Surprised by Joy

This is the sermon I gave this past Sunday for Ethos Communion Church. It’s a pretty important concept for me, so I’m posting it here.


This past week, I went to an EFCA Assessment retreat for church planters. If you didn’t know the EFCA is the Evangelical Free Church of American, it’s a denomination that we as a church are in the process of joining. And this assessment retreat is where they formally check church planters out. So over two days Soojin and I were interviewed by five different assessors in five different areas. And although that might sound stressful at first, to have to go through five different interviews, all of the assessors were very kind and godly people, and their intention was more to help me see my strengths, as well as my weaknesses, in order to form a growth plan for me moving forward. And this is what I love about the EFCA, they are so supportive, and really looking to come along side me, as a church planter, to be a resource, and an encouragement, to fuel my growth. They believe healthy churches are planted by healthy church planters. So it really was a Godsend and an answer to the prayers throughout the years, when people would ask me, ”SJ, who keeps you accountable? And I’d say, “Well, God does…” Or people would ask, “SJ who mentors you?” And I’d say, “Well, I have a lot of dead mentors. That is, old books written by dead people.” But now, I can say, that I have an increasing list of living mentors, people who are older, more experienced, more godly, than I, who I can call anytime to counsel me, and to guide me, so that I can get beyond the plateau of who I have always been, and to get onto a path of transformation to becoming more and more like Christ. So I praise God, as he has led me out to church plant, he is answering prayers.

What Gives You Life?

Now, today, I’d like to share an idea that was sparked from one of the interviews I had this past week. The area of assessment was spiritual and emotional health. Our assessor, Kenny, is a tall, buff white dude. He has been a fireman for many many years, but a few years ago he also planted a church, so he’s also a pastor. And it’s an interesting combination, tough fireman exterior with a very sensitive, and very insightful heart who is assessing our emotional and spiritual health.

As he was asking Soojin various questions about our emotional and spiritual health, he made one observation. It was after Soojin had shared about the various mentors in her life. And he said that as she was sharing, she just seemed to light up and come alive. Like she was talking about something that really excited her, and gave her life. And then he made the more general observation, for the both of us, that there were glimpses he could see in the two days we spent together, when we both would just light up, and smile, and he could see the joy. And he said, “Look for that. Look for what gives you joy, that gives you life.”

At that point, I shared how another assessor had made the comment when I was preaching, that he saw two SJ’s. There’s the one SJ who is an engaged, and confident communicator. But then there is another SJ. I got what he was saying, and I would describe that other SJ as the little boy who is afraid to be judged and criticized, and so hides behind a wall of timidity and circumspection; full of doubt, second guessing every move, second guessing every word, uncertain about offending others.

My assessor told me to explore that. To try to understand that. And before we went home, he prayed these words over me, ”I pray that the joy of the Lord would SJ and Soojin’s strength.”

That phrase captured me. It’s from Nehemiah 8:10. The Joy of the Lord is your strength. There is something about it that I am drawn towards. And I realized that, yes, this is what I want! This is what I need. JOY. I’ve talked with Soojin about this in the past, I asked her what do you think is the one element that is most missing in the lives of Christians she knows. She answered, “joy.” But it’s not only in the Christians around us, it’s in our own lives as well. We are joy anemic. We are starving for joy. Instead what do we have? What’s the opposite of joy? Sadness. Depression. Stress. Fear. Anxiety. Pressure. Insecurity. Doubt. Feeling stifled. Monotony. Boredom. Duty. Discipline. Anger.

It was like a lightbulb that went off in me. Yes, I want the freedom, the laughter, the peace, the easygoingness of joy. The joy to be comfortable in my own skin. The joy to be confident and bold. The joy to be unafraid. The joy to laugh in the face of fear. To joy to be free.

I think that is something everyone wants.

What is Joy?

So I started looking up joy. And more specifically, Nehemiah 8:10, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” And the first thing that came up, was that joy cannot be manufactured. One theologian said that “we cannot make ourselves joyful because that would be self-satisfaction.”1 We can observe whether we are joyful of not. You can sort of keep your own emotional temperature and have a sense of whether you have joy or you don’t. But you cannot make yourself joyful. Joy, only comes from outside of you. Joy comes when you see a newborn baby. Joy comes when someone enters your life and you fall in love. Joy comes when you are given an unexpected gift, that brings you delight.

And so I realized that joy…and surprise go hand in hand. Some people, I think, at least externally, are more joyful than others. And you can see this by the way they react to life. They seem often surprised by life. For example, some people get joy from eating good food. These are the people on Mok-Bangs. My second daughter is like this. When she eats something even fairly delicious, her face lights up, and she starts making noises. And you can just see, and hear, and feel the joy she is getting from what she has put into her mouth. But the joy…you see has an element of surprise. It’s as if, she didn’t expect it to taste that way. It’s like she just put this thing in her mouth, and then it explodes with flavor, and knocks her off her feet. And she is like, “WOW! OMG! I didn’t know food could taste this good!”

Joy and surprise go hand in hand. There is an unexpected nature to joy. But when life is completely predictable, scientifically calculated, and everything is going according to plan, or even worse, nothing is going according to plan, then there is no room for joy.

And this actually brings us to our passage. Because this is the context of our passage. Joy in the midst of mourning and grief.

Let’s read the paragraph in which Nehemiah 8:10 is found. Just four verses.

“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.”

Nehemiah 8:9-12

What are the circumstance in which Nehemiah says to the people, “The Joy of the Lord is your strength?” They are weeping, and mourning, and grieving. And I love this. This is the power of God’s joy. It can come to us, it can surprise us, in our mourning and grieving. It can meet us, and fill us, and strengthen us….even in the most sucky of situations.

In the New Testament we’re told to rejoice always (Phil 4:4). To even count it all joy when we meet trials (James 1:2). And that just seems to either impossible, or it’s insanity, or it is weirdly hypocritical.

How can you be joyful, when life sucks? Let’s just put it very bluntly and clearly like that.

The people are weeping. They are grieving and mourning. And Nehemiah says, do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Why were the people weeping?

You get an idea if you jump back to the beginning of the book of Nehemiah.

“And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.””

Nehemiah 1:3

First of all, you see that the people were in exile. Second of all, you see that the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, its gates destroyed by fire, and so the people there are in great trouble and shame. So, some historical context. Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian empire. The majority of its people were exiled hundreds of miles away to Babylon to live as slaves. The temple of God, the symbol of God’s presence was destroyed, and its capital city is without its primary defense at that time, a wall and gates to protect it from enemy invasion. Basically, the people have been put to shame. They were once the conquerors, the mighty, the undefeatable. Now they have been defeated, put to shame, they’ve lost all of their possessions, family members have been slain, they’re living as slaves in a foreign land, and they are the ridicule of the nations.

And why did this happen? This explains a little more of why the people in Nehemiah 8 were mourning and weeping. Why was Jerusalem conquered, and why were they now living as slaves? They knew, it was their fault. And it was the fault of their fathers. It is expanded upon in Nehemiah 9. And the sum of it is found in Neh 9:33-36. Long story short, they are in this spot because of their sin. Because they took all the blessings of God for granted, and instead of giving thanks to God and living according to his life giving word, they rebelled against him and did whatever they wanted in disobedience to him. This is why they are in the terrible situation they are in. Because they treated God like an enemy instead of loving, honoring, worshipping, and obeying him.

And so the people are in a terrible circumstance. And they also realize that they have a terrible relationship with God. And so God is rightfully angry with them. In other words, they have every reason to weep in this moment. To despair. Nothing is right. Everything is wrong. They have lost all of their possessions, and comfort. They’ve lost their status. And even more they have lost their God, and so they have no peace in their hearts.

In other words, they have every reason to complain. And there is really no reason for joy. They are in a place, where the most reasonable thing to say is, “My life sucks. Everything is wrong.”

And I just feel like sitting in this for a moment. Because this is important. Before we can move on to joy, we need to understand the obstacle to joy. It’s complaining. In some ways it is enjoying our misery. It is just dwelling upon the suckiness of things. But actually, complaining is the first step to experiencing joy. It is the freedom to acknowledge the suckiness of things. We need to be real. We need to be honest. Things are NOT ideal. Life is NOT perfect. Things do NOT always go according to plan. They do NOT turn out the way we imagined. And we do have a real reason to complain. But here is the key that we learn from Nehemiah 8. Life is not the way, I want it to be, but you know what? It is what I deserve.

Am I that great? Do I really deserve a perfect life? Are not a lot of the problems in my life a result of my mistakes? My failures? My inadequacies and short comings? My sin? My failure to love God the way I am supposed to? Am I not often selfish, and short-sighted? In other words, aren’t I human? Fallible? Finite? Weak? Limited?

There is a certain joy, or at least, a certain freedom, a release, that comes from acknowledging that not only things are not the way they ought to be, but I am not the way I ought to be, and there is a connection between the two. My life is the way it is, because I Am the way I am. And those parts of my life that are messed up, is probably most certainly somehow connected to the fact that I am messed up. Not always, of course, but if I can be honest, there are at least a lot of limitations. It comes down to two, either I am not gifted enough, or I am not loving enough. That’s the source of problems. I am not talented enough, which leads to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Or I am not loving enough. I don’t love for and care for the people in my life the way that I ought to. My wife, my kids, my friends, the members of my church. My love is so small. And then there’s my relationship with God, I certainly do not love God enough. The standard is to love people as I love myself. Do I do that? Nope. And to love God with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Do I do that? Nope.

And if we are honest with ourselves, we should be in a perpetual state of guilt and shame. Because we are inadequate. Inadequate in our abilities. And inadequate in our ability to love others, and to love God.

This is what the people of Israel were feeling. This is why they were mourning. Our lives are messed up, because WE are messed up!

And so, ironically, this is the very important first step towards joy. It is having the freedom, and the honesty, to acknowledge, that I am messed up. I am inadequate. Inadequate in my abilities, I cannot control my life. And inadequate in my affections. I am not loving the people nor my God the way that I ought to. And so the natural conclusion then, is however messed up, or imperfect, or inadequate my life is, it is simply proper for what an inadequate person should receive. I am an inadequate person, I deserve an inadequate life.

These are the type of people to whom Nehemiah speaks. In other words, they are broken. And they are mourning their brokenness.

And it is to broken people, that he says, Nehemiah 8:10, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

How is the joy of the Lord a reason not to grieve?

Now, we need to ask, “How is the joy of the Lord a reason not to grieve?”

To answer that question, we first need to answer, “What is the joy of the Lord?”

At first, as I thought about, I naturally thought this is the joy, that the Lord gives to ME. The joy that the Lord gives to me will strengthen me. That’s how I thought about it. And so there was a craving for this joy. And I still think that is part of it, and it will come.

But the key to understanding, was seeing that this is not first and foremost MY joy, it is THE LORD’S joy. It is HIS joy. His joy gives ME strength.

Joy is contagious. There is something about being with joyful people. You don’t wanna be with people who bring you down. Yes, misery loves company, but no one like a pity party. We want to be around people who lift us up, who make us smile, who bring US joy. And people who give joy, have joy.

Who is the Most Joyful Person You Know?

Who is the most joyful person you know? This is where my eyes were opened. God is.

This thought blew my mind. Because I don’t know about you, but honestly, this was not first on my list of ways to describe God. Holy. Glorious. Righteous. Almighty. Loving, yes. But joyful?

Can you imagine God smiling? I don’t know if that is an image that many of have of God. God smiling. But in fact, that is what the great benediction of Aaron is asking for: Numbers 6:25: “the Lord make his face to shine upon you.” To make his face to shine upon you. It is for God to smile on you. To have a beaming face, that looks at you with joy and says, “I’m glad that you’re here.”

Have you ever thought of God that way? In the context, of Nehemiah 8, especially when we get to Nehemiah 9, we see more clearly the joy of the Lord. What is the joy of the Lord? The joy of the Lord is his joy in his children which leads to a generous, gracious, merciful disposition (see Nehemiah 9:6, 9, 15, 17, 19, 20, 27, 31, 32). And it is summed up in Nehemiah 8:31, “Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.”

Where does this grace and mercy flows out from? The joy of the Lord in his people. Though they rebel against him again, and again, and again, he is like that joyful father of the prodigal son, who delights for his child to simply be with him, so that he can lavish him with gifts, and feasts, and celebration.

Does God Laugh?

And so our God is a God who finds joy in his children. And in his joy, God is also a God who laughs. He laughs because he is all powerful, he is the great, the mighty, the awesome God. While we are inadequate. He is more than adequate, he is infinitely adequate to handle, to overcome any thing in all existence. Because he made it all. Nothing is too hard for him. But he is not uptight about it. He enjoys it. And he wants us to enjoy with him.

Thinking about the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He went through terrible pain. Where was God in the midst of all of his suffering? Psalm2 says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” How could God be laughing when his own Son was betrayed, beaten, crucified to death? That is how powerful God is. All of the suffering. Even death, is nothing to God. He even uses it in order to bring about greater joy.

This is the paradox of the gospel: Joy and suffering come together. And the greater the sufferings, the greater the joy. Because, joy comes when we are surprised. And this is the joy of the Lord. In circumstances that we would least expect anything good, it turns out that God set that up to surprise us with the greatest good (cf. 1Cor 1:18ff).

I remember the day after I had a panic attack. I called the lead pastor of which I served, and I told him what happened. And he asked me, “It’s because of all the stress you’ve been going through hasn’t it?” I said, yes. And then, he gave out a huge belly laugh. At first, I thought it odd. But then, it strangely comforted me. Because he was not surprised. And I felt this strange assurance, that he knew I was going to make it through this.

In that, I got a glimpse of our Father in heaven. We stress out over all the problems we face in life. God laughs. And his laughter, his joy, gives us strength.

God laughs at the crucifixion and death of Christ. Because he knows that cross is the door that opens the joy of resurrection. And he also laughs at every trial you go through, because it is also a door to joy.

And so brothers, and sisters, whatever you may be going through right now, that would cause you to doubt, to worry, to fear, to mourn, to grieve. Let the joy of the Lord be your strength. Let his laughter be contagious to your soul.

Knowing your father in heaven in smiling at you, and laughing. Let that strengthen you with the confidence knowing that not only one day you enter into his joy free from all pain and strife. But that future is so certain, you can taste it even now.

See your heavenly father smiling on you now. Let his gracious, merciful, and loving, smile be your strength.


Thank you Father. that there is no problem too big for you. Even the problems that I have created for myself. Thank you that you are a God of joy. A God who delights in your children. And a God who laughs. Because there is no problem too big for you. Lord, we want to enter into your joy. Help us to see it. And may it be contagious to our souls, so that we may share it with others. Amen.

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