Gen 9:8-17; Joel 1:1-4
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 18 February 2018
For this time of Lent, we will be working through the book of Joel. Like many of the small books towards the end of the Old Testament, what are called the minor prophets, Joel has its fair share of distress. It is easy to get bogged down in what seems like an over-dramatization of a difficult time.
But I suppose we could all be accused of that. What seems overwhelming to one person may not to another. What appears to be hastening the end of the world for us may appear to be just a Tuesday afternoon to most everyone else.
If you are living in Parkland, Florida, this week was very different than for us in Anchorage, and about as far away as you can get geographically in the United States. I do not propose to tell them how to mourn or what to do next. I hope that as a nation we will take the distress and mourning of Parkland, and the 17 families, and have the courage to respond, but I doubt it.
Joel, as with every other prophet in the Bible, struggled to reveal to their people the breadth and seriousness of what was going on. Jesus was no different. People didn’t want to hear what he was saying. And even 2000 years later, the church in his name ignores him when it is more comfortable and convenient than listening.
Joel sees the problems around him, and names them. He tells his people to mourn, to look at the agricultural destruction, the suffering of humanity, and what seems to be the inaction of God to help. It is not an easy time for Joel and his people. We do not live in easy times either, even if most of our lives are not catastrophically difficult.
But Joel doesn’t stop there. He surmises that if the people will turn to God in this moment of suffering, they will find relief. Surely this is a way out. Blessings will follow, the crops will return, the people will flourish. The forces of suffering and violence will be vanquished and all set right again.
The question might be, at least for me, what are we supposed to see when we turn back to God? Some would say prayer should be returned to public schools in response to school shootings, as if God will physically protect us from the violence we have wrought.
We met Joel today. He is sounding the alarm that the community is not in a good place. He says something like: “Have you seen days such as these before? Tell your children and their children what you see coming.”
The people do not see the destruction coming, but some of us have seen it before, or remember stories that our parents and grandparents shared. Joel instructs people to share those stories of suffering and violence. Tell them what you see, because they cannot see it.
What might people have done differently the last time this sort of thing happened? What can we learn from past moments like this?
Lent is this sort of moment in the church year. It is a time of reflection on where we are, who we have become, and what kind of a people. But that is not where the tale ends. In fact, that is also not where the story began.
I did not grow up following the church calendar, but as an adult I have come to appreciate the cycle of seasons that follow a different rhythm than the typical Gregorian calendar. As we look at Joel over the next few weeks of Lent, and draw in other themes along the way, I hope that we can begin to see the arc of promise in difficult days.
For today we are beginning with Noah. More specifically, Noah after the flood story. God makes a covenant with Noah, the people and animals with him, and all of creation. In that moment God’s first task was to make a covenant. This is the first such covenant between God and people in the Hebrew Bible.
As Congregationalists, we use a similar language of covenant. We use it in wording for marriage, or through church membership. It is a willing entering into relationship between two equal parties. At least it should be. If one person maintains more control in the relationship, then it is they who have broken the covenant. If it is not a relationship shared on a level footing, then it is not a covenant in our tradition.
So, as we might assume, when the relationship is with the life-giving force that is behind all of creation itself, that is very different. If God is one of the parties involved, how could we ever be on a level footing? This is a perpetual problem. As Christians we place Jesus as our connection to God, but that itself raises new questions we won’t solve today. Was Jesus God? How much so?
For now, as we look at Noah’s story, it strikes me as interesting that in the entire story we read today, Noah does not say a single word. The covenant is just God talking, just God promising to do or not do certain things. What could Noah say anyway. He just got off a boat because God told him to get on it. Not getting on would have been a poor choice. What could Noah add anyway?
This is what I mean by an uneven covenant. From the perspective of this story, God is the only one who holds power. Therefore, Noah cannot say or do anything that can hold God accountable for the destruction that just happened. So this is a different sort of covenant.
It is instead the leveling covenant. It is the equalizing promise. God now releases the option of controlling or destroying creation. Of course, this is all a storytelling narrative, but it sets up the way future covenants are made between God and people, and eventually the way we look at covenants between people.
God no longer retains the right to exercise power over creation. In this sense, God changes first. Before anyone is asked to respond, God changes. This is what I would describe as God giving up toleration, and embracing unconditional and all-encompassing love. No longer does God retain the right to choose anything different. God is not tolerating us until we do something to not warrant that love.
God will no longer retain as a choice the destruction of life. It is a way of God’s moving to a lower state and becoming subject to the ways and needs of humans. I suppose we might even see Jesus as this sort of process as well. Whatever you think about Jesus, who he was or wasn’t, the power of that person compelled those around him to see God in the midst of their suffering.
The followers of Jesus, including us, could no longer be left to think that God did not care, that God was disinterested in their suffering, in their lives. Not only is it a statement that God would care, but even that God would choose to know what it feels like to be human. Regardless of who you think Jesus is, it is a powerful thing to say that God feels our pain.
Joel will also go in this direction. Days of promise lie ahead. Crops will return, the bounty of life will be restored. The forces of destruction will be laid low, and God will delight in that day. But that day is not necessarily today. People do not see the destruction right in front of them, so they have no way of seeing any sort of hope beyond it.
We have seen suffering before. We have heard the stories, but just as text books stop telling the true story of suffering on topics such as trans-Atlantic slavery, and instead call it things such as migrant-labor relocation, people forget. When cities consider discrimination of certain citizens, people forget what that has looked like before.
But people also forget the first covenant God made with Noah. We lose the memory that God was lowered down so that we might be in relationship with God. We forget that the force that holds both life and death is not disinterested, but cares for us, and is calling us to respond.
In our own times of violence and suffering, of indifference and open contempt, may we see these forces for what they are, and hold them accountable. But may we never forget that just as God gave up the power to Lord over creation, so we must respond in kind. We must not continue to act with indifference, violence, contempt, or anything else that attempts to limit another’s seeing the all-encompassing love of a God that chooses to be with us, and promises to never leave us.
We have met Joel, and the next weeks stand to be bumpy. Stick with it. Travel through the turbulence boldly, for boldness will be required if we are to make it through. Amen