“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126:1-3 ESV).
Beloved, even in the midst of trials and suffering, God wants us to be able to rejoice in him, because he has done great things for us and he wants us to be glad.
One of the things that sets us apart as believers in Christ is our ability to rejoice and give glory to God in the presence of even our deepest pain. But how is this possible? How can we as just regular people manage to see beyond loss, or suffering, or grief and give God thanks in the middle of a terrible storm?
We can do this because, as the prophet Ezra said in the book of Nehemiah, we are assured that “The joy of the Lord is our strength,” and that as Jesus said to his disciples as he prepared them to face his coming crucifixion, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Nehemiah 8:10; John 15:11 ESV).
God intends for our joy to be full, not because we are able to continuously make ourselves happy (because we surely can’t!), and not because our circumstances always make us happy (because they surely won't!), but because the joy of Christ abides within us. Jesus made it a point to tell his closest followers that he wanted them – and all who were to follow him after them – to be filled with his joy. It is through the Lord’s joy abiding in us that we find our greatest happiness and strength.
What is it, then, that makes God so happy that his happiness overflows to fill us with joy so that our joy is full?
In the gospel of Luke, chapter 15, Jesus gave us several parables about what happens when something that is lost has been found. He said that when a shepherd finds his lost sheep he picks it up, carries it on his shoulders and calls all of his friends and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that is lost.” Jesus told the story of a woman who lost a part of her dowry, a silver coin, and she lit every candle and swept her house clean until she found it and said to all her friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
Jesus said, “Just so I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10 ESV).
Notice that Jesus said that there is joy “before the angels.” Who is it that is rejoicing in front of the angels of heaven but God himself!
To illustrate this Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the wealthy father whose youngest boy leaves home, squanders his fortune and winds up eating food that he was supposed to be feeding to pigs. When this young man finally realized that even the servants in his father’s house were being treated better than he was, he set out toward home, hoping that since he had thrown away his birthright, maybe his father would be willing to take him in as a servant.
But what the young man found was not that his father had turned away from him in anger as he deserved, but he had been watching and waiting for him to come to his senses and come home. Jesus said that when the young man was still a long way off, in the distance he saw his father running toward him, and when he reached his prodigal son, the father threw himself on the boy’s neck and kissed him. He covered him with a royal robe and placed shoes on his feet and his signet ring on his hand – the declaration that everything that belonged to the father belonged to his son. And then his father threw him a big welcome home party! (See Luke 15:11-32.)
The prodigal son knew that his behavior warranted him being an outcast from his father’s house, but his father’s love for him was so strong that as soon as his son turned toward home, he ran to meet him, clothe him in his finest garments and acknowledge him before everyone. He said to his servants, “’For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found,’ and they began to celebrate” (15:24).
Beloved Friends, we are that prodigal child, God is our Father, and his servants are the angels in heaven. His greatest joy is not only for us, but God’s greatest rejoicing is because of us. Our Father rejoices in the presence of his angels whenever a child of his turns toward home.
Our Father wants us to remember him, to trust him, and to come back to him so that he can acknowledge us as his children before all of creation.
But how can we do this? What makes this possible? Here’s a really cool thing about the story of the prodigal’s return…did you know that the younger son had an older brother?
He did, indeed, but in the story that Jesus told, the elder brother was a little put-out when his little brother came home, and dad threw him a party instead of grounding him for the rest of his life. After all, big brother had stayed home, tended his father’s flocks, always been obedient, and never asked for anything. But he never got a party.
In fact, he complained to his dad when he said, “…Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (15:29).
Obviously, that’s not the cool part of the story, because elder brother was totally not cool.
But have you ever wondered why, since the father had two sons, he didn’t send the elder boy to go out and fetch the younger? I don’t see any indication in the story that big brother ever even got it into his head to bring the boy home.
So, here’s the cool part…if we are the sons and daughters, and God is our Father, and the angels are his servants, who is the real Elder Brother? Who did the Father actually send to fetch the prodigal children?
Of course, you know already that it’s Jesus. You see, God – our heavenly Father – loves us so much, that he sent his beloved Son, his only Begotten Son, in whom God is well pleased, to come down here where we are, in this classroom where we are learning about the nature of good and evil, to fight for us, pay the price for us, rescue us, and bring us all the way home.
The best story of all is that we have a Savior, who not only loves us but was willing to die on the cross to save us and redeem us from all the effects that this world filled with sin has had on us.
Beloved Friends, we have a Hero. And not just any Hero, but the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Lion of Judah. The Light of the World. The Prince of Peace. The Lord of Hosts. The Big Kahuna. Very God of Very God. Lord Almighty.
He is our Elder Brother, and he is on our side. He’s got our back. He goes before us, he walks beside us, and he’s got all our bases covered. He has done great things for us. We do not have to be afraid, because God has a mighty plan for each one of us.
Psalm 126 closes this way: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (v. 4-6 ESV).
All of this is true because “...God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17 ESV).
Because God sent his only Begotten Son to bring his children home, no matter what circumstances we face, we can praise him and rejoice because the joy of the Lord will forever be our strength.