We put up the Christmas tree this week. Not the ornaments yet, just the tree. (Disclaimer: that was as I started writing. By the time I had wrapped up this post, at the insistence of small children, the tree is fully decorated). We usually wait until after Thanksgiving.
My brother has his yard mostly decorated. He has four young kids and they go big for Christmas lights. They are ritual early-celebrators and unapologetic lovers of Christmas.
I usually see the facebook posts bickering over when to decorate, but this year I’ve seen more people jumping in early. There’s a communal cry for joy after a summer and fall of social distancing and staying at home. If we are going to be at home, let’s make home joyful.
Four years ago, I wrote this post:
“After a year of political hostility, police shootings, tragedies involving children, no wonder everyone seems in such a rush to ring in the Christmas season — may we look to the reason we celebrate — to the King of Kings – a child born to die – to heal this broken world. You can say you don’t like His message- that as a Christian, I’m a judgmental hatemonger because I call sin in all its forms out as sin (even the ones that tear at my own heart). That sin that tears at us is the very thing that leaves a longing in our hearts for what Christmas brings — hope, joy, and peace. Jesus Christ is the only joy- the only hope- and the only peace.”
I could have written it today.
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come!”
As I contemplated joy, I pulled out Strong’s Concordance to get an overview of Biblical joy. Interestingly enough, the first several mentions of joy in the Bible are the people’s response to God leading them to victory in battle. There’s a lot to unpack there, but while intrigued, I kept digging.
Then I came to Nehemiah 8:10b: “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” If there was ever a verse I need stamped on my forehead, this one is it.
Do not sorrow. I have spent the last week utterly emotionally depleted. Sorrow surrounds me. Covid illness and death are hitting the families around me hard. Grocery hoarding has restarted. Families are looking at very different isolated Thanksgivings this week. I do not want to sorrow.
The joy of the Lord is your strength. There have been days where I crashed hard when I got home. Friday night, I considered an 8pm bedtime. One night’s news of a friend’s death hit especially hard, and I asked my husband to take the boy in the other room while I took a minute to grieve in the bathroom so the boys didn’t see me crying again. I want his strength.
“Joyful! Joyful! We adore thee!”
The joy of the Lord comes when we least expect it. Here in Nehemiah, the people who have been in exile, have returned to an rebuilt Jerusalem. This seems like a good and celebratory thing, right? Well, when we get to chapter 8, Exra the priest brings the book of the Law (that they haven’t been following in exile) out and reads it aloud to all the people. Their reaction is one of conviction. For full context, verses 9 and 10 should be read together:
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.Nehemiah 8:9-10
Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Last week we looked at how, there is no good news without bad news. Here, we get the bad news, and from it the good news. The people are wrong. They have not been following God’s law, but they have an opportunity to repent and be reconciled.
We, like the nation of Israel, are so often wrong. We don’t follow God’s law and stray from the path he has for us, but we have an opportunity to repent and through Christ be reconciled. Repentance and reconciliation are opportunities for joy. In his Expositions of the Holy Scriptures, Alexander Maclauren writes, “Religious Joy is the natural result of faith. It is a Christian duty. It is an important element in Christian strength.” Nehemiah connects joy to strength, and we must recognize that in our lives.
“Tidings of Comfort and Joy”
The joy of the Lord is our Strength. We can have joy when faced with hard circumstances: death, isolation, fear, financial uncertainty, and sorrow. God’s joy isn’t dependent on circumstances, and it is his joy that he gives to you. Much like Christ tells us in John 14: 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” The Lord’s joy is more than a fleeting emotion. It is food for your weary soul and hope in which you can rest.
Do not sorrow.
The Joy of the Lord is your Strength.