Monday, January 23, 2017

Joel: Inward or Outward

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Joel 1:1, 2:1-18:

When we were living in Melrose, NM, which is a small farming community in the eastern part of the state, they were dealing with a significant drought. Most of them were dryland farmers, which meant they depended upon rain to water the crops. In our two years there, the only people who brought in a harvest, in two years, were those who had irrigation, which were all people who grew corn. All the wheat farmers simply watched their crops wither and die every season. And because there were no crops to hold down the top soil, it began to blow away. There was nothing you could do to keep the sand and dust out of the house. As soon as you vacuumed it up, there would be a new coating over everything within a few days.  In our last spring there, we had a massive windstorm come through that just blackened and sky and had the old timers talking about it being just like the dust bowl, especially the storm that hit on Palm Sunday 1935 that is now known as Black Sunday.  The dirt and sand covered and coated everything and was beginning to bury fence lines, and in some cases starting to cover abandoned and collapses houses. Where do you find hope in a situation like that, when everything you need to survive depends on the crop coming in, and you haven’t had one what do you do? That is the image, and the experience, that came to my mind as I thought about the prophet Joel and the imagery he uses of destruction in a plague of locusts which eat and destroy everything, and then are followed by a drought that destroys everything that might have remained. Where is hope in that moment? Where is God in that moment? What are we called to do in that moment? Are we responsible for the drought? Has it been brought on by God because of our sin?

Like with Hosea last week, and really most of the minor prophets, we know very little about the prophet Joel. We are told in the first line that he is the son of Pethuel, which means nothing to us because we don’t know who he is. Obviously to those who first recorded this, his name had to have had some significance. Joel’s name, is really ya-el, which means “The Lord is God”, ya being an abbreviation for Yahweh and el meaning God. What is striking, especially when compared against the other prophets, is that there is not a list of names of kings at the beginning of his prophetic career, nor is there a single name of a king mentioned anywhere in Joel’s prophetic writings.  That makes dating the book very difficult, and so possible dates range from the 9th century to the 4th century BCE. Most scholars date it from the end of the 6th century to the beginning of the 5th, that’s still like a 150 year period. None of the reasons for this dating are incontrovertible, but they include the fact that no kings are named, which since there are no kings after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 and the beginning of the exile, this would make sense. In addition, there is an emphasis on priests and elders and the centrality of the Temple, which could mean Joel is just ignoring the kings, or again that it takes place after the return from exile, and the rebuilding of the temple, along with the wall around Jerusalem, which is also presupposed in this writing. But probably the best argument for this dating is Joel’s use of other prophets, most importantly Obadiah, whose prophetic career takes place in the 5th century. But, ultimately, the dating of Joel doesn’t have any impact on its interpretation, because unlike the other prophets, while there is a call to repentance for where the people have gone astray, there is no specific sin or transgression that is ever addressed.

What Joel gives us is a general call to repentance and an announcement about the coming of the Day of the Lord. It was thought in earlier times that this would be a time of celebration, but what Joel makes clear, as do other prophets, and even the NT writers, is that this will be a day of judgment, a day which may be good for some but will be bad for others, and we don’t know who that will be, and so Joel’s call to repentance is rooted in that unknowing, which is why Joel asks “Who can endure it?” This is not a question that we are supposed to quickly answer, either saying no, I can’t endure, or yes, I can, but instead to truly pause and reflect it. This is indicated in the text not only because there is a break as this line represents the end of a stanza, but it also ends image of destruction that Joel has presented before moving on to the call to return to God.

There are two calls to blow the horn in the passage we heard this morning. This horn is a ram’s horn and there were two reasons for it to be blown. One was as a call to war, or a warning that war was about to begin, and the second was as a call to worship, and in particular a call to prayer, fasting and mourning during a time of war, famine or pestilence. We have both instances being uttered here. The first is a call to the destruction that has come in the midst of a plague of locusts, which is also talked about in chapter 1, who are like a great army. There are some who believe that Joel is referring to an actual army invasion of Judah here, but he refers to the attackers as having “the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge.” That is, they are not actual war-horses but look like it. These are locusts that are eating and destroying everything, and for me I can’t help but think of this imagery applying not just to the actual locusts and the drought that followed that destroyed everything, but also about the times in our lives when everything seemed to be destroyed. I thought about that in remembering Carla Zabalza’s statement while she sat at her son’s bed in ICU fearing for his life, that her hear was broken into a million pieces. And I think of the others who have lost a child and had everything destroyed, or the death of a loved, or any of the other things that can happen in life that leave us feeling as if the day is dark and bleak and everything has been stripped of life and there seems to be no way we can escape and no way for a future to be seen. These locusts are not just the ones that destroy crops, but they are also the metaphorical things that can destroy our lives.

Now what Joel and the other prophets will say is that these things happen because God causes them to happen, and that God causes them to happen because of the sins we have committed. But that’s a belief that I reject. It might be scriptural, or prophetic, but I can’t accept it, because that is not the God I worship, nor the image of God I find in other scripture. When asked whether a boy who was born blind had the affliction because of his own sins, or the sins of his parents, what does Jesus say? It’s neither of those two. As someone said, we don’t need God to bring destruction, we do that just fine all by ourselves. The sins of the father are not passed onto the sons and daughters, except that in some ways they are, because while there is clearly an individual call to repentance in Joel, as in the other prophets, there is also a communal call to repentance.

That is the other trumpet blast that goes out across the land, a time to gather for fasting, weeping and mourning, a time to make a public profession and recognition of the ways that the society had gone wrong. These communal acts of repentance including the tearing of clothing, prostrating yourself on the ground and covering your head in ashes, which is where we get Ash Wednesday from, and a portion of Joel is read on Ash Wednesday. These acts represented a recognition that there are communal or societal sins that take place, things for which we are responsible, even if we didn’t actually do them, or even put them in place, but for which we allow to continue. So, for example, as a society, as a culture we are still paying for the price sin of slavery in many, many ways, a sin for which we are a country have never truly repented. I don’t know how President Trump intended the phrase “America First” in his address on Friday, but that phrase comes loaded with anti-Semitic and racist undertones, the sins of the fathers, and mothers, that continue through to today. How do we atone for these sins? How do we atone for things we don’t even think we are responsible for but yet still continue? The first step is to recognize that they are there, to name them and then to decide to do something about them, and not to simply say “they should just get over it.”

I want everyone to raise your right hand. Now raise it even higher. Now raise it as high as you can. Now the question is, why didn’t you raise it that high when I first asked?  Why didn’t you raise your hand that high the second time I asked? Was your hand fighting you? You wanted to go higher, but your hand wouldn’t let you? Why were you holding back from giving everything right from the start? Perhaps worried about what might come next, as if I would call on the person who had raised their hand the highest to come up here and finish this message? Why do we have to be told to give more? Why don’t we give everything we have right at the start? But the flip side of that is maybe we were giving everything, we were totally committed, but our exterior action did not match our inward reality. Now everyone starts shaking their heads, “yea, that we me, that’s what happened.” The truth is our inward and outward actions don’t always match each other. Usually they do, but not always. I’m sure you’ve known people, I certainly have, who put on an outward veneer of religiosity, but you knew that behind the veil there was something totally different going on, that they were not the person they claimed to be. Or the person who puts out the totally gruff exterior, who makes everyone think they’re a grizzly bear, but underneath is really a teddy bear.

God tell us, through Joel, to return to God with all our heart and to rend our hearts not our clothing. That is, God is not impressed with outward shows of emotion or religiosity or worship, or anything else, unless it is accompanied by an inward change, a change of heart. Now in Hebrew, the heart symbolizes what we would attribute to the mind today, it was the seat of our will and intellect. It was the core of our being. That’s why Jesus says that what we put into our mouth does not defile us, “but what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15:18-19) Our heart reveals who we truly are, and while we can try and mask it through other behaviors and seek to do the right thing, our heart is at the heart of the matter for God. God does not want outward obedience, but inward disobedience, but an inward change, by giving our hearts, rending our hearts to God. Unless we have turned our hearts over to God nothing else matters, and this is not an idea unique to Joel, but is found throughout the prophetic literature, with Jeremiah saying to circumcise your heart, but don’t cut off too much, Ezekiel says that God will give us a new heart, and in Psalm 51 we hear that “God desires truth in the inward being… a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” A broken a contrite heart, a heart given freely and faithfully, a heart given entirely over to God so that our outward actions mirror our inward thoughts and beliefs.

When we have a mask that we wear to cover our heart, who we are, then not only are we not being authentic to the world, but we are not being authentic to God and who we are called to be, and while we can fool others and even sometimes fool ourselves, we cannot fool God. So, God calls us to turn around, to repent, and return to God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. To turn as individuals and to turn as a community, and to have everyone participate, from infants to the elderly, even the bride and bridegroom are called to participate, as they would normally be excluded from such activity, but no one is left out. All are called to come to God, even you and me, and when it happens, God receives us hope. In the NRSV we heard today it has the last line, verse 18, saying that God had pity on his people, past tense. But the NIV translates the word as saying God will have pity on the people, future tense. I think it is both. God has loved God’s people in the past, God loves us in the present, and God will still love us in the future, and what God asks in return is that we give to God our hearts, all of our hearts, to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. To seek forgiveness for ourselves for where we have gone astray and to seek forgiveness for our society for where we have gone astray, but not merely to act it out, but to actually do something about because when we have turned our heart over to God the actions will follow. As Paul says in his letter to the Philippians: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” The day of the Lord is coming, who can endure it? Those who call on God, those who have rendered their hearts, turned their hearts over to God, those for whom God is already at work in their lives. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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