Introduction: We’ve been taking this trip through the book of Nehemiah, talking about what we’re supposed to do when life gets big – Big Ideas, Big Leaders, Big Strides, and this morning, Big Party. The whole idea comes from Nehemiah ch12, and the massage today is really simple: We ought to have joy in our lives. I knew, scheduling this message for the end, there would be a danger – actually a few:
• There’s a danger that someone might get the wrong impression – that I’ll make it sound like having a relationship with Jesus means it’s not OK to be depressed or to cry.
• There’s a danger of sounding like a bunch of empty clichés, or of sounding too simplistic like the song “Don’t worry; be happy.”
• There’s a danger of fostering the view that Christians are people who try not to admit when they’re sad and they hypocritically try to deny that they have problems too.
There seem to be a lot of outside reasons that might argue against joy this morning. (list number of people in church family facing difficulties)
The list goes on and on. How can we spend much time talking about joy? Big Party? When life is BIG, big party?
I want to tell you, if you’ve been hit hard by life, you have permission to cry. Jesus wept outside the tomb of His friend when He saw the hurt death causes. You’re in good company.
How can we talk about joy, and why should we? Isn’t that out of place?
I want to show there’s a necessary place for joy in the Christian’s life. In fact, this morning I want to cause you not only to feel allowed to have joy, but enabled and obligated to seek it.
One of the ways we big back in life is by BIG joy – joy that is greater than life’s setbacks and hills – not an ignorance or sidestep of real grief. In fact, I think that important healing process we call grief necessarily includes an element of joy.
Joke - A man had just had his annual physical exam and was waiting for the doctor's report. After a few minutes the doctor came in with his charts in his hand and said, "There's no reason why you can't live a completely normal life…as long as you don't try to enjoy it."
I like to make people smile, but Jesus is interested in your joy – your real joy - probably more than you are! He was interested in the joy of His disciples:
(Jn 15:11) I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
(Jn 17:13) I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.
(Rom 14:17) “The kingdom of God is . . . a matter of . . . righteousness, peace and joy in the HS”
The Lord is interested in your joy. I didn’t say God wants you happy. He is interested in your genuine joy.
Oswald Chambers in The Shadow of an Agony -- “The Bible nowhere speaks about a "happy" Christian; it talks plentifully of joy. Happiness depends on things that happen, and may sometimes be an insult: joyfulness is never touched by external conditions, and a joyful heart is never an insult.”
I want us to learn about real joy by taking a look at the big party in Neh 12.
This was to be a serious dedication party.
Nehemiah 12:27 (NIV)
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres.
They called in the pros so it would be big!
Nehemiah 12:28-29 (NIV)
The singers also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem--from the villages of the Netophathites, from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem.
Sounds like something was going to happen! So how can reading about a big party help us to better appreciate real joy this morning? This story can help us see what real joy looks like.
First, see that real joy is…
I. Not the Result of Outward Circumstances
Too many are looking at joy as the feeling you have when things are going well in your life. But joy’s much deeper than that. It starts because of something inward.
1. Holiness precedes happiness.
Nehemiah 12:30 (NIV)
When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.
Joke - Someone has said that there’s no better way to forget your problems than to wear a pair of shoes that are too tight. Another someone has suggested an even more challenging way to joy: swallow a live toad first thing in the morning, and nothing worse can happen to you for the whole rest of the day!
One of the main reasons people are without joy today isn’t just because their outside circumstances are a mess – otherwise how would you explain the obvious joy in the lives of some people who have terrible circumstances? And how do you explain the obvious absence of joy in the lives of people who seem to have everything going for them?
Story - The problem is more like the story of the kids who saw Grandpa asleep in his rocker. As a joke, they rubbed some limburger cheese into his mustache. When he woke up, he said, “Whew! it stinks in here!” So he walked into another room in the house. “Whew! it stinks in here too!” So he walked all over the house. “Whew! this whole house stinks!” So he went outside. “Whew! everything stinks!” That’s where a lot of people are this morning. They’ve already concluded everything stinks without understanding what really stinks is right under their nose.
A main reason joy is missing is that lives aren’t being conformed to the pattern for which they’ve been made. In other words, trying to have real joy in your life without trying to pattern it after what God has designed for it is like trying to wear someone else’s dentures! It doesn’t fit!
Genuine joy starts with devotion to God. If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy, let Jesus come into your heart.
I notice in Jerusalem celebration came after sanctification. They realized it was important first to be holy people, then came the party.
2. Happened even though their lives weren’t perfect yet
When you read this book, bear in mind that all the events of 13:5 to the end were before the dedication. By the calendar, it should end with ch12. 12 years have passed since the wall was completed. Nehemiah has taken a time of leave and returned. Things weren’t perfect! The temple had been desecrated; people were breaking the Sabbath; tithing had slacked off; some had wrongly married. The faithful people in Jerusalem couldn’t look around and say, “Boy, things are just great around here these days.”
When everything’s as it should be, when everything’s going perfectly, then it’s easy to talk about joy and rejoicing. But there’s no such time in the world you and I live in. Until Jesus comes again, this world will never be as it should be. Things will never be going perfectly. Talking about joy and rejoicing will be hard at times.
Still, the Bible is full of interesting combinations of joy and other features:
Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison. . . About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
we also rejoice in our sufferings,
2 Corinthians 6:10
sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
2 Corinthians 7:4
I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Corinthians 8:2
Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds
1 Peter 4:13
rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
Pain is inevitable. Misery is optional. Unfortunately, there are many who opt for misery instead of joy.
Things weren’t exactly the way they should be in Jerusalem.
3. Just the same, they had a big party! *v31, 38,40
Nehemiah 12:31 (NIV)
I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate.
Nehemiah 12:38 (NIV)
The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people--past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall,
Nehemiah 12:40 (NIV)
The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials,
2 mass choirs made their way on top of the wall. They started in the same spot, ½ went around one way, ½ went the other way, till they met on the opposite end.
They sang, played instruments, and basically whooped it up! Like one giant “conga line” they circled Jerusalem for the purpose of rejoicing. I wonder if they did the “wave”! Some may have looked at that celebration and concluded that everything was great in Jerusalem, but that’s just not where real joy comes from…
There was something valuable and precious about the off the wall rejoicing that day:
II. Directed to God Above all Else
Joy isn’t just something we have or feel. It’s a thing we do.
Dt 14:22-26 – Israel was commanded to take 1/10 and have a party! V26 “Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice.” They were to eat it before the Lord with joy. The reason for it was simple: to recognize how good God had been to them. They were commanded to enjoy the tithe before God. God is interested in the joy of His people because that joy is directed to God above all else.
I know what it’s like to not feel like smiling. But when you deliberately “smile anyway,” you’re telling me something: that God is the source of joy, and that your outward show of joy is for Him first.
Once again, I’m not talking about a phony, plastic smile to cover up what’s really going on with you or to sidestep the grief we live with. But I am talking about a deliberate work of demonstrating joy in our lives .
Story – Michal, when David was dancing before the Ark of the Covenant as it came into Jerusalem:
II Sam 6:15ff (6:21) “David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord's people Israel--I will celebrate before the LORD.”
David was expressing his joy to the Lord. It wasn’t for the people who were watching. It was for the Lord.
Real joy is directed to God above all else. It may not mean a hilarious smile, but it does mean recognizing this fruit of the Spirit we call joy is actually something we give back to God first and foremost. It just happens to be witnessed by people too!
III. Fueled by what God has done through us (not fueled by just ourselves)
V43 – “on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy.”
There was a deep realization, that the joy wasn’t from their personal accomplishments. It was from God – He’d given them great joy.
Once again, the Bible is full of examples of joy among God’s people, and it comes first from what God’s doing through them.
1 Kings 8:66
On the following day he sent the people away. They blessed the king and then went home, joyful and glad in heart for all the good things the LORD had done for his servant David and his people Israel.
2 Chronicles 29:36
Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced at what God had brought about for his people, because it was done so quickly.
Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: "The Lord's right hand has done mighty things!
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Why should we “party”? Why should we sing? Why should there be joy?
Because God is good, even when we aren’t;
God’s enough when we aren’t;
God doesn’t fail when we do;
God deserves credit for whatever we accomplish.
Real joy is fueled by what God accomplishes through us.
IV. Without Reservation
(because we have, of all the people, the greatest reason to rejoice)
I can’t say much about application at this point, because the point is to not issue restrictions when it comes to joy!
Story - C.H. Spurgeon (the Billy Graham of his day) was once chided for using too much humor in his preaching. “If only you knew how much I hold back, you would commend me!”
V43 they offered great sacrifices and “The joy was heard…” Notice it doesn’t say the words, the songs, the instruments. It says the joy could be heard. Maybe from a distance a person couldn’t hear what the songs were they were singing or what cheers they were cheering, but what could be heard was “joy.”
Ill – Kids are pretty uninhibited when it comes to joy. Jenni and Andy, clear up until recently, used to get a bit silly in the back seat of the van. They’d get so loud, I’d have to call them down: “Be quiet!” They’re just having too much fun!
When Jesus said that we must become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, could He have also been referring to being somewhat childlike when it comes to the way we rejoice?
And I notice this about joy without reservation too – it will often be in combination with our tears. This isn’t about the absence of grief. It’s about the presence of joy, even in the midst of grief. Every funeral of a believer who has fought the good fight and finished the race is proof of this.
Story - It was a very difficult year on the frontier plains. Food was scarce at best, and the mother of the home had been serving anything she could get her hands on. Each day, she took out of their family grain stores the smallest amount they could get by with. With great love she’d fashion it into little loaves of bread and serve it with as much enthusiasm as she could muster, giving her husband and children the larger share.
Still, all this time there was perched on a high shelf a big sack of grain. Just that sack would almost double what they had left to eat. But it was set aside last harvest - never milled, never ground, never used to make the bread the family needed.
It’s planting season, and after another meal that barely whets their appetites, the father does the unthinkable. He takes down the big sack of grain, and heads outside with it. He carefully measures out the seed, and begins to drop it into the furrows of dirt he has been digging. Planting it is their only hope for a meal a few months from now, even though the grain would provide them with several meals today. So with a growling stomach and misty eyes, the father tosses the precious grains of wheat onto the ground.
That strange relationship of grief and joy must be what the Psalmist refers to in…
Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.
Real joy is something we can have, even in the midst of grief – especially when we entrust the whole thing into the hands of a God Who’s interested in growing and helping us by it .
Ill - July 10, 1992, Carrie and I sat in a dark hospital room tired and feeling very alone. She was recovering from 20 hours of labor and then a C-section. Stan, our second son was in Neo-natal ICU, dying. It was early afternoon, and all around outside our room were the sounds of other parents and grandparents celebrating their new arrivals. We were already grieving what would be the loss of ours.
We were hermitted away. We didn’t open the blinds or turn on the lights. We were hurting, and we just wanted to escape. In through the door popped the Sills – Carrie’s foster parents, with one of their daughters. They were grieving too. But they were smiling for our sakes, and they came as a reminder of the joy we have in Jesus. I remember they opened the blinds, and the sunlight that poured into that dark scene was a good illustration of what they did for us. They didn’t try to make us laugh or force us to smile. They let us hurt and they hurt with us, but they were messengers of our hope in Jesus, and reminders of joy in what was for us a joyless setting.
Real joy is without reservation, because we have the greatest reason to rejoice.
• We can have joy when a loved one’s death is just a temporary separation.
• We can rejoice when something material is taken away from us because our treasure is in heaven, not earth.
• We have joy in the midst of failed health or physical pain because we’re anticipating a body that won’t have those.
• We rejoice when we’re tired, because Jesus promises real rest for us.
• We have joy when we’re crying because God notes our tears and promises to be nearby.
Real joy is without reservation.
I like to watch a mother playing with her little baby. According to our youth minister Wade, all babies look like Winston Churchill. If you could just put a cigar in their mouth, there he is – Winston Churchill! Most mothers don’t look at their kids that way though, do they? That little wrinkly guy responds to her voice and her face, and she rejoices over her little child. The word is “dandling.” That’s what they call it, I guess, when someone holds a baby and bounces him up and down. That’s a neat picture of real joy. Can you picture it?
Can you picture that God rejoices over you?
(Isaiah 62:5) as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
(Isa 65:19) I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people;
(Zep 3:17) The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."
Being a people of joy is just part of being like the God Whose image we bear. Jesus spoke about the Father’s joy when people turn to Him for life:
(Lk 15:7) I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy, let Jesus come into your heart.