ReBUILD: REPAIRING WALLS AND LIVES
The Joy of the Lord is my Strength
by Pastor Martha-Jean Fitch
November 3, 2019
TEXT: Nehemiah 8
Norman Vincent Peale, a great preacher from the 20th century, once visited a friend in the hospital. The man had previously had one leg amputated and now he had lost his other one. But, amazingly, he seemed happy and enthusiastic.1
“Everyone tells me that you are the happiest person in the hospital”, said Dr. Peale. “You are not putting it on, are you?”
“No, no, I am as happy as can be.”
“Let me in on your secret,” Peale asked.
“Do you see that little book lying over there on the table?” the man replied, pointing to the Bible. “There is where I get my medicine. When I feel a little low, I just read that Book.”
I wonder what Scriptures he read that lifted his spirits.
Maybe it was from Psalm 73:26, where we hear these words – “My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; He is mine forever!”
Or perhaps from Psalm 34:4 & 5, where David shares: “I prayed to the Lord and He answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look Him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces.”
Or maybe, just maybe, he was clinging to our main Scripture reading for today from Nehemiah 8:10, “The joy of the Lord is my strength”.
Today we continue our story of this great man in the Old Testament who lived 400 years before Christ. You will remember that Nehemiah was living in Persia, serving as a cupbearer to the King. His family were part of the Israelite exiles that had come to Babylonia some 70 years earlier. When Cyrus became king and defeated the Babylonians, he allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. The people were released in stages. Zerubbabel led the first group about 538 BC and Ezra, the priest, led the next group about 458 BC. And the first thing they did was rebuild the Temple.
But in 444 BC – the walls around Jerusalem were still crumbled and in great need of repair, leaving the people defenseless and vulnerable. When Nehemiah heard this, he knew he needed to go to Jerusalem and help. Given permission by the king, Nehemiah left Persia and gathered a bunch of people together to rebuild and repair the walls. He faced all sort of opposition and trouble – but he was determined. Remember, even when tempted to give up and stop the work, he said “I am doing a great work and I can’t come down.” (Nehemiah 6:3). And amazingly, the wall was finished in just 52 days! When all the enemies and surrounding nations heard about this incredible work, “they realized this work had been done with the help of our God!” (Nehemiah 6:16)
So, the Temple was built – the walls were up, safe and secure. But there was still something missing. The people needed their spirits rebuilt! Just like those broken-down walls – the people had broken lives. Their ancestors had worshipped idols and turned away from God, which had caused them to lose everything. They then lived seven decades in exile – away from their homeland and did not really know or understand the word of God.
So, Nehemiah knew that the people needed to repent and rebuild their lives. So, he gathered all the people together in one place and asked Ezra the priest to read the book of the law to the people. It is this context that we read our Scripture for today.
I invite you to get your Bibles out and turn to Nehemiah 8 and follow along with me in the reading of today’s Scripture reading. I want you to pay close attention and listen for the words understand or understood….as well as the word joy. And this is a great Scripture for participation – so where the people respond, I want you to respond as well. Just listen carefully – and I’ll give you some clues what to do.
1 In October, when the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled with a unified purpose at the square just inside the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given for Israel to obey.
2 So on October 8, Ezra the priest brought the Book of the Law before the assembly, which included the men and women and all the children old enough to understand. 3 He faced the square just inside the Water Gate from early morning until noon and read aloud to everyone who could understand. All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform that had been made for the occasion. To his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah. To his left stood Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam. 5 Ezra stood on the platform in full view of all the people. When they saw him open the book, they all rose to their feet.
6 Then Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people chanted, “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah—then instructed the people in the Law while everyone remained in their places. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were interpreting for the people said to them, “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God.” For the people had all been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
Now why were they crying? It doesn’t say exactly why – but some have thought that they wept as they heard the words of God, they realized just how far that they had strayed from following the Lord. The tears were tears of sorrow for their sin and for repentance. Their hearts were broken. They heard how God had cared for the people with a steadfast love – and had called for their obedience. But they had been disobedient and not been faithful. So, they wept.
But Nehemiah tells them that this is not the day for weeping – but a day of rejoicing. Look at verse 10:
10 And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”
11 And the Levites, too, quieted the people, telling them, “Hush! Don’t weep! For this is a sacred day.” 12 So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them.
Did you hear those words understand and joy? Why did the Israelites have joy? Because they finally heard God’s words and understood them! The words of God brought forgiveness and healing – they brought hope and promise – they brought joy and strength.
Nehemiah tells them “The joy of the Lord is your strength”. But what exactly does that mean and how can that promise help us today? I believe it really has all to do with who God is and our relationship with Him.
We know from Psalm 16:11 that “in the presence of God there is fullness of joy and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore.” God truly is pure joy and He wants to give us His joy. And we can know that joy as we stay in a close relationship with God.
Jesus taught us in John 15, that we are to stay connected to Him – just like a branch stays connected to the vine. He said, “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in His love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow.” The joy of the Lord comes as we abide in Christ; the nearer we are to Him, the more filled with joy we will be.
And what is amazing is that we can know this joy even through the trials of life. The joy that God gives us is not dependent on the circumstances of our life. Different than “happiness”, which can be destroyed by what is happening in our lives – joy is the enduring gift of the Holy Spirit that cannot be taken away from us. Jesus told His disciples in John 16, the night before He went to the cross: “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy.” (v. 20) We truly have joy because of the resurrection! The risen Christ is with us. He is alive. He wants us to have this joy, in every season of our lives.
The joy of the Lord can be the strength we need to:
Stand firm in the midst of the storms: All of us have known times when life is hard. Sickness and heartache, the loss of a job or loss of a home, a broken relationship or a tragedy in the family – all can be a storm that we have to face. But we do not have to face these difficult times alone. God is there in the midst of the storm and His joy can be our strength to get us through those difficult times. As we look to the Lord and remember that He is our strong tower, our refuge in times of trouble and our anchor we can cling to – we will know His deep joy that will carry us through whatever we are facing.
The Joy of the Lord can be our strength to
Have an unshakeable inner peace and hope2
Jesus spoke many times about the peace He came to give us – a peace that is not like the world’s peace – but a peace of mind and heart that will keep us from being afraid and will sustain us during those shaking times in our lives. The Apostle Paul called it a peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:6-7) which helps us during our anxious times. Psalm 16:8 says: “I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for He is right beside me.” That’s the joy of the Lord we have – He is always with us and will give us the peace and the strength we need.
As I was thinking about this kind of unshakable peace, I thought back to a woman in our church who really showed that peace to me. Her name was Nancy Simkins…I know many of you will remember her. She was a fairly new Christian that I baptized about 7 years ago. Nancy was a really quiet person who really didn’t get too involved in a lot at the church. That is until she attended the Great Banquet spiritual retreat. She really came alive with the joy of the Lord and knew a close relationship with Jesus. She became very active in the church and really made a big difference. And then, in just 2 short years, Nancy found out that she had cancer and she was dying. When I would go over to her home to visit with her, she would talk about the peace she knew, even in the midst of failing health. And she talked about the strength she received from Scripture. She once told me that Isaiah 41:10 was one Scripture that always helped her when she was going through difficult times. God says in that passage: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” That promise was the joy of the Lord that gave her strength to face those difficult days. She didn't understand why she had to have cancer – but she trusted in God and she knew she was ready to go to heaven.
And that is the most wonderful thing the joy of the Lord gives us strength to
Move from death to life:
Hebrews 12:1-2 says: “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Notice those words: “for the sake of the joy that was set before him.” Jesus was able to endure the pain and the shame of dying on the cross because he kept in mind the joy that awaited him in the future – going to heaven to sit at the right hand of the throne of God.
He had joy in knowing that God would work through the misery of the cross to bring about eternal life for all believers. He could keep His eyes on the prize in the future rather than the momentary present pain of the cross.
We too need to keep our eyes on the big picture. God does have a wonderful future planned for us. And He is able to work through whatever difficulties we are going through right now to bring all things together for good. And one day, we too, will be free from all the pain in this life and know true joy in heaven with our Lord.
As I close today, I want to share with you a few thoughts about Joy in the Lord, written by Mother Teresa in her book “A Gift for God.”3 Mother Teresa writes this:
Joy is prayer; joy is strength; joy is love;
Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.
The best way to show our gratitude to God and the people is to
accept everything with joy. Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of the Risen Christ.
Thanks be to God! The Joy of the Lord is our Strength!
1Norman Vincent Peale, Enthusiasm Makes the Difference.
2I was inspired for this section by a blog that talked about the “4 Ways the Joy of the Lord Can Be Your Strength”. It was written by Rebecca Hargraves, located at
3Mother Teresa of Calcutta, A Gift for God, Prayers and Meditations. Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.