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Unraveled

Joel 1.1-6, 2.12-13, 2.21-29

Have you ever had a piece of clothing come unraveled? Like a sweater or a woolen hat? And one little thread or piece of yarn comes out, and all of a sudden, the whole thing starts to come unraveled?

For a lot of us, that feels like 2020. It feels like the world is unraveling. That unraveling has begun, at least, with the natural world. Iowa had windstorms this summer, unlike anything they had seen before. There were more named hurricanes in the Atlantic this summer than ever before, including two major ones that hit our friends in Nicaragua in less than two weeks. Fires in the Pacific Northwest and California destroyed mile after mile of forest, and the homes and communities that were located inside of them. Earthquakes in the Midwest continue to increase year after year. Even COVID-19 was not a surprise to climate scientists, who suggest that deforestation has been taking away natural habitat in Asia, causing diseased animals such as bats and mice to come closer to urban areas and enter the food stream.

Now, one can argue of course, that some or all of these things are not truly “natural” disasters. From human causes of climate change, to human responses to the coronavirus, to human practices that precipitated specific disasters such as fracking or forest management. And, I would say that there is a time and a place for a prophetic call to repent of our participation in these communal sins.

But perhaps that time is not now. Perhaps now is not the time to kick us while we are down. For we are down. We feel personally impacted and unraveled by these disasters. Many of us know people who have suffered personally, or even died. And others of us have a more general sense of anxiety or depression. Families are feeling relationship stress, and generational discord between young people and their parents, or between adults and their parents…is common. Many of us feel isolated. Alone. Lonely. Afraid for the future. Angry at the past. We are down. We are perceiving deep natural loss and relational loss and interpersonal loss and personal loss.  We are feeling unraveled. Like a sweater, that might have made it with one thread missing, but as that thread pulls out farther and farther, we wonder if all that will be left will be a big pile of yarn.

Joel doesn’t seem to kick us while we are down, either. But he does point out very intentionally an unraveling in the natural world around him. The timeline of Joel is tough to pin down. Many prophetic books name exactly when they take place. “In the year that King Uzziah died.” “In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim.” We know what events these prophets are talking about, and we know when they are talking about. Joel, on the other hand, does not offer such a clear, specific timeframe. Most scholars tend to guess that is he is writing pretty late in the Old Testament period. Perhaps around the end of the Babylonian Exile, or even in the first years after the return to the Promised Land, during the days of Persian rule. Joel talks about an invading army from the North, meant to evoke images of hoards from Assyria or Babylon. This is a people in the middle of, or at least intimately acquainted with Exile. It is not accidental that Joel is read during this season, in which we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here…”

And this is a people in the midst of, or at least acquainted with natural disaster. In the passage that I read earlier, we see that the people have experienced a set of natural disasters. We know of fires and earthquakes and pandemic. For them, one of the worst kinds of natural disaster was an invasion of locusts. For an agricultural people, locusts mean the end of crops and livelihood and even life itself. In the passage I read earlier, we see wave after wave of locust coming and destroying crops. They even have different names for the different locusts that come. Cutting. Swarming. Hopping. Wave after wave after wave of disaster.

If indeed these people have just returned from Exile to rebuild their lives, this invasion of locusts—the invaders from the North—keeps them in Exile from God’s promise of peace. Just as soon as they get up from the mat, they get knocked down again. And it keeps them in the perpetual state of mourning. Did you notice the language that Joel uses here? “Rend your hearts.” He is referring to an ancient practice of rending, or tearing one’s clothing as a practice of grief. Joel here is talking about this deep and profound unraveling. But not just unraveling of one’s clothes., Of course this is but a symbol of the unraveling of lives, of families, of community, of livelihood, of hearts. This is a people in the midst of, or at least acquainted with grief. We understand their unraveling, because it is our unraveling. Wave after wave. Disappointment after disappointment. Disaster after disaster. And we are tired. And we are worn. And we feel helpless

But, again, Joel does not kick them—or us—when they are down. They already know the disaster that has befallen them. They understand the loss and the grief and the pain. He doesn’t need to convince them. God’s people here in Joel are living their own 2020. Or perhaps we in 2020 are living an echo of Joel’s Exile and disaster and mourning. And unraveling.

But instead of kicking them when they are down, look where Joel leans instead…

21 Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!

22 Do not fear, you animals of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

23 O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain[a] for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.

24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

25 I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.

26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

God’s Spirit Poured Out

28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.

29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

This is a book of restoration. Wave after wave after wave…of restoration.

The first wave comes as the restoration of the earth itself. Do you see how God talks to the dirt? Talks to the soil? “Do not fear, O soil!”  After our study of Genesis and the theology of dirt, this is no surprise. But to the people who are in the midst of a suffering of the natural world, it might seem like a surprise. Indeed, God names a restoration of the earth itself. Of the land. Of the dirt. Of the animals. Of the place that is destroyed and upended and unraveled. God speaks to the natural world and gives a word of peace. There will be a green restoration. There will be shalom. There will be peace on the earth again.

From there, God moves to a wave of restoration for God’s people. “O children of Zion, be glad…” Be glad? Of what? Are you watching the world around us, here God? God speaks here of restoration of relationship between the people and the rest of creation. God will give rains, and crops, and food for the restoration of the people. That restoration comes in the midst of what feels like helplessness and hopelessness. But God says it twice in two verses: “My people shall never again be put to shame.” For a people for which shame and guilt and grief are the height of emptiness, God delivers a word of peace and hope.

And finally, God delivers through Joel a third wave, a word of restoration of community. Every member of God’s community will have a voice. Old. Young. Male. Female. Slave. Free. The Spirit of God will come down upon them and they will have power and strength. It is no accident that Peter uses this passage to preach his famous sermon on Pentecost. For the restoration of community that Joel talks about is the same restoration that comes again with tongues of flame and power. Indeed, Joel preaches, God is restoring the community of God, in which all of God’s children have a place. All of God’s children have a voice. All of God’s children are welcomed into a place of peace. In the midst of their unraveling, there is a new bringing together.

Wave after wave after wave of restoration.

So what does our restoration look like today? What does it look like to be restored in 2020? If Joel refuses to kick us while we are down, how indeed does Joel give us a word that picks us up?

First, I think there is a rending happening. The Two-way this week keyed in on this phrase of the rending of our hearts. They saw it as a naming of the violence of the world around us. The violence causes to our nation and world. Today, I am here to echo the voice of Joel in saying that there is power in naming our rending. Naming our grief. Naming our pain. To name that rending gives us a chance to say, “this is not how it is supposed to be.”  The brokenness that we see around us is not the way that God has in mind for us. It is wise, I think, to name what we have lost. Relationally. Spiritually. Communally. As I stand here in what has more or less become a recording studio, I ache for you to return. I grieve the loss of community in this place and time. I want to close my eyes like Dorothy and click my heels together and return “home.” But I know that is not going to happen. And I know that some of the things that we have lost will be lost forever. There is power in the naming of those things. I miss you. I grieve. Join me in my grief. Let us together rend our hearts in mourning. Let us name our pain.

But then, let us repent. Here, in the second week of Advent, we live in a time of repentance. This is often a time to read John the Baptist, and the prophets, and the words of repentance. In the language of therapy, there is a time to “do our work.” When we name our pain, we also name our participation in that pain. This is a time of preparing and repenting. Not a time for guilt trips. Not a time for shame. Again, Joel tells us “let my people never be put to shame.” But a time for healing, and rebuilding, and growing, and returning to the ways of God and grace and love and peace. Again, Joel does not kick us when we are down, but while we are down, he reminds us that there are ways that we work to receive God’s healing and peace. And restoration.

Finally, if we are to participate in rending…and repentance…let us also participate in the restoration of the power of God. Just like God granted the people of Joel’s time a new way to be community…just like God granted the people of Peter’s time a new way to be Pentecostal community…God is granting us restoration of community in new and powerful ways. What will we no longer take for granted? What do we long to return to? What will replace what we lost that is now better and more healthy? How is God restoring you? From unraveling to a new creation?

It is the song of the season: “O Come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease; fill all the world with heaven’ peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Perhaps you have heard of the chart-topping song by Lewis Capaldi: “Someone You Loved.” It is a heart-wrenching song, but the video is even more heart-wrenching. It stars Peter Capaldi—better known as a former Dr. Who—as a man going through his life alone. Interspersed between those scenes of everyday life—waiting for the subway and doing laundry—it flashes back and forth to scenes of him travelling to visit his sick wife in a hospice house. They smile together. They laugh together. He brings her flowers. But it is clear that she is dying.  In their final moment together, he holds her hand and says goodbye.

But then the scenes introduce a young family. Capaldi’s character receives an invitation from them to visit them in their home. He shakes the husband’s hand and meets the wife. And suddenly it becomes clear to the viewer that she is a recipient of an organ donation. She has received his wife’s heart. She shows him her scar from the surgery, and invites him to hold his hand on it. So that he can feel his wife’s heartbeat once more. The family thanks him profusely. Their young daughter brings a card that she has made: “thank you for making my mummy better.”

A powerful story of restoration. His heart is rent, torn in two in grief. But alongside of that pain, there is healing. There is hope. There is restoration. It is the story of Joel. The story of Exile. The story of Christmas. And, yes, the story of 2020. My heartfelt prayer for you today is to know that God loves you enough to restore you to peace. May it be so.

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