With the exception of a quick quote on Pentecost, the book of Joel is one we don’t read in church very often. If you were to skim through it sometime, you’d see why. Joel is a prophecy that begins and ends with violence. In the beginning, the people are enduring a devastating invasion. It might have been a military operation that the prophet describes as a plague of locusts, or it might have been a plague of locusts the prophet describes as a military operation. Either way it’s a disaster!
The crops get ruined. The ground itself mourns. Herds of cattle wander with no place to pasture; the flocks of sheep are dazed. The water has dried up! The animals are groaning to the LORD. Everything’s gone wrong.
Into this sorrow, the prophet announces a vision. The Day of God’s judgement is coming, and on this day, the LORD will become the invading army. Clouds will pour over the mountains; fire will charge before them. The faces of the people will grow pale.
If you were to jump to the end, you’ll find the promise culminates with a call to arms. Take your plowshares and turn them into swords. Sharpen the pruning hooks into spears. Gather all the guns you can find! The battle is coming, and the LORD our God will prevail. Then the crops will be plentiful. Jerusalem will be restored. The Holy Spirit will avenge our blood.
The book of Joel is the story of a terrible battle that gets answered by a glorious battle. Remember the people had been in anguish. Here the prophet’s telling them that no invading army —whether it’s soldiers or locusts— no army is a match for the army of God. So sure it’s not an obvious choice for the Peace Sunday of Advent, but we can imagine how this battle cry reached the people who were mourning.
It made their hearts thrill. It made them burst into singing of power getting turned upside down. It made them hope for the day they might not even live to see, but their grandchildren might, so Hallelujah.
Nestled in the middle of the war poetry, we hear the scripture Aaron read. Look, this is what God is going to do: He will pour out his Spirit upon all people. Even old men will dream dreams! Even young women will prophesy! Those who have been silenced will come to voice; the weary ones will begin to sing. In those days, God will pour out her spirit upon us.
Before that, right in the center of the book, the prophet speaks right into the heart of the devastation and declares this is what the people must do: Repent.
Even though their faces are pale, and their stomachs are groaning, and their animals are distressed, and the ground hurts, and the rivers have quit, and the stars refuse to shine. Even though the people are weary from despair… The LORD tells them, you’ve got to come back. Bring me your fasting, and your weeping, and your mourning. Come back to the LORD who is somehow abounding in mercy. Turn and come back.
Now it could be the instruction to repent does not strike us as good news. Often in our world, we think of repenting as feeling bad about something we have done. Repent sounds like relent. It evokes desperate apologizing and unwieldy guilt. The very notion that we might need to repent is enough to trigger our defenses. But it could be. It could be there’s something more to it…
Right in the heart of the word, God speaks to the weary people and says: You can still choose your direction. You could turn your heart toward my heart, says the LORD. You could turn your love toward my love. As though we could too.
Back in the early days of the pandemic, we thought it would be a crisis that would last a few weeks. I kept sending out those letters saying that we’d be staying apart for a few more weeks, then a few more weeks. Now the official decision of the council is that in-person worship will resume when it is safe. Back in the early days, the question was: How can we adapt to this situation? That’s not what we’re asking anymore.
These days the question is: How can we keep going? I don’t know if you’ve listened to any teachers lately. I don’t know if you’ve seen Facebook posts from parents who have kids in school. I don’t know if you’ve spoken to anyone who works in health care, or anyone who’s in prison, or anyone who’s lost their job, or anyone who’s dealing with depression. Oh my friends, we are bone-tired. Our hearts have grown weary. It’s no wonder we’re asking the LORD: How are we supposed to keep going?
It’s no wonder our prayers have turned to bargaining. Please can’t things just go back to normal! Before masks. Before Zoom. Before political division turned violent. Before white supremacy was exposed. Before the deaths of people we love. Before singing was dangerous.
It’s no wonder we’ve made it our prayer to ask God to put our world back to how it was in February —as though that was normal!
It’s no wonder, but you and I know. The LORD our God has spoken into the devastation directly to the people who are weary. You could come back, says the Spirit. You could turn your hearts and come back, and God is right, and so is the prophet, but here’s the thing they don’t tell you about repenting! If we’re going to choose to position our lives in the direction of God’s love, there’s no way to do that and not realize, Oh. We’re going to have to change what we were hoping for…
This is the work of peacemaking: It’s noticing the real horror in our world —without getting defensive or dismissive. It’s taking seriously somebody else’s suffering, then asking: What if this is not inevitable? What if we could begin working toward a promise that we can’t yet see the whole of?
If we’re going to repent, we’re going to have to give up what we were hoping for. You know we could do it. Even now our hearts could thrill! We could hear ourselves start singing. Power could turn upside down. I really believe there’s something more to hope for than a military victory or a political victory. There’s something more to hope for than things going back to normal.
There’s a poem I really love, and when you have a minute, I encourage you to look it up. The name of the poem is Good Bones and the name of the poet is Maggie Smith. And I can’t read the poem right now for copyright reasons, and I won’t read the poem because I did that once for a vespers service at Friendship Manor and everyone in the room —including me— wished that I hadn’t. It is a hard poem to hear.
Smith starts out by setting up a juxtaposition between telling the truth and withholding it, so right away she’s got our trust. Then without blinking or taking a breath, she juxtaposes that which is terrible in the world with that which is tender. It’s a clean blow we never saw coming. What just happened?
And then Smith ends the poem with this admission about her children: “I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent realtor, walking you through a real —hole, chirps on about good bones: This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”1https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/89897/good-bones
Peacemaking is going into the hell, then sitting down, then wondering: We had been hoping just to get out of this alive but what if there’s actually something so much better… This is the work of peacemaking, and if you’re wondering how we do this, me too, but I think it might begin with repenting.
I think it might begin with picking up all the jagged fragments from all the harm we’ve caused and all the harm we’ve survived… It’s picking up all this in our own two hands — then choosing to go back to the LORD even though this means we’d have to give it up.
Oh my, says the Spirit. Let’s see what you’ve brought! Here. Let’s take all this and make it into something beautiful!
Because it’s not even too late. We could still come back to the LORD. We could still come back to life.
Now I know we don’t read Joel very often in church —for obvious reasons. But someone who knew the heart of Joel is whoever it was who wrote the Gospel of Luke. The same Spirit of the LORD that gets poured out upon the people is the Spirit who hunts down a teenage girl in Nazareth.
Could be that Mary had hitched her own hopes to the promise of the coming of the Day of the Lord. As soon as her cousin blessed her to believe the angel, Mary remembered the song she had grown up hearing. It made her heart thrill! It made her burst into singing of the day when God would arrive with a show of dazzling force and turn the powers of the world upside down.
But when Mary turned her love toward God’s love, well— she had to change what she hoped for. All of us did! Because God didn’t swoop onto the scene with an army. God didn’t call the farmers to join the fight and avenge the blood of those who were invaded. Instead God heard Mary singing of this great and glorious day, and even though the world is still broken, and even though the violence has not diminished, the LORD our God handed her a baby!
And I’m pretty sure Mary looked at that baby. And I’m pretty sure her heart broke.
And I’m pretty sure Mary spoke the words every parent has said including God: Oh Baby, see the world. You could make this place beautiful.