What do you do when you are mad or sad?
Yell, cry, hide, complain, sulk, rage, blame, pray, eat, vent, pass judgment?
Lots of mad and sad out there right now…lots of different ways of expressing those emotions.
Mad and sad often are responses to confusion…things not going as we thought they would or should.
Mad and sad are also common responses to our own plans being blocked by things outside our own control.
Tell a child “no” to what they want and you will get…mad or sad, or mad and sad.
That doesn’t change too much as we get old…hopefully the response becomes a bit more mature.
I’m not, of course, saying mad and sad are not sometimes appropriate emotions.
For Jewish people, in biblical times…and in some forms of modern Judaism today a way of expressing anger and sadness was to tear a garment…also called “rending”.
The first instance of this in the Bible is when Jacob thought his son Joseph was dead. (Genesis 37)
Jacob’s jealous sons had sold their younger brother into slavery and faked his death
In response Jacob tore his own clothes in grief, put on sackcloth for many days.
Sackcloth, another physical expression of emotion…was like burlap, usually made of black goats hair…very uncomfortable.
This was to match physical misery with the emotional misery he was experiencing.
For Jacob, tearing his clothes, was not planned, or formalized…but a spontaneous physical response to an emotional or a soul tear…his beloved son, he thought, had died.
Later, this kind of response became formalized.
It was used when loved ones died but it was also a common form of repentance…symbolizing grief at one’s own sin, or the sins of your people.
The whole thing became at times…all symbolism and no substance.
For instance, jump to the NT and you find Jesus at the house of a local authority whose daughter had died…he had to disperse the crowd of hired mourners gathered there before he could heal the girl.
The richer you were, the more professional mourners you could afford.
By the time of Jesus even the poorest people were expected to hire professional mourners.
Jewish law specified that there should not be less than “Two flutes and one wailing woman” when a loved one died.
Clothes rending had also become formal, symbolized…often without real substance.
How do you know if something that is was a powerful symbol, symbols are important to us…has become pure symbol without substance for you?
A wedding ring is a symbol…it symbolizes a lifelong covenant commitment.
But when actions betray what the symbol signifies (betrayal or divorce without cause)…the symbol is without substance…the ring, is in a sense, a sham.
Real mourning or a real response to sin reveals itself in more than symbols and external shows of grief and anger.
What God is after is a changed heart leading to changed actions…very specific actions in line with his will and ways.
Again, there is a lot of anger, grief out there…lots of finger pointing, blaming, judging, self-loathing, others loathing.
Not just in regards to social injustice…but Covid shaming and blaming and fear…and when this is over…it will focus on new targets…we are wired by sin to look for external causes to our internal struggles.
*Much, not all…of the anger, confusion…blaming, shaming…are internal, personal issues…focused on external targets…easier to look outside than to deal with our insides.
Last week I spoke about this being a time of threat and opportunity.
The threats are numerous and obvious…the opportunities are also numerous but not always as obvious.
One key threat is that our different views regarding current events…and our sadness, anger, fear responses…will divide us, make us more judged and more judgmental.
A key opportunity is that we can become more unified around the gospel…less judgmental, free from judgment (self and others)…and then mobilized to more God-honoring and people blessing actions.
Let’s go to Joel…a short prophetic book comprised of poems…it speaks clearly to our time.
The book is 3 chapters where he uses a natural disaster (locust plague leading to wide spread suffering) to illustrate God’s judgment on sin, the need for real repentance, and the ongoing reality of grace and a future ultimate redemption.
Before we proceed a couple of thoughts.
- We don’t have the authority to make strong judgments regarding the theological nature of current events…natural or otherwise…Covid, riots.
I’ve read over the years people declaring that…
-A specific disease is God’s judgment on that specific people and that sin
-A hurricane is God’s judgment on that place where idolatry is practiced.
Maybe, but I don’t know for sure…how could I?
Joel is a Biblical author…he has the authority to make these kinds of observations…you and I…we don’t
I’m not saying natural events are not divine in their purposes…I’m saying…we aren’t qualified to make these kinds of precise judgments.
- God is in charge of the natural order and the history of mankind.
Nothing happens that surprises him or that is outside the realm of his sovereign purposes.
He doesn’t delight in sin or the consequences of sin(natural or spiritual consequences)…but he works all things for his purposes.
Proverbs 16:4 “The Lord has made everything for his purposes, even the wicked for the day of disaster.”
Let’s look at Joel and see what he has to say to us, today.
First our focus passage
“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” Joel 2:12,13
Let’s set this book in historical context…before we apply to our own context.
-400 years of slavery
-40 years of wandering (because of rebellion)
-Promise fulfilled in the land
-Ups and downs…as people follow then don’t
-Exile and captivity (back to slavery)
-Return to the land (but in much diminished glory)
-All of this is pointing forward to the Messiah…God would dwell in his people and restore them from the inside out.
–Joel writes during this time after the return from exile…he has a perspective of all that has happened in the past as well as what God intends to do in the future.
What was for Joel all future, is for us, some past and some future.
We live after the coming of Jesus…but before the time of final restoration.
Joel uses a locust plague as his point of reference for his prophetic poems.
Now, let’s get a context for what a locust storm like this would mean for a small country like Judah…it would feel like the end of the world…you need to know that.
Just two months ago in Northern Kenya a huge swarm of these insects (really what we would call grasshoppers) came like an army.
Swarms up to 70 billion of these 2-inch-long insects can destroy 300 million pounds of food in a single day.
Even a modest gathering of 40 million desert locusts can eat as much in a day as 35,000 people.
This locust plague in Joel’s time…was epic…they would have lost all their crops…all their food…starvation was imminent.
It would have made Covid in Wichita look like a vacation.
This was an epic disaster for the time…and Joel used it to communicate truths about God, his purposes…and our proper response to God.
He calls this event “The Day of the Lord”
Super important term:
Day of the Lord is used to describe a time of God’s activity…most often bringing judgment on those who oppose him and bringing deliverance to his people.
When Israel was enslaved in Egypt and Pharaoh was mass slaughtering their children…God delivered them and that day was called “The day” and was celebrated as “the day of Passover”.
Later as Israel messed up and came under oppression, they would hope for another day of the liberation from their enemies…a day of the Lord.
The prophet Amos, however, flips the script where he says “Why do you long for the day of the Lord? It will be like dark not light…the next day of the Lord will not bring judgment on your enemies but on you.”
Amos, a shepherd turned prophet…said that the target of God’s wrath is now Israel…God’s own people had become the enemy of God
Day of the Lord comes on Israel over and over…as they live continually under rule of oppressive empires…Babylon, Assyria.
When Jesus comes…the oppressive empire is Rome.
And his people expect the Messiah will bring Judgment on Rome…a new “Day of the Lord”
Instead…Jesus defeats the real enemies…Satan and sin…and does so by dying himself and raising from the dead.
The Biblical narrative ends (in Revelation) pointing to a yet future day of the Lord…where God will restore all things…including the physical cosmos as a whole…from sin and death.
Okay…back to Joel…his little book mirrors this entire gospel narrative.
- The recent locust plague was a “day of the Lord.”
- He says the proper response is to mourn, wear sackcloth.
But mourn with real sorrow…he wrote “mourn like a bride whose young groom had died.”
*Courtney…her sorrow was real, no pretense…no show…raw sorrow.
Joel says…mourn like that.
*Wear sackcloth on your loins (goats hair underwear)…ouch!…that would help me mourn.
Joel then says a future day of the Lord is coming…another time of judgment and repentance.
He continues the connection to the actual locust plague…that was still strong in their social memory.
But he uses military, cosmic poetic imagery to describe the future event.
*When the prophets spoke of these great interventions by God, they used images like “Stars falling into the sea”…which of course is poetic speech…this can’t physical happen.
*We use the same kind of language… “My world fell apart when my loved one died.”
-We don’t mean planet earth…but that the devastation was personal and powerful…all encompassing.
So, a future day of the lord, was coming on Jerusalem…terrible, who can withstand it unless the Lord turns from his wrath.
Then he writes…our passage for today.
“Rend your hearts not your garments, return to the Lord”
Return to the Lord means “repent” (turn around)…in substantial, heart level ways…not just in symbols…tearing your shirt…don’t make a show of it.
He quotes from Exodus after they had made the golden calf (engaging in idolatry even as God was graciously giving Moses the law)
And then, instead of wiping them out…God turned from his outpouring of what was appropriate judgment.
So… again, Joel writes…“Return to the Lord for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”
So, in response to the heart-felt repentance, God is going to turn his wrath away, restore the devastated land and bring his divine presence among his people.
One day in Joel’s future God’s own Spirit will fill not just the temple but all of his people so they can truly love and follow him…this has happened in our past…and we experience it in the present.
So, this guy named Joel, remembering the recent ruin from the insects and the past ruin of Egyptians and Babylonians…reflects on God’s larger purposes in the midst of these past, current and future events.
Sin has consequences for people and nations…and repentance is a heart-level event…that shows up in life-style choices.
Ultimately our hope is not in our ability to muster up feelings of “repentance” or even to make consistently good choices…but in God’s mercy on sinners like ourselves.
APPLICATION: Joel 2:12,13 to our time…two things: rend your heart, remember the grace of God.
- Rend your heart
God delights in substance not mere symbolism.
Beware of shows of religion or repentance or anger or sadness…that do not result in heart level turning to God.
Beware of externally anger and sadness…that neglect our own sin.
Symbols are powerful things…flags and logos and mascots and marches.
God likes symbols…feasts, special days, baptism, circumcision…he thought that stuff up.
But God has no interest in symbolism without substance…the symbols exist to help us change in substance…real ways.
Rending hearts shows up in actual acts of love for God and others.
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:6-8
Micah gives the grandest of possible symbolic acts (acts by the way that God initiated)…but Micah takes them to the extreme….thousands of Rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, my firstborn for my sin…is that what he wants.
No…God wants us to act justly, love mercy, walk humbly…these are shown in God’s law to be actual, practical actions towards others.
Or in the NT in Galatians 6:15
For neither circumcism nor uncircumcism means anything, what counts is a new creation”
The symbol of circumcism means nothing without the substance of new spiritual life with God…this life shows up in how we treat each other.
Galatians were treating each other poorly…much like some in the church in America are doing today.
When you feel angry at someone…when you feel the need to judge someone…back up…look at your heart.
Rend your own heart…judge your own sin.
But don’t stay in that judgment…repent and move to redemption.
The gospel is neither “others loathing” or “self-loathing”…it is love God, love people…and it is “you are loved by God, accepted in the beloved…now go love and accept others.”
Rend your hearts…then after rending your heart…
- Remember the Grace of God.
Return to the Lord…Because… he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
Rend your heart…application 1
Remember the grace of God…application 2
In the past (and often the present) there was a battle between what was called the “social gospel” and the “Spiritual Gospel”
It’s complex…so my explanation will be a bit simplistic
The bottom line, was that people claiming Christ often took on a two-story view of life
Each side emphasizing a different story…one upstairs, the other downstairs.
Neither living a fully integrated biblical single-story life.
One side emphasized the “upstairs”
Where the real, important world was the world of the Spiritual…heaven when you die.
The current, physical world was of little or no real importance…it is the downstairs world.
So…getting someone “saved” was all that mattered…not feeding or clothing them.
Holing up in Christian fortresses in order to not be overwhelmed by the world…became a norm for some groups.
So, education, politics, arts, science…were given over to those who had no Christian faith.
This was a break from Christian history…where evangelism and social action went hand in hand.
And it was an unbiblical imbalance and had disastrous effects.
Some, moved the opposite direction.
They also lived a two-story life…but in reverse…only the downstairs was important.
The life-to come, eternity, was of little real importance now…all that mattered was social justice, feeding, clothing, housing…spiritual salvation talk was a “distraction “or a cop out.
In central and south America in the 60’s the Liberation gospel movement was often violent and people were sometimes murdered in the name of this gospel.
Jesus became a revolutionary who was murdered by the establishment for shaking the social order…murder was an acceptable strategy in the liberation gospel movement…this is, of course, the opposite of the actual gospel.
Historically…many devastating problems come from one imbalance or another.
The gospel of the Kingdom being only “spiritual” and “heaven”…all future…is imbalanced and unbiblical
The gospel being only “physical” and “temporal”…all now…is also imbalanced and unbiblical.
The biblical balance of the Kingdom of God is… “Already but not yet”
Christ is fully man and fully God…the Bible is full of this balance.
Many saw this imbalance and lived and taught a balanced, single-story life…more recently…Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, and further back…Wilberforce, George Mueller.
With Jesus you see… “What you did for the least of these you did for me” and “Enter through the narrow gate.”
Gospel is good news in this life and into eternity…eternal life (A different kind of life)…begins at conversion and impacts all that you are and all that you do.
In his great Sermon on the Mount where we find the “golden rule” Matt 7:12 “Do to others what you have them do to you…this sums up the law and the prophets”
You also find that love for people and love for God is…meet immediate needs and meet eternal needs…they are never at odds…they are both aspects of loving God and loving people.
Much of what we are seeing in culture at large is going to prove to be destructive…because when you get the problem wrong you get the solution wrong.
The problem is spiritual…and the ultimate solution is the gospel.
But the solution will, of course, include meeting immediate needs.
But it’s also true that when you approach the right problem with a wrong heart…you also get a wrong solution.
Church believing the gospel…but operating out of pride, judgement, self and others loathing…
Rend your own heart…don’t judge someone elses.
But then, after repentance…move quickly to the gospel reality…that “The lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
*When we are quick to judge our own sin and not that of someone else.
*When we are equally quick to receive the grace and love of the Lord and not live in that judgment
*Then we are positioned to be and do what God wants us to be and do…whether it is march, feed, serve, correct, listen, share the gospel…or all the above.
Joel 2:12,13…is a powerful diagnostic tool for our approach to life…whether the threat is locusts, Covid, racism, anarchy, or the personal sin in my heart.
Start with your heart…be honest…no games…no show.
-I suspect, if we truly “rend our hearts” it might show up in a private journal…but I doubt it will show up in a blog, tweet or post.
-It could…be this kind of sorrow for our own sin is so far from show…that it’s unlikely to make it online.
Then move to God’s heart…it’s full of grace and compassion for you and for others.…when this grace is received…
WE SHOULD BE ABLE TO TRADE THE SPIRIT OF HEAVYNESS FOR GARMENTS OF PRAISE.
We can move out into the world with appropriate action and accompanying joy.
“Terry this is not a time for joy!”
Okay, then when has it ever been…have not unborn children been dying by the thousands for decades?
Have not millions been dying of treatable disease and at the hands of others in war for our entire lives?
How many Syrians have died the past few years?
How many Uyghurs are enslaved right now…how long has this been going on.
It is always, this side of eternity going to be a time of sorrow and joy at the same time.
God is, after all…a being of immense and unending joy…who at the same time feels real sorrow for our sin.
It is always going to be a time for “rending our hearts” and “rejoicing in the grace of our Lord.”
From that place of biblical balance…(impossible apart from the Spirit at work in our hearts) comes effective action in the world.