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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. 

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