What Makes God Happy

The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”   Something about that is unsatisfying to my mind.  Our chief end is to glorify and enjoy God?  I wonder how God thinks about what is the chief end of the human element of creation?   Were we writing a Catechism for family life would we start with the question: What is the chief end of children?  And provide the answer: “The chief end of children is to glorify their parents and enjoy them forever?” or “To improve a family’s standard of living and provide security for aging parents” ? I’ve always considered God as beyond either wanting, much less needing, our praise. It seems vain and childish.  And for us to think that God is so vain and childish as to create us for no other purpose than to give God glory seems not only a bit short sighted on our part but maybe a bit narcissistic, with an exaggerated sense of our importance in God’s economy.



What Makes God Happy?  Nehemiah 8; I Corinthians 12: 12 ff. Luke 4:14-21

 

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

The Scripture that establishes the Hebrew year of Jubilee is found in Leviticus 25 and 27.  It contains three main items: rest for the soil;  reversion of real estate to its original owner, who had been driven by poverty to sell it; and the freeing of those Israelites who, through poverty or otherwise, had become slaves.  The concept of the Jubilee year is that every half century, on the great day of atonement, the people of God who through poverty or other adverse circumstances had forfeited their personal liberty or land should have their debts forgiven,  and be restored to their families and inheritance as freely and fully as God on that very day forgave the indebtedness of his people and restored them to perfect fellowship. Thus the whole community, having forgiven each other and being forgiven by God, might return to the original order of God’s design and being freed from the bondage of one another, might, without reserve, be the servants of God, their redeemer.

The idea of jubilee is of Hebrew origin. The word comes from the word for “ram” or the horn of the ram.  When Scripture speaks of  “the year of the blowing of the ram’s horn” or  “the day of the blowing of the horn”, or the “feast of the new year”, it means the same thing all announced to the people by the blowing of the shofar – the ram’s horn.   The Psalms 81.3 reference to  the solemn feast which is held on New Moon Day, when the shofar is sounded, as a day of judgment of “the God of Jacob” is taken to indicate the character of Rosh ha-Shanah, the 1st day of the month of Tishri . 

 

The purpose of the jubilee is to preserve unimpaired the essential character of God’s reign to the end that there be no poor among the people.   God, who redeemed Israel from the bondage of Egypt to be his peculiar people and allotted to them the promised land will not suffer anyone to usurp his title as Lord his own.  It is the concept of grace for all human kind, bringing freedom to the captive and rest to the weary as well as to the earth, which made the year of jubilee the symbol of the Messianic of grace as found in Isaiah 61,  when all the conflicts of creation shall be restored to their original harmony, and when not only we, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, but the whole creation, which groans and travails in pain together shall be restored into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 

 

Rosh ha-Shanah is the most important judgment-day, on which all the inhabitants of the world pass for judgment before the Creator, as sheep pass for examination before the shepherd. It calls for a holy convocation; no work was to be done; and special sacrifices were to be offered. It was considered by the best Hebrew authorities as the beginning of Creation, the birthday of the world. What better time for God to take stock of what was happening in his world than on the anniversary of its creation?

 

 

 

One of the anomalies regarding the Hebrew celebration of Rosh Hashana is that nowhere in the Torah is Rosh Hashana ever mentioned in connection with a Day of Judgment; Scripture speaks only of a Day of Blowing the Shofar. It is only through the oral tradition of Jewish sages that we know that on the Universe’s anniversary, its Creator takes stock and makes His allocations and allotments for the coming year. Why does the Torah seemingly go out of its way to conceal the concept of Judgment? And why is it specifically the theme of the Shofar that receives the overwhelming focus in the Torah’s description of this day, when in fact the sounding of the Shofar is but a small, if very important, ingredient in the overall scheme of Rosh Hashana?

 

In the book of Nehemiah we find a description of an ancient Rosh Hashana celebration. Reading from the book of Nehemiah, “Then all the people gathered together as one person at the plaza before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the Torah scroll of Moses, which God had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation… on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it… from first light until midday, and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Torah scroll. They read in the scroll clearly, appreciating the wisdom; they helped the people understand the reading. When the people listened to these word being read to them, they were overwhelmed by feelings of remorse and inadequacy, and began to weep.”

 At first glance, you would think this was the most appropriate and praiseworthy response – something we might all strive for on the most serious and introspective of days. Yet they are rebuffed. Nehemiah, Ezra the scribe, and the Levites who were helping the people understand, said to all the people – who were weeping as they heard the words of the Torah –

 

“Today is sacred to God; do not mourn and do not weep. Go eat rich foods, and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have not prepared – for today is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad – God’s pleasure is your strength!”

 

Now that’s a bit different emphasis than what we generally assume:  “God’s pleasure is your strength”.   When we sing “the Joy of the Lord” do we recognize that it isn’t our joy that is referred to – but God’s?  Is it our joy in our relationship with God that gives us strength rather than the Lord’s joy that is our strength?  Have we been guilty of trying to fabricate some sense of joy as a way for us to endure hard times; creating  a sense of joyfulness so it will give us the capacity to survive?

 

Rather than weep for their transgressions the people were told to go eat lavish meals, because “God’s pleasure is their strength.” We are left wondering what indeed is God’s pleasure – from which we derive strength – if not their sincere reaction to hearing the Torah? So, the question for us becomes, “what gives God joy? – what brings pleasure to God?”  We’ve got Moses and the prophets to draw on the find the answer to that question.  And we have the Gospels that tell the story of Jesus.   

 

One ancient text describes a Jew’s preparation for the Day of Judgment:  Normally, a person who knows he is to be judged, puts on black clothing, lets his beard grow unkempt, and doesn’t cut his nails. The reason given is that he does so because he is overcome with anxiety, over not knowing the outcome of his judgment. Yet before Rosh Hashana the Jewish people don’t do that. They put on white clothing, have hair cuts, and trim their nails. On Rosh Hashana, they eat, drink, and are happy, for they are told that the Almighty will perform miracles with them…

 

Why shouldn’t we stand in trepidation before the mighty God – instead of running around getting haircuts and preparing luxurious meals? What is the source of our assuredness that we will merit a good verdict – all the more so if we approach the Day of Judgment with such seeming nonchalance?  The answer of course is “it is not about us” it is about God.

 

Nehemiah 8 is one of the few places where Scripture talks about Scripture, showing us what happens when a community comes together to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted. So what happened? When they heard the written word proclaimed and interpreted, people wept because they heard their sins spoken out loud and they knew they are not innocent, but guilty. People weep because they fear death and the justice of God. People weep because they do not know how to bridge the gulf that separates sinful humanity from the faithful God who made them.

But as surely as the Torah reveals to us our sins, it also reveals to us the source of our hope: the God who keeps promises (cf. Nehemiah 9:8). It reveals to us the God who bridged the gulf by making a covenant with Abraham (cf. Nehemiah 9:8); who promised to Jacob “I am with you and I will protect you everywhere you go” (Genesis 28:15); who heard the cry of the people enslaved in Egypt and delivered them from oppression (cf. Nehemiah 9:9-11,27-28,36-37); who forgives sins (Exodus 34:7; Nehemiah 9:19); who vindicates God’s people when their strength is gone (Deuteronomy 32:36).

People fall to the ground in profound humility, knowing that God alone can lift them up and help them to stand. They give voice to their certainty, their faith, and their trust. People let the actions of their bodies match the words in their ears and on their lips, lifting their hands to God in petition because they recognize that God alone grants life (cf. Nehemiah  9:6).
 
Believing in this testimony, every leader and teacher of this people – governor, priest, scribe, and Levite – tells them not to weep (8:9). Do not mourn, they say, because this day when you have let God’s law fill your ears is a holy day. The day when God’s people gather together to hear the teaching of Moses can only be a day of drawing near to God in deepest joy: it is the joy of the Lord, the strength of the people (8:10).

The summons to joy is the great surprise of this passage and the summit toward which all its proclamation climbs. This joy is so excessive its grammar refuses to contain it, for “the joy of the Lord” can mean God’s own rejoicing over the people who have drawn near with attentive ear and heart; fortunately for us it can also mean the people’s joy in God and a joy that comes only from God.

Like the people’s embodied expressions of humility, petition, and sorrow, this superabundant joy takes concrete form in an act of feasting that refuses to stay put. The people are told first to go — the energizing joy of the proclamation of the God-given law and teaching and testimony of Moses radiates outward and moves the people with its vital spirit. Then the people are told to eat — not just any food, but rich, fat foods — and to drink – not just any drink but sweet, sweet drink. The fat and the sweetness is to spill out their gratuitous abundance further still, as the people are told to send helpings to anyone who has nothing prepared or no means to prepare it (Nehemiah 8:10). The feast of God’s efficacious, strengthening, joy-filled grace exceeds all limit, reason, and expectation; it fills every need and defies all lack of planning.   

The Gospel reading from Luke tells of Jesus preaching from Isaiah 61 in his hometown. The text concerns “the year of the Lord’s favor,” the Jubilee year. Jesus is led by the spirit to the text.  Maybe here we find a clue to what may give God joy. Here we have both the Torah and the Spirit, the old tradition and the free-breathing imagination of the Spirit. The community that responds to Torah-and-Spirit is a community of belonging (1 Corinthians 12:14), wherein all have accepted “a still more excellent way” Paul writes, that culminates in forgiveness and other acts of jubilee.

 

Luke has Jesus define himself by his association with the dispossessed. The implication is clear: a Christian faith without a social dimension is a wimpish impostor. The individualism that runs unrestrained through many churches today is a late and tragic corruption of a communal tradition. Paul knew this. He dismissed individualism with a few incisive phrases: “When one member suffers, all suffer.” “When one member is honored, all rejoice.”  The opening scene of Jesus public ministry left no doubt: a commitment to Jesus involves a commitment to build communities of peace and justice. Now back to the matter of what gives God pleasure – the joy of the Lord that gives us strength.

 

As it was our own in the past, and I understand that in some cultures today, having a large family was to make a small farm productive enough to support an acceptable standard of living.  The other purpose was the hope that at least one of a couple’s children would survive and be able to provide them home for old age.

 

The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”   Something about that is unsatisfying to my mind.  Our chief end is to glorify and enjoy God?  I wonder how God thinks about what is the chief end of the human element of creation?   Were we writing a Catechism for family life would we start with the question: What is the chief end of children?  And provide the answer: “The chief end of children is to glorify their parents and enjoy them forever?” or “To improve a family’s standard of living and provide security for aging parents” ? I’ve always considered God as beyond either wanting, much less needing, our praise. It seems vain and childish.  And for us to think that God is so vain and childish as to create us for no other purpose than to give God glory seems not only a bit short sighted on our part but maybe a bit narcissistic, with an exaggerated sense of our importance in God’s economy.

 

When we try to answer the question “What give God joy?”, humanity has often been led astray – and usually by religionists of one sort or another as Mel Gibson’s gory movie Apocalypto  demonstrated. For the Jewish community, the Prophets sought to bring folk’s understanding of what was expected back into focus.  The clearest statement of course comes from Micah (6:8): “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah reminds us of the conditions God set on his promises to Abraham, namely to do righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19). Additionally, the directions for Israel from God that came through Moses come to mind: And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God  require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good? (Deut. 10:12,13)  Both 1 Samuel 15 and the Prophet Hosea (6:6) emphasize God’s preference for obedience, knowledge, and mercy over sacrifice and burnt offerings.

 

The Pharisees of the New Testament were obviously not the first Jews to believe that the letter of the law outweighs the spirit of the law.

The Apostle Paul in writing to converts from paganism in Thessalonica tries his hand at answering the question: What makes God happy?

1 Thessalonians 4 1Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  3It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; 6and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.

 

What gives God pleasure?  That God’s people live in a way that cares for the earth and each other.  To preserve the essential and grace filled character of God’s reign marked by justice, mercy and humility.  I guess the other way of saying it is: If God ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  I rather sing “the Joy of the Lord is our strength”

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