TEXT: Nehemiah 8:9-12; John 16:17-24

It is the third week of Advent, and we have lit the third candle...the candle of joy. As I thought about the sermon for this week, I tried to think back over my life to times that I would describe as times of joy. I thought if I could come up with a time when that particular word seemed to fit, that I could have a better sense of what it really meant. I reviewed lots of fun times and happy times and content times, but the word "joy," didn't necessarily jump to mind when I thought of those things...nice as they were.

Where my mind finally settled was back in my childhood as a girl of 8 or 9 growing up in Rhode Island. Although the driveway to our house pulled around right in front of the door, we never parked the car there. We fed the birds there. I loved to see them, but I always wanted to be more a part of them. So I learned to be a human bird feeder. I don't remember doing it in the summer...maybe we didn't put seed out in the summertime. But I do remember the winter.

In the freezing cold, I would fill my bare hands with sunflower seeds and stand in the driveway, my hands cupped in front of me, as if waiting to receive a blessing. When I first went out, of course, all the birds would fly away. But after standing there awhile and being very, very still, I became part of the landscape, and some of the braver birds would begin to fly close. Chickadees, I found, were the bravest, and after awhile, a very bold little chickadee would land on my fingers and snatch a sunflower seed from my hands. I remember exactly the feel of its little feet gripping my finger, and no matter how many eventually dared to come and eat or how many times I did it, I was always in awe of the gift that those little birds gave me as they literally put their lives in my hands.

I think the only word that fits my feeling when a bird lit on the edge of my hand was joy. Yes, it was fun, although it gets mighty cold standing perfectly still without mittens in winter. It was fun and I was happy, but the feeling went much deeper than that. It was joy.

As I thought about that feeling, I began to get a better picture of what joy really is and how it might be different from other pleasant feelings and emotions. Once again, we have confused the language a bit. Hope is not optimism, Peace is not the absence of conflict, and Joy is not happiness. What is it? If you've been here the past two weeks as we've talked about hope and peace, you're not going to be surprised to hear me say that I believe joy is rooted in love. Scripture tells us that joy is one of the fruit of the of the signs that God is present and at work in our lives. Since the nature of God is love, that means that joy is a by-product of love.

Happiness is a very nice thing, but it is not dependent on love. I can be happy that my boss gave me a raise, or happy that the dog didn't eat the couch while I was gone, or happy that some situation has turned out the way I wanted. But that sort of happiness isn't necessarily joy. It is joy when we feel washed with love. I felt joy as a frozen bird feeder in my driveway because I loved those little birds with all my heart, and in their gift of trust I felt their love in return.

Joy can come from a number of sources, just as love can. An artist can feel joy by pouring love into her creation. A mechanic can feel joy by truly loving his work. Shaker furniture has endured because it was made with love. Their work was worship, and the love of God was hammered in with every nail. Many find joy as I do through nature, loving the animals, loving the trees and earth, oceans and rivers. We can have joy when we truly share love in our human relationships, whether with spouse, children, parents, friends, or even strangers to whom we have reached out in love. And I believe all of that joy begins when the love of God finally washes over our souls.

Joy is what we feel when we love with the love of God. Since grief is often an expression of love, we can have joy when we're sad as well as when we're happy. When we sacrifice for another in love, we can have joy in the midst of pain. Jesus could not be happy on the cross, but he could have joy because his death was an act of love. We are happy when things are going well and we are comfortable. We have joy when we love.

I chose the Bible passages for this morning because they seemed to show that joy is not to be found in the outward circumstances, but in the inner attitudes. In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about how the terrible pain of a woman in labor is turned to joy by the love of the new baby. The passage from Nehemiah also tells of mourning that is turned to joy, without the situation changing one bit.

The book of Nehemiah tells about the rebuilding of Jerusalem after Israel's time of exile to Babylon. Nehemiah was in charge of rebuilding the city and the priest Ezra was in charge of rebuilding the faith. During the time of exile, without the temple, it had been hard for Israel to stay connected to the faith. They had forgotten much of what was written in Scripture and were simply floundering on their own, wondering what God wanted of them, and probably wondering if God even cared anymore.

But then the way was opened for them to go back home, and they were eager to get back to their faith. So everybody gathered together and listened as Ezra read Scripture to them. The beginning of the chapter says that Ezra read to them from early morning until midday, while others provided interpretation, and it says in verse 3 that all the people were attentive to the book of the law. He preached to them for about six hours straight and they paid attention the whole time! Obviously I have gone into the ministry in the wrong day and age!

It is their response, however, that interests me. When all was said and done, the people wept. They mourned and they cried because they realized how far short they had fallen of what God expected of them. They did not feel joyful, they felt deeply sad, and this is where Ezra and Nehemiah show their brilliance. There are a fair number of churches and teachers who would stop here. Wailing and crying is the whole purpose of their preaching. Their goal is to get us to realize how much of God's will we have ignored and for us to be really, really upset about that.

They mean well...they want us to be that upset so that we will repent and do it differently. Trouble is that doesn't always work. If I listen to someone read the Ten Commandments, for example, and feel like I've kept nine, but I told a white lie yesterday, I might have the confidence to fix it, even if the person has made me feel really bad about it. But if I hear the Ten Commandments and realize I have broken every one of them, it would be a different least for me. If I get to feeling too far off the mark, I'm going to think it is impossible for me to get back and do it right and I'll give up even trying. If I am really going to make a change in my life, I have to feel more than my unworthiness...I have to feel love. Unless there is someone to love me despite my failings, I will not have the strength to change my ways.

What Ezra and Nehemiah do in response to the crying of the people is, I think, perfect pastoral care. They don't focus on what has gone wrong. They allow the people to realize that this was not the day of condemnation, but the day of a new beginning. Yes, they had broken God's laws, but that's because they didn't know what they were and there was no one to teach them. The good news is, now they know. They have the information. Obviously they loved God and wanted to do God's will, or they wouldn't have been so sad in the first place. They needed to stop focusing on the passages that said, "If you do not do this, you will die," and instead realize that other half that said, "Do this and you will live."

In short they needed to love the law rather than fear it. Instead of seeing it as marking the ways they had fallen short, they needed to accept it as a guidebook for how they could live well. Instead of hearing it as God's condemnation, they needed to hear it as God's gift to help them. God could have left them in the dark. God could have been the silent partner who refused to say what he needed or wanted and then judged them for not doing what they could not know. But the giving of the law showed that this was not who God was. God loved them enough to communicate, and if they could realize that this was an act of love, their mourning could turn into joy. Which is exactly what happened.

Ezra did not exploit their moment of grief. He could have said to the wailing people, "Now, you miserable wretches, God is obviously very angry with how you have behaved and if you don't shape up immediately, you will be wiped from the face of the earth.." But he didn't. Instead, Ezra loved them. "This is a holy day," he said. "The joy of the Lord is your strength."

Up until I wrote this sermon, I had always interpreted that sentence to mean that the joy I take in the Lord is my source of strength. But as I really looked at it, the sentence began to turn itself around. I don't know about you, but I need a certain amount of strength in order to be able to find joy in the Lord. If having that joy is what brings me strength and I can't have it until I have strength, the situation is impossible.

But the sentence doesn't say The joy IN the Lord is your strength. It says the joy OF the Lord is your strength. It is God's joy, not mine, that brings strength. It is the joy of the Lord...the love that God has for you that will bring you the strength you need to make any changes that are necessary. God is the one who is there to love you no matter what you've done. God is the one who still wants to be your friend even when you've broken all ten of the commandments. God is the one who loves you even before your neuroses are cured and your bad habits kicked. That is the joy of the Lord. It is the unfailing, never-ending love God has for you. Now THAT gives me strength. Because God joys in me, I can build up the strength to joy in God and in God's law. 1 John 4:19 puts it another way: "We love God because God first loved us."

As a young girl I was able to love a little bird because I knew that God loved me. If God loved me as I was, I didn't have to be afraid and could love God back. Once I loved God, I came to love what God had made, and so God's love was able to flow through me and out into the world. That is where joy comes from. That is why joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It begins with knowing that no matter how much of a mess we are, God loves us. No matter how far off the mark we are, Christmas still comes...God is still willing to show up and dwell with us, as one of us.

John calls Jesus the Word made flesh. The law that Ezra read to the people came to earth as one of us, and it is in the life of Jesus that we see the point Ezra was trying to make. When God showed up, it wasn't with guns blazing and lightning bolts wiping out the sinful. Jesus went to the homes of sinners and ate with them. He cast out their demons, healed their diseases, and showed them what it meant to love one another. We might be inclined to meet Jesus' coming with grief and tears. His purity might make us really aware of the ways we don't measure up. Ezra said, "Do not be grieved." Jesus said, "Do not be afraid." The joy of the Lord is your strength.


2001 Anne Robertson

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