God's Glory And Our Duty To Be Joyful

Nehemiah 8:1-12 & other selected Scriptures

Rev. Bryn MacPhail

When God says through His prophet Isaiah, "My glory I will not give to another "(Isa. 48:11), He means to say that nothing in our life should be in competition with Him. This is what is intended by the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before Me "(Ex. 20:3).

Our family, our career, our hobbies, our material possessions--none of these things should be prioritized over God. This only makes sense. For how can what is created be valued above its Creator?

God insists that we recognize His supremacy. He insists on being first in our life. Why does He do this? Is God needy? Does He require our praise to shore up some personal deficiency? Of course not. The apostle Paul reminds us that "God is not served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life and breath and all things "(Acts 17:25).

The very reason we exist goes far beyond the intentions of your mother and father--you exist because God has given you "life and breath ". It is not your intellect or your work ethic, but God who has given you "all things ". If God is the author of every good thing, then it is God, above "all things ", who should be praised.

The question remains, 'Why does God insist that we recognize His supremacy?'. If He doesn't need our praise, if He doesn't need our service, why does God want to occupy a place of supremacy in our lives? The reason God wants us to put Him first is because glorifying Him is the only way for us to experience lasting joy .

Joy by any other means will prove to be fleeting. This is what King Solomon discovered when he asked rhetorically, "Who can have enjoyment without God? "(Eccl. 2:25). Solomon had it all--he had love, money, and power beyond measure--but at the end of the day, he knew true happiness could only come from enjoying God.

Inside every person is a longing to be happy. This longing to be happy is not a bad impulse. C.S. Lewis asserts that, "It is a Christian duty for everyone to be as happy as he can". Our longing to be happy only becomes sinful when we pursue happiness outside of God . In our pursuit of happiness, what we must learn is that the deepest and most enduring happiness can only be found in God . Not from God, but in God. God is not to be treated as simply a means to gain worldly pleasures. God is not some celestial genie who unlocks treasure chests filled with gold and silver, but as it says in Job, "the Almighty will be your gold and choice silver to you "(Job 22:25).

God's wants to be glorified, and the way we glorify God is by enjoying Him. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him (John Piper). Don't serve God out of duty--God doesn't need your service(Acts 17:25)--serve God because it is the source of true joy.

Do you remember my illustration from last week? If I take Allie out for dinner on our anniversary, and she asks me, 'Why are you doing this?', what is the answer that honours her most? Suppose my answer is, 'Don't mention it Allie--the reason I am taking you out is because it is my duty'. Does that answer honour her? The answer that honours her most is to say, 'Allie, it is my pleasure to go with you'. In the same way, the way we honour God is by taking pleasure in Him .

I can think of no better summary than this of what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian is not about subscribing to a certain moral code. Being a Christian is not about singing certain hymns or reciting certain creeds. Being a Christian is about taking pleasure in God, manifest in Jesus Christ --it is about "loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind "(Mt. 22:37).

Although the Christian must never be motivated by duty there remains, nonetheless, a duty for us to fulfill. C.S. Lewis is correct--we have a duty to be happy--that is, we have a duty to enjoy God . What is a tragedy is that I have to tell you this. No one needs to tell a child at Christmas to be happy when they are given their favourite rocket ship. No one needs to tell the teenager to be happy when he is given his first car. No one needs to tell the employee to be happy when she gets an unexpected bonus. When human beings are given a gift, the natural response is to enjoy the gift and to praise the giver.

How does this translate in the life of a Christian? Well, the Gift and the Giver are the same thing. God gives us the greatest possible gift in the universe: Himself . Our response then, our natural response, should be to enjoy the Gift and to praise the Giver. If this does not seem natural to you, perhaps you need to examine whether you have properly understood the value of the Gift, and whether you have properly appreciated the generosity of the Giver.

Make no mistake, we were made to enjoy God. David exhorts us to this end in Psalm 34, "O taste and see that the Lord is good "(Ps. 34:8), and in Psalm 37, "Delight yourself in the Lord "(Ps. 37:4). The apostle Paul uses the imperative tense to command us to "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! "(Phil. 4:4). And surely this was the point Ezra was trying to drive home when he addressed the people of Israel in the Book of Nehemiah, chapter 8.

The context of Nehemiah, chapter 8, is that the construction of the wall surrounding Jerusalem had just been completed, and the Jewish exiles were now returning to their homeland. The people then gathered together and asked Ezra to read them "the book of the law of Moses "(Neh. 8:1).

Please take note of how the people responded to the reading of God's Word in verse 3, "Ezra read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday ". Did you catch what is happening here? The people listened to God's Word from sunrise until noon! You would suspect that these people must have been bored to tears--I mean we can scarcely endure a sermon that exceeds 20 minutes! But listen to how verse 3 ends, "and all the people were attentive to the book of the law ".

If that is not remarkable enough in itself, listen to what Nehemiah writes in verse 5, "when (Ezra) opened (the book of the law), all the people stood up ". Whether they stayed on their feet from sunrise until noon, we will never know, but what is unmistakable is the pleasure the people of Israel took in listening to God's Word. Surely these people could say with the Psalmist, "O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all day long "(Ps. 119:97).

The people were not passive listeners to the law either--Nehemiah records that the people shouted, "'Amen, Amen!' while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground "(Neh. 8:6).

The people of Israel were undeniably enthusiastic about God's Word. Why were they so enthusiastic about God's Word? Because they valued it. Human beings praise that which we value. We praise little children, we praise our favourite sports team, we praise a good meal, we praise favourable weather--human beings naturally praise that which we value. It is, therefore, never irreverent to praise God for His Holy Word.

Not only did the people of Israel praise God when they heard His Word read, but it also moved them to tears. Nehemiah records that "all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law "(Neh. 8:9). The people of Israel responded appropriately when they praised the Lord for His Word--it demonstrated that they valued it--but, Ezra admonished the people for weeping, "do not mourn or weep "(Neh. 8:9), he told them.

What was the proper response for the people of Israel? Listen to the command issued in verse 10, "Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared ". Ezra commands the people of Israel to celebrate--he commands them to throw a party! 'Go get some steak and wine' he tells them. Why the celebration? Because "the joy of the Lord is your strength "(Neh. 8:10).

If we truly value God and His ongoing faithfulness, Christians will be regarded by others as people who love to celebrate. Why does the local tavern get more people on a Saturday night than we get on a Sunday morning? I suspect it is because people don't expect to have a 'good time' at church. They suspect that coming to church may actually make them feel worse.

How could anyone think this? It might be because we lack a spirit of celebration. It might be because many of the people attending church are here to ease their conscience rather than to enjoy God.

Remember, the only way to honour the Giver is to enjoy the Gift . Too many Christians, I fear, think we are here to pay back the Giver. We don't like being in debt, we want to earn our way. Sorry--God's grace doesn't work like that. Our obligation is not to pay back the Giver, rather it is to enjoy the Gift.

And by Gift, I don't simply mean Christ's death and Resurrection, but I mean God manifest everyday through His countless acts of grace. God's past faithfulness in Jesus Christ provides the basis of our faith in future grace. God not only gave Himself on the cross 2000 years ago, but He offers Himself to us daily through His Holy Spirit. The basis of my joy is not simply a God who worked in my past, but a God who is working in my present, and a God who is working in my future--a God whose mercies are new every morning.

If our life is not marked by unwavering joy in Christ, we need to question whether we really value Him as we should. Human beings praise that which we value. God should be praised at all times, and in all things--not because He needs our praise, but because we need to praise Him. We need the joy that is found in Christ alone .

I urge you this morning, "Delight yourself in the Lord "--enjoy all that God is for you in Jesus Christ. Amen.