It is the second week of Advent. This is a season of waiting as we “Prepare the Way” for the coming Messiah.
It is usually a season where we talk about how important it is to slow down. We focus on practices that will help us to not be distracted by all the glitz and sizzle of the overly commercialized Christmas season.
To be honest. It seems like 2020 has forced us to slow down. Perhaps this year we can catch the spirit of Advent more than ever before.
Our Advent journey brings us to the little book of Joel. It is only three chapters long. I think the message of this book is perfect for us in this moment.
Let me show you why.
Here’s the key phrase for the book. We find it in the first verse of our reading.
“Return to the LORD with your whole heart.”
This phrase begs three questions:
- Why should we return to the LORD?
- How do we return to the LORD?
- What happens when we return to the LORD?
We find the answer to the first question in Joel chapter 1. Simply put:
Things are bad.
Joel starts off by describing a swarm of locusts that invaded the land. Joel describes the swarm like a wildfire that burns and consumes everything in its path. It is a devastating force.
Then, the metaphor shifts and talks about an invading army that destroyed the land just like the swarm of locusts.
The original readers of Joel would have been like, “Yeah, we know that story.”
Remember, this is a story about a very particular group of people who lived in a place called Israel
Right here, in the heart of the land, Solomon had built a Temple in the city of Jerusalem. This temple was the permanent version of the tabernacle that God had instructed Moses to build back on Mt. Sinai in the book of Exodus.
This building represented the promise that God made to Abraham and the covenant that God made with the people at Mt. Sinai.
God’s presence would dwell in this place. It was an image of Eden. It was a picture of how humanity could be in a right relationship with God. It was the source of life. Rivers of life flow from it.
Israel was planted as a holy nation to be a vineyard where the whole world could taste the sweet wine of God’s love and see how the world was supposed to be.
Solomon built the beautiful temple in Jerusalem.
But then things got bad. Solomon built the temple with slave labor and he acquired his money through bad political allegiances.
The people rebelled and the nation split.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel established Golden Calves to replace the temple to worship God, just like the people did at mount Sinai. They continually struggled with turning away from God.
The leaders in Jerusalem became cruel. They led by oppression and were filled with greed, gluttony, and violence. They introduced foreign idols into the Temple.
It was ugly.
Things were Bad because the people had turned away from God.
Then, a swarm of Empires swooped in on the nation.
The Assyrians completely destroyed the Kingdom of Israel and threatened Jerusalem. We saw that when we were in the prophet Jonah three weeks ago.
Then Babylon conquered Assyria and swooped in and surrounded the city of Jerusalem. This happened two weeks ago during the time of Jeremiah.
Last week we saw how Daniel was carried away during the initial seige of the city.
Since last week, Babylon got fed up with Jerusalem and completely destroyed it. Solomon’s beautiful Temple was now a pile of rubble.
This happened while Daniel was in Babylon. We also saw last week how the Per
sian Empire swallowed up Babylon and now controlled Jerusalem.
The Persians eventually let some of the people return to their demolished homeland, but it was never the same.
Things are BAD.
Right now, in 2020, I think we can look around and say, “Things are BAD.”
As I record this sermon we are in another pandemic lock down.
Infections rates are spiking,
the death toll is climbing,
hospitals are maxed out,
people are out of work,
schools are all online,
there is social and political tension,
wildfires and hurricanes have devastated much of the country.
Things are BAD.
Yes, Joel, they are BAD.
What do we do about it?
“Return to the LORD.”
OK, question number TWO: how do we do that? What are you talking about?
Notice how this part of the poem unfolds.
Return to the LORD with all your heart,
Rend your heart, not your clothes.
That’s a weird statement.
To rend is to tear open.
In those days it was a customary sign of mourning and deep anguish to tear your robes open. If you did this, it told everyone around you that you are in deep sorrow and anguish. You might do this if a loved one died and you are heartbroken.
It is like when we wear black to a funeral. This is a tradition in our culture that says to everyone, “I am heartbroken and in mourning, so back off.”
Let’s be honest. Have you ever worn black to a funeral, and it didn’t really mean much to you.
Joel looks at the people and says,
“Don’t just go through religious ceremonies, God doesn’t really care about those things. It isn’t about being in a church building for proper rituals.
You need to check your heart right now.
Tear it open.
Starve the junk out. That’s what fasting does.
Wash your heart clean with your tears of remorse and grief.”
God cares about your heart.
What if we viewed this lockdown as an opportunity to engage these spiritual practices? Many of the things that distract us and define us have been stripped away.
The pandemic has brought to us an opportunity to fast. We are cut off from the normal social functions that tend to define us.
Youth sports have stopped.
Going to restaurants and gyms has stopped.
Gathering in large groups for worship and celebrations has stopped.
We are forced to be with our own self more than we typically are.
How much time have you spent simply grieving over all the losses? Bring your broken heart to God.
OK, so things are bad, that’s why we need to return to the LORD.
And, we need to do a heart check with fasting, weeping, and mourning. That’s how we return to the LORD.
But what happens when we do this?
Notice what Joel says next. He describes God’s character.
Verse 13 is a quote from Exodus 34:6-7. Joel goes all the way back to the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus. The people had broken the covenant with God only days after it was made. Remember when we talked about that back in September?
In the midst of the people’s unfaithfulness God describes Godself to Moses with these words, and here Joel repeats them.
God is gracious and merciful.
Slow to anger.
Abounding in steadfast love.
And relents from punishing.
Let the words of that poem wash over you.
The word merciful translates the Hebrew word rahum. It comes from the word meaning womb.
God’s love is womblike. God’s love for us is the love a mother has for the child she has carried inside her own body.
The phrase steadfast love translates one Hebrew word hesed. It means the loyalty one has because of the covenant relationship.
It is love that will never, ever give up, even when there is nothing in return.
God is slow to anger and relents from punishing, or is quick to forgive.
As I read this poem I think of the love a parent has for a child.
A loving parent only wants what is best for a child.
Yes, when a child does destructive things, the parent must allow the child to experience the natural consequences of bad decisions,
but it is only for the purpose of bringing life to the child, never for the joy of punishing, and the punishment only lasts as long as is needed.
This is the heart of God.
Joel says to the people,
“Things are BAD,
But God is GOOD.”
Turn to the LORD.
Turn to the way of graciousness and mercy and compassion and loyal love.
Be slow to anger.
This is who you are.
This is who you were created to be.
When you turn toward oppression and greed and gluttony and self-indulgence, and violence, it always turns out in pain and suffering for everybody.
Return to the LORD. Because God is Good.
Then, when you turn to the LORD, it happens.
God’s spirit flows.
This is the last part of our reading.
Watch how this unfolds in verses 28-29:
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”
Your sons and your daughters shall prophecy;
Your old men shall dream dreams
And your young men shall see visions”
Now wait for it…
“Even on the male and female slaves.”
Do you know what this means?
God’s spirit is poured out on EVERYBODY.
God’s love knows no boundaries.
If we fast forward to the book of Acts, in chapter 2, the Apostle Peter quotes this passage. He had witnessed Jesus proclaim the same message that Joel brought and that all the Hebrew prophets brought.
Return to the Heart of God.
Remember who you are.
Return to love and be a society flowing in God’s love for all people.
Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead.
Then, his disciples—this ragtag group of common folk—were filled with God’s Spirit and emboldened to testify publicly to the fact that Jesus is the true King.
In Jesus’ day it was the same.
Things are BAD,
But God is GOOD.
Return to the LORD.
When our hearts line up with God’s heart, the Spirit of God’s love, justice, and mercy flows into the world.
So what about us?
I think this year of pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, and social unrest can help us hear Joel’s words with different ears.
Things are BAD
We have our own swarm of locusts destroying things around us.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by these things.
Advent is a season where we are invited to take stock of our lives. To rend open our hearts and be honest.
I invite you to embrace this moment as a time of fasting, weeping and mourning.
I invite you to embrace this moment as a time to turn even deeper into the heart of GOD.
Things are BAD,
But God is GOOD.
The litmus test for our lives is not how many games we’ve won, or how many promotions we’ve earned, or how much money is in our bank account.
The litmus test for our lives is how aligned our hearts are with the heart of God. Do we flow with grace and compassion and loyal love? Are we slow to anger and quick to forgive?
If society worked along these lines, then we would have SHALOM, Peace on Earth, good will toward all people.
This is what we wait for during Advent.
This is what Jesus has done for us.
May God’s spirit flow through you as you turn to God this week.