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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

When I Read John Donne

Win her with poetry, his devious friend told him.

He read it over and over.  John Donne.  Over and over, memorizing.

It’s two miles to her farm, over the small hill, across the grassy field, then the big.  Then her farm house is on the far side of the copse.

He tries not to sweat too much as he walks.  His heart beats a bit faster as he clears the big hill.  He’s been saying the lines over and over in his mind.

He comes around the maples.  She’s sitting on the porch. His heart leaps.  There she is.  


Uh, hi.  The sweat trickles down the side of his face.  Is she looking at that line of sweat?  Does it disgust her?

Um, hi. 

Uh _

            Sweetest love, I do not go,
                        For weariness of thee,
            Nor in hope the world can show
                        A fitter love for me;
                                    But since that I
            Must at die last, ‘tis best
            To use myself in jest
                        Thus by feigned deaths to die [i]

God, how his voice shook.  How weak did he sound?  She only glanced at him, with untelling eyes.

Mostly she gazed across the grass toward the tress.  What is that look on her face?  Boredom?  Disgust?

She looks at him.  What does that mean?

Uh_ I

Abruptly, unhurriedly, she turns.

She has gone in the house.  

Alone, he stares at the empty porch.  He tastes cotton and humiliation.

[i] “Song” by John Donne.  John Donne: The Complete English Poems.  Penguin Books, London.  1996 edition.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Romans 4:13-25, 2nd Sunday of Lent

            If you have ever attended a popular Christian conference, in the auditorium packed with 10,000 people, you may have heard the speaker say something like this.  “Let go, and let God.”  Similar sentiments like this are printed on bumper stickers and coffee mugs sold by Christian publishing companies.  You might hear the DJ on the popular Christian radio station enthusiastically make this pronouncement.  “Don’t try to control your own life.  Don’t try to determine your own destiny.  Let go, and let God.  Let God go to work in your life.”
            Let go and let God.  What the heck does that mean?  Seriously.  How do we do that?  Do we just sit on a park bench and wait until God does whatever it is God is going to do?  How?  Maybe just as important, why?  Why should we trust that God is going to do something in our lives? 

“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13).  Our attempt to understand the notion of releasing control of our own lives to God begins with the idea of promise.  In Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he talks about a promise that was given to Abraham.  He assumed the members of that church would be intimately familiar with the Abraham story.  This story is found in Genesis, a portion of it in Genesis 17. 

17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty;[a] walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram,[b] but your name shall be Abraham;[c] for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring[d] after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16).

Sarah was over 90.  The only way a child comes is through divine intervention.  Paul’s take on this story, thousands of years later, is that Abraham believed God’s promise.  That was the key, his belief.  He was old, Sarah past child-bearing years, and they were childless.  Today, a childless couple certainly may feel sad if they desire children.  That sadness is not to be minimized.  But it does not carry the social stigma it did 4000 years ago. 
In Abraham’s time, if a couple had no children, it meant something was terribly wrong.  Mostly, blame was laid on the wife, in this case, Sarah. As a family, they were failures, and had no one to carry on their family name.  The social cost to both Abraham and Sarah was enormous. 
But they were in their 90’s.  There was no reason to think anything would change.  Even so, Abraham believed God.  Paul understood this belief to be an act of faith.  Purely because he knew God and trusted God did Abraham accept this promise that made no sense.  Going through the entire Abraham story, it feels simplistic to say Abraham “let go and let God.”  Abraham did a lot of others things.  He lied.  He tried to force God’s hand by having a son with his wife’s servant.  He debated with God.  Like all of us, Abraham had feet of clay. 
Maybe that’s why Paul was so eager to link the promise with Abraham’s faith.  Why should we trust God?  Why did Abraham trust God?  Paul’s best answer is don’t focus on why Abraham trusted God.  Focus on the fact that Abraham trusted God.  “For what does the scripture say,” Paul asks in Romans 4:3.  “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Reckoned?  He was credited with righteousness because he chose to believe God.  That’s faith!
Why should we believe?  Because we’ll get righteousness credited to us too? 
Let’s look at another story, one that raises the stakes in trusting God. 
This time, Jesus is speaking.  We’re in Mark chapter 8.  Jesus and the disciples are walking through the villages of a region called Caesarea Philippi.  He wants to know the buzz.  Crowds gather to hear him preach everywhere he goes, and he wants to hear what the disciples have heard people say about him.  This is a first-century version of Jesus reading his own headlines.
The disciples report that some think he is John the Baptist, while others call him Elijah or another of the prophets.  Then Jesus changes the question.  Who do you think I am?  Peter declares he is the Messiah!  Good for Peter! 
Immediately following this, Jesus teaches them that the Son of Man, himself, must be beaten, rejected, and killed.  And they stop listening.  He says the one killed will rise again after 3 days but they don’t hear that part.  When they hear Jesus predict his own suffering and death, it is too much to bear.  Just as Peter boldly proclaimed the Messiahship of Jesus, he steps in here to confront the Lord. Mark writes that Peter pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.  Can you imagine?
Jesus isn’t having it.  He says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.  For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things” (Mark 8:33).  He then lays out what he means by “divine things.” 
34 [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life” (Mark 8:34-36)? 

Abraham’s wife Sarah had a female servant, Hagar, and she had a son by Abraham.  That son was Ishmael.  Why would Abraham believe that God was going to give him a son by his wife Sarah who had never had a child in all her 90 years? 
When Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Why would the disciples and the people in the crowd believe him? Why would anyone believe that losing one’s life for the sake of the Gospel is a good thing?  Why should we trust God?
We began with a promise – the promise of a child to Abraham; the promise that giving one’s self fully to God in Christ – that is, losing one’s life for the Gospel – is a good thing; the promise that the best life we can lead is one in which we fully submit ourselves to God with Him as our Lord, our Master.  In the life of Abraham, in the journey of the disciples with Jesus, and in the theology of Paul, we see this promise come to fruition as faith is exercised by believing what God says. Faith = believe that God is telling the truth and that God’s truth is the best thing for us.
Great!  We’ve received the promise, that in Christ we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  We’ve exercised faith by believing that this promise is true and God can be trusted.  So, we are fully submitted to God.  We’re going to abandon control of our own lives.  We’re going to let go and let God. 
Now what? 
Paul writes in Romans 4:18 that when Abraham believed, he was “hoping against hope.”  It’s akin to jumping without a net because God said, “I’ll catch you.”  Abraham abandoned his father’s land.  He did all that God said to do.  He hurled himself off the cliff and into the open air above the Grand Canyon because he believed God would redefine his life.  He believed God would fill in that blank space where his world view had been.  He jumped and waited for God to act.
Paul lived the same way.  He followed wherever the Spirit directed him: Athens, Ephesus, Corinth.  There were also instances where Paul wanted to plant churches in certain cities, and the Spirit prevent him.  It looked different than in the days of Abraham because by the time Paul came along, the world was a very different place.  But the idea is the same.  The Spirit turned over the applecart of all Paul’s ideas about reality, and he had to wait, with a blank space – a space God began to fill in with courage, power, love, truth, purpose, and most importantly grace. 
When we stop, trust God, and then wait, it gives God space to act in our lives.  Stopping and waiting doesn’t mean we just sit inert in complete inactivity.  We worship.  We work our jobs, sometimes temporary jobs, but even in those we represent God and glorify Him in our work.  We stay connected to the church, the family of God.  But our worship, our relating, and our work are sometimes carried out in a period of a stop and wait.  That stop and wait is where we trust that God has good things in store for us. 
In a sense, in that pause, our worldview, our understanding of everything is suspended so that we may clear our minds and hearts and make space for God to step in and re-color all our ideas.
Paying even a little attention to the New Testament, we see that God began this work in Jesus.  Romans 4:25: righteousness will be credited to us who believe that God raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  A purely scientific worldview does not allow for resurrection.  Once someone dies, he stays dead.  How often is our claim to believe in the resurrection an impotent recitation that pulls no weight in how we see the world?  We say we believe it, but do we live as if we believe God is present and active?
If we don’t think God is real, present, and active, how will we ever give up our lives for the sake of the Gospel, as Jesus said in Mark 8?  And by the way, while “give up our lives,” can mean die for the kingdom in most cases it means live lives fully submitted to God.  To “give up our lives for the gospel” is to make the intentional choice to relinquish our hold on independence.  We stand before God and say, “Here is my life.  I’ll do what you say to do.  I’ll be who you tell me to be.”  The evidence of this complete submission is seen in how we carry ourselves in the normal, everyday places.  The disciple life is evident or absent in the way Christ is seen in us when we are at work, at home, and going about the daily routines of life.  It is there, where we spend the majority of our time, that we give up freedom and autonomy and voluntarily live life as God’s slaves.
The only reason we would do this is that we trust that being a slave to God is better than anything else.   “Let go and let God.”  It has a catchy ring to it, as slogans go.  To actually do it, to actually let go of control is monumental.  Do we trust God enough to do it?
That’s an unfair question.  There’s rarely a time that we can measure how much we trust God.  So, here is what I propose.  Identify one area of life where you’ve been in control, keeping God at bay.  Pick one thing.  Parenting.  Exercise & diet.  Your temper.  Your marriage.  Your money.  This morning, pick one thing in your life. 
Write it down.  Text it to yourself.  Mark it as a calendar reminder so that you get alerts a couple of times a week between now and Easter Sunday.  Starting today, this Second Sunday of Lent, you’re going to hand control of this one thing over to God.
 “Letting go” does not mean going inert.  If parenting is your thing, you still feed your kids and try to help them have success and joy.  But you do that in a state of constant prayer.  Your parenting is done with less worry, almost the point of no worry, and with more attention set on God-with-you, as your parent your children.  That’s just one example.  Whatever is the one thing which you are handing over to God, you continue in that one thing, but now, God is in it with you, all the time.  Prayer is part of it, all the time.
We’re going to gather at the place where we are all recipients of the bread of life, the communion table.  We take the bread and cup, remembering Jesus’ suffering and shed blood.  We come as sinners – sinners who are now forgiven and made new.  Our sins are gone and in their place is the righteousness of Christ.
As you come up the aisle to the table, come preparing to meet Jesus.  Come with that one thing in hand, that thing in your life you’re going to give over to God’s control.  As you take the bread and cup, hand it go God.  In doing so, you create space in your life, space for God to go to work.  Trust Him.  He raised Jesus from the dead.  He’s got new things in store for you.  Can’t you wait to see what they are?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"A God Story" (Genesis 9:8-17) - First Sunday of Lent

This weekend Black Panther opens, the latest blockbuster movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.             I remember the opening scene in the first Avengers movie, my favorite in the series of super hero films.  In Avengers, the villain Loki has been transported from Asgard to Earth.  Asgardians live thousands of years and possess superhuman strength. 
            Nick Fury, a military leader here on earth, senses that Loki has bad intentions and intercedes.  He says to the Asgardian, “We of Earth have no quarrel with your people.” 
            Loki responds with a smirk.  “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.”
            Concerned, Fury says back, “Are you planning to crush us?”
            Fury was eventually able to call on Earth’s mightiest heroes, the Avengers, to defeat Loki and his malevolent army. 

            Noah did not have any Avengers he could call.  Even if he did, the God he faced was much more powerful than Loki. 
            The Noah account begins in Genesis chapter 6.  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” (6:5-7).
            But, God decided to spare Noah and his family.  There were no Avengers for Noah to call. Instead, God told him to build a vessel, the Ark.  In it, Noah, his family, and a male and female of each animal would ride out the flood. 
Producers of Christian children’s books and Christian children’s toys have made a lot of money on the flood story.  A child happily makes his little toy giraffes and little toy hippos and little toy kangaroos march and hop onto his little toy ark. 
The game changes when we imagine what’s happening outside the ark.  The rainwaters become floodwaters.  A child’s story?  No!  This is a story of the worst genocide in human history.  The perpetrator of the crime is God.  Yes, the floodwaters eventually recede.  Yes, at the end, the ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat and the animals come off and in no time, the world is dried up and repopulated.  Even so, this is the single-worst episode of mass-murder in human history.
Do we question God? 
The flood story is complicated.  I’ve read those delightful pop-ups books to my own kids, but when we close the child’s book, tuck the child into bed, and then in the dark house, we dare to sit in the night in our adult thoughts, and we find the story of Noah and the flood to be very troubling. 

The story begins with a parade of animals and ends with a sky filled with color – literally every color in the rainbow.  Enjoy the image. 
Now, ponder this: what is that rainbow for?  It’s a reminder.  Never again will the world be destroyed by a flood.  Who is the rainbow intended to remind? 
“God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you for all future generations; I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between you and me and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember’” (9:12-16a).
A reminder for God?  What, is God going to forget and accidently flood the world again?  Does God forget things?  No?  Then why does God himself decide he needs a reminder.  We put post-it notes around our house.  “Remember the grocery list.” “Remember to pick Igor up at cross-country practice.”  God puts a rainbow in the sky.  Oh yeah.  Don’t the flood earth and bring complete destruction again. 
This is a God story.  This is not a story of water.  This is not a story about animals.  This not a story about a guy in a boat with his family.  All those things are in this story.  But, the force that moves the story along is God’s reactions to the emotions humans produce in Him.
Human beings have no say in the covenant at the end of the story, and no responsibility in the covenant.  God is having an internal conversation within God’s own self.  We could go extinct or continue on.  It matters.  But, we are voiceless and powerless. 
God initiates the covenant and we must accept God’s terms.  God declares what God will not do again.  We cannot prevent another flood.  We can only pray that God will keep the promises He made to himself.  But it is not just us.  This covenant goes beyond Noah and his family.  It is a covenant with all of humanity.  Moreover, the covenant expands beyond humans.  It is for all creatures.  God initiates the covenant, sets the terms, carries it out, and sets the reminder – the rainbow. 

The disturbing nature of the story as well as the complete one-sidedness of the covenant both declare the same truth.  God is much more complicated than we ever understood or considered. 
We read Hebrews 13:8.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
And the prophet Malachi, chapter 3, verse 6.  “For I the Lord do not change.”
We recall one of the praise songs we sing in worship.  “Incomparable, unchangeable, you see the depths of my heart and you love me the same; you are amazing God.”
Unchangeable?  Genesis 1:31: “God saw everything that he had made and indeed it was very good.”  Then, Genesis 6:6.  “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth.”  From, “[the Lord] saw … indeed it was very good” to “the Lord was sorry” to “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created.”
And God did blot out all life, except Noah and his families and his floating zoo.  From “I will blot out” we arrive after the flood at “Never again.  Never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  Never again.
In our Ash Wednesday worship we heard the word of God from the prophet Joel who asked, “Who knows whether or not God will relent – change His mind – and leave a blessing instead of destruction” (2:12, paraphrased)?
In another Bible story easily adapted to children’s ministry, the story of Jonah and the whale, God clearly changes God’s mind.  The condemned Ninevites repent of their sin, and we read in Jonah 3:10, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them and he did not do it.”
God is a distinct personality.  God is not an undefined force or a pantheistic realty.  God is distinct.  God is personal.  God experiences God’s creation dynamically.  Because God is paradoxical, we can read those quotes from Hebrews and Malachi and talk about God as unchanging, but at the same time all we need to do is read Noah or the account of Moses or the prophets, Joel and Jonah, or the agonizing life of the prophet Jeremiah, or the unanswerable questions in the book of Job, or the frustrations and joys, the highs and lows in the life of Jesus.  Throughout the Bible, one thread never ceases to be seen.  God is dynamic, not static. God has new experiences and reacts to them.
This is terrifying.  We don’t know what God will do next.  God is emotional.  On Ash Wednesday, we heard from the prophet Nahum that God gets enraged. 
Here in Genesis, we see God heartsick.  I wish I could see the pristine purity of creation before sin entered the world God made.  God, in Genesis 6, wishes He could go back a few chapters, back to that time when he looked at what he made and saw that it was very good.  All I can do is wistfully imagine such a paradise.  When God wishes something, God makes it happen, using the flood as a do-over.
I cannot rationalize the horrific notion of a God so angry he wipes out all life on earth.  There is no explanation.  If you want to take God to task on this, do so.  Through eyes blurry with tears and with a heart on fire, confront God in your prayers.  Demand answers.  I don’t have them.
What I have and you have is the story open before us.  In chapter 6, verse 6, God sees that “every inclination of the thoughts of human hearts was only evil continually.” 
Flip to chapter 8.  The flood waters have receded.  Noah is off the ark and offers up an offering.  It says in 8:21 God is pleased with Noah’s worship.  Then God says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature on earth as I have.”
God does not apologize for the flood.  Human beings have not changed after the flood.  The condition that drove God to such a drastic do-over, the evil in every human heart, remains.  The only change in the story is the change that happens in God.  We sing “Unchangeable.”  Unchangeable?  Thank God, God most certainly did change.  Is it terrifying that God is unpredictable?  Oh yes.  Is the change that happens in God our only hope?  Most definitely.
God experiences the creation He has made.  God goes through things with humans, with animals, with the world.  We’ve referred to God as “enraged” in Nahum.  We can picture Jesus laughing as he tells some of the parables or holds children in his arms or jokes while fishing with the disciples.  We sense the pride of God as he sees the creation and declares it “very good.”  And in this flood story, we read that the Lord was “grieved” deep in his heart, sorry that he had made human beings.  But even in his frustration, we recall Hosea 11 where God says, “How can I give you up, O Israel?  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (v.8).
God is emotional and personal, and God goes through these experiences in relationship.  Our hope is found in trusting that God stays true to God’s own self and God’s own word.  Easter is the best evidence that we can trust God.
After the flood, God saw that human beings are evil.  In the Exodus, as God rescued the chosen people, they sinned repeatedly.  Settled in the Promised Land, they ignored the prophet Samuel’s words that God should be their king and instead followed King Saul, whose reign was a disaster.  Crushing defeat to Assyria, exile in Babylon, and the humiliation Roman rule in the land of Israel all came, yet humanity continually rejected God’s rule.  But God continually loved humanity. 
So much does God love us, God came as one of us.  The Avengers’ enemy, Loki, compared humans to ants and himself, the boot.  The real God, creator of heaven and earth, became ant – condescended to walk the earth as a man, Jesus of Nazareth.  What did humanity do?  Crucify him.  What was God’s response?  He counted the crucifixion as a worthy sacrifice that covered the punishment for sins and took the place of death of all humans of all time.  He forgave all sin, rose from death, and invites all who put their faith in Jesus to be adopted as sons and daughters of God. 
In the flood story, did God learn a lesson about how to relate to humans, flawed creatures as we are?  I don’t know if your theology allows for God to “learn” things or even have new experiences.  At the very least, see that God feels deep, lasting love toward you.  God knows exactly who you are, all your good points of which there are many; all your foibles and faults; your beauty marks and warts; God knows you.  And, God loves you completely. 
When He sees the rainbow, he remembers to not allow his holy anger over sin lead to destruction.  When he sees Jesus on the cross, he remembers that he has forgotten – forgotten all our sins.  When he sees the cross and then looks at you and me, he sees us as righteous.  Our relationship with Him is made right. 
That’s how the God story ends.  Human beings, those created in the image of God, are reconciled to God by the death of Jesus and brought into eternal life in the resurrection of Jesus.  The flood story becomes a Lent-Easter story, the God story becomes our salvation story.  God draws us into an eternal embrace where death ends in “never again,” and life is without end.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Ash Wednesday - Joel 2

Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We open the Bible and listen as the Word speaks to us.

Hear this, O elders, O Church
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
    or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
    and their children another generation.

15 Alas for the day!
For the day of the Lord is near,
    and as destruction from the Almighty[a] it comes.
16 Is not the food cut off
    before our eyes,
joy and gladness
    cut off from the house of our God?
17 The seed shrivels under the clods,[b]
    the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are ruined
    because the grain has failed.
18 How the animals groan!
    The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
    even the flocks of sheep are dazed.  (1:2-3, 15-18)

Blow the trumpet in Zion; In America; In Chapel Hill;
    sound the alarm on God’s holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
    a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
    nor will be again after them
    in ages to come. (2:1-2)

            Now, what do we say?  More importantly, what do we do?  The Word has had its say.  The Day of the Lord is imminent, a day of darkness and gloom.  We say, “God is love,” and it is true.  Indeed, God is love, teaches us how to love, and expects us as His followers and worshipers to live in love.  Yes, God is love.  But that is not all there is to be said about God.
            Make no mistake.  The prophet Joel does not mince words.  The day of the Lord is coming; it can’t be stopped.  It is a day to fear.  And the destruction on that day ultimately comes from the Lord.  If we were to add the words of the prophet Nahum to Joel’s prophecy we would see that God gets angry.  Nahum says “the Lord rages against his enemies” (1:2). 
            Joel does not name God’s rage, but rather describes it.  He announces the coming destruction as inevitable and originating from God.  The thing about the prophet Joel is scholars really do not know when Joel wrote his prophecy.  Nahum is clearly aimed at Nineveh and the Assyrians.  Joel does promise redemption for the southern Kingdom of Jews, Judah, and wrath for Judah’s enemies.
            However, Joel cannot be fixed at any point in Israel’s history. The message is appropriate any time.  We understand sin to be humanity in rebellion against God.  Consciously or unconsciously, people choose to be their own authority instead of submitting to God as authority.  We decide we know what’s best for ourselves, for people around us, and for the world in which we live – instead of trusting that God knows the best way for the world to run. 
This notion of human sovereignty usurps God’s authority and this attitude and posture and accompanying actions produce sin.  So the ominous warnings of Joel, the onset of the Day of Judgment fits our circumstance.  We read both Nahum and Joel as divinely inspired prophecy.  The words originally spoke to circumstances in Israel with relation to Judah and to the foreign invaders, Assyria, but a deeper message rings true across the span of history to our day.  In Christ, we are grafted into Israel, into Judah, the inheritance of David.  The prophecies originally for the chosen people speak a fresh word of God to all of us who have been drawn to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. 
The God of love is also a God of wrath.  God takes sin seriously and sin, collective and individual sin, cuts us off from God.  And we all sin. For this reason, Joel is very concerned.

Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
    and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
    for it is cut off from your mouth.

Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth
    for the husband of her youth.
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
    from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
    the ministers of the Lord.
10 The fields are devastated,
    the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil fails.
11 Be dismayed, you farmers,
    wail, you vinedressers,
over the wheat and the barley;
    for the crops of the field are ruined.
12 The vine withers,
    the fig tree droops.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
    all the trees of the field are dried up;
surely, joy withers away
    among the people. (1:5, 8-12).

            So, again, the question: what do we think and say?  If we believe this from Joel is truly Word of God, a word to be trusted, then judgment is coming.  We can look back through history and identify possible moments of judgment on worshiping communities.  And we certainly believe this promise of reckoning will be part of the last day, Christ’s return, the end of history, and the beginning of a new age.  Is it inevitable that we must face that day, as Joel says, lamenting in sack cloth, joy having withered away?
            Lament should be a part of our prayer life.  Christians are Easter-focused and rightfully so, but there is evil in the world and even in each of our own hearts.  Lament is a needed form of prayer.  Maybe this year, as you journey through the season of Lent to the cross of Christ, you will learn the discipline of praying prayers of lament.  Heather and I can help you develop a Bible reading plan for this. 
            Joel most certainly lamented.  But that’s not all he did.  He did not know that God would come in human form, Jesus of Nazareth.  What God did in Jesus was so unexpected, even the disciples who walked with Jesus were caught by surprise until they spent time with him after the resurrection.  Yet, lacking the resurrection perspective, Joel still trusted in God’s goodness.  When the terror of that day weighed upon him, he turned the only place he could turn – to God. 

14 Sanctify a fast,
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord.

19 To you, O Lord, I cry.
For fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness,
and flames have burned
    all the trees of the field.
20 Even the wild animals cry to you
    because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness.

            Walter Brueggemann says that when prophets like Joel speak in this way about God and about the day of the Lord, the prophets intervene between a holy and angry God and his sinful people.  In this intervention, God is “palpably available” to His people both as a threat and as an opportunity.[i]  For us, as we stand, knees knocking, teeth chattering, exposed in an uncomfortable awareness of our own sins before God, which is it, threat or opportunity?
            Again, Joel, the prophet for all times and places, guides us as prophets do.  I fully believe the prophets were as terrified as their words are terrifying.  I believe they wrote with trembling hands.  With a thumping heart, Joel steps past the awful threat to a place of possibility.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13     rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him?

            The dark clouds of wrath gather on the oncoming horizon, but Joel looks past that, past the gloom to the God behind the wrath because he knows that God is indeed a God of love who wants to forgive us.  “Yet even now” there is time to repent.  Repentance is emotional, draining work, but we do it because we want to be a right relationship with God.  He is full of grace and mercy.  His love is endless and unfailing. 
            What do we say?  Lord, I am sorry.  And in our prayers, we name our sins and lay them out before God. 
What do we do? We turn away from the things in life that draw us into sin, draw us away from a close walk with God. 
The story of Joel gains depth for us when we read it knowing we are taking the first step toward the cross.  On the cross, Jesus bears the weight and the punishment for sin.  Sin leads to pain, loss, death, and alienation from God.  Jesus shoulders that entire burden on the cross.  Knowing that, we see the depths of despair Joel only imagined, but we also see the mountain top of hope Joel held so tenaciously. 
“Who knows whether or not God will relent and leave a blessing instead of complete devastation?” 
Who knows?  We know!  We know what God did in Jesus.  Jesus is the Savior of the world and all who receive forgiveness and come to life in his name will be spared God’s wrath and, on Judgment Day, enter the Kingdom as sons and daughters of God. 
The way I am going to center my own life, as I search inside myself for a faith as gripping as Joel’s, is a Lenten fast.  Christians will give things up for Lent and I am doing that this year.  I encourage you to do so as well.  For me, one of the places I spend a lot of time – time where I get distracted and forget to focus on the presence of God – is Facebook.  During Lent, I am going to greatly reduce the time I spend on Facebook and even more, I am going to cut out commenting on Facebook.  If I don’t give a “Like” to one of your posts, it is because I won’t be doing that during Lent.
Now, I cannot complete disengage.  Facebook is the way I get in touch with some of my really good friends.  We are heading to Ethiopia next month, and I will want to post pictures and report about the trip on Facebook.  However, I won’t be commenting and I won’t be deep-diving into Facebook debates.
How will I fill in that time?  I will spend more time praying, more time with my wife and kids, and more time reading and writing about faith and theology.  For some, writing is a distraction.  For me, it is one means by which I meet God.  Abstaining from Facebook interactions and instead engaging in theological thought and spiritual reflection is how I pause to say “Yet, even now, God may relent.”  It is how I return to the Lord with all my heart. 
I encourage you to find the way you can pause.  Understand in your life what needs to be set aside.  What has gotten in the way and is obstructing your view of God?  Fast.  Whatever that distraction is, minimize it or remove it between now and Easter.  You have to figure this out and do it in your life.  (1) Pause. (2) Take a concrete action that you bring into the pause so that you can sit in the thought, “Yet even now, God may relent from judgment.” 
In that pause, that fast, fill in spiritual disciplines of prayer or study that will draw your eyes and heart to God.  Do the work to open yourself to the God who loves you, forgives, and wants to be in the center of your life. 

I close with one more reading from Joel.  We are sinners, but in Christ, we are a part of God’s people and we are forgiven sinners.  Through the prophet God said to His people and to us,

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
28 [d] Then afterward
    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (2:26-32a)


[i] Brueggemann, Walter (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.649.