Posts Tagged "Joel 2:12-19"

Return to the Lord: A Call to Return

February 17, 2021
By Rev. David French

“Return to the Lord your God!” That’s the theme for our Lenten worship series this year: “Return!” We’ll hear God calling out to us: “Return to Prayer,” “Return from Betrayal,” “Return from False Witness,” “Return from Denial,” “Return to the Kingdom of God,” “Return to the Table,” “Return to Truth,” “Return to the Church,” and “Return and See” what God has done for you.

And so, as we begin this series, we gather together first to hear Joel’s prophecy and God’s invitation. Joel sets our direction for the season, highlights the problem, and lays out the solution in all its beauty and simplicity. God calls us to simply return to Him, because He will provide for all our needs and pay for our salvation. Our goal for this evening is simple: First, we’ll consider Joel’s prophecy and the context in which it came. What was going on? How did God’s words speak to the situation? And how might that have sounded to the people? Second, we’ll consider how this prophecy applies to us. And finally, we’ll hear God’s invitation and promise as together we walk the path of this year’s Lenten journey.

We begin by doing a little time-traveling back to ancient Israel, to gain some insight about the people Joel was speaking to and understand more about what was going on in their world. We don’t know a lot about Joel. He was a prophet, likely ministering in the southern kingdom of Judah. The book that bears his name is relatively short—only 73 verses organized into just three chapters. But it is rich and deep and complex couple of chapters. His jumping-off point is a plague of locusts that had or would strike Israel and that served to foreshadow the coming “Day of the Lord.” Whether that plague was literal or figurative is unclear, but Joel’s message is straightforward: a day of judgment will come, and he pleads with the people to turn to God so that they would be found righteous on that “great and awesome day” (Joel 2:31).

Joel’s prophecy has 3 parts: first, there’s an invasion of locusts that will destroy all vegetation. And then Joel calls the people to fast at the temple and offers a prayer of lament concerning the coming destruction. Second, he says there’s something more significant coming something he calls: “the day of the Lord” and he says it’s close (Joel 2:1). Joel describes this day of the Lord’s judgement using the imagery of locusts and issues another call: to return to the Lord, to fast and pray at the temple. Finally, Joel describes how God will answer them. For the locust He will offer healing and restoration. And regarding the day of the Lord, He will give salvation to those who call on His name and pass judgment on those who reject Him and abuse His children.

Our reading for today comes from the center of this prophecy. The imagery of the swarm of locusts has been completed; the comparison to the Lord’s army and the Day of the Lord has been made; and the reader is left wondering what can be done. You almost hear Joel’s audience asking the same of him: “Who then can be saved?” But Joel also brings good news; he brings a promise. And it’s simple: “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32).

All they had to do was return to the Lord their God, “for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13). They only needed to stop trusting in themselves and trust in their God. They needed to understand that just as they couldn’t stop the swarming locusts, they would not be able to stop the Day of Judgment. It will come, and humanity’s only solution is to return to the Lord.

But, are those words spoken only for the Israelites? Are you perhaps facing a swarm of locusts that threaten to completely destroy you? My friends, don’t be deceived, you are indeed in the midst of a swarm; and if you don’t know that, then you have learned to ignore them, and so are indeed in the right place.

Locusts are small, unassuming little things that each do just a little bit of damage. But as part of a swarm, they add up to a destructive force that descends on the landscape and decimates everything good in its path. Surely you see, our sins are our locusts. And while one little locust doesn’t seem all that terrifying, together locusts, like our sins, are breathtakingly terrifying. God reveals to the Romans the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and through Ezekiel reveals, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20), then knowing you’re a sinner living in the midst of sin, it is indeed frightening.

Joel’s words can and should hit you the same way they hit the Israelites. The Day of the Lord will come, and it will be frightening. On your own there is no way to escape it. You know it’s true. I suppose I could run a list of popular sins to try and find yours and play some kind of game of theological dodgeball where we do all we can to avoid getting hit or stung by our sin, but this is no game.

When we decide we know more or at least better than God, something we all do without even thinking, we’re in the midst of that swarm of locusts we live with every minute of every day, and the destruction it brings, eternal death and damnation, should absolutely terrify us lowly sinners, because on our own there is no way to escape it. But Joel brings good news for you too! He brings a promise. “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13).

Despite our continued rejection of God, He is also inviting you, minute by minute, to return to Him and promises to bless you. Stop trusting in yourself, and look to God. Know that you can’t stop the swarming locusts, and you can’t stop Judgment Day. It will come. The only solution is to return to the Lord, something you can’t do on your own.  How good it is to know you are not on your own, but you are a part of the body of Christ, a forgiven child of God.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore more about how God’s call to return plays out in our lives, and we’ll do so by walking in the steps of the disciples and those who accompanied Jesus in the final days of His life. Each week we’ll hear the call to return as it echoes in their ears and perhaps come to understand it the way they did.

In His name, Amen

Tags: Joel 2:12-19

A God Who Hungers

March 06, 2019
By Rev. David French

“When you fast,” Jesus says, “do not be like the hypocrites.” When, not if, but when you fast. These words come from the Sermon on the Mount, and are considered by many to be some of Jesus’s good teachings. But once you read that sermon, you realize that Jesus is actually an unyielding taskmaster. Sure, the Beatitudes sound nice until He starts talking about the punishment for not doing them. Until He warns His disciples not to miss the mark by even the smallest dot.

In fact, to avoid any misunderstanding about the Law, Jesus launches into a six-fold intensification of the Law: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you” - which leaves us somewhat surprised that anyone could be so un-loving with the Commandments. And those words lead to Jesus making it perfectly clear how well we need to obey the Commandments: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), which is followed by: “when you give to the needy … when you pray … when you fast.” Do not be like the hypocrites.

Prayer we can get behind, giving to the poor as well, at least in theory. But fasting is just odd. It seems too physical to have spiritual value. It’s too concerned with what you eat—or don’t eat—to be a real spiritual blessing. We’re a people who live in the glorious freedom of the Gospel, not tempted by the works righteous idea about fasting to earn God’s favor.

And yet, Jesus said “when you fast.” Fasting means abstaining, not just from sodas or candy for forty days, but from food altogether. That’s why fasting seems way too physical. What does bordering on starvation have to do with our spirituality or our Christian devotion?

“Behold the man!” said Pilate as soldiers trotted out before the jeering crowds a freshly flogged Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe meant to induce pain and invite ridicule. Heeding this Word of God spoken by Pilot however is exactly what we’ll be doing throughout this year’s Lenten season.

In Jesus, God and man are one. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The One begotten of the Father from all eternity, our Savior, is the One born of the Virgin Mary. Behold the man! Just like you, He has skin and bones, blood vessels and lymph nodes, teeth and hair, heart and lungs, hands, feet, eyes, lips, tongue, and stomach. He eats, breathes, walks, talks, sleeps, prays, weeps, laughs, bleeds, dies, rises, ascends, sits, and He will one day come back to bring us to be with Him in our heavenly home. Behold the man, Jesus, your Brother.

Unlike you, however, He has no sin. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, His human nature is perfect, unspoiled by Adam’s rebellion. He was certainly tempted in every way, just as you are, yet He was without sin. His desires were never distorted into lust, greed, coveting, or idolatry. Like unblemished Adam at the close of the sixth day of creation, when God declared that all was “very good,” Jesus is as human as human can be, as human as He intends to make you and me in the Day of the resurrection of all the dead.

So why fasting? The Gospel for this coming Sunday places Jesus in the wilderness right after His Baptism, fasting for forty days, being tempted by the devil. This is not fasting the way most people think of it. This isn’t eating fish instead of meat or giving up some pet vice. For forty days, Jesus ate nothing.

But God not eating for forty days doesn’t sound like that big a deal. I mean, eating isn’t something God usually does. But, behold the man! The God who took on human flesh in the virgin’s womb is the infant at the breast of His mother filling His newborn stomach, the toddler whose parents introduced new foods to, the boy eating the Passover lamb with His extended family. The God-man who needs to eat in order to live. 

Lent, like fasting, is also oddly physical. But then, the disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are designed to guard you against the temptation of being too spiritual. The temptation is just about as old as creation itself. When satan tempted Adam and Eve with the spiritual desire to be like God, they ignored His physical prohibition against eating from that one tree in the middle of the garden. At that moment, our first parents set the pattern for the rest of us, who now, with our sinful nature, prefer the so-called spiritual over the physical when it comes to our relationship with God. But this isn’t new, once God settled the Israelites in the Promised Land, they quickly abandoned the very physical worship of Yahweh alone by means of the sacrifices offered only in the temple in Jerusalem for the more spiritual, less-precise worship of the Baals and the Asherah.

Nicodemus even cracks a joke about the insanity of true religion involving a rebirth. And the Sadducees, they concocted their ridiculous story about the woman who married one of seven brothers to prove that physical resurrection is impossible. All of that is an attempt to substitute safer, spiritual platitudes for the real physical, fleshly realities of Christianity. And it’s all sin. It all takes glory, no matter how little we may think it to be, away from Jesus and puts it on us.

Give up your self-perceived hyper-spiritual pretensions. God isn’t like that. The incarnation had been in part of His plan from before the time He spoke the first words of creation. Behold the man in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily. You, who have a body and the complete inability to use it as your Creator intended, can still have hope because Jesus fasted for you and for all.

He is the God who can eat, who needs to eat, so that He can abstain from eating, enduring the pains of hunger in order to deny His flesh what it desires – in your place. And that because you have inherited from Adam the sinful desire for the spiritual over the physical which opens the door for you to indulge the flesh with its evil desires. But God in the flesh, Jesus, is your substitute. He endured temptation and never sinned so that His spotless flesh and blood could be offered as the payment for all sin. Which means God gave His life for sinners like you and me.

So fast. Fast to discipline and chasten your flesh. Fast so that, as you learn to control your belly you will realize you can control other parts of your flesh as well … but never take your eyes off the cross. Remember that while much good can come from the discipline of fasting, our hope is still always and only in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who fasted, prayed, and gave alms perfectly for you. Behold the man whose flesh and blood are our hope and salvation, for His flesh is real food that satisfies those who hunger and His blood is real drink that quenches the deepest thirst.

Here at His altar is the man who gives Himself for you to break your fast. Eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for the enabling and strengthening of your love for one another. Behold the man veiled in bread and wine who comes to bless you His precious child.

In His Name, Amen.

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