Thursday, February 15, 2007

Chapel sermon Joel 2.12-26

The Reading for the Day: Joel 2.12-26
Now, therefore, says the Lord, Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.
So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm.
Who knows if He will turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him-- A grain offering and a drink offering For the Lord your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly;
Gather the people, Sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and nursing babes; Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, And the bride from her dressing room.
Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, Weep between the porch and the altar; Let them say, "Spare Your people, O Lord, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?' "
Then the Lord will be zealous for His land, And pity His people.
The Lord will answer and say to His people, "Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and oil, And you will be satisfied by them; I will no longer make you a reproach among the nations.
But I will remove far from you the northern army, And will drive him away into a barren and desolate land, With his face toward the eastern sea And his back toward the western sea; His stench will come up, And his foul odor will rise, Because he has done monstrous things.
Fear not, O land; Be glad and rejoice, For the Lord has done marvelous things!
Do not be afraid, you beasts of the field; For the open pastures are springing up, And the tree bears its fruit; The fig tree and the vine yield their strength.
Be glad then, you children of Zion, And rejoice in the Lord your God; For He has given you the former rain faithfully, And He will cause the rain to come down for you-- The former rain, And the latter rain in the first month.
The threshing floors shall be full of wheat, And the vats shall overflow with new wine and oil.
So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, The crawling locust, The consuming locust, And the chewing locust, My great army which I sent among you. 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 be put to shame. Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: I am the Lord your God And there is no other. My people shall never be put to shame. And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions.
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 be put to shame.

The Sermon:

Obviously today’s reading has a strong connection to the Lenten season. It’s no coincidence that the music switches to Lenten tones, the readings change to the Old Testament, and the first line we read is “Even now repents and turn to the Lord… rending your heart and not your garments.”

This is an obvious reading of what would be important to say given the liturgical sensibilities of today, but perhaps Joel has something else to tell us. For this other point I ask you to turn your attention to the next to last verse:

“I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.”

This verse is interesting on a number of levels, but perhaps the most interesting of all is the way the prophet Joel attributes to God a great deal of pride in summoning a swarm of locusts against the land of his people.

Now a swarm of locusts is no special thing. It’s a harsh thing, but also a natural phenomenon. It’s just bad luck. The crops were planted, and now the land is getting hit. Didn’t have to – the locusts, scientifically speaking, could just as easily have slammed down on the Hittites or the Babylonians, but they picked a name out of a hat and hit Israel.

But Joel doesn’t see it that way. Joel sees an intention behind this seemingly normal phenomenon, he sees the pedagogical action of God. Joel has made a conscious choice to see God in the locusts where others see only a natural disaster; Joel is telling us one main thing: God is there in the pain and the mundane of our lives.

Joel’s perspective is the major difference between the prophets and the people they preach to. Prophets can see, in the calamity and hardship of life, God’s intention. The prophet doesn’t necessarily see anything new or unusual, but they see the spiritual side of the same events. Take Jeremiah. It didn’t take any brains to know that the Babylonians were coming and that they were a formidable threat to the existence of Israel. Nobody would have argued that point with him, but only Jeremiah saw the coming of the Babylonians as a call to return to God through repentance.

And let’s be fair, it’s not a natural reaction. Normally the response to a strong army coming against us is not to repent before God, but rather to go and have the king raise a levy to defend the walls. That’s what we’d rather do! But Jeremiah says no, God will deal with the Babylonians. God will deal with the locusts. In any pain they cause us God is still in control, but we must set ourselves right before God.

This sort of mindset is a natural extension of the conviction that all things are done by God to our salvation, if we’re willing to see God’s providence and power acting through those events.

Ultimately the choice to see this other dimension… the spiritual dimension… in the pain and mundane of our lives will determine whether we rend our hearts or our garments in response.

Rending of garments is an act of anger and sorrow in the Jewish tradition. It’s done especially at funerals to this day. But the rending of the garments is an earthly anger. It’s a wailing and sorrow based on misfortune in the material world. You can see why an attacking army or a locust swarm might cause us to rip our garments.

Rending of the heart is the result of seeing God in our pain. Repentance is what we do when our ultimate goal is to channel our pain towards focusing ever more on God.

This same pattern of thinking continues into the New Testament. When Peter, having just confessed Christ, gets in the way of his cross, he is called Satan. What he’s wanting has the will of Satan behind it, and so for all practical purposes he has become Satan. He has “imaged” Satan, and become his icon.

Take also the group of pilgrims who would become martyrs who wrote of the Roman soldiers ambushing them in the mountains that “the Evil One came upon us.” But it wasn’t the evil one right? It was a troupe of soliders… and yet the martyrs insisted that it was something else as well. It was a test. God had allowed Satan to test their faith with martyrdom. Their capture enabled a witness to the faith.

This ability to discern God in the pain and mundane of life is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to those we minister to and travel with. Christian faith is all about seeing God in the pain and mundane of our lives and the lives of those around us. It’s what allows us to transform the terrible fates that come on all of us from time to time into truly salvific occasions. The Christian faith does not ask us to change what we see, but it does ask us to look at what we see differently.

So now we return to the immediate task before us. This coming Lent we will be asked to fast, to attend more and longer church services, and to keep a “quieter, more somber” demeanor in general. If we choose to see these facts for what they are – bad food, hurt feet, sore voices, and less happiness – then we’re going to resent them. They’ll be nothing more than a collection of annoyances. And in frustration out response will be to rend our garments.

But if we see them as acute pains that are leading us gradually closer and closer to God’s Kingdom, then they can be transformed into saving actions. If we see them as actions of God in the world for our salvation, then they become for us a call to repentance – a chance to rend our heart and focus more clearly on God.

The ability or inability to see God’s action in the pain and mundane of life will always be the primary line of demarcation between a person of faith and a person of the world. Should God be left out of our understanding in any event of our lives, then the garments will be rent and tears of sorry and pity will be said, lamenting our poor fortune. But if we choose to see God in the pain and mundane of life, then the most tragic circumstances, yes even death can be unto our salvation, just as His death was once unto the salvation of us all. The Trumpet still blows in Zion, and we must make our choice: To see or not to see, and so to rend our garments, or our hearts.



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