This week, we turn our attention to yet another prophet. This time, the Lord is speaking to and through Joel. We don’t know a lot about him, and scholars are divided on when to date his life and writings.
What we do know from the book of Joel is that he placed a high value on worship… Unlike many prophets who called the people to step away from worship because they were unable to do it properly. Joel called the people into a place of repentance that was all about worship.
Listen to these words from Joel, chapter 2.
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 he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
We’ll skip down a bit for the next portion of the passage. Still Ch 2.
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.
That first segment may sound a bit familiar from Ash Wednesday. It is often quoted at the start of Lent, our corporate season of repentance.
Certainly we need to talk of confession and repentance year round. That is a part of why our order of worship contains a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon most weeks. But the liturgical focus is strongest in the weeks leading up to Easter.
The second segment of our reading generally appears after Easter. It is common to pair Joel’s words with Luke’s description of Pentecost.
Joel speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out among the people… and was it ever! Especially starting on that particular day… On men, women. On young, old. Slave, Free… and even the Gentiles, those not really part of the promises spoken by Old Testament prophets.
The Book of Acts is filled with their stories… The stories of the way the Spirit moved and spread the good news from family to family, city to city, through the words and deeds of ordinary people.
But God’s Spirit wasn’t boxed up someplace in the time between Joel’s prophecy and Peter’s sermon.
The Spirit is active in the waiting, in the continued telling and retelling of the stories of God’s promises, the reading and re-reading of the prophets…
The Spirit is active in the assurances that even in exile, God remains with the people,when they are in the wilderness literally or metaphorically, God is watching over them
The Spirit is active in the promises that God will restore Israel, that God will restore Judah.
And in the reminders that sometimes, in order to experience God’s presence, all the people have to do is look around.
Or turn around.
And return to the Lord.
Joel uses images associated with grieving as he calls upon the people to repent. Yes there is fasting and praying to be done, but also weeping and mourning. But this is not to be a rote completion of the ritual of mourning – an outward sign of sorrow, one that need not go deeper than one’s clothing.
In the Jewish context, the Torah mandates such expressions of grief. On the most basic level, the tearing is expression of pain and sorrow over someone’s death. But there is much more to the symbolism and the action.
One rabbi describes the deeper significance of the ritual this way: “Judaism views death as a two-sided coin. On the one hand, when someone passes on, it is a tragedy. They have been lost to their family and friends, and there is a feeling of separation and distance that seems beyond repair.
“But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’—that their loved one hasn’t really gone.
“This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us.
“So we tear our garments,” the Rabbi goes on, “This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn.“
“…rend your hearts,” Joel says
I went for a really long walk yesterday, which means I got through a lot of music on my 90s Rock playlist. Which means I heard a lot of U2. There’s this little refrain that gets repeated in CedarWood Road that got me to thinking about Joel’s words and the rabbi’s description of torn hearts.
A HEART THAT IS BROKEN IS A HEART THAT IS OPEN
Stay with me here…
When we talk about sin- whether individual decisions we make that pull us away from the will of God or choices that reflect the waywardness of humanity when we are grouped into churches, cities, countries, races, and pretty much any other way we congregate…
When we talk about sin – we are talking about the ways our hearts grab onto things that are not of God. And instead we allow our hearts to get wrapped up in the things of the world.. The brokenness and ugliness that Paul summed up for the Galatians as…
5:19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives. [They] are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course, because Paul’s point was that attempting to live by the law is an exercise in futility.
Know the law. Yes.
Understand what is expected. Absolutely
But until one’s hearts is aligned with God’s heart, the heart that created the Law, even the work of being a good person of God can become corrupted by all of the things on that list.
The heart that is broken is a heart that is open…
When we allow God to break open our hearts… when we rend our hearts… we no longer rely on our understanding, we are opening ourselves to the deeper work of transformation that only the Spirit can bring.
Paul goes on to say that… 5:22 the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.
Those who belong to Christ have access to the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh…
There is another prophet whose words are often quoted in the advent season… a prophet who also called for repentance and spoke of the Spirit. A prophet who was close enough in age and geography and geneology to be Jesus’ cousin. John.
Matthew 3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
[John] is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John is out there on the edge…
in the wilderness…
A place that the people don’t want to be.
It reminds them of the generations that wandered with Moses
It reminds them of the generations spent in exile, scattered
He reminds them of the people that get pushed out to the edges
But they come…
Because his words are such a clear echo of the prophets that have come before
Because the weight of the empire and the religious leaders and taxes and poverty… it feels like captivity
Because he is speaking so passionately about a deliverer… The Promised One… the Messiah.
And they hear a call to to be immersed…
To confess the ways they have collaborated with the Kingdom of man
They hear a call come clean.
To confess that their hearts have not been with God,
To renounce their allegiance to human structures and to repent, to return to a community that eagerly awaits the coming of the new age. And with that new age will come a baptism not with water, but with the Spirit
You and I are children of that promise.
You and I are among those men and women, the young and old, the people made of flesh and bone onto and into which the Spirit has been poured.
And so, in this time of anticipation, in this time of listening and watching and looking for the fulfillment of the promises, I urge you to open your heart…
Grieve the things that we have lost as a community…
The people, the resources that aren’t here…
Really and truly mourn them.
The sounds of children hunting for eggs in the courtyard…
Have you rent your heart for them?
A full nursery and SS rooms bursting at the seams…
Rend your heart…
The youth trips and young adults finding places to go on missions…
Have you rent your heart for them yet?
The emerging leaders who ought to be in the pew and taking on the work so their elders could rest a bit…
Rend your heart for them too…
Don’t just talk and worry about the church dying…
Yes – I’ve heard those grumblings among us.
That does us no good…
Mourn its death. Rend your clothes if it helps…
But then rend your hearts.
And return to God by confessing how we got here. And have stayed here.
Confess the ways that you… that we have been closed off
Confess that there are people we have failed to welcome well
Confess the misgivings we have about who might actually show up if we say “everyone is welcome”
Let’s confess our unfair expectations and our unwillingness to bend.
Let’s lay it all out in the open, all on the altar for God to cleanse
To clear out to burn away and refine
To make space for what is to come.
Friends… Rend your hearts…
A heart that is broken is a heart that is open
Open and ready to be filled by the Spirit of God
Open and ready to prophesy…
Open and ready to dream…
Open and ready for visions…
Open and ready for the work of Building the Kingdom of God
Rend your hearts…
And I will pour out my Spirit…
Not I might…
I will pour out my Spirit…
Says the God who blesses us to be a blessing.
Says the God who is able to do abundantly more than we could ask or imagine
Says the God who makes and keeps promises.