a sermon on Joel 2:23-32
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
There’s a relatively common disorder afflicting people everywhere, including me and maybe even you too, that makes living all too difficult sometimes. There are few physical symptoms, but this disease is easily identified if you are looking for it. There are a few home remedies, but sadly no cure. You know it well, I suspect: selective hearing – the tendency to hear what you want to hear and ignore the things that aren’t so pleasant! We do it in our lives constantly, focusing on the “good news” to seemingly encourage and protect others and ourselves, burying difficult words or bad news in lots of positive nonsense, even lifting up things that we like to hear and ignoring those we don’t.
So I think we have a bit of selective hearing if we just read the brief excerpt from the prophet Joel that we heard read a few minutes ago – those wonderful, uplifting words about God’s redemption of the people of Israel, comforting words that emphasize again and again that “my people shall never again be put to shame,” positive words that emphasize the good things to come when God’s spirit is poured out upon all creation.
But that’s not Joel’s main message, and to think it is is a pretty serious case of selectively hearing the Bible. The previous two chapters detail the ruin of the nation of Israel, lamenting its destruction and barrenness: “The fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails.” Lamentation, prayer, and fasting are the way of life for these days: “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.”
But after all this come the words we heard today, words we might select to hear more often. The trouble of these days will soon be past, says the Lord. God will send rain to ease the drought, and the conquering armies will be cast off. The fields will produce a bountiful feast, and the name of God will shine forth again. But this is not just a new day for the fields and the harvests of the land – the people too shall be made new: God’s spirit will be poured out on all flesh, bringing prophecy, dreams, and visions to all people, regardless of age, class, or anything else. And if that isn’t enough, the day of the Lord shall come in glory, ushering in an apocalyptic end to the way things have been and initiating a new way of life for all God’s children.
What a grand and glorious vision! What a way of life Joel imagines for us! What a joyous day that will come when all things are made new!
But we know all too well that these are promises for the future, not realities for the present. In these days we know the burdens of our world. We see the pain of unemployment and underemployment and a pretty stuck economy in our friends and family if not in ourselves. We know the difficulty of life and living in the incredibly complex world of the twenty-first century. We walk with our sisters and brothers along the ways of death and struggle to find words to offer comfort and hope. We hear the cries of “How long!” and “Will it ever end?” all around us, even in our lectionary readings in recent weeks, lifting up to God our lamentations and cries over and over and over again, to the point that we are ready to say, “Enough already!” And we have wondered what God is up to in this place in these days as we face uncertainty and change in the life of our beloved congregation.
So in the midst of such promises and such realities, some would say we need to do a better job at selective hearing, tuning out the negative vibes around us and lifting up the positive things from our faith to make us feel better and encourage us in difficult days. That’s been the practice for the last fifty-five years at a church out in Orange County, California. The Crystal Cathedral there was founded at a drive-in theater in the 1950s as a monument to the booming suburban culture of those days, and over the years it has embodied many of the excesses of that same culture that have become such a burden in the current financial times. This week, the church filed for bankruptcy, citing declining donations and continued high costs for opulent Christmas pageants and celebrity appearances on its national television program the Hour of Power.
But in my book its message has been the biggest casualty of these days. Over the years, the Crystal Cathedral has focused on a simple gospel of positive thinking, assuming that bigger and newer and shinier is always better, speaking more of self-help to recover from pain than redemption from God, and echoing throughout its life its famous pastor Robert Schuller’s message, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” In these days of economic uncertainty, when everything seems to be going wrong, this message falls flat. The troubles of these times show us that the gospel can’t be summed up with simple platitudes about how God will work everything out if we just believe in Jesus. Pageantry and show that paper over the real challenges of life and living are uncovered as the elaborate ruse that they are. And when things go wrong, bubbles burst, and uncertainty reigns, proclaiming God’s primary presence in positive things that might happen leaves us with a really bad case of selective hearing.
Joel’s words today, heard in their full context, offer us a real, honest place to dwell in the midst of these kinds of days – a comforting place where God’s presence is known no matter what befalls us; a simple place where we stand together in the midst of change and uncertainty to know God’s love, love one another, and extend that love to all the world; and a hopeful place for the days ahead to be full and complete not by our own doings but by God’s power that can make all things new.
As comforting as these words may seem, they are nonetheless still challenging words for challenging times – words that invite us to imagine that there is something more beyond what we know or can see in our past; words that encourage us to dream and vision beyond our turmoil into something new; words that comfort us that renewal and new life does not lie solely on our effort, work, skill, or presence; and words that call us to be confident that the ultimate new way lies beyond our imagination or vision and even our lifetime in the new thing that God will do in the world, shaking the foundations and darkening the skies as the culmination of the new creation comes to break down everything that has oppressed and raise up everything to be made new.
How do we dream when we stand in the midst of turmoil, though? How do we stop predicting trouble and move to predicting possibility? That’s really what Joel is about – not selectively hearing what is going on in the world but calling us to put aside our fears of what faces us in these days because God has been, is now, and always will be with us so that we can trust that God is already doing a new thing and join right in even when it seems darkest and most uncertain.
Yes, we will always have to battle our affliction of selective hearing, but what words do we need to hear so that we can join in God’s work in the world? What will inspire us to be the people who are open to God’s Spirit poured out upon them? And what can encourage us in the midst of uncertainty to be real about where we are even as we live in hope that God will act to redeem and save and make all things new? Such a way is not easy, but it is nonetheless the way before us.
May God’s spirit be poured out upon us as we join in making all things new.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.