Happiness ("It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year")(Nehemiah 8:1-12)
Happiness (“It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”)
(One Lord: So Great a Salvation)
December 9th, 2018
I. “Pop Music”
“Pop” is short for “popular”. Thus “pop music” is music that is broadly popular with any given generation. As we all know, Christmas has its carols. But it also has its pop music, songs that are or have been popular at some point during the last sixty to seventy years. And whether we like these songs or not, all of us know these songs. They are part of our holiday vernacular, our holiday experience.
But as I mentioned last week, like Christmas carols, albeit in a different way, these secular Christmas songs can point us back to God's word. Why? How? Because so many of those songs express deep longings that resonate with all of us. AND, God's word speaks about and to those longings.
So as I said last time, my hope in looking together at some of these pop songs is that we won't be able to hear them again in the same way; that we won't be able to hear them again without thinking back to God's word... without thinking back to Jesus.
So listen to some of the lines from this week's song:
It's the most wonderful time of the year,
With the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer
It's the most wonderful time of the year
It's the hap- happiest season of all, With those holiday greetings
And gay happy meetings when friends come to call
It's the hap- happiest season of all
There'll be parties for hosting, Marshmallows for toasting, And caroling out in the snow
There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long long ago
You know that song, don't you? “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was first released in 1963 by the singer and TV personality, Andy Williams. With words like wonderful, cheer, happiest/happy, gay (the original meaning), it's not hard to miss the point of this song, it it?
II. The Passage: “They Read from the Book” (8:1-12)
Well, keep those lyrics in mind as we turn over to Nehemiah 8:1-12. Let's think about what the point of that song and this passage have in common. Before we read, let me briefly describe the historical pie out of which this slice is coming to us. Near the end of the 7th and beginning of the 6th centuries BC, the Jewish people found themselves exiled by the Babylonians.
But when Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC, the Jews were given permission to return to their homeland the next year.
The opening chapters of the book of Ezra describe the return of tens of thousands of Jews and how, over many years, they rebuilt the Temple of God that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The temple was completed in 516 BC, and over 50 years after that, in 458 BC, a priest named Ezra returned to Jerusalem in order to teach God’s law among the people.
About thirteen years after Ezra’s arrival, a man named Nehemiah also returned to strengthen the people of God. But his goal of ‘building up’ was more literal: he came to help rebuild the wall that once surrounded Jerusalem, and thus, help restore the city’s glory and help secure it from its enemies. In Nehemiah chapter 5, we read that Nehemiah, in that same year, became the governor of Judea.
So as we come to Nehemiah 8, Nehemiah has just overseen the completion of the wall and is now focused on repopulating the newly enclosed city of Jerusalem. Look at where the story goes next.
1. Instructing with God’s Word (8:1-3)
Look with me at verses 1-3:
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel.  So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month.  And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
So we see here that the restoration of the people that had begun almost a hundred years before this gathering (i.e., in 539 BC), this restoration was coming to a spiritual climax here in Nehemiah. Both Ezra and Nehemiah recognized that the restoration of God’s people was about more than a piece of land or a rebuilt wall.
They knew the most important thing was a restoration to God’s covenant.
The people had been taken out of the land because they failed to keep God’s covenant. And now, seeing as how God graciously brought them back to the land, they needed to understand what this covenant contained and how they could live as God’s people.
This is precisely why, as we see in verse 1, “the book [actually a scroll] of the Law of Moses” was brought and read to the people. This book may have been large sections from the first five books of our Bible, or it may have been the entire book of Deuteronomy. What is clear about this Scripture is that it was read to the people for 5-6 hours, according to verse 3. Wow!
And if you think the people were nodding off by hour three or four, the writer is clear in verse 3 that the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. But wait, there's more!
2. Responding to God’s Word (8:4-8)
Look with me at verse 4:
And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.  And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.  Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places.  They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
So we’re told that after Ezra finished reading the law, he (verse 5) “opened the book in the sight of all the people”. I think this means he unrolled the scroll and held it up to face the people. We’re specifically told that everyone could see him because they built some kind of elevated platform on which he and the other leaders were standing.
Now notice how Ezra and the people respond to God’s word. We read that “Ezra blessed Yahweh”, and the people responded with a double “Amen”, AND by falling on their faces in worship.
But I also love what we read in verses 7 and 8. After the reading, “while people remained in their places (v. 7), a group of Levites were doing the very thing Moses called them to do. They were teaching the people. They were working with smaller groups of people, rereading parts of the Law and explaining the meaning and application of God’s word.
3. Rejoicing in God’s Word (8:9-12)
But this morning, I really want us to focus on the conclusion of this scene in verses 9-12. Look at what it tells us…verse 9….
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.  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.”  So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”  And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
So we read in verse 9 that when the Law of Moses had been read, and reread, and explained to the people, everyone was starting to cry. In fact, even as God’s word was being read, people started weeping. And these aren’t tears of gladness! We’re told they were mourning.
So why was everyone so upset? Well the best explanation is that when God’s people were reminded of God’s commandments, the very commandments their ancestors had neglected and rejected, when they heard these things, they realized how sinful they were. They were reminded of all the things they should have been doing…but weren’t. And in light of God's word and their failures, they must have been wondering if it was only a matter of time before they were also removed from the land, according to the judgment of God.
But notice how all the leaders began to exhort the people not to “mourn or weep” (v. 9). Two times, in verses 9 and 10, they remind the people that this is not a day of judgment from God, but a day that is holy to God. This was the first day of the seventh month, which was called the Feast of Trumpets in the Law of Moses. It marked the start of a new agricultural year and was a call to preparation for both the Day of Atonement (10th) and the Feast of Booths (15th).
As the leaders remind the people, this is not a day for grieving, but a day for rejoicing. Instead of weeping, they should be eating and drinking! Instead of mourning, they should be sharing their holiday meals with those in need. And we read in verse 12 that this is exactly what the people did: And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
III. Your Season of Celebration
Well that last part sounds kind of Christmas-y, doesn't it? Eating, drinking, sending gifts, rejoicing? But this is four hundred years before the birth of Jesus. So why are we talking about this passage in a series about Christmas and Christmas songs?
Well, remember the Christmas song we're focusing on: “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. Specifically, remember what that song says about why it's “the most wonderful time of the year”. It's because kids are “jingle belling”... because of “holiday greetings”... because of “parties for hosting”... because of “friends com[ing] to call”... because of “caroling out in the snow”... because “hearts are glowing”... because “there'll be much mistletoeing”... because “everyone's telling you be of good cheer”... thus, “it's the most wonderful time of the year”.
And we could probably add to that list, with all of our own personal reasons for enjoying the season: Christmas treats, presents, holiday lights, time off school and work, picking out a tree, making tamales, the music, the weather, the [you fill in the blank].
For those longing for happiness, Christmastime is that part of the year, for so many people, when all the stars seem to come into alignment; when there is this convergence of food and family and festivities and fun; when there is this kind of escape from the routines of everyday life in every other part of the year.
But... for others, Andy Williams is a liar. For many, this season is anything but “the most wonderful time of the year”. A website focusing on mental health issues put it this way: “Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and happiness, but for many it’s the most difficult time of the year. Those experiencing mental illness can often find this time of year harder to bear. Often, things like family tensions, excessive alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, loneliness, isolation, and money worries, [not to mention, weather] can come to the fore and make people feel worse at Christmas. When just functioning is a struggle, the pressure to attend parties and catch up with family and friends can be hard.”
So... what do we do with this song? Sure, all the things mentioned in that song are good things, fun things; blessings. But what happens when the “mistletoeing” and the “jingle belling” lose their luster? What happens when the “holiday greetings” begin to taper off? What happens when your heart isn't glowing? What happens when the “parties for hosting” begin to really stress you out? And what about someone who dreads this season? Someone who carries painful childhood memories from “Christmases long, long ago”? Someone who's lost a loved one? Someone relationally isolated? Someone who doesn't feel cheerful or merry?
For anyone struggling through this holiday season, this song must seem like a constant reminder that they're doing something wrong. But is that what God says? No.
What have we seen this morning? We've heard God calls his people to a very different joy. Sure, the leaders in Nehemiah 8 could have said, “Why the long faces? You've been restored from exile. There's a new wall around the city. You know God's law again. Be merry! Be cheerful! But that's not what that say. They say... (v.10)... “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” What is this joy? It's the joy David spoke about in Psalm 16: You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)
Listen to how the church father Augustine described this joy:
“There is a joy which is not given to the ungodly, but to those who love You for your own sake, whose joy You yourself are. And this is the happy life, to rejoice to You, of You, for You; this it is, and there is no other.”
C.S. Lewis would later make the same point:
“God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
The “joy of the LORD” is joy that comes from God, whose object is God himself. It should be and must be our greatest joy. Why are we surprised to find that the “joy of” anything else is fleeting and fading and failing to fill us up. Only the “joy of the LORD” can give us real strength, as these leaders told God's people. Is that the joy you’re searching for this morning? On your quest for joy, is your spiritual GPS set with God as the destination?
Brothers and sisters, friends, there is no truly “wonderful time” or “happiest season” apart from the One who reigns over time; the One who created the seasons. When the season becomes overwhelming, or tragedy strikes, or painful memories rise to the surface, or your expectations for the holidays simply are not met, God is there to meet you with genuine joy.
The Scottish preacher Robert Murray M'Cheyne once said, A beam of God's countenance is enough to fill the heart of a believer to overflowing. It is enough to light up the pale cheek of a dying saint with seraphic brightness, and make the heart of the lone widow sing for joy.
Joy can be a scary thing. Sometimes we’re afraid to let ourselves be happy like this, for fear that it will fade or be taken from us. But remember, knowing “the joy of the LORD” does not mean we won't struggle. There will be times of grief and frustration and depression, “but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). For the follower of Christ, joy should always win the day, because Christ has won the victory.
The author of Hebrews exhorts us with these words: let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Jesus endured the grief of the cross in order to secure the joy that He now makes possible for you and me. Are you living in that joy? Are you exploding with that joy? In faith, will you open your heart to it this morning, by opening your heart to Christ?
And guess what? When you know God's joy through God's Son, your season of celebration becomes far, far bigger than the month of December. For the child of God, when is “the most wonderful time of the year”? Today... and tomorrow, and the day after... any day filled with the grace and love and peace and faithfulness and strength of God through Jesus.
Why should “the joy of the LORD” be what we desire above all other joys? Because when we do, all other genuine joys (even “jingle belling”) become that much more joyful.
Let's pray and thank God for this “joy of the LORD”, for the gift of heaven's happiness.
More in Pop Christmas
December 23, 2018Satisfaction ('All I Want for Christmas is You')(Psalm 73:23-26)
December 16, 2018Belonging ("I'll Be Home for Christmas")(John 14:1-3, 18-23)
December 2, 2018Nostalgia ("White Christmas")(Exodus 16:1-3)