It starts with a tickle, then a quiver, followed by a gulp of air as if you’re getting ready to swim the length of a pool in one go, but then suddenly, violently that air gets expelled in a loud “Achoo!” I don’t like to sneeze. Every time I do, it feels like I pop a blood vessel. That’s why I’m thankful when someone offers a kind “Gesundheit!” after I’ve sneezed. “Gesundheit.” The word that sounds like a sneeze is German for “health.” When you say, “Gesundheit!” you’re offering a sincere wish that the person who has just sneezed is not catching a cold.
“Gesundheit!” It’s a nice thing to say but not as good as “Gaudete!” That’s Latin for “Rejoice!” This Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is called “Gaudete Sunday” because of how often the word “rejoice” pops up in the Scripture readings. Our Old Testament lesson this morning teaches us why “Gaudete!” is better than “Gesundheit!” It’s better because the Lord’s joy, and not your health, is your strength. It’s better because the Lord’s Word, and not man’s pious wishes, is your confidence.
Our text is taken from the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a Jew who served as cupbearer to the king of Persia, making sure no one poisoned him. This was an important position for sure but we don’t meet Nehemiah in a Persian palace. Instead we find him in Jerusalem. He had taken a sabbatical to lead the rebuilding of that city’s walls. Nehemiah was also interested in building up the spirituality of the people living in and around Jerusalem. Therefore we’re not surprised to find him standing together with the people listening to a priest named Ezra read from God’s Word. Ezra read from daybreak until noon while fellow Levites explained what he was reading (Nehemiah 8:3). Can you imagine participating in a six or seven hour-long Bible study? That’s what the people in our text did, and they were paying attention to what they heard because they started to weep. We’re not told exactly what set them off but it must have been the realization that they had broken many if not all of God’s commands Ezra was telling them about.
Is that our response when we hear God’s law? When John the Baptist told the soldiers in our Gospel lesson: “Be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14), did you apply those words to yourself? When I heard about the CN Rail strike a couple of weeks ago and learned that train engineers make $100,000 a year, I thought, “What are they complaining about!” With those words I revealed a heart that is less than content with what I have. Instead of being happy for those engineers I was jealous of them. Is jealousy such a terrible sin? I’m mean it’s not like clobbering your little sister, is it? None of the train engineers ended up with a black eye because of my jealously but that sin is nothing less than an affront to my heavenly Father who has made it clear that I don’t make $100,000 a year because that’s not what I need, nor would it be good for me. Instead God wants me to trust that I already have everything I need. If there is something lacking, he will supply it at the right time. That’s why the Apostle Paul said in our Epistle lesson: “Don’t be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). If you think you have a genuine need, tell God about it. Don’t keep your concerns to yourself. That’s as hurtful to God as keeping something from your spouse when he/she knows that something’s obviously bothering you.
The people of Nehemiah’s day were heartbroken when they were confronted with their sins. That’s how God wants us to feel about our sins too, no matter how insignificant those sins may seem to us. Cleaning your room, for example, may have fulfilled your obligation to your parents but if you didn’t do that task cheerfully, you’re no different than the cook who spits on his burgers before wrapping them up and handing them to unsuspecting customers. God finds the lack of cheerfulness in our service to him and others just as offensive.
While God does want us to take our sins seriously he doesn’t want us to despair over them. Listen to what Nehemiah said to the weeping people. “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). Had Nehemiah spoke Latin he would have said: “Gaudete!” “Rejoice!” Why? It was the first day of the 7th month in the Hebrew calendar. This was the day on which they were to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, or the Festival of Trumpets. It was to be a time of joy. But how could they celebrate when they had just heard about their sins and what they deserved for them? I mean would you feel like celebrating if you just found out that you had not paid enough taxes for the past ten years and the feds were now demanding full payment with interest? It would be hard to have a merry Christmas with that kind of news hanging over your head. But wouldn’t you celebrate if someone paid that debt for you? That’s exactly the point Nehemiah was making when he said: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10b). How can God be happy with sinners? He isn’t. But that’s why he sent his Son. It gave God joy to send his only Son to pay for our sins that we might live with him. The debt that stood between God and us has been removed. If God is happy with us, then we have every reason to be happy.
While this custom may have not been around yet during Nehemiah’s day, Jews today on Rosh Hashanah will go down to a river and empty their pockets into it. They’re acting out the faith-filled words of Micah 7:19: “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” Have you come here today burdened by the guilt of your sins? Do you admit that you’re not the great person others say you are? Well, empty your pockets. Don’t take any sin home with you. Leave them here at the foot of the cross. Jesus has tread those sins underfoot and he has hurled them into the depth of his life-giving blood. Gaudete! Rejoice! No, you may not be feeling the best today. You may not have the strength and stamina you once did but you still have every reason to be happy, for the Lord’s joy, and not your health, is your strength. “Gaudete!” It’s really better than “Gesundheit!”
The people of Nehemiah’s day did go home with much rejoicing, and not because the marathon Bible study was finally over. No. Nehemiah tells us that they went home with much rejoicing because “they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Nehemiah 8:12). It’s not surprising then to hear how the very next day the leaders of the families returned and “…along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:13). Wow! The previous day’s 7-hour Bible study hadn’t been enough for them. Actually it had just peaked their interest. That’s the thing about God’s Word. Once you get into it, it’s hard to stop studying it. And what did these leaders learn on Day Two of their Bible study? They learned about another religious festival that was to take place in a couple of weeks: the festival of Booths or Tabernacles. During this festival the people were to build huts for themselves with branches and live in them for seven days. The huts were a reminder of how God’s people had lived in temporary dwellings on their way to the Promised Land from Egypt. More importantly it reminded them how God had held true to his Word and brought his people safely to the Promised Land, just as he would bring the people of Nehemiah’s day safely to their heavenly home no matter what kind of houses they presently lived in.
Here’s another reason why “Gaudete!” is better than “Gesundheit!” It’s better because the Lord’s Word, and not man’s pious wishes, is your confidence. Rejoice! You have a God who has promised to take of your day-to-day lives just as he cared for the Israelites in the wilderness. In fact it might do us some good if we spent seven days of the year hanging out in little lean-tos we made from branches we find out in the bush. It would remind us how foolish it is to rely on things made by human hands. Like the IPod that’s under the Christmas tree, or the new hip you got, or the car you bought - all these will wear out. Don’t stake your joy on them. Instead find your joy in the Lord and his promises of heaven and everlasting life.
During the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles the people gathered to hear Ezra teach them more of God’s Word and on the eighth day they gathered for a special worship service. That might seem like all too much for us in Canada where society says it’s OK to be “spiritual” but not “religious.” But that isn’t God’s take on it. Being spiritual means being religious as we gather with others to hear and study God’s Word. And intently studying God’s Word won’t leave you drained like sitting in algebra class (as it would for me). It will leave you refreshed as you would feel after spending a week at the spa. After all spending time in God’s Word means listening to your God tell you how much he loves you.
It won’t be unusual to hear a “Gesundheit!” or two during this cold and flu season. If one of those gesundheits is aimed at you, be thankful someone cares about your health. But more importantly rejoice that you have a God whose joy over you is your strength, and whose Word is your confidence for the future. “Gaudete!” It really is better than “Gesundheit!” Amen.