We live awash in words, more so than any previous generation. Words scream at us from social media, nag us from newpapers, bully us from billboards, and inundate our inboxes. And we go home at night to watch mindless chatter from TV, or incessant arguing as the political commentators interrupt one another so that you can barely understand what they’re saying—which, of course, is the point. Text messaging is another convenient, urgent stream of words, as though we needed one more. Among all these urgent messages vying for our eyes, why should the millennia-old news of Scripture capture a moment of our attention?
For the returning exiles in Ezra and Nehemiah, the Word of God captures their attention not for a minute, or fifteen. They don’t give an hour, or an hour and ten minutes, to hearing the Word of God. They stand for six hours to listen to the Torah read and proclaimed. And they don’t fall asleep. Or check their email. Their eyes never focus on the light bulb in the sanctuary that needs changing. Nothing distracts them from the deep and eternal truths of God’s justice and love.
They don’t just listen either. This is not a morning’s free entertainment. The people respond, immediately and bodily to the truth of Scripture. They stand out of respect for the Word. They raise their hands to heaven, and they fall on their faces. Not because this was what they did every Sunday at 10:30—this reading wasn’t part of regular worship—it didn’t even take place in the Temple. The people respond with body, mind, and spirit because they are overcome by the Word.
They weep. We don’t know why they weep. Perhaps they are overcome by their failures to live up to God’s commands. Perhaps they are so overcome by God’s goodness; that, after all their sins, after their king had been captured, their priests murdered, the Ark of the Covenant destroyed, the Temple razed to the ground…God was still with them and had brought them home. Or perhaps the people weep because now, they finally recognized the beauty of God’s Law. For the first time, the people saw God’s Word not as a burden, but as a gift. They realize what God has been trying to tell them all along—that the idols aren’t going to save them. That kings aren’t going to rescue them; money and power and armies will all fail. They weep because they see how God has been trying to pull them to Him for hundreds of years; and they finally let Him.
Whether the people are weeping from great sorrow or great joy, Ezra, the priest’s, response is the same: stop. “Do not mourn or weep.” And Nehemiah, the governor, echoes him: “Get out of here and have yourselves a burger and a Coke. Sit down with your family and friends and stuff yourselves silly.” “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Religious people have done a great job of sucking the joy out of the Word of God. Do others think of us as a particularly happy people? Or is all they know about us that we don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex, and that we seem to enjoy judging those who do?
Some of you grew up in a family that kept the Sabbath religiously. And what did that mean? It meant you had to sit in a chair, silently, in the living room, looking down solemnly at your Bible. It was, by no means, a day for laughter, or feasting, or joy.
God did not give us the Word to bring us down. He gave us His Word so that we could have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10 He gave us His Word to steer us away from those poor imitations of true joy that we can find in things like smoking, or drinking, or meaningless sex. He gave us His Word to decry us from those poor imitations of true strength we can find in money, or politics. He gave us His Word to explain to us why were were created, and how we can know true joy and true strength in this life and forevermore: basking in the love of God. As Nehemiah says so simply, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10
That is the truth of God’s Word. And when we really hear that truth—we feast, we laugh, we sing, we dance, we rejoice. That’s what God meant His Word to do—not to force us to live smaller, duller lives, but to inspire us to live fuller, brighter, richer lives of joy.
Olaudah Equiano was born in West Africa in the seventeen hundreds. He was kidnapped from his home at the age of eleven and put in chains. Eventually, he saved enough to buy his own freedom. Olaudah sought answers to why he had experienced so much suffering. He tried lots of churches, and even synagogues. But as far as he could see, none of them were practicing what they preached—none were doing half as well as the Muslims were at following the commandments. In despair, he stood one day on the prow of the ship, thinking about ending his life. Then he was led to Acts 4:12: Jesus is the only way—there is no name under Heaven by which we may be saved. He wrote: “The scriptures became an unsealed book…The word of God was sweet to my taste, yea sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.” He even saw then how the evil wrought by human hands, tearing him away from his parents and into slavery, was used for his good. From then on, he devoted his life to sharing the Word of God and speaking out against slavery around the world. This is joy God wants for us.
Ravi Zecharias tells the story of a man named Hien Pham who served as an interpreter of Vietnamese for him. During the Vietnam War, Hien had worked as a translator for the American forces, and during that time had grown to believe in Christ. After the war, he was imprisoned by the Viet Cong, who fed him Communist propaganda and tried to convince him that Christianity was the corrupt tool of the West. Hien eventually started to believe them, and resolved one day to stop praying and believing in God. The next morning, he was assigned the dreaded chore of cleaning the prison latrines. As he went about his task, he saw a piece of paper sitting on the toilet. That paper was a page from the Bible, Romans 8: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him….for I am convinced that nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It’s what we would call a God sighting. Hien survived his time in prison, and eventually escaped to the United States, bringing with him four of the Viet Cong soldiers who had questioned him. This is the joy God wants for us.
When I was four years old, my mother explained to me who Jesus was, using the words and images of a child’s picture book. He was a good man, a kind man, who healed the sick, and taught people about God’s love. And then she turned the page, and she showed me what happened to Jesus, what; they killed him. I was so, so sad that people killed him; that He died. And then she turned the page. I still remember what that page looked like; the garden, the tomb…the stone rolled away. She explained to me, “He didn’t stay dead! He woke up from the dead! And He never died! He is alive!” I danced. I danced, and I sang, the kind of songs four year olds make up in their heads. My little four-year-old self danced and danced and danced. This is the joy God wants for us.
When did we stop dancing?
If you aren’t receiving joy from the Word, you aren’t reading it right. If you aren’t receiving joy from worship, please, go to another church. Because you aren’t worshiping right. We were meant for joy. We were meant to be convicted, changed, transformed by the Word of God. We were meant to fall on our knees, to raise our hands to heaven, to dance. Because among all the torrent of words bombarding our day, what could be truer, more powerful, more worthy of our attention than these? 1 Corinthians 13:13—and these three remain; faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love; Galatians 5:22, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control; Psalm 118:24, this is the day the Lord has made; so let us rejoice and be glad in it!
May you find in God’s Word not guilt, but grace; may you be renewed daily by the power of His Word. No go out from here, and eat the fat! drink yummy drinks, laugh, and rejoice—that’s how God wants us to respond to His Word. That’s how God wants us to remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.