we all know that it’s what we are supposed to say. “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord.” But Nehemiah isn’t saying this superficially. He doesn’t say “the Lord is your strength.” But “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” It’s not celebrating God in good times that’s our strength, but celebrating God in bad times that’s our strength.
The joy of the Lord means more than just praising God. Praise is a recognition of worth. But joy is emotional, not intellectual. It is a feeling, not a fact.
We may praise God without rejoicing in God. I am thankful for indoor plumbing, but I don’t celebrate my bathroom. I celebrate things that give me strength, joy and encouragement. A mere intellectual assent to necessities is not the same as joy.
Nehemiah is telling us something different. He says that in times of trouble, the celebration of God becomes a source of strength. Not just acknowledging his presence, but glorying in His love.
Think about this in relationship to the husband-wife relationship. If you’ve been married for many years, you are no doubt grateful to have a good spouse. You probably depend on each other a great deal, and have an effective partnership. But this recognition of mutual support is not going to add as much strength to your relationship as a date night and displays of affection. If you want to have a marriage that will give you strength in tough times, you must have more than mutual dependency and intellectual appreciation.
It is the same with God. Strength comes not just from the acknowledgement of God but the celebration of God. That is why people find more strength and encouragement from praise songs and hymns than they do in good preaching. Preaching appeals to the mind—music to the heart.
This was brought home to me recently when I took a spiritual inventory for the Spiritual direction program in which I am enrolled. It revealed that one of my deficiencies was celebration. I do what I believe to be right, but I do not take time to celebrate while I am doing it. I plug ahead stoically doing the right thing, but mostly out of duty, not out of joy.
Most of the Christians I know are much the same. We do the right thing, but do not enjoy it. Our heads and actions are right, but our hearts don’t keep up with it. As a result, we are not as strong as we think we are. It is hard to keep the head and the hands working for Jesus if the heart isn’t enjoying Jesus. But when we can access the joy of the Lord in our everyday lives, then the burden on our head and our hands are not so great. Jesus said his yoke is easy and our burden light, but that is only true when the joy of the Lord is our strength.
This passage in Acts 16: 19-24 illustrates this point. Paul and Silas had healed a slave girl possessed with an evil spirit. But her owner couldn’t use her evil spirit to make money, so he complained to the authorities. They were beaten and thrown into jail without any medical care. How could they stand it?
Here’s what they did in verse 25:”About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” Instead of moaning in misery they celebrated God.
They accessed the joy of the Lord and that was their strength.
Now where does that joy come from? It comes from three realizations.
1. That God loves us specifically, without conditions and limitations.
2. That they obeyed God completely, no matter where they were.
3. That we have a choice to mope in misery or rejoice in the Lord.
Over the next three weeks, we will look at all three of these concepts, but today, let’s look at the first of these three. The reason we can rejoice in the Lord is because the Lord rejoices in us.
Once upon a time there was a school of fish. They had been told that the purpose of fish was to swim in water, but they did not know what “water” was. They asked everyone they knew where they could find water or the ocean, but no one seemed to know the answer. So finally, they asked one wise old fish and he answered. “You are already there. This is the ocean. You’ve been swimming in it all your life, but you just never realized it.”
What was missing in these fish was not effort or direction, but awareness. They did not know that what they sought was already there.
When it comes to the love of God, we are the same. All our lives we seek for someone to approve us, someone to love us. We seek to please God who we think of as some kind of absent Father who expects us to measure up to His invisible standards. If we don’t, then God hates us. Who is going to rejoice in a Father who hates them?
But the Bible reveals a different picture of God. God doesn’t hate you. He loves you. Christ died for your sins, because He loves you.
God doesn’t just love us generally. He loves us specifically. Most people think God has a general love of mankind, but a specific displeasure with them. But He enjoys our company, and rejoices in being near us. He loves us specifically, completely and passionately.
This realization of God’s continuing love for us makes rejoicing in hard times possible. It means that we can lean on that love whenever we need to.
Most people’s relationship to God is transactional, not relational. They know that God is sovereign, and that all things are under His control. So when something goes wrong, we say that God must have caused this or allowed this, and then we make the leap to assume that He must have caused it, because He is punishing us for some reason. This is not the way God generally works. God can bring punishment, but not every bad thing is a punishment from God. Even punishment is in the context of overarching love. We can rejoice in that love no matter what.
The Joy of the Lord is our strength. When we celebrate the love of the Lord, this strengthens our faith, and give us hope to go on, because we are recognizing that God’s love is supreme. We swim in God’s presence all around us, even when we don’t see it.
Give praise to God this year, not because you think it is going to be a good year, but to make this year good in your eyes. No matter what happens this year, God’s love is the same for you. Be joyful in knowing that God still has you by the hand.