Joy, The Fourth Week of Lent

Where others see but the dawn coming over the hill, I see the soul of God shouting for joy.
                                                                                                                                            —William Blake
The fourth Sunday in Lent is my favorite. It is Laetare Sunday. Laetare means "Rejoice" in Latin. In Catholic tradition, the short chant that is sung prior to the Eucharist on the 4th Sunday is from  Isaiah 66:10-11, which begins Laetare, Jerusalem, which means "Rejoice, O Jerusalem." The passage from Isaiah continues, "Rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow," and on Laetare Sunday, the purple vestments and altar cloths of Lent are set aside, and rose ones are used instead (“Rose Sunday” is another name for the 4th Sunday of Lent). Flowers, which are normally forbidden during Lent, may be placed on the altar. Traditionally, the organ was never played during Lent, except on Laetare Sunday. And weddings, which were otherwise banned during Lent, could be performed on this day.

The Roman Catholic church recognized that people need a break from sorrow. So the fourth Sunday was considered a day of relaxation from the normal rigors of Lent. It was a day of hope with Easter in sight. The point of the day is to provide encouragement on the journey through a penitential season.

This week, our devotions in this fourth week of Lent – and four weeks into the COVID-19 season in Seattle – focus on joy. Each will be arranged with a passage, a reflection, and a practice. Yes, that’s right – we are going to practice joy. Because there are so many things that come without practice – fear and anxiety, for example, or weariness and complaint. Joy must be practiced.

I encourage you this week to set aside two times each day. One is for prayer and Scripture in the morning. The other is a time to practice joy. And for each, set a timer. Maybe in your day the time for each with be 20 minutes, or 30, or an hour. Whatever the time you feel you can readily give to prayer in the morning and joy in the evening, add 5 minutes. You’ll be glad you did…

The Passage - Nehemiah 8:9-12

Today’s reading is from Nehemiah 8:9-12, which is the source of the phrase “the joy of the Lord is my strength”. The scribe, Ezra, and the Governor, Nehemiah, gathered all the inhabitants of Jerusalem to hear the reading of the Law. Those listening were the Jews who returned from the 70 years of exile in Babylon, and were led by Nehemiah and Ezra in the rebuilding of the walls for protection and Temple for worship. In chapter, these two leaders said to the people:

“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when 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 of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, 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 stilled 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. 

When God tests us, or confronts us in his word, it is always for the purpose of saving us – the joy of rescuing us as I preached about in the sermon on Sunday. The missionary James Hudson Taylor reflects on the joy of the Triune God in us:
It is the consciousness of the threefold joy of the Lord,
His joy in ransoming us,
His joy in dwelling within us as our Savior and Power for fruitbearing
and His joy in possessing us, as His Bride and His delight;
it is the consciousness of this joy which is our real strength.
Our joy in Him may be a fluctuating thing: His joy in us knows no change.

The Prayer

His joy in us knows no change – that is our strength. Today in prayer, turn your full attention to rejoicing in God’s joy in an action or attribute of God and its good outcome in our life and world, for example: “Today, Lord Jesus I rejoice in your cross that totally overcomes all sin and evil – I rejoice in your power to save that overcomes my fear – I rejoice in the gift of your Spirit in me to bring new life when I’m tired – I rejoice in your glory in Creation and joy in giving it …” the list can go on.
There is a joy which is not given to the ungodly,
but to those who love Thee for Thine own sake,
whose joy Thou Thyself art.
And this is the happy life, to rejoice to Thee, of Thee, for Thee;
this it is, and there is no other.
                                                               —St. Augustine of Hippo

The Practice: Virtual Joy Hour…

Nehemiah and Ezra told the people to go and eat the fat – I love that term! This is a term for eating as celebration as an act of worship for God’s goodness. Today’s practice is to ‘eat the fat and drink the sweet wine’ – choose a celebration food or drink, and share it with others (the ones you live with, or on the phone or video chat).

I’ve heard of people doing “Virtual Happy Hours” with friends to overcome social distancing. Happy hour usually focuses on connecting with a drink in hand – and in moderation, this is no bad thing. But what I am suggesting is a “Virtual Joy Hour” – the food or drink at the center is the symbol not the source of Joy. The source of Joy is shared confidence and trust of the Lord’s presence and salvation, shared in the company of others. Set that timer, really enjoy the good food and drink you are sharing, and talk about joy…
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