The Joy of the Lord is My Strength
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service: Nehemiah 8
Here’s a story I’m sure you know. Once when a Lion was asleep a little Mouse began running up and down upon him. This soon awakened the Lion, who placed his huge paw upon the Mouse and opened his big jaws to swallow him. ‘Pardon, O King,’ cried the little Mouse, ‘forgive me this time. I shall never forget it: and I may be able to do you a favour in the future.’ The Lion was so amused the idea of the Mouse being able to help him, that he let him go. Some while after, the Lion was caught in a trap, and hunters tied him to a tree. Just then the little Mouse was passing by, and seeing the plight of the Lion, started to gnaw away at the ropes that bound the King of the Beasts. ‘Was I not right?’ said the little Mouse. Moral: we all need each other.
You’ll know the story because it’s one of Aesop’s Fables. There’s a part of each one of us that would like to be Aesop, always a step ahead of everyone else, constantly able to draw a moral out of every challenging moment. The long-running American soap opera The Waltons, set in the mountains of Virginia in the hungry thirties, depicts a simpler time when teenage boys were content to wear short trousers and girls were glad to wear pinafore dresses and whole families could be decked out in gingham. Every episode would end with each light in the house going out and a parent lingering with a sleepy child drawing a moral out of the day’s events.
If you detect a hint of cynicism in my voice it’s because I believe this is how our culture has carefully domesticated Christianity. We want things to be simple, and we want them to make us feel good, so we turn Christianity into a fable and ourselves into Aesop, the august storyteller who’s always a step ahead, finishing every story with a knowing, parental, ‘Now you mark my words.’
And this is the story we want to tell about homelessness. We want it to be an illustration of a moral we already know. In fact, there’s broadly two stories of homelessness. The first is a story of statutory underinvestment, hapless Universal Credit, judgemental and sanctimonious disregard for people’s complex circumstances, and too-little, too-late intervention. The second is a story of human fecklessness, problems of people’s own making, a downward spiral of entitlement, disrespect, self-harm and good-money-going-after-bad. One’s a story of the political left, always looking for government to be the answer, with hints of structural injustice and institutionalised oppression; the other’s a story of the political right, always demanding individuals address their own problems, with mutterings about bootstraps and dads getting on bikes. I’ve caricatured both stories because I believe they’re both too sweeping and simplistic.
The real problem with both stories of homelessness is they’re both trying to get us back to Aesop, with a fable and a moral. When a homeless person dies on the steps of the Palace of Westminster one side sees it as a shame on the heartless state, the other sees it as the folly of a person looking to government to solve their own problems. We treat these stories the way we treat Christianity – we try to boil them down to a moral that can prove to ourselves and the world that we were right all the time, not just in our judgements but in our actions, not just in our character but in our ethics, not just in our politics but in our practice.
I want to go back to another story, one that describes events that took place in the same century Aesop was writing his fables, that’s to say the sixth century before Christ. It’s a story we read part of this morning, from the book of Nehemiah. It’s an important story to read on Homelessness Sunday because it’s a story about a people who are coming home. For a good 50 years in the middle of the century the people of Judah, or at least the literate and educated among them, had languished a thousand miles away in exile in Babylon. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the extraordinary story of how this people came back that immense distance and began to rebuild their lives, their city, their livelihoods and their Temple.
Now this is the story we want to tell about the exile – a story, to be fair, the Old Testament is inclined to tell. We want to say that Israel got things terribly wrong, that it broke almost all of the terms of the covenant it had with God, that it worshiped other Gods and neglected the law, that it forgot its unique status and behaved like other nations. The book of Lamentations rails against God but a lot of it beats its breast at Israel’s own sins. But here’s the crucial part. We want to tell the story that Judah licked its wounds in exile, realised the error of its ways, repented, and then God said, ‘Right you are, it’s time to call off the dogs, let that be a lesson to you,’ and then everyone went home, older and wiser. We want that to be the story because we want life to be that simple – we want Christianity to be that simple. We had it good, we messed it up, we took our punishment, and we learned our lesson; then we shook hands, made amends, and all was hunky-dory again.
But look very closely at what happens in this story from Nehemiah. It’s an amazing scene. The people have been hard at work rebuilding everything – their culture, their city, their whole society. And the people come together, and Ezra reads to them the Torah – the first five books of the Bible, sometimes known as the books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. We get a lot of detail. Ezra read for about five hours at a time, from dawn to midday. Everyone stands up. Then Ezra blesses God and everyone presses their heads to the ground. And the Levites interpret, or maybe translate from Hebrew to Aramaic. And then people are so moved that they begin to weep.
Now you can imagine a lot of reasons why people in a hot country who’ve been listening to a rather dry reading of a lengthy text might start to weep, but most of those reasons would be way wide of the mark. There’s one reason above all others why the people begin to weep: because suddenly the whole truth of themselves, and of God, and of their sin, and of God’s grace, and of those 50 wasted years, and yet about a future that’s full of promise – all of it becomes vivid and true and real and present at this very moment. It’s every preacher’s dream, that the whole truth about ourselves and about God and our folly and God’s constancy all becomes tangible and overwhelming right here, right now.
But here’s the vital thing. It’s not the story we’re expecting. It’s not straight out of The Waltons. It’s not a moral tale, where the people messed up and fessed up and weighed up and made up. The people have already gone home and already begun to rebuild their lives and only then do they realise that God was behind it all. God’s done almost everything before people realise what’s happened. It’s not a happy left-wing story where, with enough resources and investment they were able to stand up to the Babylonians and never go into exile in the first place. And it’s not a happy right-wing story where they got to Babylon and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and got themselves back to the Promised Land. It’s a story about God. The whole thing’s about God. There’s no moral. There’s only worship.
God went ahead of Moses and made ready the Promised Land before the people got there. God went ahead of the people and was in Babylon before the exiles reached it. God went ahead of the returning exiles and was in Jerusalem while Jerusalem was still a wasteland. And only when Ezra read them the story did the people grasp it, and recognise their sin, but realise that their sin was just a pretext for God to reveal indescribable constancy, incomprehensible faithfulness, inconceivably patient lovingkindness.
The Bible isn’t one big Aesop’s fable with a moral every few pages. It’s the unique, astonishing, humbling revelation of the glorious grace of God. The answer to homelessness isn’t to leave people to rot till they come to their senses or to flood them with resources so they never need to reassess their lives. It’s to walk alongside them every step of the way, whether they have their eyes open or not, whether they’re grateful and compliant or angry and mistrustful, and imitate the glorious grace of God in a way they may not recognise till months or even years later. Look at what the Levites say to the people. ‘This is not the day for tears.’ In other words, ‘Don’t mourn and weep, don’t go all soft on me. You’ve seen how much God has stuck with you, has always walked beside you, is still here with you despite everything. Don’t turn it into a sentimental romance: find the power this gives you to live bigger, better, bolder, braver.
Notice the last line of the story: ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength.’ Look around you: none of this is your handiwork. You didn’t make your own life. You didn’t make the materials of existence. You didn’t open the door when you’re life was in ruins. It was the Lord all along. The Lord was before you, behind you, beneath you, beside you. And the Lord wasn’t complaining. This was the Lord’s joy. Restoring you to the person you were created to be – that’s the Lord’s strength; that’s the Lord’s joy. Make it your strength. Don’t boast of the changes you’ve made, the talents you’ve discovered, the independence you’ve gained. Sing of the Lord, sing of the Lord’s strength that you’ve been lifted by, and make that strength your joy.
Homeless is what the Bible’s all about. The Old Testament is about a people who were in exile far from the Promised Land. The New Testament is about a people who have no abiding city but seek the city that is to come. We’re all homeless. None of us can look down and say, ‘Let that be a lesson to you. Now you mark my words.’ We have only one strength, and that is the strength the Lord gives us. We have one discovery, and that is that giving us strength is the Lord’s joy. We have one glory, and that is to find our strength in the Lord’s joy. We have only one song, and that is ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength.’ The story isn’t really about our strength. It’s always, ultimately, and forever about God’s joy.