Epiphany 3–3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our text today comes from a book of the Old Testament that we do not commonly use in our Sunday readings. Usually we read a historical account of Moses or the prophets or the patriarchs like Abraham; or else we read from the prophets as they call the people to repent or give a prophecy of the coming Messiah. But today’s reading from Nehemiah is an historical account from a period of time we also usually don’t have as one of our Sunday readings. We usually have readings from the time of the Patriarchs or at the time of David or one of the other kings. But today’s reading takes place at a very interesting time in the Israelite history.
If you remember, the Israelites kept falling away from the true God and were worshiping the various false gods and idols of the people around them. God, through the prophets, kept calling on them to repent and turn back to Him; He was warning them that if they don’t repent, He would send in foreign armies and drive them from the land, destroying Jerusalem and the temple. And that’s exactly what He did! He had the Babylonians come in, conquer the nation, destroy the temple and Jerusalem and bring the people into exile for 70 years. That 70 years was precisely foretold by the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah [25.11; 29.10]: And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon 70 years. And then: For thus says the Lord: After 70 years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. That’s exactly what happened! God is always faithful to His word–both of Law/ punishment and His word of Gospel/ rescue. St. Ezra [1.1] records: Now in the first year of Cyrus the king of Persia, that the word of the Lord spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made proclamation throughout all his kingdom that the Jews were to return to Jerusalem to build the temple. There we see the Lord’s faithfulness! –Not just to what He spoke through St. Jeremiah but also through all the other prophets–when He gave prophecies/ promises about the coming Savior who would be born in Bethlehem of a virgin, of the line of David, etc.
And that’s where we are in today’s text. A remnant of the people returned–most stayed behind where they had been exiled, having become comfortable there–but that remnant returned and under Nehemiah, the governor, had rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem. A first and vital step for the city and in particular for its safety! After many schemes from their enemies to keep the Jews from rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem–and so keep them weak and vulnerable– proved to be unsuccessful, and the whole wall of the city was completed in an amazingly short time–52 days. Finally their enemies stopped their hostile plots and acts because as Nehemiah reports [Neh. 6.16] they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. The wall was built; the city was large but there were few houses and few people.
What was the next thing that the people then did once the wall was rebuilt? That’s where our text begins: All the people gathered together at the public square that is in front of the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. Having experienced the Lord’s grace in bringing them back to Jerusalem, the grace as God restored the city to which the coming Savior would come, the grace of God blessing their work so they finished the walls in such a short time, what was the people’s response? –They wanted to hear His word; they wanted to make His teaching their rule of life; in faith in and love of their gracious Lord, they wanted to live according to it. What great joy they had as Ezra read God’s Word: All the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. And what was their response? –All the people were crying as they heard the words of the Law. They grieved in repentance; they realized how they individually and as a nation had sinned. They heard God’s promises and His grace but also how far they were from the holiness God expects and demands. They also surely wept, swept over with emotion as they recognized their sin but yet how God showered them with grace upon grace.
But this isn’t just some ancient history, a quaint story. This is the picture of each of us. Aren’t we all the recipients of God’s grace, now and throughout our lives? If we are honest, don’t we see–even in our trials and hardships–nothing but God’s grace toward us, His gracious working and help like the Jews here did? If we honestly look at our lives, don’t we have to say we are worthy of none of the least graces of God and yet He showers us with them? And then, our lives, because of our sin, are far from what God expects and demands of us! Shouldn’t we be like the Jews that day by the Water Gate hearing God’s word and weeping over our sins? But sadly, how often do we truly grieve and sorrow over our sin like they did? Don’t we just so often mindlessly say: I, a poor, miserable sinner… Is it because we don’t really think our sins are all that great; that by them we earn/ deserve God’s eternal wrath and punishment? And if we think our sins aren’t all that bad, then God’s grace is not all that great either. Dear Christian, we need that earnest call to repent, that honest look at our lives in the light of God’s holy Law; we need to look around and be aware that indeed goodness and mercy has followed us all the days of our life. The point behind all this is not some emotional weeping. Instead, it’s to get a realistic picture of the reality so that as we recognize and mourn over our sins we may with all the more joy receive the forgiveness of our sins and be strengthened in faith and love of the Lord to improve constantly and become purer; it’s so that we might hear with the joy of faith, the holy absolution as the Jews that day heard from Nehemiah: Go, eat rich food and drink sweet drinks and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, because today is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, because the joy of the Lord is your strength. The Go, eat rich food and drink sweet drinks, that’s the holy absolution; the send portions to those who have nothing prepared that’s the fruits of faith, good works. Each day that we hear the absolution and receive it in faith, that today is holy to our Lord. In spite of our sins–no matter how great they may be– God’s grace is greater. We have no cause to grieve, just believe.
And then there are those lovely words: the joy of the Lord is your strength. May we take these glorious words to heart. But how do we read them? –What’s our strength: is it the Lord’s joy of us that gives us strength, or does our joy of Him give us strength? –Why can’t it be both? –Our strength is that we know the Lord has joy in us; and our strength comes when in the joy of faith we despair of ourselves and look to and rely on the Lord, like St. Paul writes [2 Co 12.10]: when I am weak, then I am strong.
Think of the Lord’s joy of us: the joy of the Lord is your strength. We are His creation. That’s our dignity as human beings. God made us. The very fact that we are here shows God’s love and care–and also His preserving us. How then can He not have joy in us? The simple fact of the matter is that God didn’t have to create us; there’s nothing that forced Him to create us, but He did. This is why Christians are pro-life: we recognize each person is a special creation of God; He formed and knit us together in the womb so that as David says in the psalm [139.14, 17]: I am fearfully and wonderfully made…how precious also are Your thoughts to me. God’s thoughts toward us are shown in nature and revealed fully and clearly in Holy Scripture. What joy God has in us!
That joy God has in us is shown when He rescued us from sin and death, devil and hell. This great joy and rescue we also see reflected in our text. When the Israelites sinned and fell away from God and rejected Him, He didn’t give them what they earned/ deserved. Yes, He brought them into captivity–but that was to correct them and turn them back to Him. He didn’t leave/ abandon them there. He rescued them and returned them to their homeland.
In the same way, all of us. In His joy of us, His special creation, He didn't leave us in our sin and damnation. Instead, He sent Jesus to rescue us; to save us from the just consequences of our sin. Jesus, for us, lived a holy, sinless life doing for us what God demands of us but that we do not/ cannot do; Jesus took our sins with Him to the cross where He suffered the just punishment for our sin. The sin of all has been paid for. We sinners are reconciled to the holy God. When Jesus rose from the dead, God declared us forgiven; when He ascended into heaven He opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. And now, dear Christian, as we are baptized and united with Jesus through faith, as His holiness is given us and covers us, with what joy God sees us and has in us–He sees His holy, perfect, Son.
There is our strength in all times of trial–we are the apple of our Lord’s eye! He has joy in us–not only did He create us but restored and rescued us. We need never doubt or question our Lord’s will or attitude is toward us: the joy of the Lord is [our] strength, His joy toward us.
And since the Lord has joy in us first, and has restored and rescued us in Christ–like the return from the exile in our text foreshadows–our joy of the Lord is our strength. And this joy is grounded in repentance. Just like the Jews in our text recognized and mourned over their sins and then Nehemiah pronounced the absolution, Go, eat rich food and drink sweet drinks and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, because today is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, because the joy of the Lord is your strength, and they then knew and experienced the mercy and grace of God and knew Him rightly as their dear loving God and Savior and rejoiced, so too, when we sin and repent of that sin, we, in faith, go to God seeking His forgiveness and trust in His holy word of Absolution, which is grounded on Jesus and His work. In faith we know that things are right between us and God, that He is indeed our loving heavenly Father and Savior. We see with the eyes of faith His smiling face and so we then have great joy in Him–in His pronouncement, in the sure and certain work of Jesus. With that forgiveness and joy, we no longer fear God as the one who will damn us for our sin–we know Him as the one who saves us. But where there is no sorrow over sin and faith in Jesus and His work, how can there be joy in God; there’s no faith in Jesus and His work and word; and then isn’t there doubt about what God will do? But where there is repentance, there is strength flowing from our joy in the Lord because the joy of the Lord is your strength.
So what is there strength for? When we, in faith, consider the many blessings of God and rejoice over them–especially the forgiveness of sins and eternal life–we are strengthened inwardly. We know God rightly; we know Him as our help–out of greatest problem of sin and hell–so certainly He will be our help in our daily trials and struggles. We are assured all the more of His divine help and so we take strength and can be strong in every trial, relying on and looking to the Lord.
Because the joy of the Lord is [our] strength we are strengthened when the devil and his allies attack us, trying to get us to doubt and question God’s will and work to us. But when our joy is in the Lord, we are strong: we are sure of God’s kindness and love and so we are filled with joy and strength as we walk in His ways. Joy is our strength–God’s joy of us and our joy of Him. In this joy we live our lives as Christians–even in every trial. The joy of the Lord is [our] strength. INJ Amen