SERMON: Outward Observances vs Inward Spiritual Reality (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)
Lent can be a very mixed up time of year. Some people pursue the more outward observances by giving up something – some give up chocolate, etc., and some churches even give up flowers. Others take the opportunity for a more spiritual reflection – most commonly on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some have a stab at both. Whilst for others Lent has no real meaning at all.
Of course one of the problems with Lent is that its meaning has changed over the years. In earlier times Lent was only 3 days long. It was then extended to 1 week and then to 40 days. And it changed from a 3 day period of reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus to a 40 day period of preparation for baptism, at a time when candidates for baptism were not always what they seemed. Lent, therefore, became a time to sort out those who were genuine from those who were trying to infiltrate the church with ulterior motives.
Now in one sense you could say that the reason for Lent being 40 days long may no longer apply. But have we got it right in terms of outward observances, spiritual reflections, and the balance between the two?
Well, to the answer the question, I want to refer to the prophet Joel, because he was very good at putting spirituality into perspective. And as a consequence, I believe, there are many lessons we can learn from him.
2. The Prophet Joel
Now who here has been caught up in a call for a National Day of Prayer for something? It could have been for a flood, a famine, a disaster, a bush fire, or any number of other things. But a day of prayer where people are asked to go to earnestly seek God’s help. Well if you have, then you may feel a connection with the prophet Joel.
B. THE PROPHET JOEL
1. Background (Joel Chapter 1)
Now the disaster that affected the people of Joel’s time was a plague of locusts. And it wasn’t just one plague, but plague after plague after plague. It was a situation the likes of which the people had never seen before. So much so that their crops were totally wiped out. As a consequence Joel called the people to gather for a public day of prayer.
Now in those days there was no such thing as canned food. There were no large supplies of stores set aside for such disasters. What the people ate generally would have been what was growing in their fields. And if nothing grew people went hungry. As a consequence the people were facing disaster.
However Joel believed there was a reason for the disaster, and the reason was that the people had abandoned God. Despite many calls to return to God they had ignored call after call after call. As a consequence, God was using this opportunity, even brought it their way, in the hope that they would return to him.
Now Joel believed that if he could get the people together, if they could come together for a special service of national lament – a time of national mourning – a time of repentance, then God would come to their rescue. So he sent out an appeal for all people to join in a time of national lament.
And he specifically targeted three groups of people. He targeted alcoholics. Now that may seem to be an odd group to target, but as he pointed out, once their wineskins were emptied – the devastation was so massive – there would be no further supplies of alcohol. He invited the inhabitants of Jerusalem, because the shortage of supplies would make divinely ordained services at the Temple impossible. Consequently the whole religious system – of which they enjoyed the outward observances – would shortly break down. And he invited all agricultural workers, because their livelihood depended upon the harvest of grain and fruit. And with no crop, they would have no income.
Well you can guess what happened next . . . Joel’s appeal fell on deaf ears. The people were not interested. Yes, they faced a disaster of devastating proportions, but the people were just not interested in putting themselves out for God.
2. Joel 2:1-2
But Joel wasn’t to be put off, so he tried again. And whether there was a fresh attack of locusts to help his argument we don’t know. But this time he tried to illustrate how their pride in their own ability to survive was getting them nowhere, and that they needed God’s help.
And to illustrate his point he demonstrated the uselessness of the military defences around Jerusalem to do fix the problem. According to Joel, God wasn’t impressed with their own self efforts. What was needed was for people to go to the temple, and to participate in a special service of humiliation before their God.
3. Joel 2:12-17
And despite what had happened, despite their stubbornness, it wasn’t too late. And Joel pointed to three things they needed to do to get God on side.
a). The need to repent (12-14)
Firstly, before anything else, they needed to repent, to return to God, and to return to godly ways. Before anything else, there needed to have a change in attitude. What was required was not a display of outward observance. What was needed was a more genuine inward spiritual response.
b). The need of a service for national repentance (15-16)
Secondly, but only after getting the first bit right, there was a need to come together as a community. This was an urgent call. No matter what people were doing, no matter how inconvenient the timing of the assembly was, they were to come together. Whatever else was going on, nothing was more important that this one event.
c). The prayer of lament (17)
And then, thirdly, once the people were together, the priests could intercede with God on behalf of the people.
Now there’s a logical order in Joel’s call for a service of National repentance. Firstly people needed to genuinely repent. Secondly people needed to meet together in public worship. And thirdly, and only once the people had shown themselves to be genuine, there was to be a time of public prayer.
And the result of Joel’s call was that the people did repent, that the people did meet together, and the priests prayed to God about their situation. And we know that because the rest of the book of Joel is about the material and spiritual blessings that God provided because the people had returned to him.
What we have in the prophet Joel, then are some clues to what God is looking for in his people. There are also clues to the blessings he wants to give provided we are faithful. And Joel tells it from the perspective of people who have no time for God, and for a people who consequently reap the wrath of God.
What clearly comes out this whole story, then – which ties in with the purpose of Lent – is that God isn’t interested in displays of outward observances on their own. (Because if outward observances were enough then there would be need for repentance or lamenting.) What God is interested in is the genuine heartfelt spiritual connection between his people and himself.
1. The Need to Repent (2:13a)
Rend your inner being not your clothing… that was the first stage in the reconciliation of the people with God. Consequently if we are to give up anything for Lent, it shouldn’t be trivial things like chocolates and flowers. It should be the things that create barriers between us and God. In other words habits that are unhealthy, and anything that takes us away from a relationship with God.
But more than that, Lent should also be a time that we take things on – becoming more actively involved in learning more about God and ourselves. Learning to resist pressure where other things are considered more important than God. Doing things that would help point us in the right direction.
2. Service of National Repentance (2:15a)
Blow a horn in Zion, announce a time of fasting, call a solemn assembly… that was the second stage in the reconciliation of the people with God. Consequently, outward observances have their place, but only amongst people who have first of all repented. Displays of outward observances are only fitting within the context of the community of faith.
So in regard to the way we observe Lent, it is not just the individual who is called upon to build up their relationship with their creator, but the whole community of faith. And in the context of calling people outside the church for a day of national prayer we need to heed a warning. Joel only called for a service of national repentance within the context of the people’s need to repent.
In other words, there’s no point in calling people outside of the community of faith to a day of prayer, if they haven’t first been called on to repent and turn to God. And yet I wonder how often we are invited to such services, without being called on to change our ways and return to God first.
3. Prayer of Lament (2:17a)
Let the priests, the ones who minister before YHWH, weep between the porch and the altar… that was the third stage in the reconciliation of the people with God.
Now it’s interesting that the intercessions involved weeping. It involved asking God to take pity on the people, and it involved concern that God’s reputation with the surrounding nations remained intact. And that formula fits well with people who are in touch with God. It shouldn’t surprise us that it was God, not the plague, which was the central focus of their prayers.
But then prayer was never intended to be only a list of things that we want and need. Prayer has always been about our relationship with God. It’s about getting to know our God, and getting to know ourselves. It’s about putting everything in its proper perspective.
Once the people of Joel’s time submitted themselves to God, and pursued a relationship with him, everything else just fell into place. And if we could do the same, then I have no doubt that we would be equally blessed too.
Now the prophet Joel is a very interesting character, and the book of Joel is very suitable to be read on Ash Wednesday. It’s a good choice because it has the relationship between God and his people as its central focus. And consequently it puts outward observances and spiritual reflection into perspective.
So, does Lent still have meaning? Well, I think yes. We may not use the 40 days as they were intended as a time of preparation for baptism, but times of special focus throughout the year I believe are a good thing.
How then do we balance the outward observances, with the more spiritual pursuit of God? Well we need to get them into perspective. And we can only do that if we are first serious about pursuing our relationship with God.
Posted: 29th January 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis