Nehemiah 8: 10b This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
In the past, athletes pumping iron to increase strength was commonplace, but it was typically restricted to sports where added size or explosiveness was needed. Everyone knew that the football team had to pump iron, and in the 1980’s a whole new breed of jacked up sprinters arrived who exploded off the start line with powerful lower and upper bodies propelling them forward. Other athletes would often do some off-season weight training as well. I would do a few months of fall weight training to get my upper body ready for cross-country ski season. Today, however, strength conditioning has made its way into virtually every sport. I would have never expected to see the cross-country running team in a weight room, but today it is a regular part of a distance runner’s routine. Modern sports science tells us that “maximal strength” (the ability to exert force upon an external object), is critical for an athlete to perform at their highest ability, whether that be jumping higher, running faster, turning harder, kicking with more force, throwing further etc. Strength allows an athlete to train harder without injury, and to perform at the highest level.
As a Christian, what is your source of strength? I think everyone knows the pat answer to that, it’s God of course. But what is it about God that gives you strength? There would be a number of answers to this question that would make sense but I’d like to pursue one that is perhaps less obvious.
Today’s scripture is taken from the book of Nehemiah. This historical book was written by a man named Nehemiah who was the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:11 – 2:1), a prestigious position that gained him direct access to the King. Nehemiah’s people from the Kingdom of Judah had been taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar more than 150 years earlier and brought to Babylon. They had been exiled for 70 years but then began to return home (Ezra recounts the first two returns of the people to Israel). Nehemiah recounts the story of the third return of the Jewish people to Israel, in order to rebuild the city walls. In his teaching material about Nehemiah, Chuck Swindoll writes: “Nehemiah led by example, giving up a respected position in a palace for hard labor in a politically insignificant district. He partnered with Ezra, who also appears in this book, to solidify the political and spiritual foundations of the people.”
In Nehemiah 8 we read that Nehemiah gathered all the people and had the priest read the Law to them. These were God’s instructions that he had written for his people, but it had been lost to them. We hear that he read it aloud to them all morning and the people listened attentively (vs. 3). The people understood the words that they had heard, and they responded by shouting “Amen! Amen!” and bowed down in humble submission and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground (vs. 6). “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” (vs. 10). God’s people had suffered for more than 150 years because of their disobedience, but on this day where they recognized their sin and worshiped the Lord their souls were restored. Where there was once guilt and shame, God turned it into joy, and the people would move forward working with the strength of his joy. And this still applies today. Choose to live a repentant life (1 John 1:9) and let the joy of the Lord be your strength.