Living in the Prophecy Luke 2:21-38

Jesus Is Named

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

   according to your word; 

for my eyes have seen your salvation, 

   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

   and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

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The connection between prophecy and Jesus’s birth is undeniable.

There would be no Part 1 of Handel’s Messiah if it weren’t for prophecies.  Handel’s libretto (the words to the solos and choruses) was taken directly from the Bible.

Isaiah 40 King James Version

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

9 O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!

11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.

Malachi 3:1-3   King James Version

2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:

3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

Isaiah 7:14  King James Version

14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Isaiah 60:1  King James Version

60 Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

Isaiah 9 King James Version

2 The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

 6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

These prophecies were a major part of every Jewish person’s embedded knowledge. Can you think of any prophecies that you’ve clung to in your lifetime?  I can think of one: Jesus is coming again.  But are there any prophecies you’ve heard over and over and over that predicted what your country or your government or your leaders would become? 

We grow up hearing predictions of course. From our parents: “You clean up your room or I’m going to throw everything out.”  “That neighbor kid is going to end up in jail one of these days.” From economists and political pundits we here predictions of doom and gloom and good times for all.   

But those predictions change with the times.  The prophecies of the Hebrew Bible never changed, even as they became more and more impossible to fulfill.  

Those prophecies from Isaiah and Malachi promised a great deal.  

4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

Miraculously, when they did not come true, generation after generation, they were neither discarded nor forgotten. They were remembered up to the day that Anna and Simeon met the Prophecy in person, when the manifestation of that Prophecy was only forty days old.  Jewish practice required the parents to come to the temple for the rite of purification forty days after the brith of a child. At the same time, if this were a first-born child, the child was dedicated to God, in the temple, on the site chosen by the son of King David. On this auspicious day at the dawn of the first century, the true heir to the throne of David was brought to the temple by his parents.

Waiting for him were two ancient people, ancient in age and ancient in faith.  They were not waiting for the “new normal.” They were waiting for a savior, a leader, a rescuer.  And they were waiting for their own deaths.  They believed that they would not die until they had met this Savior.

Simeon sings this song of praise:

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

   according to your word; 

for my eyes have seen your salvation, 

   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

   and for glory to your people Israel.’

We recite this song at our own funerals. How different its meaning for us—and yet how similar.  Salvation for all people.  A light for revelation to the Gentiles.   How did Simeon know that??!?!?!

We have not been hanging out in our sanctuary waiting for something to happen.  We know it HAS happened. We know that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah—the Messiah that has prepared a place for us in the presence of the Triune God. We can live every moment of our lives knowing that the long-expected Messiah has come to us—not just to Joseph and Mary and the shepherds but also to US!

So, the prophecy has endured over the centuries, no longer a prophecy but daily Good News.  Not a prediction, not a wish, not an empty piece of folklore, but as the reality of Jesus Christ, who not only was born, but who lived like us, felt like us, even suffered like us.  What an amazing conclusion to a prophecy!  Except—-there is no conclusion, no end to this prophecy.  We know that we are a part of that prophecy, that we live in the reality of that prophecy.

I wonder about Anna and Simeon, about how that sacred knowledge informed their daily lives.  What did people think of them? Why was Anna considered a prophet?  

In our culture, unlike many, the older you get, the more your reputation diminishes. Your kids start to treat you like you’re missing a few lights in the chandelier and try to boss you around. When you’re introduced into a new group, a new situation, you have to work twice as hard to prove to the younger members that you have much to contribute. You gain a few pounds and lose a few hairs and suddenly you don’t look like the ads on tv. It’s easy to age gracefully; it’s hard to age with integrity. Anna and Simeon lived in a time when age was synonymous with wisdom. We live in a time when aging is synonymous with getting out of the way of “progress.” But I have hope.

As you know, unto us is promised a vaccine. The first tier of recipients will be health care workers. The second tier of recipients is NOT government employees or the military: it is people in health care facilities.  People who are not “contributing” to the Gross National Product.  People who are supporting the economy only through monthly fees to nursing homes and pharmacies. Yet, our government has not discarded them. They are not being triaged out of existence.  Their lives have value.  I find this amazing in a country where many lives do not have value, where lives are expendable at the end of a gun, in world where the deaths of children are called “collateral damage” while adults fight over parcels of real estate. So, that is the light I see in this Pandemic tunnel:  lives are valued for their own sake, not for what they can produce or how they can perform.  

Jesus taught us that, by ministering to the outcasts, to the people who were hurting, the people who lived with no hope.  It’s important to remember that Jesus did not limit his ministry to the outcast; he dined with the wealthy, he came to the aid of the powerful.  Let us be as open to all people as Jesus was, judging them not by what they can do for us, not by what they have to offer to us, but as our brothers and sisters and best friends in Christ. 

Anna and Simeon waited their entire lives.  We don’t have to wait. We need only accept the great Love that is offered to us, unconditional, no down payment, no interest rates, no fine print.  A one-word contract: Love.  Amen.

Hold Tight to that Baby! Luke 2: 1-20

Luke 2:1-20  New Revised Standard Version

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14  “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I can never get over the difference between the “long-expected” version of Jesus and the real-life version of Jesus.   Instead of the “long-expected” Jesus, we have the “unexpected” Jesus.

The long-expected Jesus, the Messiah, was supposed to be a mortal king, warrior, leader, conqueror, a recreated King David. That what was what the Jewish nation had been expecting.  After all, the prophecies talked about a king who would be from the line of David, sit on the throne of David, 

The real-life version was a tiny baby, a first-born child, born to a couple with no experience in politics or leadership or military strategy. They didn’t even have any experience in parenting!!!!  A strange choice for the family of the descendant of a royal king.  A strange choice for a leader who was supposed to restore an entire nation, an entire culture.

We humans can see only as far as the end of our experiential noses. Who could have imagined that God would send not only a human, but a human who could conquer death, who was also God?

What other titles can we ascribe to this miracle?  Prince of Peace! Lamb of God! Son of Man! God with Us!

Jesus was born in dangerous times, not unlike our own.  Civil unrest was the realtime undercurrent of Pax Romana, the peace which existed among nations within the Roman Empire. But the peace was enforced more than maintained by armies and authorities. It was an illusion that kept the government in power, that protected the prosperous. It was a time of poverty and disease and hunger for a large part of the population and there was no recourse, no bail out, no stimulus check for anyone. 

It was risky for Jesus to be born in the middle of that arena of false trust in the power of men.  It was risky for Jesus to be born to a poor family who could easily starve to death without anyone noticing.  It was risky for Jesus to be born into a family of suspected rebels, of a tribe that walked the thin line between secular society and faithful tradition. 

It is no less risky for us.  Daily we walk the thin line between good and evil. Sometimes we can reject the evil; sometimes it overwhelms us.  We make choices that backfire, we are victims of the choices of others, and, I, at least, envy the animals, like the bear and my little ground squirrels, that are able to hibernate and ignore anything beyond their own private caves.

But here we are, three days after the Solstice. The days are getting longer. More light.  Jesus is the light of the world.  What does that mean when we are surrounded by dark thoughts?  It means we have to look beyond our own walls, our own boundaries, even our own fears.

God knows we are afraid. Really—God knows! When the angels came to the shepherds, before they could deliver their message, they had to tell them “Do not be afraid!”  Settle down.  Pay attention.  We have some good news.

We, likewise, need to be reminded to not be afraid.  Pretty tough in a year when we can be struck down by a virus, threatened by a gun, mocked for our opinions.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of more things in my life than during 2020. And frankly, I don’t think tearing off the last page of the calendar is going to change much.  

We must remember, more this year than any year, that we are not helpless, that we are not forgotten, that we are created in the image of God.  We are not created in the image of Dr. Fauci or Rush Limbaugh or James Bond or Wonder Woman. We are created in the image of God. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. We are created to be good.  When we screw that up, we are not tossed into the abyss of hell. We are welcomed into the arms of Jesus, not to pay a price, but to repent.  And repentance brings redemption.  We are created in an image that does more than eat and drink, bruise and bleed.  We are created in an image that cares and loves and acts, not according to some animal instinct, but according to the laws of love that God breathed into us at creation.  Jesus came to redeem us, to save us from our own sinful nature. During his ministry, he taught us how to be more than animals, more than victims of our own weaknesses, more than the dupes of evil. He taught that love is the greatest power, that love is what makes the world work the way God created it.  

We are loved. We are not forgotten. We have strength, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be the people of God, without shame, without fear.  

Jesus came as a baby and experienced what we experience, from our first cry to our last breath.  He experienced anger and disappointment and fear.  And he conquered anger and disappointment and fear.  

What does it mean for us to conquer our own weaknesses, to say “NO!” to evil.  It means we can live in a world that is not afraid. It means we can live in a world where the disenfranchised regain their place, where the hungry are fed, where the rent is paid, where the jobs are secure, where work is valued, where differences are celebrated.  

Hebrews 2:16-18  New Revised Standard Version

  16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

 A year ago, we were sitting shoulder to shoulder in our sanctuary, and by some miracle we could all balance a hymnal in one hand and a burning candle in the other hand without setting fire to the person in front of us. That was as risky as it got.  This year it’s hard to believe that our usual Christmas celebrations are too risky.  

But following Jesus is risky, too. That tiny baby grew and grew and grew and surprised everybody who knew him and a lot of people who didn’t know him.  He surprised his family, his disciples, the hated Romans, the outcast tax collectors and the widows. 

Frankly, Jesus still surprises me, not by what I read about him in the Bible, but by what he inspires people to do in His name.  During this pandemic year, I have witnessed kindness and sacrifice and generosity that spread love and healing to the hurt, to the lonely, to the ill.  Despair has been vanquished in a year that should have sucked the hope out of us.  Evil has been conquered, one kind word at a time, one kind deed at a time.  

We anticipate Jesus’ coming by naming the Sundays in Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love. By the miracle of  God’s love, despite our fears, we can still express, feel, name, recognize, proclaim those gifts of God: Hope.  Peace.  Joy.  Love.  We are not defeated.  Evil is defeated. Love came down at Christmas……and never left.  Amen.

Isaiah 61 

The Spirit of the Lord God has taken control of me!
The Lord has chosen and sent me to tell the oppressed the good news,
to heal the brokenhearted, and to announce freedom for prisoners and captives.

2  This is the year when the Lord God will show kindness to us and punish our enemies.

The Lord has sent me to comfort those who mourn, 3 especially in Jerusalem.
He sent me to give them flowers in place of their sorrow, olive oil in place of tears, and joyous praise in place of broken hearts.
They will be called “Trees of Justice,” planted by the Lord to honor his name.

4  Then they will rebuild cities that have been in ruins for many generations.

5  They will hire foreigners to take care of their sheep and their vineyards.

6  But they themselves will be priests and servants of the Lord our God.
The treasures of the nations will belong to them, and they will be famous.

7  They were terribly insulted and horribly mistreated;
now they will be greatly blessed and joyful forever.

8  I, the Lord, love justice!
But I hate robbery and injustice.
My people, I solemnly promise to reward you with an eternal agreement.

9  Your descendants will be known in every nation.
All who see them will realize that they have been blessed,
    by me, the Lord.

10  I celebrate and shout because of my Lord God.
His saving power and justice are the very clothes I wear.
They are more beautiful than the jewelry worn by a bride or a groom.

11  The Lord will bring about justice and praise in every nation on earth,
like flowers blooming in a garden.

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What a rich text! What beautiful words of promise, of joy!

Some historical background: the Israelites have been freed from their forced exile and have been allowed to return to their homes. It must have been a mixed blessing: they had been gone from their homes for forty years. Forty years their homes had been empty or been occupied by strangers. What did they find?

The Israelites had been driven out. How often have a people been forced out of their own homes, either by military force or economic necessity or by natural disasters! We have a word for these people who are looking for refuge: refugees. 

To my knowledge, most refugees do not have the option of returning. 

I Googled information about refugees. Currently, people are being forced out of their homes in Yemen, El Salvador, Honduras, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Congo and Bangladesh. 

Here are some numbers I found on the United Nations Refugee Agency site.

  • More than half of the world’s 25.9 million refugees are under 18.
  • Developing countries house more than 80% of the world refugees.
  • Around 70 percent of refugee families live below the poverty line.
  • One person is forcibly displaced approximately every two seconds.

Instead of trying to imagine how long a line that would be if they all stood in line, let’s imagine what refugees do all day. They travel, they seek shelter, they eat, they work—whenever it is possible to travel, to find shelter, to eat, to work.

The Israelites were lucky. They returned home. And they returned to rebuild the homes and the traditions and the culture their grandparents and parents had left.

Most refugees have to adapt to their new homes, learn new languages, learn new customs. Our family is excited about helping a refugee family from the Congo. We aren’t doing much—-getting them some new clothes, some cleaning supplies, and some toys for the kids. They have been helped through an organization, Tapestry Farms. 

The Israelites had help, too. During the exile, grandparents and parents had told their children stories about the good ol’ days in Jerusalem. Now, two generations later, these children were expected to restore what they knew only from listening to the memories of their elders. The memories included knowledge of, worship of the one true God.

That brings us to today’s text! This reads like a motivational speech, like the inauguration speech of a newly elected official, like the pep talk of a coach.

The Spirit of the Lord God has taken control of me!

Why the excitement? Because the news is WONDERFUL:

The Lord has chosen and sent me to tell the oppressed the good news, to heal the brokenhearted, and to announce freedom for prisoners and captives.

2  This is the year when the Lord God will show kindness to us and punish our enemies. The Lord has sent me to comfort those who mourn, 3 especially in Jerusalem. 

7  They were terribly insulted and horribly mistreated; now they will be greatly blessed and joyful forever.

We could use an announcement like that right now, couldn’t we? Do you feel like you’ve been exiled in 2020. We haven’t been exiled from our homes; quite the opposite, we’ve been exiled from everywhere BUT our homes. There will be rebuilding to do, of the economy, of trust, of institutions like hospitals and schools. 

Like the Israelites, we have promises. And they come from the same source: God Almighty.

He sent me to give them flowers in place of their sorrow, olive oil in place of tears, and joyous praise in place of broken hearts.
They will be called “Trees of Justice,” planted by the Lord to honor his name. 
(post-derecho?)

4  Then they will rebuild cities that have been in ruins for many generations.

Why is God asking them to rebuild the cities? 

8  I, the Lord, love justice! But I hate robbery and injustice. 11  The Lord will bring about justice and praise in every nation on earth, like flowers blooming in a garden.

This is not urban development. This is not about restoring the economy. This is about justice. God loves justice. God cannot wave a magic wand or cast a spell to bring justice to God’s children. So, God turns to those who have the power to bring about justice: God’s children.

The Holy Spirit has been working on this sermon. A week ago a friend sent me an article, a transcript, actually, of a radio show, On Being. I often listen to it when I’m driving between Toronto and Dixon on Sunday mornings. On this particular episode, Krista Tippet was interviewing Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy. Stevenson posits that laws alone will not bring about justice.

…I began to question whether the law was enough. And it was largely triggered by this awakening that, even though I’m a product of Brown v. Board of Education, about twelve years ago I realized that I don’t think we could win Brown v. Board of Education today. 

I don’t think our court would do anything that disruptive on behalf of disfavored people, on behalf of marginalized people. And that terrified me. But it also energized me to recognize that we were gonna have to get outside the court and create a different consciousness.

What would, what could that “different consciousness” be? Stevenson opens his best-selling book, Just Mercy, with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian: “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” 

 Something else that Stevenson says made me think how we use laws to keep from getting our own hands dirty. 

 …I think sometimes when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world, the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity.

That sounds uncomfortable. But it also sounds like something Jesus did all during his ministry. Hugging, healing, welcoming the outcasts, the losers. Jesus came to bring — what? Healing? Justice? Why? One reason: love. God so loved the world. God so loved PEOPLE! God so loved US! Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.

When God speaks to the returning exiles, God is not handing out prizes like an Old Testament version of Oprah. God is rewarding the people so that they have the time, the energy, the means to bring about justice. 

 God is handing out tasks. Get to work. Bring justice to all people. 

Stevenson also says something that I’ve preached for a long time: the importance of hope. 

I am persuaded that hopelessness is the enemy of justice; that if we allow ourselves to become hopeless, we become part of the problem. I think you’re either hopeful, or you’re the problem. There’s no neutral place. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.

From the text: 

4  Then they will rebuild cities that have been in ruins for many generations.

Who are “they?” Not the rulers, not the established citizens, not the corporations. “They” are the returning refugees, those who have lost everything. The powerless, the poor, the disenfranchised will rebuild Jerusalem. Why not the powerful, the ones who can make the laws and finance the projects? Professor Casey Thornburgh Sigmon echoes what Stevenson says about discerning how to bring about justice: 

Perhaps those on the receiving end of injustice and greed can envision an alternative way of being as a society.

God is a God of hope. Advent is about hope, hoping for a Messiah, a Savior, someone to rescue us from oppression, from fear, from danger. 

This third Sunday in Advent is given the label of “joy.” What does that have to do with love, with justice? What greater joy can there be than to live in a just world? What greater joy is there than to be loved? 

Somewhere in the liturgy of my childhood I remember a phrase, “Our help is in the name of the Lord.” What else do we need to bring about justice? We have God on our side. Romans 8:31  If God is for us, who is against us? 

Evil is against us, in its many manifestations. But God has defeated evil through the anticipation, birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

The Spirit of the Lord God has taken control of me!
The Lord has chosen and sent me to tell the oppressed the good news, to heal the brokenhearted, and to announce freedom for prisoners and captives.

The Spirit of the Lord God has taken control of you!
The Lord has chosen and sent you to tell the oppressed the good news, to heal the brokenhearted, and to announce freedom for prisoners and captives.

The Spirit of the Lord God has been given to you—it is yours to use.

Let love be your motive, let justice be your instrument. Amen

ENDNOTES

 1 Tapestry Farms is a nonprofit urban farm system that invests in refugees, reconnecting with and nourishing land so that all may be abundantly fed and the Earth may be cared for. It is located in the Quad-Cities. https://www.tapestryfarms.org/ The director is a friend of the Prichard family.

 2 transcript of interview https://onbeing.org/programs/bryan-stevenson-love-is-the-motive/

3  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/spirit-of-the-lord-upon-me-2/commentary-on-isaiah-611-11-3 Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship; Director of Contextual EducationSaint Paul School of Theology Leawood, Kansas

 4 (In case you’re worried about turning criminals loose—two things: that’s the topic of another sermon and that’s not what it means.)

Repent!

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.  

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. 

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In the first chapter of the book of Joel, the prophet asks,  

2 “Listen, you leaders and everyone else in the land.

Has anything like this ever happened before?

3  Tell our children! Let it be told to our grandchildren and their children too.”

 How many times have we asked each other in this year of 2020, “Has anything like this ever happened before?  Have you ever had a year like 2020?”  Never in our lifetime have we experienced so much stress, so much disruption, such anxiety and uncertainty.

Couldn’t a pandemic be enough?  Or just civild unrest?  But both?   Not to mention droughts, fires, floods, derechos, hurricanes.   

Joel was writing in the context of a plague—a plague of locusts.  The locusts had arrived by the millions and had eaten everything in sight—even the bark off the trees!  Imagine what that does to businessmen, to families, to the rich, the poor. Nothing for anyone to eat. Nothing for the sheep or cattle to eat. No grain, no meat, no milk. No leafy greens, no carrots, no potatoes. No fruit. No nuts. What can grow without a leaf to suck in the life-giving sun? Every kind of nourishment had been stripped from every stem. 

In some Christian circles, there is talk that God sends all these disasters to punish us. That is not the case in Joel, nor is it the case today.  Joel maintains that God is trying to get our attention. God is calling us back to God. 

13b Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.  

Joel is more concerned with the response to the crisis than he is with placing blame.  

How do we respond to crisis?  

I have observed since March our collective response to the pandemic and to civil unrest.  Consistently, I have seen people respond with fear.  But this has not been the kind of fear that has turned people back to God. This fear has turned people in on themselves, away from community.  The fear I see has made us selfish, wanting to protect only what is ours, trying to depend only on what we can see and touch and hear. This kind of fear has inspired violence, both verbal and physical.

This kind of fear prompts us to turn God into our own image. It reverses the truth that we are made in the image of God. Instead of acting like we are created in goodness, we have recreated God in an image that suits our own sinful selves, a god of vengeance, a god of judgement, a god who reflects our own evil desires to hurt and destroy.

It is easy to justify our reactions by pointing out the times in Scripture where God lead God’s people to destroy their enemies. If you would add up all the mass killings in the Old Testament, God would be responsible for 2.8 million deaths. That includes the flood, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, the killing of the inhabitants of the “promised land” by the Israelites, ad infinitum. That reasoning ignores one major incident: the birth of the Messiah, the Savior, the Prince of Peace.

Evil still reigns in the world… you don’t have to look too far down the road to see our personal and collective tendency to give in to the convenient way, the popular way, the expedient way, whether it be about how we blame rather than help, how we argue rather than listen, how we ostracize rather than welcome the neighbor who disagrees, the friend who can’t get it together, the family member who disappoints us. 

Think about the troubles of the world that frighten us. What if they inspired us to help, to sooth, to welcome, to listen in the name of Jesus?  What if we intentionally thought of ourselves as “little Christs,”  Martin Luther’s term?

I don’t know what’s in your heart, but I know what is in mine.  Daily, every time I see something that worries me, my heart hardens.  How much happier I would be if I would invite Jesus into my heart to soften it, to make me see things the way Jesus sees them.  I’m not asking Jesus to take away my fear; I’m turning my fear over to Jesus.  “Be not afraid” appears in the Bible in some form 365 times. Yet how often do I let my fear guide my decisions?  

Advent call us to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  How do we do that? Scripture tells us to repent.  Repent.  Admit our shortcomings, our sins, and be heartily sorry.  

In our culture, it is hard to name our sins because so much of what is sin is acceptable behavior.  We rationalize our sin, we make excuses, we say, “I’m only human.”  That’s the point: you’re human, not an animal. To say “I’m only human” is to insult your Creator. You are human, created in the image of God.  You are not created in the image of a locust, a snake, a bear, a dinosaur. You are created in the image of Perfection.

Repent. 

Joel 2:13      rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Repentance is the work of the heart. But you are not alone when you repent. You are in relationship with God.  You repent, not to the world, not to yourself, but to God, to a God who loves you and cares for you more than you’ll ever realize. I picture myself laying my head on God’s lap and God  stroking my hair, lifting my chin, looking me in the eye and saying, “I appreciate your regret.  Everything is going to be ok.”

The gospel of Luke tells us that we can go beyond repenting to asking to be filled with the Holy Spirit

13 As bad as you are, you still know how to give good gifts to your children. But your heavenly Father is even more ready to give the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks. Luke 11:13Contemporary English Version

God does not punish us; God calls us to repent so that we can be in constant relationship with God. God has made it possible, through the death and resurrection of God’s son, Jesus Christ, to always be safe, even in the midst of assault, illness, pain, grief, loneliness. What does that look like? It looks like survival, it looks like hope, it looks like healing.  

God promises:  

 28Then 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.

Holy God, pour out your Spirit on me.  Fill me, cover me, keep me forever close. Amen.