Sermon series: God's Story, Part II
- Make a Name for Yourself - Genesis, 2 Samuel
- Delight in Discipline - Hebrews 12
- The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength - Nehemiah 8
Illustration: In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes:
The coaching staff of a high school cross-country running team got together for dinner after winning its second state championship in two years. The program had been transformed in the previous five years from good (top 20 in the state) to great (consistent contenders for the state championship on both the boys' and girls' teams).
"I don't get it," said one of the coaches. "Why are we so successful? We don't work any harder than other teams. And what we do is just so simple. Why does it work?"
He was referring to their simple strategy: We run best at the end. We run best at the end of workouts. We run best at the end of races. And we run best at the end of the season, when it counts the most. Everything is geared to this simple idea, and the coaching staff knows how to create this effect better than any other team in the state.
For example, they place a coach at the 2-mile mark (of a 3.1-mile race) to collect data as the runners go past. Then the coaches calculate not how fast the runners go, but how many competitors they pass at the end of the race, from mile two to the finish.
The kids learn how to pace themselves and race with confidence: "We run best at the end," they think at the end of a hard race. "So, if I'm hurting bad, then my competitors must hurt a whole lot worse!"
(Jim Collins, Good To Great (Harper Business, 2001), p. 206)
In a tough race? Don't quit! Sooner or later, you'll reach the point where your hard work during lean times will pay off. After Nehemiah and Ezra led their people to rebuild Jerusalem, they had a great day of celebration, just 52 days after the work had begun.
I. Life can be tough: Don't give up!
Nehemiah's rebuilding project involved everyone. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, teen-agers - everyone. And all of them knew how tough life could be. They had a rough past, because of the exile, and their worst days were only a few weeks behind them. Their forefathers had made some choices that cost them dearly. Just ruined them. They had known a lot of discouragement, a lot of disappointment - no doubt they were really numb to the entire experience.
When you get to a point of total exhaustion, it's hard to keep going. This can be so tough - but you must resolve now to never give up.
Don't give up on the patience meter. Don't go dry on the love and laughter well. Don't ever stop teaching them the values that are important to you, important to God.
Illustration: Author and preacher Tony Campolo said that when his wife, Peggy, was at home fulltime with their children and someone would ask, "And what is it that you do, my dear?" she would respond, "I am socializing two Homo sapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition in order that they might be instruments for the transformation of the social order into the kind of eschatological utopia that God willed from the beginning of creation."
Then Peggy would ask the other person, "And what do you do?"
(John Ortberg and Ruth Haley, An Ordinary Day with Jesus (Zondervan, 2001), p. 122; submitted by Dave Slagle, Lawrenceville, Georgia.)
You've got a job like that? No wonder you're tired! Even Nehemiah takes his hat off to you!
Illustration: Philip Yancey tells of a letter he received from a friend whose daughter, Peggie, was terminally ill. The mother wrote:
The weekend before she went into the hospital for the last time, Peggie came home all excited about a quotation from William Barclay that her minister had used. She was so taken with it that she had copied it down on a 3 x 5 card for me: "Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory." She said her minister must have had a hard week, because after he read it he banged the pulpit and then turned his back to them and cried. (Source: Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God (Zondervan, 1997), p. 157)
Yes, life can be tough. Funerals come unexpectedly. Doctors read reports that spell out very bad news. Relationships sour. Stock-market losses mean dramatic change to retirement incomes, investments, and financial security.
In the midst of any bad news, it is critically important to stay the course, and to work hard, always moving toward the finish line.
Illustration: Years ago, on the week of my 39th birthday, a friend and I decided to hike a 40-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. It was, I think, something of a mid-life denial effort. Half an hour into our first afternoon of hiking, all efforts at denial faded away. Climbing mountains is extremely difficult! Though we had trained for the hike, we had trained on the flat lands of our community. The dramatic change in elevation wore us down quickly. Three hours later, we collapsed in a meadow, grabbing our water bottles for relief, and our map for guidance. It appeared we were about halfway to our first camping site, but that seemed to be impossible. Surely, we thought, we had nearly completed the first, six-mile stretch.
Suddenly, a pair of women appeared on the horizon, coming down the trail. They appeared to be enjoying a stroll through the woods, and though they were obviously in their retirement years, they reached us in a matter of moments. We were too tired to get up, but we engaged them in conversation. Residents of the area, they had been to the top of the mountain, and were now returning. Finally, I asked the most important question of the day. "How far is it to the top?" I asked. "Oh, it's a little ways on up the hill," one of them said. Then she smiled, and with a twinkle in her eye, she added, "Of course, you boys are sitting down -"
We got the message, picked up our backpacks, and parted ways. Three hours later, we reached our goal and set up camp for the night. We were exhausted, and fresh graduates of an old-school lesson: Even in tough times, you simply can't give up!
II. The joy of the Lord is your strength
Here's the deal. This incredible little phrase, one that we've quoted, one that hangs up like artwork, one that we sing - means this. During tough times, the core of your joy, if you have joy at all, is going to be in your relationship with God.
Sometimes I understand things better in the Bible if I just read it out-loud a few different ways. If you, for instance, emphasized different parts of this phrase, you might get -
the JOY of the Lord is your strength.
the joy of the Lord is YOUR strength.
the joy of the Lord is your STRENGTH.
But the real emphasis? It's this: "The joy OF THE LORD is your strength."
Are you a parent? A mom's strength, like a dad's strength, is limited. But the Lord? No limit to His strength.
Are your financial resources limited, and sometimes not very strong? The Lord's strength is unlimited, and forever strong. He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Can your health falter, and leave you physically weak? Of course it can. Perhaps it has. The Lord's strength, however, is perfect and complete. Our confidence in God is, at times, the only strength we know.
So, our joy is knowing that no matter what comes our way - whether it's personal hardship for us or our family - or maybe just the routine ups and downs and good times and bad times and plenty of strength times and exhaustion times - through it all, we have a relationship with a God whose strength is overwhelming and limitless.
Because of that, we have joy.
Practically, that means you'll put God first, in all things. You might love your spouse, but love God more. If you're dating, you might love that person you're seeing, but love God more. And as hard as this is to comprehend, if you love your children, love God more.
Read your Bible. Know your Bible. Pray your Bible. Be with God's people. Get absolutely immersed in all things of God.
Then, know the joy that comes from being so well grounded in the Word.
Don't you know women and men like this? They just exude joy, and at the same time, they're immersed in the things of God. That doesn't mean they're professional ministers, that they've taken theology classes - nothing like that. It's just that they've put God first, for so long, they don't know how to do anything else.
If that's a new idea for you, it's a great day to start the process.
Take the lessons that you learn from God, and teach them to your children. Teach them to your grandchildren. You're the most influential teacher your children will ever have.
Worship with other people of similar beliefs - let the team give you strength. Find support from God's people.
Nehemiah's team gave out strength in the total package. If any one of the folks had tried to do his or her work on the wall alone, they'd have never made it. It was too big a project. But since other people were building the wall, since there was progress on down the line, then each person was encouraged to keep laying bricks. Nehemiah even passed up the opportunity to eat better food than his workers, instead choosing to live in the same quarters, eat the same food, and get the same job done.
Through teamwork, and by seeing the progress that was being made, the joy of the Lord became more and more evident, and in only 52 days, the walls of Jerusalem were standing strong again.
III. Practice joy
Joy is something you've got to practice. It doesn't really come naturally to anyone. But if you get the hang of it, it's kind of contagious, and you can infect yourself with joy!
Nehemiah gave the theory of joy. The Levites gave the command to be joyful. But until the people actually went away and practiced joy, they didn't know it. Until they prepared the feast and actually sat down to taste the food, they had no idea how good the feast could be. Until they tasted the drinks, they had no concept of how delightful that could be. And as they followed the instructions to celebrate, they got the hang of the songs. They realized that the Levites weren't kidding, that the day really, really was meant for celebration. They literally practiced joy!
It didn't take long for them to get used to joy - and it doesn't take long for us, either. Joy is contagious, and even a baby can teach joy to adults. Haven't you seen it? A baby smiles, or laughs, and every adult who sees it smiles and laughs in return.
Would you like to learn to play the piano? It'll take practice. Want to be an artist? Prepare to practice the basic strokes. Want to become proficient at anything? You'll have to start out as a rookie, learn the basics, and then practice. As it is with a musical instrument, it is with joy. The more you practice, the better the music.
Maybe your goal is to join a gym and get in shape. Obviously, one single day in the gym isn't going to get the job done. You'll need to do a little bit, every day, get a schedule, and stick to it.
Or perhaps it's nutrition that is your thing. A year from now, it'll be hard to remember a single meal. But a balanced diet will bear long-term benefit - as long as you practice it.
Now, the Bible comes along and says: "Practice joy!"
If you can practice joy in the midst of lean times, you'll move quickly from "surviving" to "thriving."
Illustration: When Sumner Spence expressed his desire to attend college, many people scoffed because he suffers from cerebral palsy. Sumner can't read books because his eyes won't focus. He can't hold onto things very well because his hands clench uncontrollably. Taking notes in a classroom would be out of the question. Anyone who knew Sumner would have thought it perfectly understandable if he had never set a goal beyond learning how to operate his wheelchair. But that wasn't good enough for Sumner. And it certainly wasn't good enough for his mother, Susan Spence.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, Sumner Spence enrolled at the University of Delaware. His mother attended all his classes, faithfully taking his notes for him. Each evening she would enter the lecture notes into a special computer program whose digital voice read the notes back to Sumner as he studied.
Over the course of two and a half years, Susan Spence scanned more than 5,000 pages of textbook material and edited the scanned text for accuracy so Sumner could effectively study. One particular class assignment called for Sumner's mother to go the extra mile. The students were asked to read Liam Callanan's first novel The Cloud Atlas. The famous author was going to be a special guest lecturer on the campus. Sumner's mom was not aware an electronic version of the novel existed, so she re-typed the entire book into their home computer.
When the class hosted an informal lunch to chat about Callanan's book, Sumner offered a number of insightful observations and questions. Later that evening, Callanan received a phone call from the professor of the class. Sumner's mom had just spoken with the professor, tearfully telling her how before that meal Sumner had never eaten in public with anyone other than a family member. He was always afraid he would repulse people who didn't understand. Since he loved reading, though, he wanted to talk about books, and the lunch that day had given him the opportunity.
On the evening of May 24, 2007, Susan Spence took a seat in the back of the auditorium, and she watched as Sumner wheeled himself across the platform to receive his Associate of Arts degree. After addressing his fellow graduates at the commencement ceremony, more than 300 students and family members in attendance erupted in a standing ovation for this determined boy and his loyal mother.
At that moment, the joy was more complete than either one of them had ever dreamed possible.
(Sources: Morning Edition, National Public Radio (5-24-07) and Martin Mbugua (with assistance from Sharon Dorr), "Tearful gratitude by graduate who triumphed over disability," www.udel.edu, 5-26-07)
In the shortest summary, the story of Ezra and Nehemiah is the story of God's people coming home after a 70-year exile and rebuilding Jerusalem. Because they returned home, the city was rebuilt, the Temple was restored, and the stage was set for the eventual arrival of the Messiah.
But a question needs to be asked. Why did God invite His people to come home then, and whey does God keep making a way for people to come home today? Why would he love such unrepentant, stubborn, stupid people, those with an intent only to sin, and increase their sin ever more?
Only because he loves us.
But be sure of this. God doesn't force anyone to come home. God doesn't force anyone to repent. God offers the invitation, and waits. God waits like the father of the prodigal son. God waits like a just king who gives commands to his subjects, and expects obedience. The king has the power to force judgment, and has promised to do so. But first, there is the invitation to do the right thing.
The history behind the 70-year exile is very important here. When all of Judah was taken into exile, when they were all forced to walk to ancient Persia, to what we would know as southern Iraq or northern Iran, the Bible tells us that somewhere between 4,600 and 10,000 people were taken into exile. In reality, several thousand people were also left behind, and the shocking reality is that the entire Jewish population was so small. Maybe 15,000 people lived in Jerusalem, and about 120,000 lived in all Judea. But war and a terrible plague had nearly decimated the entire population.
In exile, under better living conditions, the group expanded to an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people. Even today, a small Jewish population continues to live in both Iraq and Iran, though their existence is tenuous, at best.
But did you see this? There were between 100,000 and 150,000 people who were offered the chance to return to Jerusalem, to return home - and only a fraction of the people took advantage of the offer. The king said, "Go back! Here's the money! Here are the items for your Temple! You've got my blessing, and my protection! Go home!"
And maybe 100,000 of those who heard the invitation said, "Hmmm - well - no thanks."
Those who returned were part of a great work of God. Those who stayed behind missed being a part of the story. They had a life, sure. They had food. They had families. They had some community distinctives.
But they weren't home.
If Israel is a living object lesson for the entire world - and I think it is - then this is one of the most important lessons of all. The invitation to return to God is exactly that. It is an invitation. Not a command. God only wants those home with Him who want to be there.
God will never force anyone to come home. God will paint the picture. God will go to extreme measures to make sure a person hears the invitation. God will send messages through miracles, through the routine, through any means possible.
But God will never, ever, ever, force a person to come home.
Illustration: Tedd Kidd was five years older than Janet, finished college before her, and started to work in a city hundreds of miles from her. They always seemed to be at different places in their lives. But they had been dating for seven years.
Every Valentine's Day, Tedd proposed to her. Every Valentine's Day, Janet would say, "No, not yet."
Finally, when they were both living in Dallas, Texas, Tedd reached the end of his patience. He bought a ring, took Janet to a romantic restaurant, and was prepared to reinforce his proposal with the diamond. Another no would mean he had to get on with his life without her.
After salad, entree, and dessert, it was time. Tedd summoned up his courage. Knowing that Janet had a gift for him, however, he decided to wait. "What did you bring me?" he asked. She handed him a box the size of a book. He opened the package and slowly peeled away the tissue paper. It was a cross-stitch Janet had made that simply said, "Yes."
Yes - it is the word that God, in his tireless pursuit of the sinner, longs to hear.
(Source: Rubel Shelly, Nashville, Tennessee; story told at Janet's funeral after 17 years of marriage to Tedd.)