Nehemiah 8:1-10, Psalm 98
Both of our readings this morning speak about joy. Psalm 98 instructs us to rejoice – to be joyful – with the whole of creation; the sea and all that fills it, the world and all who live in it! And our Nehemiah reading is a reading about the reading of scripture (the literary version of a ‘selfie’) where those who have returned to Jerusalem from exile gather to hear Ezra, the priest and scribe, read from the book, from the law of God, and read and read and read (From early morning till midday!) And when they hear it, the people weep, perhaps because the words reveal how faithless they have been, but Nehemiah and Ezra and the others tell them not to mourn and weep, but to feast, to party and to share their party food with those who have less than they do. Be joyful, they say, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
This week, perhaps because I have been paying attention, joy has bubbled up everywhere!
Here is my streamer and it starts with Tuesday when I was in the car and heard Sir David Attenborough speaking in Davos both about his unending delight and fascination with the natural world and his grave fears for how rapidly we human beings are hastening its destruction.
The next was Wednesday, in the car again, when I heard Australian flautist, Jane Rutter, saying her favourite tune is Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the melody on which our final hymn, ‘Joyful, joyful, we adore you’, is based.
Then Wednesday afternoon, when, after three long, hot days at SMAD it was getting easy to think about how this or that kid was getting on your nerves, Penny and Ally asked all the leaders to say something wonderful the kids had done or said that day – and suddenly the long, hot, weary afternoon was full of joy!
My fourth would be Thursday’s assault of the bottle rockets on the office! They were pinging on the roof and shooting into the courtyard and when I ventured outside to have a look I had to run for cover – which caused some hilarity. (Mostly for Rebecca!)
And, finally, this weekend my family joined most of Canberra, if the Canberra Times and the Green Shed are to be believed, in doing a major clean-out inspired by Japanese organising consultant, Marie Kondo, asking ourselves if our belongings ‘spark joy’ or should be disposed of, hopefully in a responsible manner. I like the St Vincent de Paul slogan, “If it’s not fit for a mate, don’t donate!”
And all this thinking about joy reminded me of a poem I read a year ago, which has stayed with me, by American poet, Jack Gilbert, entitled, ‘A Brief for the Defence’.
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
There is a lot in the poem, but I hear three main arguments for joy.
The first is that we must embrace joy because God want us to. We hear this in our readings today. And we see this joy lived out by Jesus who turns water to wine, feasts with his disciples, heals the sick, brings good news to the poor and continues to pour out his life for us even on the cross. We hear it in the creeds of the church, “The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” And in the words of Christian theologians: Julian of Norwich declaring, “The greatest honour we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love;” or Jorgen Moltmann, “Where God is, there is life, for God is the living God. The enjoyment of God (fruitio Dei) is the enjoyment of life, and God is experienced through the affirmation of life, not through its denial. Religion, in Christianity especially, is true joy in life, because Christ makes of life ‘a festival without end’.”
The second argument, and I think Sir David Attenborough would agree, is that the world around us is simply too wonderful not to be enjoyed. “Otherwise,” as the poet says, “the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well.”
And it is even the ordinary moments that should be filled with joy. Gilbert paints a picture from his own life, the night passage to the Greek island of Santorini where he lived for many years. We see the small ship, the shuttered cafes and the one naked light burning, and hear the oars dipping into the sea. Even this one singular, ordinary moment, he says, is so full of joy that it is worth the years of sorrow that are to come.
Our Nehemiah reading is set in an extraordinary time, the exile is over, but also a very ordinary time, all around the returnees lie the ruins of their once great city, and yet being there together – the text makes a point of emphasising the inclusive nature of this gathering – both men and women and all who could hear with understanding (i.e. the kids were there too) – and hearing God’s words for them is cause, Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites tell them, for joy! This is such a moment of joy it is worth the years of sorrow that have been.
The third argument for joy is that experiencing joy informs our compassion for others. It sharpens our antennae for injustice. In the words of the poem, “If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,/ we lessen the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight.” Not to do so, the poet warns, “To make injustice the only/measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
This is not an approach to joy that uses pleasure to block out the reality of suffering. Or an approach, such as Marie Kondo’s, that can be critiqued for focusing on the individual and for reinforcing the concept that joy is in our possessions. This is the joy of shared experience and shared community. The people are told in Nehemiah, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; …for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” This is the joy that drives a naturalist to try and save the world he loves. This is the joy that brought Jesus to the cross. Joy opens our eyes and our hands and our hearts to others.
We are to be God’s joyful people. It is what God wants. It is what our world which – despite everything – resounds with odes to joy requires. It is how we will keep joy alive and well.
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.” And again. And again. And again. Just as Ezra read the book, the law of God, continually, we must rejoice continually. Five to one, five joyful things for every complaint, is the ratio that will maintain our community. Twenty to one is the ratio of a community that will thrive and spread its joy to those around.
“This day [too] is holy to the Lord your God…Go on your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and share what you have with others…Take joy in God, for God takes joy in you!”
Before we sing, can I invite you to practice joy. To turn to the person or people next to you and just mention one thing that is making you joyful today. And/or one thing that fills you with joy about this congregation and this church.