A Sermon on Joel 2:12-13, 28-29 preached on the 2nd Sunday in Advent, December 6, 2020 at United Reformed Church of Clifton
Usually we think of the time before Christmas as a time of joy and delight. For me this is a time of mystery and wonder. I listen to wonderful Christmas music that fills with me with memories from my child and opens my heart to the beauty of Jesus.
So at first glance our scripture lesson seems to be a bit of downer. Why are we talking about fasting, weeping and mourning? What has that to do with the coming of Christ.
And yet whether you realize or not Advent has always been a season of repentance. In church tradition the color purple is the color of repentance. The purple vestments I am wearing, the purple coverings on the communion table, the purple hangings on the pulpit and even the purple candles in the advent wreath all remind us of our need to repent in preparation for the coming of the Lord. So in our scripture lesson this morning, Joel invites us to do two things.
- To return to the Lord,
- To claim our hope
First of all Joel invites us to return to the Lord.
No one knows exactly when Joel wrote his prophesy. Most prophetic books will mention a king or some other historical event that allows us to date their books. For example, Isaiah mentions King Uzziah and Jeremiah mentions King Jehoiakim so that we can date their prophecies to within 5 or 10 years. But there are no historical references to kings or international events in the book of Joel. So some scholars think that the book was written about 600 BC before exile and other scholars think it was written about 500 BC after the return from the exile.
The only thing that we know for sure is that it is written in response to an ecological disaster. When Joel wrote a plague of locusts was devastating the land. In Chapter 1 we read
What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
The fields are devastated,
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.
Surely, joy withers away
among the people. (Joel 1:4, 10, & 12)
Joel wrote his prophecy at a time of unprecedented ecological disaster, something that we can resonate with in this year 2020. Not only have we faced the novel corona virus that has killed over 275,000 Americans, but we also have had a record number of 30 hurricanes, including one that devastated Bluefields, Nicaragua, where we support Dr. Bernadeth Kelly Bent and her husband as they minister to the Mosquito Indians.
Interestingly this has also been a record year for locust swarms in the Horn of Africa. An article I found on the internet says this,
Ravenous locust swarm clouds more than three times the size of New York City descended in northeast Kenya, which is battling its worst infestation in 70 years. In the Wachile region of Ethiopia, locust swarms forced more than 15,000 people to evacuate their homes in May. This in a time, where COVID-19 already puts pressure on food systems in countries where economies are highly dependent on agriculture. Without immediate action, in East Africa 4.9 million people could face starvation.
In light of all this, Joel’s words seem particularly relevant to our situation at the end of the year 2020.
So what is God asking us to do today. The answer is found in verse 12: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Notice that the word “with” is repeated four times. The first “with” gives us our goal: to return to the Lord with all our hearts. The next three “withs” outline some practical steps we can take as we seek to return
First, we are to return with fasting. Fasting involves giving up something so that we can make more room for God in our lives. The past nine months as we have socially isolated we have been in a sort of involuntary fast. Our normal routines have been interrupted as we stay home and wear masks. By now it is beginning to rankle and we are tempted to give up all the good things we have done. But perhaps we can use this time prune our lives of all that is extraneous and unnecessary. Perhaps every time we put our masks on we can say a short prayer, focusing our thoughts on the Lord, praying for those who are sick, asking God to bless and protect us, asking him to draw us closer to himself. Will we see this time of social isolation as only a burden or will we use it to learn to depend more and more on the Lord?
Second we are to return with weeping. It seems that the dominant emotions in our country today, are anger, outrage and scorn. Everyone on both the right and the left are looking for reasons to be angry and to take offense. As a result, we are tearing our families, our communities and our nation apart. Perhaps instead of heaping scorn on our perceived enemies we need to cry over our own shortcomings. Perhaps we need to share tears with those we can’t stand. While anger hardens the heart, weeping softens it and makes us vulnerable. Perhaps if we can learn to embrace each other with tears, we will begin the process of healing.
Third, we are to return with mourning. We have much to mourn at the end of 2020: the deaths of so many around the world, children and teachers whose lives have been turned upside down, small businesses that have gone out of business, families who have lost jobs and are scraping to make ends meet, an increased incidence of substance abuse, suicide and domestic violence. It is our mourning that focusses our prayers and makes us turn to God for hope.
Both Advent and the Pandemic are seasons for us to repent and to turn to the Lord. David Guzik, says, “We don’t repent with the idea ‘God is so mean that if I don’t return to Him, He will destroy me.’ Instead the idea is “God is so gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness that He will spare me from what I deserve if I turn back to Him.‘ Ultimately, it is His goodness that leads us to repentance.” (David Guzik, The Enduring Word, Commentary on Joel 2, https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/joel-2/)
But repentance is only a waystation on the road to hope. The days before Christmas are always the darkest time of the year. During this time the days grow darker and the nights grow longer. During this Advent pandemic the days seem particular dark and with the resurgence they are threatening to get darker. But God still offers hope, but it is more than just a “new normal” it is promise of life lived in the Spirit and presence of God. In Joel 2:28-29 we read
28 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.
At the end of the service today we are going to sing “O Holy Night.” I chose this hymn because in this dark time we need to be reminded of our hope.
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
It is this thrill of hope that can sustain us in the dark days of pandemic and Advent. With the coming of Jesus God’s spirit has been poured out on all flesh and it opens the way for old folks to dream dreams, and young people to see visions.