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Sermon for Advent 2, 2016

Return to Me

Joel 2:12-13 and 28-29

There are two patches in Joel's prophetic quilt.1

Scholars do not agree on the editorial history of the book of Joel. Some argue for a ninth century date, while others suggest a Persian period (500-350 BCE). The call for repentance (2:12-13) and the eschatological expectation (2:28-30) function as complementary parts. The inability to date with confidence the book of Joel in general and this passage in particular speaks to the relevance of this message throughout the history of Judah. The book seems to be a patchwork of pieces sewn together into the quilt we have today. The lectionary unit Joel 2:12-13 and 2:28-29 are two patches in the quilt.

The First Patch: A Call to Repentance

The literary context of the book indicates a certain parallelism. The opening chapter that describes the locust plague contains a call to lamentation (1:5-12). The locust and the drought set the stage for the call for repentance. Further, our passage begins with a call to repentance that offsets the call to lamentation. The more immediate literary context of our passage is the day of God's army (2:1-11) that further sets the stage for the call to repentance (2:12-13).

The language that opens verse 12 connects it strongly with what came before: "Yet even now" (NRSV) and is followed by the formula "says the LORD," which appears only here in the book of Joel that introduces the verse that follows.

The imperative "return to me" only occurs here in Hebrew. While the language of repentance is fairly ubiquitous in prophetic literature, we find no precise parallel to the expression in Joel 2:12. The imperative in Joel 2:12 is more precisely defined through the uses of three instrumental "with" phrases. The first is "with all your heart" (Deuteronomy 11:13; 13:4; Joshua 22:5; 23:14; 1 Samuel 7:3; 12:20, 24; Jeremiah 29:13; Joel 2:12), which is a Deuteronomistic phrase to describe complete devotion of will. The other instrumental clauses refer to mourning rituals of fasting, weeping, and wailing. The way the poet/prophet fuses the imperative to return and the metaphors of mourning is provocative but not definitive. We can only speculate that repentance is a type of death and has with it accompanying mourning rituals.

The mourning ritual is taken into verse thirteen: "Rend your hearts and not your clothing" (2:13 NRSV). This mourning ritual is well attested (see Genesis 37:29, 34; Numbers 14:6; 2 Samuel 3:31; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 9:3). The tearing of the clothes makes an outer expression of mourning in the face of death and disaster. On the one hand, to transplant the rending of the clothes (an outward expression) with the rending of the heart (an inward expression) the public reality is privatized. On the other hand, the public expression is here construed as more superficial and replaced with a transformation of orientation carried in the metaphor of the heart as the seat of the will.

The poet/prophet repeats the imperative in a slightly different form: "Return to the LORD your God" (2:13b). This time the imperative is set off by a description of the nature of God. The "creedal" statement finds its fullest expression in Exodus 34:6-7 and abbreviated in other passages (Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3).

The first patch charges the hearers to return to the LORD because the time is now. Further, the nature of God as gracious and merciful opens up the possibility that the repentance will be recognized. Verse 14 accents that this is only a possibility. Joel 2:12-19 is one of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday which demonstrates the church's tradition of reading this passage as a call for repentance.

Second Patch: The Age of the Spirit

Both patches begin with temporal clauses that frame the repentance and restoration. Joel 2:12-13 begins with the temporal clause "Yet even now"; likewise Joel 2:28-29 begins with a temporal clause, "then afterward." When we put these two patches together, it gives the impression that the repentance in the earlier section might give rise to the gift of the spirit in the second patch.

The first patch used the repetition on "return" language to bind the unit together. This patch uses the promise "I will pour out my spirit." The verb "pour" most often refers to water (Exodus 4:9), blood (Genesis 9:6) and other items such as the heart (Psalm 22:15; 62:9; Lamentations 2:19) or soul (1 Samuel 1:15; Job 30:16; Psalm 42:5). These latter two metaphors seem to indicate the strength and will (heart) of commitment and dependence (soul).

The spirit of God occurs elsewhere as a gift of power in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 31:2-5; Judges 6:34; Micah 3:8; Haggai 1:14). The pouring out of the Spirit of God is located at the transition in the book of Ezekiel (39:29). The power of the pouring of the spirit provides access to divine information and revelation (1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 19:20; 2 Samuel 23:2; 2 Kings 2:9). The pouring of the God's spirit provides open access to revelation.

The Age of Open Access

The empowering of divine spirit will occur "upon all flesh." The poet then explains what "all flesh" includes with a series of noun word pairs and verb synonyms. The three verbs used (prophesy, dream, and envision) have a tradition of divine revelation. The noun word pairs draw the reader into a more egalitarian world.

First, the noun pairs refer to the family household: the heirs, sons and daughters, old and young men; in other words, every generation and every gender will have divine access to divine will usually reserved only for the specialists. The poet/prophet (and later Acts 2) extends the empowering work of God's spirit beyond the heirs of the household. Even the slaves, both male and female, have divine access through the spirit.

The first patch demands repentance, mourning the transgression of the past. The second patch promises an age of popular access to divine will through the empowering of the spirit of God. When these two patches are connected, the reader moves from challenge to promise.

Joel 2:12-13, 28-29 New Revised Standard Version

12 

Yet even now, says the Lord,

    return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

13 

    rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,

    for God is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

    and relents from punishing.

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.

                            

Return to Me

You may have heard at some point a true story about Robert “Robinson, an English clergyman who lived in the 18th century. Not only was he a gifted pastor and preacher he was also a highly gifted poet and hymn writer, crafting some of our most beloved worship hymns. However, after many years in the pastorate, his faith began to drift. He left the ministry and finished up in France, indulging himself in the company of beautiful women, adult beverages and the wild nightlife of Paris.

“One night he was riding in a carriage with a Parisian socialite who had recently been converted to Christ. She was interested in his opinion on some poetry she was reading: ‘Come thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace, Streams of mercy never failing, Call for hymns of loudest praise.’

“When she looked up from her reading the socialite noticed Robinson was crying.

“‘What do I think of it?’ he asked in a broken voice. ‘I wrote it. But now I’ve drifted away from my faith and can’t find my way back.’

‘But don’t you see’ the woman said gently, ‘The way back is written right here in the third line of your poem: Streams of mercy never ceasing. Those streams are flowing even here in Paris tonight.’

That night Robinson recommitted his life to Christ.”

Reported in R Kilpatrick, “Assurance and Sin” in RC Sproul (editor), Doubt and Assurance (Baker, 1993)

       This is the kind of return that the prophet Joel wrote about centuries before Jesus was born. Whether for a moment or a season, we have a tendency to forget the essential and get distracted and distressed by the merely important or even insignificant.

       It’s unclear to scholars whether the verses we read from Joel were written 600 years before Jesus’ life on earth, or 900 years previously. The details of the text could place it’s origin anywhere along a fairly broad sweep of history. In this instance, it doesn’t so much matter. We have a tendency to forget about God in every era of human history. For all our gifts, our capacity for love and devotion, and our sporadic bursts of graciousness and generosity, still, we seem to have the attention span of a gnat.

       You may remember the animated feature film “Up.” One of my favorite scenes is that of a devoted dog talking with his master. I can still see the dog’s face, tongue lolling in rapt attention at his master’s every move. “You are my master and I love you. Squirrel.” We’re like that. Much of the time we notice, appreciate and are moved by God’s creative action in our lives and in the world, until we’re distracted as if a devoted dog by an irresistible squirrel.

       You’d think the creative power of the universe we call God would give up on us. But when I just finished my second dog training class with our Portuguese water dog last week, the teacher cheerfully invited us to come back. “Just when you think you’ve got this,” she said, your dog will think up some new way to get into trouble. She reminded us that even champion baseball players go to spring training. Like any coach, God, wants us to listen up, pay attention, and follow the game plan.

“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 God is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Sometimes we forget ourselves, we forget who we are. Other times, we forget God. God always remembers us, always invites us back, “Return to me with all your heart…return to the Lord, your God.”

       Someone asked me recently if there’s ever a time when I’m unsure about God, when I doubt. I know of no one, sinner or saint that does not sometime wake up in the morning and notice only their frantic hair and widening thighs, when we’re distracted by worldly concerns.

There are moments when we’re just a mess and we know it, and we’re unsure whether or not a remedy for our untidy world will present itself, or not. The God who makes all things new seems to have overlooked us, moved on to better people or greater causes. Such moments present flashes of loneliness for all of us.

       Pastor Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote about God’s promise to remember us even when we forget God to chase after our countless, distracting squirrels. He writes about what we learn about remembering God by remembering one another in his work, “A Doubter’s Dictionary”. t to Rea

 “When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.

“For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I'm feeling most ghost-like, it is your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I'm feeling sad, it's my consolation. When I'm feeling happy, it's part of why I feel that way.

“If you forget me, one of the ways I remember who I am will be gone. If you forget, part of who I am will be gone.”

Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary

We share Buechner’s very human fear that we will be forgotten, that we will be somehow be left behind. His is a very human fear we all share. When the world changes and rearranges, we’re afraid that we will become irrelevant. We wonder if we’ve become relics of a bygone age while the world twitters by us, unseeing.

God always remembers us. God remembers us even when we forget God. God ever invites our homeward return. From the book of Joel in the Old Testament, to the return of the prodigal son in the new, God knows we cannot, will not rest unless, until, we return to the one who called us into being, is with us always, and stays by us to the end of time.      

In this Advent season, the texts from these first weeks are always fierce, whether we’re hearing the great prophets long before Jesus’ birth, or his cousin John the Baptizer who called people to repent and clear the way for the Holy One to come. We can’t get to Christmas until we repent of everything we do that pulls us away from God’s gracious mercy, abounding, as it says, in steadfast love. Repentance is a kind of death. Bad habits die, former small or narrow, bigoted, judgmental or divisive thinking and behavior stops.

God calls a fast. From what will we fast? We may fast from insisting on our own way, or from criticizing one other. We may fast of the morning news if makes us cranky and anxious. We fast from whatever it is that captivates our attention as if it were a God, so that when the real deal comes, we will recognize him.

The wake up call of Advent season echoes a stark reminder that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts not our thoughts.

Barbara Brown Taylor, pastor theologian wrote about our tendency to imagine that God sees the world through our eyes rather than the other way around. “The problem is,” she writes, “many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

When we’re unclear about Joel’s call to repentance, what it means and who it’s for, this realization is an excellent place to begin. Repentance means to stop what you’re doing. The prophet issues a cry in Advent for us to stop imagining that God sees the world the way we do, and to stop being so offended if others around us do not do what we want, or speak as we think they should. We act offended when others do not see the world as we do, because we think we’re right, and we act offended on God’s behalf as if God needs us to stand up for God against the bullies of the world in order for God to, well, be God. We sometimes confuse God’s promise to be with us and to love us everlastingly, with the illusion that God is always on our side. God is not on our side. God calls us to be on God’s side. Knowing that makes all the difference in what happens next.

       In Advent, the prophets prepare us for what God has promised and will do: turn our world and we with it upside down with God’s surprising and everlasting mercy. God is merciful to invite us back home even when we have wandered long and far. When we get ourselves into trouble, God exercises surprising compassion, like this true story about Alexander III, Tsar of Russian from 1881-1894.

His rule was marked by repression, and in particular by persecution of Jews. His wife, Maria Fedorovna, provided a stark contrast, being known for her generosity to those in need. On one occasion her husband had signed an order consigning a prisoner to life in exile. It read simply  ‘Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.’ Maria changed that prisoner’s life by moving the comma in her husband’s order. She altered it to ‘Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.’

In Christ, God changes the comma that stood against us. From ‘Pardon impossible, send to Siberia’ comes the good news of salvation: ‘Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia.’”

Joel 2:12-13, 28-29 New Revised Standard Version

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 God 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. Amen,

Come Lord Jesus.

Sources: biography.com and Today in the Word, July 14, 1993.