The Narrative Lectionary reading this week is from Joel 2:12-13, 28-29.
So I have to give you a litte background on the Book of Joel. The prophet was speaking to Israel and Judah just after the Persians had allowed them to return back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. However, not all is rosy for them on their return. There’s a threat of a “swarm of locusts” (actual locusts? invading army? no one knows for sure) coming (1:4), a sign to Joel that the people should repent. “Return to the Lord your God,” (2:13)
Repentance seems a bit out of place here. That’s a theme we typically take on at Lent. Repentence, or turning towards God, is something we do in light of the recognition that we’re with Sin, that as a result, we all die. (“The wages of sin is death.” ~Romans 6:23) But, repentance during Advent, during the Christmas season? This is supposed to be a joyous, hopeful time of year….it’s the holiday season. People travel home to be with family. College kids come home after a long semester for a break. This is a happy time. A time to celebrate with everyone, not a time for Lenten repentance.
College was a time of homecoming for me as well. Since I had chosen to attend college on the East Coast, my return home to Minnesota was significant; I didn’t get home often because I was so far away. I remember looking forward to the time to rest. I remember looking forward to our normal Fuller family holiday traditions; to Christmas Eve worship at my small little rural church; and to seeing people I hadn’t seen in so long.
But then, while I was on the plane, this sense of dread started to come over me. And as I got off the plane, into my dad’s car and traveled home, a profound saddness swept over me. Something wasn’t right. What should’ve been such a joyous time, became a moment of darkness for me. Darkness that not only hurt me, but my family as well, because neither of us at the time understood it.
Looking back, I realize that my mom’s alcoholism & parents’ divorce, and the stress I felt being out East for school were now a part of my life and now, my holidays. No longer were my childhood expectations of a joyous Christmas real, rather it was the saddness that I had grown up and that there was brokenness in my family – that was my new reality. It made everything on the surface of celebrating Christmas – the joy and warmth – seem fake and meaningless.
It was similar for Israel and Judah so long ago….expectations of a joyous return to Jerusalem, only to come to the reality that after 200 years of exile, their native land had changed. The threat of locusts (or, an army of a rival nation) their new reality. And those realities brought on a sense of darkness, a darkness in which people would abandon God’s promises of hope and joy, leading ultimately to, lost faith in God altogether.
But God speaks into that darkness. See, God’s word to Israel and Judah through the prophet was a call to repentance in Joel. But, the call to repentance was to remind the people who God was, that God had not abandoned them. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” That’s the whole of verse 2:13.
God’s call to repentance is a call for people to “come home” – not in the sense of returning to a land – but to a relationship: a relationship with the God who loves lavishly and constantly, and who deals with us with grace rather than punishment.
That reminds me of a song….
Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home (~Phillip Phillips’ “Home”)
This Advent is a time of repentance. God’s announcment through Joel is the same announcment through Jesus’ coming into the world. The call to repentance is a call of homecoming. And the words of one of my favorite hymns puts it so well,
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you, and for me….
“Come home, come home!
You who are weary come home.”
In the midst of the darkness that this season, that this hectic time of year can bring, may you hear God’s call for you…to “come home” – come to the One, the Light that shines in the darkness, who has come, and always comes to you, with grace and love. Amen.