Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
(sermon note: 12-06 sermon note)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/x6ENslSlkOc)
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.
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.
Our reading for this morning reminds me of the one about a man who really hated his wife’s cat. So one day, he put the cat in his car and took it to the end of the block and let it go thinking it would find a home elsewhere. When he got home, the man saw that the cat had beat him home and was waiting on the front step. Undeterred, the man put the cat in the car and took it a few miles across the city and tossed it out the car again. Upon returning home, he was astonished to see that the cat had somehow managed to beat him home yet again. There the cat sat with a slight grin on its face. All the more determined, the man took the cat and drove it across the city, over the river, through the woods, and clear across three counties before pushing the cat out the door and driving off. Several hours later, the man’s wife was at home when the phone rang. She picked it up and it was her husband. “Um, is the cat there?” sheepishly asked the man. “Oh sure, sitting right beside me,” she replied. “Well, put him on the phone…I’m lost.”
It’s almost funny how easy it is getting lost in life. We can just go about our day to day routine, minding our own business, when all of a sudden we look up and find that we’ve wandered way off the path. Especially if we wander down the wrong paths for too long like that foolish husband! If only he took the hint after taking the cat to the end of the block that it wasn’t going to be easily abandoned then maybe he wouldn’t have gotten himself lost in the end. It was the wrong path abandoning his wife’s cat and the man paid the price for doggedly sticking to it. But thus is life, filled with a number of right and wrong paths that each of us is blessed with opportunities to choose from in our journey through life. We can choose to go down the right paths in life or we can choose to go down the wrong paths in life. In either case, the choice is left up to us.
In our reading for today, we encounter a people that, for whatever reason, chose to go down the wrong paths in life. The people of Judah had strayed further and further away from God’s path, the right path, and desperately needed a prophet like Joel to steer them back towards the right path. Joel suggested they “fast, weep, mourn, and rend their hearts.” While the first three suggestions are fairly understandable, that last one is a little confusing. Were they to tear their hearts into two as the definition of “rend” suggests?! Surely not! No, they were to open their hearts and make them more receptive to God’s word. Fasting, weeping, and mourning produce the same results, an openness to receive God’s wisdom and grace. The people of Judah needed to be told to open themselves to God. God will lead them along the right path! God’s word IS the right path! Simply open yourself to it, listen to it, follow it!
Easier said than done, right? Yes, unfortunately we are both blessed and cursed with that “gift” to choose between the right and wrong paths of life. After all, the right paths are often the harder paths to follow and the wrong paths are just so darn tempting. They offer quick pleasures, immediate satisfaction, with little to no sacrifice. The right paths rarely offer quick pleasures and immediate satisfaction and often demand great sacrifice. These are hard truths that the people of Judah (and us!) needed to hear.
But Joel didn’t simply leave it at that. He didn’t simply say, “Change your ways, follow God’s word, or else!” Our God is much more nuanced than that. Joel quickly follows up his call to fast, weep, mourn, and rend our hearts with a description of who our God is, the full mercy of our God. Our God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love, relents from punishing.” Friends, this is good news that can’t be overlooked! Just because we find ourselves on wrong paths in life doesn’t mean that God doesn’t eagerly and gladly welcome us on his right path. Yes, our God is both loving AND gracious, forgiving AND merciful! Our God wants to love us, wants to forgive us, wants to be gracious and merciful to us! Our God wants to relent from punishing us! We can’t forget this about our God.
Why else would the Father send the Son to us if not to bring us back to the right path?! There’s a reason why we’re lifting up Joel’s words early in our Advent journey. Jesus is God’s Word personified. Jesus comes to us as the fulfillment of God’s Word. Everything God said, everything God did, everything God is comes to us in Jesus. As the gospel of John says, “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (1:16) In just a few short weeks we will again celebrate the coming of Jesus into our fallen humanity. Our Lord comes into our dark world, shining a light like no other light…a beacon, a guide. Heaven knows our world has gotten a lot darker this year. We desperately need his light now more than ever. We cling to the hope we find in him and him alone. Jesus IS the light of the world…the one, true light of the world. His coming is the greatest gift the world has ever known.
God IS gracious and merciful. In just a few weeks, we’ll close out the year, a year that was difficult for so many people in the world. What a mess we found ourselves in, eh? Joel’s words remind us of God’s powerful grace and mercy. We need to ask for that grace and seek it out. We need to heed the wisdom of Hebrews that tells us, “let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (4:16) God will show his grace yet again in the birth of the Son. It is a grace for all of us as we hear in Titus, “for the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” (2:11) Maybe we’ve strayed along the wrong paths for too long. Maybe this year was God’s way of pulling us onto the right paths. I don’t know! But I do know that God is ultimately a good and gracious God because of words like Joel’s. I place my hope and trust in that rather than conjecture as to the why and how God interacts with the world. I encourage you to do the same. Put your trust in Jesus, follow him! Take comfort in the words of Peter’s first letter, “and after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (5:10) Just imagine how he’ll restore, support, strengthen, and establish us in the year ahead! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.