This here has been the theme of my week. On Monday, I was having
trouble jumping into the stuff of life. When I asked God what He thought,
I heard, "Joy." So I've been singing The Joy of the Lord is My Strength,
a song I learned as a child. I also transcribed it into a minor key, and it
turns out to be quite lovely in mellow tones. Been singin' that, too. It's a
good reminder that regardless of life's details, joy is available in God.
I went looking for the biblical underpinnings for the song, and lo and
behold, if it isn't in Nehemiah! Now, I just love the book of Nehemiah.
It's a story of God's people rebuilding their broken & deserted capital
city in the face of hardship and resistance, under the strong leadership
of a man who cares about them and loves God.
I was also excited to discover the specific context of this quote. Following
the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the exiles had just returned to this and other
Judean cities from Babylon, where they had been deported by
Nebuchadnezzar. The priests read God's law to them, the Scripture which
defined their identity and their relationship to each other and to God.
The people spend the whole day weeping and mourning as they listen to it:
they have been separated from God's word and the teaching and guidance
of the priests all this time. They have forgotten the law and sinned.
It is into this initial wave of sadness and regret that these words
are spoken, the first awareness of wrongdoing. At this point, the priests
tell them to stop grieving and then basically send them out to celebrate
Thanksgiving -- there will be a time to repent later, but first the people must rejoice.
So they go have a feast, sharing food with each other and marking the
day of their return to home and to a life governed by God's ways.
This story highlights the reality that joy is not a result of getting things right.
It is a response to God's sustaining love. He sees us in our darkest places
and calls us to joy in the midst of our sorrow, fear, and exposure. Joy
emerges through the darkness, not apart from it. It is a call toward the light
which is neither childish nor superficial, not based on our own abilities to succeed.