By Karen Lowe
Clergy Care Associate
The Israelites knew deep sorrow. They had lived as exiles in a hostile land for many years, unsure of how they would be treated by the culture who had conquered them. After many years they were allowed to return to their homeland—the land God had given them. They returned to ruins and hard work. Some of them were returning to a homeland that had belonged to their ancestors but that they themselves had never called home. The wall, the Temple, their homes—all needed to be repaired. Not only did the bricks and mortar of the city need to be re-built, but so did their everyday life and faith. They had not been able to worship in the ways that they had been instructed to for many years.
In Nehemiah 8:10 we read that the people are able to hear the word of the Law together in their homeland. As Ezra reads the words that God had given them and that had been the foundation of who they were for many years the people wept. They were experiencing that which their hearts had been longing for for many years and with that taste the years of grief poured out of them in tears. In response Nehemiah, their governor, tells them, “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!” With this statement Nehemiah captures the dimensions and characteristics of joy.
We experience God-given joy when he breaks into our existence in ways so undeniable that we are moved out of our ordinary responses into a deep thanksgiving for all that God has given us. There are a few clues about joy that we can take away from the story of the exiles. The first is that often joy is birthed out of times of deep sorrow. Joy is not the regular response to happy circumstances in our lives. Rather, it is the extraordinary movement of God’s Spirit within us in response to Him. Similarly, we often have to feel the deep sorrow inflicted on us by the world in order to move into a place where we can receive the joy of the Lord. The reading of God’s Word allowed the people to release the deep sadness they were holding onto from their years of exile.
Joy is a gift. We can cultivate it by engaging in life-giving activities that take our eyes away from our pain and focus them on giving thanks for all that we have been given. In this story, God’s people fed themselves first on his Word and then on good food and drink. God is a God of feasts and sometimes we need to take the opportunity to stop and enjoy the goodness of what he has created.
Joy is not just an individual experience. Nehemiah makes room for everyone to join in the goodness of God as he instructs the people to share their food and drink with the people who have nothing prepared. He doesn’t qualify people as to why they have nothing prepared he just says share with those around you. Joy is not given to hoard, it is given to us in community to share it with those around us.