Date: January 23, 2022
Festival: 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Text: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Sermon Hymn: LSB #583 God Has Spoken by His Prophets
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: Historical Background
The historical context surrounding the Book of Nehemiah is Israel’s return to their homeland from their exile in Babylon, just as God had promised. Some thirteen years earlier in our given text this morning, Ezra had returned to Jerusalem with about 3,000 exiles by order of King Cyrus the Great. In the text we read from today, God’s people take the initiative to unanimously gather on the first day of the seventh month, which would’ve been the celebration of the Feast of Booths as “a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, [and] a holy convocation,” according to Leviticus [23:24].
On this Sabbath day, Ezra the priest read to them the Book of the Law from early morning until midday. This would’ve been about 6 hours! Most of us can hardly stay awake for a 15- to 20-minute sermon, yet these people desired to hear the Word of the Lord so much that they listened to Ezra read the Book of the Law for 6 hours, which was probably from Leviticus to Deuteronomy! O Lord, have mercy on us for despising the preaching and hearing of Your Word!
Naturally, after hearing God’s Law, the people began to mourn and weep. Why? Because the Law kills. They realised the colossal failures they were—their utter failure to keep God’s Law and therefore the reasoning for their exile into Babylon. But Nehemiah, Ezra, and the priests gave them the Gospel. Essentially, they said, “Do not mourn but worship the Lord on this special Sabbath day, for His joy is your strength.” As Solomon had written in Ecclesiastes [3:4], there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” There’s a time for weeping, but that time is not now; now is the time for eating and drinking, being merry, and rejoicing in the Lord, for the joy of the Lord is their strength! What a great distinction between Law and Gospel at this time! People returning from exile didn’t need to hear the Law; they needed to hear the Gospel, and that Gospel was the Lord’s joy.
Yet what is the joy of the Lord? We can think of the joy of the Lord as being threefold, of which Israel here models for us the first kind, which is the joy of corporate worship.
The Joy of Corporate Worship
Like the Israelites, we gather in corporate worship to hear God’s Word of Law and Gospel—His Law that crushes us in our sin and His Gospel that forgives us our sins and gives us new life in Christ and the joy therein. Remember the unanimity of their faith and their decision to gather in worship? Thousands of people “gathered as one man,” meaning they gathered in the unity of their faith. As Paul would say, they gathered as “one body,” which we read from in 1 Corinthians 12. Although God’s people—the Body of Christ—are made up of individuals, there is no individualism in corporate worship or our religion. Individualism is a purely American ideal; it is not something the Scriptures encourage.
Now, this doesn’t negate the individual gifts and skills the Lord has given you as a unique human being in each of your vocations, but the people of God are not individuals who think for themselves but are one body in the mind of Christ. In other words, the individuals don’t define the identity of the church; rather, the Body of Christ (the church) defines the identity of the individual, as Christ is the head of His body. The eye is unique and can do what the arms and legs cannot do, but it is still part of the body.
Christ is the head, and we are all under Him. Some of us are arms as woodworkers, farmers, carpenters, electricians, mechanics, and so on. Some of us are feet as police officers, nurses, doctors, soldiers, retail workers, athletes, dancers, etc. Some of us are mouths as pastors, teachers, musicians, singers, and so on. Others of us are eyes and ears as students, learners, and children, and so forth, but we are all part of the same body.
As Christians, you belong in the body of the church. To deliberately cut yourself off from church makes about as much sense as deliberately cutting your perfectly good arm off your body. Just as a severed limb withers and dies apart from the body, so a Christian’s faith withers and dies apart from Christ’s body, the church. And being one body in Christ means there is unity. As Paul says, when one member suffers, we all suffer together. When someone loses a loved one, or loses a job, or suffers depression, or addiction, or injury, and so on, we suffer with them. And if one is honoured, we all rejoice together. Whether that be honour from a promotion at work, a new job; good grades on a test, project, or report card; a successful music or dance performance; a good athletic performance; and so on, we rejoice with them. When a member’s feet fail and they fall in sickness or sin, we lift them up with our arms. When a member is living in unrepentant sin, we speak to them words of the Law; and when a member is distraught over their sin, we speak to them words of the Gospel, just as we saw in Nehemiah.
Corporate worship is where God’s people belong. In our Gospel reading today [Luke 4:16-30], it was the Sabbath and Jesus went where He expect God’s people to be—in the synagogue for corporate worship to hear the Word of the Lord preached to them. Jesus expects His people to come together to hear God’s Word that tells us all we need to know about Jesus, just as He did when He read from the scroll of Isaiah that told the Jews about who their Messiah is: Jesus of Nazareth. This is why Luther explains the 3rd Commandment—to remember the Sabbath day by keeping holy—with the following, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word but hold it sacred and gladly [joyfully] hear and learn it” [emphasis mine]. So, we find the joy of the Lord in corporate worship.
When I first became Christian, I was still dealing with my depression. Depression is more than simply sadness. If you’ve never experienced depression before, it is a demon of the mind that sucks all the joy and self-worth out of you. I was a master at putting on the mask of fake joy—a smile here and a laugh there, and I could convince people everything was okay. Even worse, the joy of others annoyed me. I would go to church, and so many people were so joyous, and it really annoyed me. I would always think, “It’s too dang early to be that happy!” As someone who had no joy and out of jealousy for the joy they had, I could not understand why they were filled with so much joy every Sunday morning. But now I do understand. This joy of the Lord is almost ineffable—it’s extremely difficult to describe with words, even as I’m preaching it to you, so I’ll do my best.
Even though the joy of the Lord can certainly be felt, His joy does not rely on our emotions, for our emotions change as often as the wind. Our friend, Francis Pieper puts it best:
…the witness of the Holy Spirit is present not only when [He] is felt. There is such a thing as joyous feeling. A Christian has periods (days, hours, at times only moments) when he feels the truth, the sublimity, the majesty, the divinity, of Scripture so strongly that joyous emotions well up and flood his heart. But not only in these special periods of joy is the witness of the Holy Ghost to the divinity of the Scripture present. This sensation of joy, strictly speaking, rather belongs to the effects and fruits of faith in the truth of the Word of God and thus to the external witness of the Holy Ghost… It is present even when faith is not felt, but when the heart clings to the Word of Scripture, longs and reaches out for it with an inner yearning.Pieper I:314; emphasis mine
In other words, while the joy of the Lord can certainly be felt, His joy is more of a state of being given to the Christian from the truth of God’s Word. With the joy of the Lord, nothing can dissuade you from your salvation because of the efficacy of His Word. Even when your spirit is downcast, your despair does not rule over you because of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the resurrection He has promised you and delivered to you in your Baptism; and good news always makes us smile, so not even depression is victorious but rather Jesus’ own joy to be your Lord and Saviour—indeed, your Brother. And there is the joy of singing hymns of praise that the songs of hate in the world cannot drown out. All this is given to us in the Word, around which we gather to hear as it is preached and read and delivered to us in the Sacraments for the forgiveness of our sins.
The Joy of This Life
So, the Lord gives us His joy not only in His Word and Sacraments during corporate worship; He also gives us His joy from Monday to Saturday. On the Sabbath, we “sing and rejoice in the Lord over the grace obtained through faith in the Gospel,” then from Monday to Saturday we “joyfully serve God in the works which [our] station in life, in the Church, or in the State, or in society, calls for” [Pieper III:64]. In other words, the Lord gives us joy in this life according to our vocations.
Just yesterday, some of you joyfully helped me and Emilia move into our new house as the arms and feet of the Body of Christ. Thank you! Many of you experience the joy of being parents, grandparents, and godparents. Some of you experience the joy of your jobs and careers. And there is the joy of listening to music, playing an instrument, singing, dancing, reading, video games, running, biking, making something with your own hands, tasting good food, a nice glass of Bourbon or wine, the joy of each other’s company, of singing a lullaby to your newborn, of coming to Bible study and other church activities, being with your family, and so on.
All these and more are joys the Lord has apportioned to each of us to enjoy the good things of this life. Certainly, many of these should not be enjoyed in excess lest we turn them into idols, but it is the Lord’s joy to give us enjoyment in this life. We pre-eminently receive strength from the Lord in corporate worship in hymns, His Word, and Sacraments; but we also receive strength in the things of this earth He has given us to enjoy. I find comfort in the fact that just as a parent finds joy in their little child worshipping their Lord with baby talk and playing with their toys, so God our Father has immense joy when we praise His name and find joy in what He has given us.
The Joy of the Life to Come
While we receive joy and the Lord’s strength in corporate worship and the joys of this life He has given us, we ultimately have joy in the life that is to come. Jesus said He was going to prepare a place for His disciples, and He would come again to bring us to Himself [John 14:3]. While there are certainly joys in this life, there are also sufferings we all experience. This is why many people hope for a utopia on earth. Some hope socialism will bring such a utopia about. But as history teaches us, utopias—whether brought on by socialism or capitalism or anything else—always fail miserably because the world is inherently corrupted by sin and evil. The world, our flesh, and the devil will always bring suffering upon us on this side of glory.
But because of the Word of the Lord revealed to us, you and I know better. We know that no utopia can ever exist in this world because every utopia just turns into a cesspool of sin, violence, and oppression. You know that the true “utopia”—if we can even call it that—is the new heavens and the new earth to descend from the clouds with Jesus in all His glory. You and I may suffer, but we know this suffering cannot compare to the glory of Christ that is to come; therefore, we look forward to it with joy ineffable.
As St. Paul writes, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us!” [Romans 8:16-18]. Thus, despite our suffering, we receive joy when we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ that He is coming soon to destroy death and the devil to bring us into His eternal joy. No amount of suffering can compare to this glory that is to come.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus performed His first miracle at the wedding of Cana that we read from last Sunday. In this month’s issue of The Lutheran Witness, Rev. Dr. Todd Biermann writes that one of the beautiful things about marriage is that in it, “You’ll have glimpses of heaven that most will never see. You’ll delight [have joy] in the love of Jesus overflowing to you from your spouse. When you fall, you’ll have each other to speak words of forgiveness and renewal” [TLW 141:1, p. 8; emphasis mine]. The unconditional love of the spouse for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and forgiveness when either spouse fails, are glimpses of heaven. It is no surprise, then, that toward the end of Revelation the Word of the Lord describes our redemption as the joy of a marriage feast between Christ and His Bride, the church, who will engage in corporate worship saying, “Let us rejoice and exult, and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His Bride has made herself ready” [Revelation 19:7].
Ultimately, then, the joy of the Lord can be thought of as the joy of a wedding feast when Jesus comes again in glory to bring us to Himself like a beautiful and pure virgin bride. And like the Israelites who feasted with joy for their return to their homeland, so we shall feast with joy like a wedding feast when Christ brings us to our homeland of the new creation and eternal life. Therefore, as we look toward this wedding feast of the Lamb of God, let us continue to gather in corporate worship as we receive a glimpse and foretaste of this heavenly, wedding banquet in the banquet of the Lord’s Supper. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let Thy gifts to us be blessed. Amen.
Biermann, Todd. “Sacrificial, Unconditional, Incarnational: A Biblical View of Marriage.” The Lutheran Witness 141, no 1 (January 2022): 8-9.