Do Not Grieve, For the Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength
"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." Nehemiah 8:10
Growing up in church, I have heard this verse about a gazillion times. The only problem is that I don't remember hearing the first part of the verse, just the last part of the verse, "The joy of the Lord is your strength." I remember the song by an old Christian artist who sang, in her wispy somewhat annoying voice, "The joy of the Lord is my strength." The first part of the verse is pretty darn important. I will tell you why in a minute.
First I need to give you a brief history of the book of Nehemiah: Israel had been sent into exile because they sinned against God, God later put it in king Cyrus' heart to let Israel go and rebuild the temple. Some time after that Nehemiah found out that the people were living in great distress and trouble. Nehemiah appealed to another king, Artaxerxes (say that ten times fast) and asked if they could return to build the wall around Jerusalem. They were granted permission and built the wall. After they built the wall they read the Book of Moses on one of Israel's holy days. When the people heard the word it grieved them because they realized they were not obeying what God had commanded them to do.
I have heard my share of hell fire and brimstone sermons and in this type of setting you might expect that Nehemiah would tell the people, "You're right, you sinned. And that's that." The response Nehemiah gave them was extremely surprising. He tells them not to mourn or weep because it is a day that is sacred to God. He then basically tells them to go and have a party. And if someone didn't bring enough food for a party, give them some of yours. Probably one of my favorite parts of this story is in verse 12 when the people go away to do as Nehemiah instructs and were filled with great joy because they understood the words that were spoken to them. It reminds me of the words of a wise king who said there was a time to mourn and a time to be joyful.
I understand the necessity of properly grieving for something you have done that is wrong and unpleasing to God (in fact Israel does formally confess their sins before God in chapter 9), but you're not supposed to stay there. As a child I was riddled with guilt and anxiety because I felt I had to wallow in the regrets of my past, but I have grown to realize that Jesus' yolk is easy and his burden is light. I do not have to carry the burden of guilt around me with like a heavy weight on my shoulders...he already did that on the cross. And because of that I can be free from the burden of sin and guilt.
If I picture this day, on the first day of the seventh month, I can see the people looking at each other curiously, "Did they just say what I think they said?" The priests tell the people again, "Do not mourn, this is God's sacred day. Go celebrate, eat rich food, drink sweet wine." A women, about 31 years in age with a small 13 month old child in her arms, can feel the weight slowly begin to lift. The butterflies that are in her stomach slowly begin to melt away. The tears that were once tears of sadness turn into tears of joy. She does not regard the words that were spoken to her lightly, for she knows there are many areas that she needs to improve upon, but she knows that in Yahweh there is great mercy and peace. A smile fills her face as she wipes her tear stained eyes. Then she begins to laugh. Her child that she holds in her arms smiles and says, "Mama" and starts to laugh with her. The laughter is contagious and affects not only her little family, but those who are standing around her. Old women, young men, little children, all begin to bellow and chuckle. "The joy of the Lord is our strength," she whispers into her baby girl's ears. "Never forget my love, the joy of the Lord is our strength." And she lifts our eyes up to heaven, with laughter still bubbling from her lips, in awe and praise.
Paul probably put it best when he said, "Therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ...If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring a charge against those who God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died-more than that, who is raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written 'For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.' No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." (Romans 8:1, 31-37)
Paul goes on to say that nothing in all of creation can separate us from Christ's love. Not even the guilt that you let eat you up. We have a term for this in my mom's group: mom guilt. Not having a quarterly review or a weekly paycheck to tell you that you are doing a good job as a parent, you tend to get inside of your head and feel guilty in all of the ways that you are lacking as a parent. If you are a mom, you know exactly what I am talking about. So my advice to you? Give your burden to God. Rejoice, go eat some ice cream (it is national ice cream appreciation day after all), drink a glass of wine and watch Downton Abbey. Tomorrow is a new day. And in that day the joy of the Lord will be your strength.