1. The day of the Lord
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Let us pray. Eternal God, whose Word is a light for our paths, pour out upon us, we pray, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, to the end that our hearts and minds might be opened to know your truth and your way. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This morning we begin a series of ten sermons and studies based on the collection of books known as the Minor Prophets. Being a baseball fan, as soon as I hear the word minor I think of the contrast that is made between the minor and major leagues. Minor means that one has not yet reached the goal, not quite ready for prime time. It is unfortunate, I think, that we did not in Christian use simply adopt the title given to this collection by Jewish scholars—they call these books from Hosea to Malachi, The Twelve. Minor refers to the amount of writing contained in these books, which are not as long as Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel. However the messages in these shorter books are nothing less than major words from God. We begin today with the prophet Joel.
There is not much known about this prophet. He is the son of Pethuel and the name Joel means “Yahweh is God.” That is about all we can say about him. Many of the Old Testament prophets identify the names of the kings who ruled in Judah and Israel during the years of their work. Joel does not do this. The best educated guess places Joel around the year 400 B. C. One scholar suggests that Joel may have left out most chronological defining details because of a sense that the message is timeless and should be understood as belonging to every generation. I hope that is our experience also in the next twenty minutes or so.
The situation that prompts Joel to write the words of his prophesy is the loss of a sizable portion of one season’s harvest to an infestation of locusts. I read a description of an invasion of grasshoppers that someone had seen years ago in Minnesota. “I can still remember how the sky was literally darkened by the great cloud of these insects. You could hear them descending into the standing grain of the fields like hail upon the ground, and there was a continuing rustling of the noise of their wings as you walked through the fields. Within moments after they lit upon a field, every blade of grass, every bit of vegetation was gone, and the fields were left as though they had never been planted.”
In any agriculturally based economy such as there was around the city of Jerusalem, such a devastation would be a disaster and people would look to their leaders, including the prophet Joel, to help them discover what sort of meaning there was in this event. Remember friends, the distinctions we make between the world of sacred and secular events were unknown in the ancient world. Everything was an event in which one ought to look for the hand of God and to hear what God might be saying to you.
Let’s try then to follow the movement of thought made by the prophet. As it usually happens, selected verses from the text will appear on the screen behind me but it may also be helpful if you have your Bible open to Joel, page 845 of the Old Testament in the pew Bibles and page 1423 of the large print edition.
It is clear in chapter one of Joel that the prophet is talking about an infrequent but still natural disaster, an infestation of insects. 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 destroying locust has eaten (Joel 1:4). This event is such a complete disaster that even the animals groan, the cattle wander about and the sheep are dazed (Joel 1:18).
Then the prophet feels the call of God to take a step from what has happened to what he sees happening at some point in the future. Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near. I believe the prophet is telling God’s people that what we ought to check in the day-to-day events of life is how God might be trying to get our attention.
Have a look at chapter 1, verse 14. In response to the devastation brought by the locusts, there is a call to repentance and prayer. Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. Compare that with chapter 2, verse 15. Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly. The same sort of language but in response to an event that has yet to happen, the day of the Lord.
Have I been clear about what Joel is doing? He very likely lives either in or close to Jerusalem. He sees first hand that the rituals and sacrifices of the Temple happen on schedule each day. Yet in his mind, as he attempts to understand and follow the will of God, what he hears from God is that there is no real commitment to God’s ways being demonstrated by many of the people.
In response to this agricultural disaster, God’s people are called to repentance and prayer. I think Joel sees what is going on and decides that in the midst of this turning back to God, the people need to understand the possibility exits for a truly catastrophic event to overwhelm them—the Day of The Lord. There are many ways to understand this concept, but it is clear in the mind of Joel that it is a day of both judgement and salvation. The prophet then calls on God’s people to return to me with all your heart…rend your hearts and not your clothing.
I have chosen two things for us to look at in the time we have left that I believe speak to this concept of returning to God with our whole heart. Go back to chapter 1, verse 3. Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. My friends, here is one of the great tasks of the church as a community of faith. Our children, our grandchildren, the children to whom we relate in both Lawrence Park and Lawrence Heights need to know the mighty acts of God.
Here is a theme that we can also pick up from Psalm 78. Friends read these words with me—
We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. …that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God…
Friends, it is my experience that every family tells stories. One of the ways this became clear to me as an adult was when I realized that families tend to pass down from one generation to the next the notion of what is funny. My siblings and I have great memories of my father and his brothers getting together at Christmas time to tell the same stories they told the year before and which they would tell again the next year. My dad would laugh so hard that tears would be streaming down his face. No made up “Newfie” story is even close to being as funny as the, no doubt, slightly embellished stories told by my dad and uncles.
Families also tell each other stories about how the world works and how one should respond to the world. It appears to me that we in the church have become somewhat fearful in making sure we tell our story to our children. Or we have made the mistake of thinking that others were telling our story and we needn’t bother.
I don’t know where it is you stand on the matter of Ontario’s Sexual Education Curriculum which is being made ready for introduction to Ontario’s schools this fall. Let me be clear; I am not a fan. But the point I want to make is this. If we think that along with introducing children to the proper names for body parts and how the “plumbing” all works that they will also, of course, be told about the Christian belief in sexual fidelity within marriage, think again. If we want our children to know our story, there is no one but us to tell it.
Among the people of God in the Hebrew Scriptures the mighty acts of God include picking that couple Sarah and Abraham to become the parents of a nation, a promise so far fetched that when Sarah heard it she laughed. When this nation was reduced to slavery in Egypt they cried out to God and in another mighty act they were brought to freedom in the Promised Land.
For Christians the story of the mighty acts of God culminates in helping our children understand what God has done for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We need also to tell something of our own stories, how we came to faith, the ways in which prayers have been answered, how God’s Word has spoken to us in times of great need, how God has provided for us, how we have grown in our faith, what it means to have hope for this life and the next. To get the point across a divinity school teacher once borrowed a sign from a bank that said “teller.” He hung it around his neck and then wore it to class in order to demonstrate that such was the calling of all of God’s people. Those who turn to God with their whole heart will be tellers of God’s mighty acts.
There is one more thing for today. We return to God with all our hearts as an act of utter trust and hope. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent? We fully trust in God to do the just and righteous thing in our lives. I think the prophet is asking us to recognize that our Creator God is the one who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and therefore our trust in this God is not based on somehow knowing what is on the other side, but offering ourselves to this mercy with confidence that in the end God’s will and purposes will be accomplished.
There is a sense, I believe, in which this is somehow more difficult for us than for the people to whom Joel first delivered this message. The devastation left by the locusts was an out and out disaster. In the almost 65 years of my life the closest I have ever come to having nothing were those years when my father was paid twice a month—that meant there were four times per year when there was a third weekend between his cheques. Not exactly destitute!
What has been impressed upon me in the last year is how spiritually destitute I am unless the Lord can be counted on to leave a blessing for me. This I believe, friends, is the call of the prophet to us in our time and place. The shelves at Loblaws will be full of food from somewhere; we really don’t worry about that. But my spirit, my soul, my faith are bound to wither and die unless I return to the God of steadfast love with all my heart.