“The joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Many  of us probably remember the camp song that repeated over and over,  “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” and perhaps unfortunately, this  colors the way we hear this text. Suppose, however, that the “joy of the  LORD” does not refer to happiness that we create in ourselves by  singing around a campfire, but instead refers to the great joy that God  has because he loves us. Remember Zephaniah 3:17: “God…will  rejoice over you with singing.” Our strength lies in the reality that God  loves and rejoices over us. Our strength and hope only secondarily lie in  the joy that we feel in response to God’s joy, love and presence.  

I think this fits with other aspects of our relationship with God  that we are sometimes quick to forget. “We love because he first loved  us” (1 John 4:19). Why do we love God? How is it even possible that we  could love God? It is only because God has loved us so much first. “But  God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still  sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It is the same with faith. Our  faith is rooted in Christ’s faithfulness: “I have been crucified with Christ,  and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life that I  now live I live because of the faith of the Son of God who loved me and  gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20). God is always faithful to us, and  this enables us to be faithful to God. “Here is a trustworthy saying: If we  died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign  with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he  will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:11-13).  God’s action is always primary and enables us to respond to God in  ways that are life-giving. God is faithful, so we are able to trust God.  God loves us, so we are able to love God. God rejoices in us, so we are  able to rejoice in God.  

 Nehemiah sees a “holy day” as a day not of weeping and crying  because of our sin, but rejoicing and celebration because of God’s  forgiveness, love and redemption. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy  choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have  nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the  joy of the LORD is your strength.’ The Levites calmed all the people,  saying, ‘Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.’ Then all the  people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to  celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that  had been made known to them” (Nehemiah 8:10-12). Sometimes we  think that if something is “sacred” or “holy,” it must be somber or even  scary. Nehemiah rejects this idea. When God’s word is read to the people, when they are reminded of who God is, the appropriate  response is celebration. The people are encouraged to realize  that God is good. The proper response to God’s presence is not fear  and trembling and feelings of guilt and unworthiness but joy and  celebration and feelings of relief and happiness.  

 Perhaps you’re thinking, “But it’s not always that way. What  about Isaiah 6, when God shows up in the Temple and Isaiah is  terrified?” Can it be true that sometimes the proper response to God  showing up is “woe to me . . . I am a man of unclean lips among a  people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5)? I think that response has more to  do with Isaiah’s sense of guilt and shame than what God desires from  Isaiah. After all, God does not respond by recounting Isaiah’s sins or demanding that he repent. Instead, God sends an angel to take a coal  from the altar to touch Isaiah’s lips and cleanse them. “With it he  touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips;  your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’ (Isaiah 6:7). God’s  response to Isaiah’s lament about his sinful condition is not to  emphasize his guilt. God’s response is to take away the guilt. Perhaps  this means that God really isn’t impressed by our efforts at self flagellation any more than a parent is impressed when a five-year-old,  when he realizes mom and dad are mad at him, decides to  hit his head against the wall to “punish” himself. We can get the  impression, even from our liturgy (let’s start with the confession and  remind God and everyone else what sinners we are before we can  worship together), that we must somehow cleanse ourselves and be  sad about our sins before we can enter God’s presence. But didn’t  Jesus once and for all make us clean? Aren’t the water jars for  purification now filled with wine? (See John 2 – the story of the wedding  at Cana.) When God shows up, the proper response is joy.   It is appropriate to feel sorry for our sins. Feeling guilty is the  correct response when we grieve God and hurt other people because of  our selfishness or brokenness. But when God breaks into our lives, it is  to announce the forgiveness of sins and His great love for us. Feelings  of guilt are often our experience, but God’s forgiveness washes the guilt  away. Grief over our foolishness may weigh us down for a while, but  God’s joy takes our grief away. “The joy of the LORD is your  strength.”

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