FASTING TO FEASTING
Pastor Sherri Drury
I am someone who is fairly familiar with emotions. I live a bit of a roller coaster life between highs and lows and screams and giggles. My breath is often taken away . . . . but it is sometimes difficult to discern who the breath-stealer is — anger? awe? fear? delight? Because it can change in an instant.
But even I have trouble keeping up with all the weeping and celebrating included in the rebuilding stories of God’s people. The leaders mourned, fasted and wept. And so did the people.
In last Sunday’s message, we see the people in Nehemiah Chapter 8 gathering as one to hear God’s Word read. The Wall was completed, and now their tired and weary working-bones stood for 5-6 hours in the morning sun and listened attentively. The words they heard caused them to praise, lift up their hands, shout Amen, and bow low to the ground. And the words also caused them to weep.
Let’s look a little wider to get a fuller understanding of their emotions. The Book of Ezra falls right before Nehemiah, and it recounts the story of how God’s people rebuilt the Temple that had been destroyed. In Ezra Chapter 3, there is this interesting weaving together of joy and sorrow. As the builders laid the foundation of the temple that they were rebuilding, music erupted — cymbals, trumpets, singing and a great shout of praise. But also in their midst were older people — those who vividly remembered the former temple in all its glory before it had been destroyed — and those older people wept aloud over their loss and disgrace. Can you imagine the sound of joyful shouts alongside loud weeping?
A woven tapestry of joy and sorrow. A braided rope of weeping and praising. That interplay lives on in the Book of Nehemiah. So back to that moment in Nehemiah where the people gathered to hear the story and words of God. They seemed stuck in their remorse. Why do I think they were stuck? Because the leaders had to help them get unstuck — Nehemiah encouraged them to go have banquets and share with the poor and said, “Do not grieve for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (8:10) And the other spiritual leaders followed suit — like it needed to be said twice for the people to dry their eyes — The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve”. (8:11). And the people finally did what the leaders asked them to do. They embraced joy. And Nehemiah 8:17 tells us: From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. God’s outcome for his very battered, regretful, heart-broken people? Great joy! Cumulative joy! Legendary joy! From Fasting to Feasting!
So, why did the leaders in Nehemiah have to gently nudge the people out of their sorrow and point them towards joy? Because sometimes we can get lost in the sorrow, can’t we? Whether it’s godly sorrow over consequences of our own rebellion or earthly sorrow over the hard circumstances that face us in this world, tears and regret and grief can hang with us. But we must remember–sorrow was not what we were created for.
Sorrow exists here on earth and may serve an important purpose, but when we reach heaven and ultimately reach the perfection that surrounded our beginning and will surround our ending, sorrow will be no more! (Revelation 21:4)
So sometimes we too may need reminding. From Fasting to Feasting People!
Let’s allow Psalm 126 help us with that!
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
This Psalm is one of joy. The beginning of the Psalm describes the very people we have been reading about in Nehemiah. And how does the psalmist describe their emotional response to restoration? It’s too good to be true; it’s surreal; we can’t believe it! Everyone around us notices. We can’t keep from laughing.
When was the last time you have felt like that? If it’s been awhile, then cling to the words in the second half of this psalms. The writer is asking God to do it again. Like streams in the desert Lord, refresh us.
And here we also find our reminder and our promise: sowing seeds is hard work and it takes time for those seeds to grow into a sustaining harvest. But have hope because any experience that is long, hard and even sorrowful can grow into satisfaction, fulfillment and abundance when we are walking with God. Not only does Psalm 126 point to that, so does Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
God’s people in the Old Testament carried memories and scars that easily led to weeping. And they intimately understood dry deserts of the soul, as well as the sweat and weeping that accompanied rebuilding and replanting. But I’m pretty sure that they would also be at the front of the joy-parade, showing off the armloads of blessings that come out of the faithful goodness of God.
Laughter and weeping can co-exist in our lives. But I believe what God wants for us is joy that is so overwhelming that we just can’t stop singing and laughing.
Psalms 30:5 . . . . weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.