December 3, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, December 4, 2016. From our Advent series at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA, “The King is Coming.”
Scriptures for this week are Joel 2.12-13, 28-29.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
An army of locusts
Once Jesus healed a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. After the healing, he told the man: Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you (John 5.14).
That idea—stop sinning or something worse may happen—is the gist of much of the book of Joel. At least the first couple of chapters. Jesus didn’t say what sin the man had committed and needed to stop. Neither does Joel call his people out for any specific sins.
For Joel, the evidence of sin among the people of God is all around them. The book of Joel begins with the prophet’s breathless call:
pay attention, everyone in the land!
Has anything like this ever happened in your days,
or in the days of your ancestors? (Joel 1.2)
What had happened was that an army of locusts—hyper-aggressive grasshoppers—had invaded Judah. Wave after wave of the devouring insects had stormed the land, in military formation, ravaging all that season’s crops. Surveying the carnage, Joel cries out in shock:
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 devouring locust has eaten. (Joel 1.4)
The last time a plague of locusts had decimated a nation so totally, it was Egypt just before the Exodus. In those days, nothing green was left in any orchard or in any grain field in the whole land of Egypt (Exod. 10.15). That was one of God’s judgments against Egypt for brutally enslaving his people—Joel’s ancestors. Now a plague of locusts has left Judah as desolate as Egypt had been. What had God’s people done to call down this judgment on themselves?
Joel doesn’t say. Maybe he doesn’t even quite know. But Joel did know that long ago, on the outskirts of the promised land, Moses had warned their ancestors: if you don’t obey the Lord your God’s voice … [y]ou might scatter a lot of seed on the field, but you will gather almost nothing because the locusts will eat it all (Deut. 28.15, 38). Well, that’s exactly what just happened. So maybe Joel was just connecting the dots. Since locusts had eaten all the crops, the people must have sinned somehow.
And just like Egypt still had to undergo more gruesome plagues after the locust army invasion mowed down their crops, Joel could only see more horrors on the horizon for his people. More judgment was surely to come.
What a terrible day! Joel groans. The day of the Lord is near; it comes like chaos from the Almighty (Joel 1.15).
The day of the Lord
For Joel, the fields and vineyards lying in ruins after the locust armies had burned through them is just a harbinger of things to come. Joel sees an awful and awesome event on the horizon, which he calls the day of the Lord. What is this terrible and terrifying day?
For one thing, when the Bible speaks of a day, it doesn’t always mean a literal, twenty-four-hour period of time. The Hebrew word for day—yom—can mean a literal day. But it can also refer to an undetermined amount of time. Much like your grandfather might say, Well, back in my day … He doesn’t mean just one day. He’s talking about years or even decades of time. The Bible often means the same thing when it talks about a day. It’s talking about a critical time period: a time of crisis and big changes. A Big Event. So the day of the Lord isn’t necessarily just one day that’s coming. It refers to a time when God comes to shake things up in some powerful way.
In the days of the prophets, many of God’s people were longing for the day of the Lord. They believed that God would sweep in, destroy all their enemies, and make his people win until they were sick of winning so much! Not so fast!, the prophets warn. When God comes to shake things up, do you think you will be able to stand?
That’s exactly what the prophet Amos told the people: Doom to those who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light (Amos 5.18). The prophet Isaiah told the people to: Wail, for the day of the Lord is near. Like destruction from the Almighty it will come (Isa. 13.6). And later, the prophet Malachi would ask: Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance? (Mal. 3.2). The point: God’s people often assumed that the day of the Lord was a time when they would be vindicated, and their enemies destroyed. But the prophets reminded them: You better pray the day of the Lord doesn’t come—it’s coming for us, too! We’re part of the problem
For Joel, the recent locust plague was just the beginning. They had come in like an army pursuing a scorched earth policy. Joel foresaw real armies—or maybe even the armies of heaven itself—coming to finish the job the locusts began. That was Joel’s vision of the day of the Lord.
Land ahead of them is like Eden’s garden, the prophet says. But they leave behind them a barren wasteland; nothing escapes them.
The sun and the moon are darkened;
the stars have stopped shining,
because the Lord utters his voice
at the head of his army.
How numerous are his troops!
Mighty are those who obey his word.
The day of the Lord is great;
it stirs up great fear—who can endure it? (Joel 2.3, 10-11)
But Joel doesn’t believe this day of the Lord is inevitable. There was still time for Pharaoh to repent when God sent the locust plague on Egypt. So there might still be time for Judah to stop sinning before something worse happened to them.
Yet even now …
The prophet Joel’s voice rings out across the naked fields and the vineyards stripped bare to tell his people the good news: It doesn’t have to be this way!
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your hearts,
with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow;
tear your hearts
and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
very patient, full of faithful love,
and ready to forgive.
That was one of our readings today. But I want to fill the reading out a little. Joel goes on to describe what God might do if the people repent.
Who knows whether he will have a change of heart
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord your God?
The verb in this passage for the people returning to God is shub. It means to turn around and come back. It’s one of the common words for repentance in the Hebrew Bible. Well, when Joel says God might have a change of heart, he uses the same verb: shub. The letter of James expresses the prophet Joel’s hope for his people: Come near to God, and he will come near to you (James 4.8).
Joel’s hope is that if his people come near to God even now—after the locusts have destroyed the crops and the vineyards—God will bless them with enough to give him a grain offering and a drink offering. Now, obviously a grain offering required grain; and a drink offering required wine. But the locusts had destroyed all that. So Joel suggests that not only will the day of the Lord not come on them if they repent; he gives them hope that God will even restore what the locusts took from them.
The basis of Joel’s hope is the basis of all hope. Joel has hope for his people and their future because God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive. God’s not just that way occasionally, either. That’s who God always is.
Maybe that’s confusing to some of you. After all, wasn’t Joel just warning about the day of the Lord? Wasn’t God just threatening to utterly wreck his people in his wrath?
That’s one way to read the story, but it’s the wrong way. God is full of mercy and compassion. He is long-suffering and forgiving. His love is unbreakable. That’s what he told Moses back in Exodus 34. And because God made our world, mercy, compassion, patience, unbreakable love, and forgiveness are in the grain of the universe. Sin is when we stop behaving like God. When we are cruel and lack empathy; when we aren’t patient or forgiving; when we don’t love God or each other. But that’s how God designed us to live; that’s how God has designed his universe. So when we sin, we go against the grain of the universe. And we get the splinters. The day of the Lord Joel saw on the horizon was his people catching the splinters.
But Joel and the other prophets didn’t preach to threaten their people. They wanted the people to know they had a choice. They could stop going against the grain of the universe, and stop getting the splinters. The message of God’s prophet’s has always been: Come near to God, and he will come near to you.
And that invitation is evergreen in every generation. Even now.
I will pour out my Spirit on everyone
Well, wouldn’t you know it—the people drew near to God, and God drew near to them. Joel moves from lament and terror to celebrating a renewing word from God. Through his prophet, God promises that:
The threshing floors will be full of grain;
the vats will overflow with new wine and fresh oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the cutting locust,
the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust have eaten (Joel 2.24-25).
And that’s not all God has to say. God speaks a new hope to his people. He tells of a day they can long for—a coming day of blessing, not terror. He doesn’t say when exactly, but God promises:
After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions.
In those days, I will also pour out my
spirit on the male and female slaves.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God had promised his people that after their exile in Babylon was complete: I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws (Ezek. 36.27). But the promise he makes through Joel is even more spectacular. The promise of the Spirit’s presence in Ezekiel is limited to God’s people, the remnant of Israel. But through Joel, God promises to pour out his Spirit—like a drink-offering on the altar—upon everyone.
And when God says everyone, he means it. The Hebrew phrase is all flesh. White flesh, black flesh, every shade of flesh in between. Man flesh, woman flesh. Old flesh, young flesh. Rich flesh, poor flesh. Slave flesh and free flesh. And yes, even Israelite flesh and Gentile flesh. We know this because only the poorest Israelites—those who had to sell themselves because they’d lost everything—and Gentiles could be slaves according to the Torah.
That means a day is coming where God makes everything right, and gives everyone equal access to God. Because if God’s Spirit is poured out on all races, all nations, male and female, slave and free, from the oldest to the youngest, from the richest to the poorest, that means all have direct access to God. It’s not just for kings, priests, select prophets, or ethnic Israelites. God promised that all flesh—everyone—will have access to God’s life-giving, enlightening, empowering Spirit.
According to Acts 2, the promise began to be fulfilled at Pentecost, when Peter and the other apostles began to preach to Jews from all over the world in their native language. The Good News about Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, God’s anointed king. Peter quoted this prophecy from Joel from our readings today to explain what was happening. And he added: This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites (Acts 2.39). All who are far away meant Jews who weren’t there that day; and it also meant people from every nation. And the promise was this: Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.38).
The promise was the gift of God’s Spirit, even for those far away who responded to God’s call. When they drew near to God, God drew near to them.
Hope is born in the darkness
Joel began his prophecy by warning about a coming day of the Lord. A time when God would come and shake things up. It was an event that terrified the prophet and his people. But what began with desolation and fear, ended in hope.
In the same way, at Advent we remember what it was like when God finally came to shake things up. God didn’t come with a heavenly army of destroying angels; God didn’t come with an earthly army to make war on the nations; God didn’t even come with an army of locusts. God came as a vulnerable infant, born to poor parents. When God came in the flesh, he didn’t even have a bed to sleep in—his parents had to lay their firstborn son in a feeding trough. Nobody but a handful of shepherds working the graveyard shift knew anything about it. How could anyone have known that this is how God planned to come and shake up everything? The hope of all flesh, and all creation, lay swaddled in a manger. Unable to walk or talk or even control his own bowels.
But hope is what this newborn king—Jesus, God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah—brought to all flesh and all creation. It was Jesus, in his life, his death, his resurrection, and his glorification with Father God who tore open a vein in the skin of the universe, so that God’s Spirit could be poured out on all flesh.
During Advent, we remember that God’s hope comes to us in the darkness, in unexpected and inexplicable places. Mangers and crosses and empty tombs. That’s what we heard in our readings in Joel today, too. There we heard the prophet’s voice crying out from the naked fields and ruined vineyards, telling his people to hope again in God, who is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive. And we hear God answer back, promising not only to restore to his people what the locusts had taken; but to restore to all peoples what sin, and death, and the satan had taken: intimate communion with God and each other.
Maybe it’s for the best that Joel never mentioned what sin lay behind the locust invasion and the coming day of the Lord he foresaw. After all, each generation has some Big Event, some crisis, calling God’s people to turn away from what seems important to them, and put our hope in God’s unbreakable love. When God calls to each of us, in our own place and time: Yet even now, return to me with all your heart … tear your heart and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God. Maybe you look around now and see the destruction, desolation, and emptiness in our time. Maybe you look inside, and find it dwelling in your own heart. If so, this time of Advent reminds us that God comes to shake things up in the most unexpected events, working through the least likely people. From places like the naked fields of Joel’s day; Jesus’ manger crib in the middle of the night; and his empty tomb that first Easter, God’s hope is born in us. And through us, in the world.
And it is God’s hope, constantly born anew among us, that will sustain us until King Jesus returns to shake things up once and for all, and make all things new.