Scripture: Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
Have you ever looked at someone in some sort of challenging situation and just wished you could shake some sense into them?
You know what I mean. You see their situation from a certain point-of-view and you just know you have the answer they need to get through it, but you can’t give it to them. Or maybe you have tried, but they aren’t listening to you, and just continue to struggle. Or maybe you just don’t have that sort of influence, or are too far away, or maybe it’s just something you see in the news where the whole world is thinking just like you are, but they too are hopeless to make any changes.
There are also times, such as dealing with our children, where we need to let them struggle a little bit in order to get them to figure it out for themselves, to help them learn to make their own decisions, and to grow as a human being while they do it. There may be times when we’ll drop hints as to what their options are, or other times when we just let them know we are here for them if they need us to help.
The wisdom is to know when to meddle in other people’s business and when to know to keep our big mouths shut.
The book of Joel feels like it’s coming around this sort of situation. Joel, as you read through his book, has seen enough and is trying to help the people through a tough time.
As we look at the book of Joel historically, it’s hard to pinpoint when this prophet was writing. There are hints to a number of situations, which seem only give enough information for Biblical scholars to narrow it down to a 400 year period between the 9th and 5th centuries before the birth of Christ.
What is clear though, is that the people are struggling a lot in their lives. The country is in ruins. The crops have been destroyed. The people are completely lost, and there’s hints of rampant alcoholism as the people live in desperate times.
Joel is acknowledging all of it in this book. There are great swaths of lament in his story as the people struggle to make do in their lives and provide for their families. But he is also seeking to share words of hope God has given him.
We only read four verses of the entire book, but they are verses that give great hope, I believe, not just to those Joel was sharing with, but also to us today.
The verses 12 and 13 of chapter 2 are a call to come back to God, despite all the struggles we are facing. All of chapter 2 leading up to verse 12 are verses of doom and gloom. It sounds like a great judgement, a great army is preparing to descend on the nation, and people are living in anguish as their cities and homes are destroyed.
And then Joel writes, “Yet even now… return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning.”
He wants the people to repent.
For Joel, worship is an important aspect of being God’s people. Other prophets have indicated that ritual worship is bland and meaningless, but Joel is calling people back to the ancient practices of worship, of sacrifice and fasting, and mourning and lament, of crying out to God in times of need. He is calling them to put themselves into these acts of worship as important elements of their lives, not just treating them as patterns of life or empty rituals.
This is an important consideration for us today as we look at what we do in our own lives and in our own worship. Why do we come here? Is it just a convenient pattern in our lives, or is there a deeper meaning?
And what about what we do here? Is this just our pattern of worship or is there a depth and meaning to what we do in this time?
My hope for both ourselves and our worship is that we are doing more than just following a pattern. I hope we are taking in each aspect of our service as an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. If we feel we’re not doing this, then let me know and we can reconsider our service and the meaning behind each part.
Worship is not meant to be a pattern, it’s meant to help us grow as followers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God among us.
Back to Joel, he wants people to fully engage with God as they worship. And part of that preparation for worship is to repent, which he sees as the need to open our hearts to God.
He says, “rend your heart and not your clothing.”
If you recall when there were times of tragedy, or moments when people felt great distress, they would tear their clothing as an act of submission to God.
Now clothing, in those days, was often the most valuable possession the people had. There were no Walmarts where you could walk in and buy a selection of clothing whenever you needed it. Clothing in those days were hand made, hand woven. They often took a month or more to make and they were very expensive to obtain.
However, clothing can be repaired. It can be replaced. So God, through the prophet Joel, is asking for something much more permanent. He is asking people to rend their hearts. He wants the people to open their hearts to him.
I’ve said this before, what is more intimate than our heart? And God wants in there. He wants us to open our heart so He can see all there is to see about us, and He wants to come in there to help us be healed of all our struggles and pain.
Does this mean anything to you? Do you feel some sort of longing for a deeper connection to God? Do you wonder what it is that might be challenging your relationship with Him?
There is something about this time of year isn’t there? We are spending a few weeks in Advent building up to what? We are preparing ourselves for Christmas. And in particular, Christmas Eve, when we will celebrate God’s gift to the world in joyful worship.
For some reason, this is the time of year when we want to be most open to God, even though it’s not always the easiest time to do it.
Our Christmas Eve service is our largest service of the year. Why? Because people are longing for it. They might not be able to express why they feel the need to be here, but there is something about that quiet night which speaks to people’s… what? It speaks to their hearts.
It connects with something deep within, something people might not be able to name, but it’s strangely familiar. It speaks to their heart, which God seeks to enter.
I had the great pleasure on Friday to meet a woman who is a former muslim who has converted to Christianity. She shared how she came to be saved by Jesus Christ. She simply said it was our God of mercy and love who won her over from their god of control, punishment and slavery. She found in Jesus Christ, that God wants to speak to our hearts and be intimate with us, which is something she knew she could never receive from her god. And this is from a woman who came from a very influential muslim family and who was very well educated.
In Jesus Christ, she found what she was looking for, and she found what Joel describes in verse 13 when he says,
“Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”
She found in our God the complete opposite of what she was getting from her god.
This is who we worship. We worship God who is gracious and merciful. He is slow to anger and just wants you to know the incredible love He has for you. There is nothing like it anywhere, I promise you.
If you want to know this, all you have to do is open your heart and let Him in. He will do the rest.
In the next set of verses we skipped over, what you would read in there is how God is going to reverse all the bad things in their lives when they open their hearts. How He is going to bless them and provide for them.
Then we get to verse 28, and God says He will do more than that, He says He will pour out His Holy Spirit on them.
Who does He say will get this wonderful gift? He says it’s sons and daughters; it’s young and old; it even will be poured out on their slaves and servants, those people who are not even Israelites!
God’s love, God’s Spirit is for everyone. He won’t hold it back from anyone who seeks Him in their hearts!
We like to think of Pentecost as the day God’s Spirit came to the earth. But here we have in Joel, God promising it to anyone who opens their heart to Him.
And when you look at the Christmas story, we see God’s Spirit working in many others too. God’s Spirit was in Mary when she realized who the baby is she’s carrying. It came to Elizabeth as she carried John the Baptist. It came to Joseph and Zechariah. God’s Spirit is not withheld because we don’t live in the right time, or live in the right place, or live the right life, or be born of a certain nation or family. God’s Spirit is for everyone who opens their heart to Him.
Jesus reminds us that God really does want this.
In Luke 11, Jesus says this,
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)
This is not Jesus talking about giving us want we want, like we are praying to Santa Claus. This is Jesus telling us that God wants to give us His Spirit to us when we ask for it.
Remember now, the Holy Spirit is part of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is all God. So when God wants to give us His Spirit, He wants to give us a piece of Himself.
Who else in all of creation would be willing to give you a piece of themselves, if they even could?
How much does God love you? So much He’s done two things. He’s given His Son who died for your sin, and He wants to give you the Holy Spirit, a piece of Himself.
In this Advent season, we might be waiting for and preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus and to also prepare ourselves for his eventual return, these are all important things for us to be doing, but we should also know that God is not holding anything back from us. God is ready and willing to come into your life right now.
Normally we think of Lent as the time for repentance, but if we repent today and open our hearts to God, He will still come in. He won’t wait. There’s no such thing as the right time or place for it to happen, God will do it whenever you make the move to open yourself to Him.
What did Jesus say? “Whoever stands at the door and knocks, the door will be opened.”
And Joel says, “open your heart and God will come in.”
This is the gift we can receive as we celebrate Christmas. This is the gift which surpasses anything we find under a tree.
It’s the gift of life, abundant life, blessed by God who will journey with us in the good times and the bad, reassuring us along the way, letting us know we are never alone.
Do you already know this gift? Or is it something you are still searching for?
This gift is offered for you through a relationship with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The one who was, is, and is still to come.
Let us pray,
Father, in this holy season of preparation, help us to prepare our hearts to receive the incredible gift you offer us. Help us to open our hearts and our lives to the mercy, grace and love you have to give us.
Father, if there is anything which keeps us from fully knowing your deep love, help us to see it and repent of it, get it out of our lives so we may strengthen our relationship with you.
We feel it in this season. We feel a longing, we feel a need to connect with you, so help us Father. Help us open our hearts to the gift you have just for us.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, who’s return we await. Amen and amen.