Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Hope of the Messiah - Return, Rend, Restoration

Our text this morning comes from the prophet Joel. As you hear the reading, it may seem odd to hear these words during the Advent season. We more typically hear the first part of our reading on Ash Wednesday. And the second part on Pentecost Sunday. 

Our reading this morning is from Joel, chapter 2.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
    rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing.
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.
Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit. --Joel 2:12-13, 28-29 (NRSV)

The first chapter of Joel, preceding today’s lesson, opens with a lament. It describes a country overrun by a horrible infestation of locusts. The swarm has completely devastated the countryside, leaving it in ruins. The situation is dire. Not only is there environmental calamity and devastation, but the people are experiencing famine and starvation. There is no food. Not even enough to offer a sacrifice to God. There is nothing with which to worship.

Then, in the second chapter, the prophet Joel switches the metaphor. To an invading army that in the same way as the locusts that preceded it. These images of invasion and destruction are a familiar story for the readers of Joel. The people of Israel have lived this story over and over again. It goes like this…

In Genesis, God promised Abraham and his descendants that they would inhabit this land called Canaan. Canaan is sandwiched between the vast Mediterranean Ocean to the west and the desolate desert to the East. After years of being enslaved by Egypt, God frees Israel and makes a covenant with them in Exodus. Here, God promises to be with them. And that they will become a holy nation. A royal priesthood.

God gives them instructions to build a tabernacle that will represent the Garden of Eden and God’s relationship with all humanity. King Solomon will eventually build a beautiful and magnificent temple to replace the Tabernacle and will establish it in the city of Jerusalem. This temple was to remind the people that the Spirit of God filled their covenant with God. That they planted like a vineyard so that the world could taste the love of God. Through them. 

This relationship with God was to be the source of the rivers of life for all nations, for all humanity.

Things went fairly well, at first. Under King David, the twelve tribes of Israel were united into one kingdom. But, then, King Solomon built the temple. And he did it by over-taxing the people and by using slave labor. The kingdom was torn apart. A civil war led to two separate nations: Israel in the north. And Judah in the south. 

Immediately, Israel repeated the story of the Golden Calf from Exodus and established two golden calves to replace the temple. Judah wasn’t much better. The majority of her kings led like tyrants: oppressing the people, driven by greed, gluttony, and violence. They brought the gods of Canaan into the very temple itself. 

Eventually a series of invading armies destroyed the nation. The people of Israel, in the north were completely destroyed by Assyria. The people of Judah, in the south, were carried into captivity by the Babylonians. Solomon’s beautiful temple lay in ruins.  The people lived in exile - torn apart from their land, their communities, from the temple - the center of their worship, and from everything they knew. 

Yes, the readers of Joel knew the story of the invading locusts all too well.

Things were bad. Devastated. Left in ruin. The people far away. And yet...

...even now…Even in the midst of all of the betrayal and corruption, God stands ready to receive them. Return to me with all your heart, God says through the prophet. Return to me with fasting, with weeping, with mourning. Rend your heart and not your clothing.

You see, the traditional symbol of mourning in Israel and even today was to tear one’s robe open or to rip one’s clothing. Like wearing black to a funeral or having ashes smeared on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. These outward symbols are good. But, they can become meaningless acts. What matters most to God is not the outward ritual - the ways or the places in which we worship. What matters most to God is our hearts. What God desires is hearts that are rendered. That are broken wide open in all honesty. In all of our anguish and grief. Hearts torn open, revealing the pain, the sorrow, the regret, the shame that each one of us carries deep inside. To rend our hearts is to break them wide open and pour everything out to God. 

To God. Who is gracious. Merciful. Slow to anger. Abounding in steadfast love. A god who relents from punishing. A God who is good. Who desires to be the center for us. To be the source of our well-being, our shalom.

This verse in Joel is a quote from Exodus 34. It’s one of the most repeated verses in the Bible. It’s the way in the Exodus story that God describes God’s very self to the people who have just betrayed the covenant at Sinai. God is not some cruel tyrant who wants oppressed servants to obey his every whim. God is a loving parent - father and mother - who longs to be in relationship with God’s children. Who longs to see God’s children thrive in God’s beautiful garden, created just for them.

When we allow our hearts to be opened by the Spirit and allow ourselves to be turned back to the grace, mercy, and loyal, never-ending love of God, our hearts, broken and hurt as they may be, connect with God’s heart. And, then, the love begins to flow...

...the Spirit of the LORD flows freely through our lives. Flowing through everybody, not just the elite or the chosen. But, through all flesh. Anyone who’s heart resonates with the heart of God - the heart of love - can flow in the spirit of God.

The readers of Joel longed for the day when the Messiah would come to restore the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. We, on this side of the Advent, know that this Messiah is Jesus. This is what Peter proclaimed in Acts 2. That Jesus was God in the flesh. That Jesus was the picture of what it looks like when humanity fully resonates with the heart of God. 

Jesus. Who spoke truth to power. Who called out corruption and the abuse of the weak. Who touched the poor, the sick, the exiled. And who reconciled all things with his own self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Who inaugurated God’s kingdom here on earth. Who promises restoration that begins with the rebuilding of the natural world, which is where the story of creation first began - restoration and re-creation. 

And then the outpouring of the spirit and the embracing of all nations. All humanity. Living in abundance and well-being, with silos full of grain and no worries for anyone about where their next meal will come from. This was what the people of Joel’s day dreamed of. This is the unfolding vision in which we live, in this post-Advent world even in the midst of what may seem to be the darkness of the present time. So, come, people of God. Turn back to God. Here. In this place. In this time. Break open your whole heart. Pour out all the anguish, all of the sorrow, all of the confusion, all of the anger that has characterized our world and our lives in this time. Your lament is welcome before God, who is waiting there for you with a promise of new things and new possibilities. That there will be a future. And a future future. And, when you do, know that the Spirit will not be withheld from your broken heart. She will bind up your wounds, replace your doom with visions of what can be, and help us hear each other into being and into continuing to do the work of God in building up the kingdom of God here on earth. This is God’s promise in Joel. A promise for you and me. A promise for everyone. Amen.

Preached online Sunday, December 6, 2020 with Grace & Glory/Third Lutheran churches.
Advent 2
Readings: Joel 2:12-13, 28-29; Luke 11:13

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