It was a sobering meeting. The congregation had long been focused on a building project, but when they gathered to hear from their leaders, they ended up focusing on something different. They remembered all the pain they had endured together. They realized all the ways they were not living up to God’s plan for them. And many of them wept.
I’m referring of course to the events of the eighth chapter of Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s famous building project had just been completed. The city now had walls. But then the people gathered together, and Ezra read the Bible to them. It says he read “the Law of Moses,” which probably means he read the first five books of the Bible. And a team of Levites help make sure the people understand what they’re hearing. A five-book-long Scripture reading might seem tedious to our modern sensibilities, but these Israelites were hungry for the Word—and they were moved by what they heard. Moved to tears.
In a sense, they were right to mourn. Their nation has been conquered and carried off into exile for their disobedience to God. Now they’re back, and even though they’ve worked hard to finish their building project, the work of renewing their covenant relationship with God has just begun.
But Nehemiah tells them not to mourn. Instead, he tells them to celebrate: Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8:10 ESV)
Sorrow for sin is a good and necessary part of repentance. And repentance is necessary for change. But sorrow is not our strength. The joy of the Lord is our strength. Don’t get me wrong: it’s necessary to take a good, hard look at our sins and failures. But then we need to take a good, hard look at our Savior and His all-sufficient grace. When Ezra read from Moses’ books, the people heard all the laws they were guilty of breaking. But they also heard the story of their redemption from Egypt. God chose them to be His people and freed them from slavery. He made a covenant with them and led them to the Promised Land. In Nehemiah 8, their broken relationship was being restored. This was a day for joy.
Today is also a day for joy. Like the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day, we look back on the story of our redemption. We remember our covenant relationship with God—the new covenant made by nothing less than the blood of Christ. We have been reconciled to God, once and for all. There are still times to mourn, but never as those who have no hope. The Lord has come. Joy to the world!