The Witness Of Joy
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / November 26, 2006
The burden of this sermon series, now in its 10th week, has been to track the leadership of Nehemiah. As Nehemiah has pursued his vision to rebuild Jerusalem, we tracked his methods in order that we might be helped in the pursuit of a vision to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus.
Nehemiah succeeded in fulfilling his vision. I pray that, by God’s grace, we would experience similar success. I pray that we might experience tangible progress and growth.
You may recall that when Nehemiah and the citizens of Jerusalem completed the wall they engaged in a vibrant celebration. I am grateful that this reporting of the celebration has been included in the text. If Nehemiah was merely in a task completion mode, he might have ended his book in chapter 6, just as soon as the wall is rebuilt. Instead, the book continues for 7 more chapters.
Those of us with ‘type A’ personalities, such as myself, have to step out of task completion mode and wonder about the significance of what follows the reconstruction of the wall. For some, this is difficult—we see the first 6 chapters of Nehemiah as a big checklist.
Secure permission from the king to leave for Jerusalem. Check. Procure documents from the king to ensure safe travel and to obtain sufficient supplies. Check. Inspect Jerusalem carefully. Check. Convince the people of Jerusalem to help with the project. Check. Successfully troubleshoot when opposition and strife arises. Check. Finish the wall. Check.
On one level, I feel that we gain enough from the first 6 chapters of Nehemiah to pursue a vision that seeks to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus. But, on another level, I reckon that we miss something vital if we pursue a God-ordained vision in the same manner we tackle a ‘To Do’ list of household chores.
You see, the Book of Nehemiah is not merely the story of how a wall got rebuilt. The Book of Nehemiah is the story of how the people of God were rebuilt.
The walls of Jerusalem are significant. It was critical that the walls be reconstructed. But the walls are not the point. This project of wall reconstruction was part of a grander plan of God to revive His people.
We should bear this in mind as we pursue a vision to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus. Our temptation is to imagine that pursuing this vision is only about other people—that is, the recipients of our work. When really, what is often the case is that we too are fundamentally changed in the process.
Andy Stanley says it well, ‘Your visions are not merely avenues for God to do something through you. They are also avenues for God to do something in you.’
It has been a delight for me to hear how so many of you are being encouraged by this sermon series. I do not recall a series of mine eliciting as much positive feedback. And yet, I must concur with Andy Stanley—while I wondered what God might do through me as I taught the Scriptures, I find myself powerfully struck by what God is doing in me as I teach His Word.
Yes indeed, these latter chapters of Nehemiah are less about the walls of Jerusalem and more about the people for whom these walls were built.
As we examine chapter 12 this morning, we note that we are nearly at the end of this inspiring story. And finally, we come to the point where the walls are being officially dedicated within a religious ceremony. We noted the absence of such a ceremony last Sunday as we witnessed the people of Jerusalem engage in worship and celebration.
A natural question to ask is, ‘Why such a delay in dedicating the walls of Jerusalem? If the walls were complete by the end of chapter 6, why are they being dedicated in chapter 12?’
Again, I think we must bear in mind the division of this Book. Because the people, and not the walls, are the point, the dedication of the walls is delayed until the people are appropriately prepared. As we learned last Sunday, genuine worship and repentance must precede celebration. Or, as Charles Swindoll puts it, ‘Holiness precedes happiness . . . The first step to a happy countenance is a clean heart’ (Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, 185).
This principle is affirmed in verse 30 where we read that, before the dedication ceremony began, “the priests and the Levites purified themselves; they also purified the people, the gates, and the wall.”
Even though the process of purification is not delineated for us, we are nonetheless able to discern its important preparatory function. Moreover, I think there is an application for us here. We noted last Sunday how a service of worship should be marked by vibrant celebration, and that the participants should be marked by genuine happiness.
If there are occasions when we find this to be lacking, if there are times when we find ourselves in a service of worship altogether devoid of happiness, could it be that this is the result of insufficient preparation?
Could it be that if nothing is resonating, if nothing is connecting with us during worship it is because we have neglected to seek purification before hand?
I am not speaking here of an ancient purification rite involving water. I am speaking of our need to engage in worship with a clean heart.
This is not a statement about perfection. This is not a claim to ‘be holier than thou’. This is a statement about our need to pursue and receive forgiveness from God. This is a statement of how forgiveness is a prerequisite for our happiness.
The apostle John instructs us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn. 1:9). Similarly, the author of Hebrews explains, “we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). Because of Christ’s work on the cross, the only thing separating you and I from a clean heart is a sincere prayer of confession.
I labour this point because it would be futile for me to point you to the way of joy, without first pointing the way to forgiveness in Christ. If we are to be marked by joyfulness, we will need to be always pursuing the forgiveness that is available in Christ.
Having engaged in the rites of purification, Nehemiah directs the leaders of Judah to climb up on top of the wall (12:31). Those leaders were soon followed by two choirs and numerous instrumentalists. Ezra went ahead of the first choir, while Nehemiah accompanied the second choir.
From here we need to create a mental picture of the scene that was unfolding. Based on what follows, I highly doubt that these groups stood at attention on the wall, tight-lipped, and straight-laced. Rather, I imagine them dancing, clapping, and parading on the wall, giving thanks to the God of Israel.
I infer this because of what I read in verse 43, from the NASB, “and on that day they offered great sacrifices and rejoiced because God had given them great joy, even the women and children rejoiced, so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar.”
This fourfold repetition of the word for joy ensures that we won’t miss the spirit behind this celebration. The people of Jerusalem were displaying a holy exuberance as they worshipped. And lest we imagine that such a celebration is excessive or ‘over the top’ in its joyfulness, Nehemiah points out that “God had given them great joy.” The happiness of the people had a Divine origin.
This is a critical point. It is senseless for me to attempt to stir you to contrive your own happiness. No, this kind of joy—joy that transcends our circumstances is a gift of God. This joy is the echo that follows being forgiven in Christ. It is a powerful joy. As Nehemiah explains, “the joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar.”
We have already been told about the “two great choirs” (12:31). We have been told about the musicians with trumpets, cymbals and a variety of stringed instruments. No doubt, this would have been a marvelous concert! But what does Nehemiah report?
That the concert held in Jerusalem received great reviews? Did Nehemiah say that the music was heard from afar? It was likely the case that the music was heard from miles away—but Nehemiah does not report that. The literal rendering of the Hebrew states that it was “the joy of Jerusalem (that) was heard from afar.”
I believe this is an important distinction. Outstanding music may impress people, but it will be the spirit behind the music that persuades people. Those outside Jerusalem were not talking about the talented choirs or the gifted instrumentalists, they were talking about the joy of the congregation.
We live in a world starved for happiness. And in a world starved for happiness, I regard authentic joy to be one of the most persuasive attributes for a Christian congregation to possess.
To put it another way, for us to succeed in our vision to Bring In Others it will be important for us to be marked genuine happiness. We will require this God-given joy spoken of by Nehemiah.
There are few things more attractive than a beautiful smile and a cheerful disposition. Don’t allow yourself to be tempted away from that. It is too easy to allow circumstances to plummet us into a spirit of severity or negativity. Needless to say, you will not win anyone over with such a spirit.
When we say that someone has ‘a magnetic personality’, it is doubtful that we are speaking about someone who is intensely serious. We’re usually talking about someone who exudes happiness and contentment.
I remember an occasion, about a year ago, when I was shopping at Loblaws with Anya—who was three at the time. We were in a long line-up at the checkout when she begin to sing quite audibly, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ As she continued, heads began to turn and it wasn’t long before the checkout line-up was her captive audience.
Now, we who gather Sunday by Sunday have an affection for that particular song, but it wasn’t the song itself that captivated the Loblaws checkout that day. It was the genuine happiness of a child, which had everyone’s attention.
If we are to gain the world’s attention, the Christian Church must recover her joy. Beloved, if we are to effectively witness for Christ, our joy must be heard from afar. Amen.