REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.
Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 27: The joy of the Lord is your strength.
This morning we sang the old chorus: give me joy in my heart keep me praising. It was good to look upward with this prayer-song. I was then taken with the words from the Psalm: The Lord is my strength and my shield: my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song (28:9). Here is a biblical theme that turns us upwards and helps us face not only the pandemic with its myriad of inter-related concerns, be they the constant in-our- face-ness of the daily news and conversations, but the very real impact it is having on so many around the world.
When Nehemiah had completed the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall and after Ezra’s public reading of the Law, the people wept as they listened (Neh.8:9). The ever practical and thoughtful Nehemiah counselled: Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. The day is sacred to the lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (10). No doubt these were tears of repentance after hearing the law read and carefully explained. But though repentance brings grief as wrong attitudes toward God are exposed, it is always a joyful response to God’s Word, as seen in the parable of the prodigal (Luke 15:32). They were grieved at their disobedience and neglect of God’s law, but Nehemiah saw that celebration was proper. Derek Kidner reminds us that: “holiness and gloom go ill together” where “the little luxuries that can turn a meal into a feast… and the love which can turn simple gaiety into the joy of the Lord… which is to be invigorating, not escapist or evanescent”.
Here is a good reason for a nice morning tea after worship! More importantly the phrase for the joy of the Lord is your strength, far from ruling out grieving and even lament, reminds us that joy is a means God uses to help us through trials and troubles of every kind. There is joy to be found whenever we contemplate God’s way of salvation. To recall that each person of the Godhead was engaged in saving us can be counted upon to bring us joy and praise. We see this in Ephesians 1:3-14 where the Father’s choice of us before the foundation of the world, that we might be redeemed through the blood of Jesus, adopted as sons and daughters sealed by the Holy Spirit, draws from the apostle the joyous, three fold to the praise of His glory.
The joy is ours from God so that we can face troubles and seek holiness with a deep inner strength that finds its source outside of ourselves or circumstances. This is what we need because circumstances will vary with our age, our world, our personalities and needs, which at best are uncertain and at worst horrible. But God and His purposes are anything other than horrible and uncertain. Commenting on the remarkable trio: be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances (1Thess.5:16-18) Leon Morris writes: “the Thessalonian believers thought more of their Lord than of their difficulties; more of their spiritual riches in Christ than of their poverty on earth; more of their glorious future than of their unhappy past. So the note of joy runs through the New Testament, and so Paul himself, who knew what it was to rejoice in difficult circumstances (Acts 16:25) can say, ‘Rejoice always’.
Joy commanded by God, who so clearly wants us to be habitually joyful, that it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal.5:22-23). But the Holy Spirit will not do for us what we ought to apply ourselves to. We are taught to rejoice always, pray continually, be thankful always, read scripture, repent where required and obey at every turn, knowing that our Lord would strengthen us by His Spirit as we do. That this is God’s desire for His children is set before us in both Testaments and modelled for us by our Saviour as He endured the cross, scorn[ed]ing its shame for the joy set before Him (Heb.12:2). This joy was surely that of seeing others become His brothers and sisters through faith in Him. The troubles of life, pandemics included, can be rejoiced in since God’s great plan is not only to save us from sins penalty, but to see us overcome all the ravages of sin, ours and others, joyfully not stoically. Gordon Fee helpfully expresses this realism: joy does not mean the absence of sorrow but the capacity to rejoice in the midst of it.
The Scriptures teach us to expect troubles but to also see them as essential to our experience of His joy. It seems that we need them to wean us away from contentment with God’s good gifts, or worse the world’s many varied pleasures, so that our daily focus will remain on Him not His gifts. Our Lord prepared His disciples, in this way, with promises of persecution and troubles (Jn. 15:18; 16:33) more than compensated for by the presence of the Holy Spirit (14:25-27). No wonder Paul counsels us in the same way in Romans 5:1-5 where peace and access to God through faith in Jesus, of such value that we can even rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that God’s love will be increasingly real to us through these sufferings by the Holy Spirit. So that we get his point he twice exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord, always (Phil 4:4-7) with the promise that the peace of God will guard our hearts. The Scottish proverb helps us capture the joy of it all: peace is joy resting and joy is peace dancing. How good is our God!
Peter Brain 30th June, 2020