Gourock St. John’s
Yet Even Now
Joel 2.12-16, 26-29
29 November 2020, Advent 1 (blessings of an impossible Christmas)
(Text: Advent 2, NL3-13)
The prophet Joel was a learned interpreter of sacred text—he quotes the Torah and other prophets many times in his short book. He spoke to people in Jerusalem, warning them of the consequences of not following God’s way, and painting beautiful word pictures of God’s promise and faithfulness. Today’s reading from chapter 2 begins with the words “Yet even now” which signal a big change, a complete turnaround, that needs immediate attention. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.
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.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.
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.
This may seem like a strange reading to start the season of Advent. We don’t read from Joel very often, though bits and pieces might sound familiar from other times of year — sometimes at the beginning of Lent we hear the call to “rend your hearts and not your clothing” and of course Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost quoted this bit about “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Maybe Advent was feeling left out, and didn’t want to be the only season with nothing from the prophet Joel!
The first chapter of the book of Joel describes a nation losing hope — he talks about a plague of locusts, which could be about ecological destruction or a metaphor for an invading army, which brings its own kind of environmental damage. The first chapter of Joel is all about a land that has been ravaged and has nothing left to offer, and a people who don’t see their own part in bringing the story to this point or how they can play a role in the unfolding of God’s future story either. The world was turned upside down and everything was uncertain.
And that is when Joel says: Yet even now.
Even now, when you’re anxious and worried.
Even now, when it feels like you have nothing to offer.
Even now, as you try to figure out how to manage everything going on.
Even now, with this situation and these rules and restrictions and under these circumstances.
Even now, when it feels impossible.
Yet even now, says the Lord…return to me with all your heart.
Your heart that has been broken again and again in this season — as we have had loss upon loss, of life, of livelihood, of relationship, of security, of celebrations, of hope, of time. Bring it all.
And then…though it feels like our hearts can’t take anymore, God invites us to be broken open one more time. But this time it’s just that, a breaking open— a chance for all that is in us to be revealed, and for all that God offers us to be received.
In that open space, God will leave a blessing, even if we aren’t sure what that means just yet.
But isn’t that just what Advent is about? An opening, a making space, a preparation for God to come into the world and do a new thing. An impossible new thing, the divine becoming human, taking on flesh and living among us…even now.
The prophet called the people to come and worship, in the midst of all the devastations of the year — and remember, worship involved bringing offerings of the land to the Temple. But there was nothing to offer, the land was ruined, the crops and animals gone. They were empty-handed. They could not worship the way they were used to…but still all of them, even the people usually left out, were to bring what they had: their hearts, their minds, their strength, all broken open. God would take care of the rest, though maybe not in quite the way they expected.
Perhaps this is not such a strange reading for Advent after all.
This year when so much we are used to feels impossible, God is still calling us to break open and make space…to turn to God with all our heart, and find that there is a blessing we never expected, poured out.
Into all those open hearts, God was pouring out the Spirit — not just on church people, not just on leaders, not just men, not just adults, not just on those who were ready or worthy — on all flesh. God coming to earth wasn’t just for some, but for all. We might hear the word from strangers or outsiders, we might hear it coming from our own mouths, we might hear God speaking through the people on the lowest rung of society, in a different accent or a completely different way of communicating. Joel calls us to be ready, to open our hearts to receive the truth that God is in our midst — even if God comes in a peasant baby born to an unwed teenage mother in a borrowed stable in an occupied foreign territory.
This Advent season, can we stand to break open our hearts one more time? To listen for the voice of the Spirit coming from unexpected quarters, in the midst of a devastated land?
Perhaps we might listen for the Spirit speaking through those who show us our complicity in that devastation — something the people of Joel’s time couldn’t see, and something we too often turn away from. When we recognise our part in the destruction of the land we can also recognise our part in its healing — the visions poured out on the young and the old can show us a way forward for living in harmony with creation.
Perhaps we might listen for the Spirit speaking through those who are imagining a way of worship that meets the challenges of a new day and a new generation — in Joel’s time they were forced to change because they physically could not do what they use to do. How familiar that feels today! Will the visions and prophesies poured out on young and old show us a path toward encountering God anew?
Yet even now, says the Lord: return to me with all your heart.
Yet even now, says the Lord: you shall know that I am in your midst.
Yet even now, says the Lord: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.
This may be an Advent and Christmas like no other…but in the most important way, it’s the same as ever: in the disruption, in the darkness, in the wondering and the waiting, Emmanuel, God is with us.
May it be so. Amen.