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“Of Flu Shots and Scripture” by Stephen Hutchins

Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV) “…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Now THAT’s a familiar Bible verse.  It’s one we like to invoke to encourage a downhearted brother or sister.  There’s a catchy little chorus, “The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength,” that has been a staple of Sunday school, VBS, and summer camps for generations.

Could it be that it’s too familiar?  Yes, possibly.  Let me explain.

It’s October and many of you will soon be seeking an opportunity to get a flu shot, or vaccination.  What the flu vaccination does is introduce into your body an agent that resembles the particular strain of flu expected to be prevalent in the year that you get one.  Your immune system then recognizes the agent as a threat, destroys it, and then keeps a record of it so that when it encounters it again, it’s able to recognize it more easily and fight it more effectively.

Sometimes I think we, without even realizing it, become inoculated to certain portions of Scripture.  A passage can be so familiar to us that when we encounter it anew, we just pass over it and refuse to engage with it with any fresh expectations.

Now, back to Nehemiah 8 to illustrate.  My last encounter with this Bible verse may have been yours as well.  It was on day 27 of the Transformed devotional we did together as a church earlier this year.  There it was at the top of the page: “The joy of the Lord is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10 NIV).”  Pastor Warren proceeded to use this scriptural snippet from Nehemiah’s narrative as a springboard to teach about the importance of joy in our Christian walk and discovering its true source.  Good stuff.  Stuff that was also quite familiar to what I’d heard and even passed on to others myself in the past.  But the more I meditated on it throughout the day, the more questions I had.  What kind of strength and for what?  Whose joy?

Was it really saying that the Lord’s joy would accrue somehow to me if I appropriated it correctly and that it would give me some kind of “strength” to make it through tough times?  The more I thought about it, the more I felt that this was another one of those passages that I had become inoculated to and therefore was ripe for new discoveries.  I was ready to hit Nehemiah 8 again to reacquaint myself with the context.

What I found was a large group of former exiles who had become so unfamiliar with God’s Word that, when they heard it recited for the first time, they became emotionally distraught.  Although it doesn’t say what motivated this sorrow, one can easily speculate that, as they heard the scriptures recited, they became aware of how ignorant they had become of and how far they had strayed from God’s plan for them.  It may have been what Paul refers to as the godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-10.)  It’s here that Nehemiah tells the people that mourning isn’t the appropriate response; joy is.  He goes further and instructs them to go home and make preparations for a celebration.  Joy would be the spiritual byproduct of their newly embraced obedience.

I don’t know about you, but I hear echoes of John 13:17 where Jesus reminds us that true happiness comes from a life of obedience.  And that seems to be what Nehemiah is telling us as well.  The “joy of the Lord” isn’t some mystical mantra or emotion that we, as Christians, can conjure up and appropriate at will.  Its source is in our obedience to the Lord’s commands.

I discovered so much more in Nehemiah 8 because I dared to dig in an abandoned mine, abandoned due to its familiarity.  God often has so much more for us in these familiar, yet neglected, passages.  Yes, get inoculated from the flu and a host of other infectious diseases.  But resist allowing the same dynamic to occur in your mind as you continue to interact with God’s Word.