at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston
Joel 2:1-17 (NRSV)
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them peoples are in anguish, all faces grow pale. Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course, they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another, each keeps to its own track; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief. The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, "Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"
This is an evening for looking deep within ourselves. It is an evening for pondering who we are in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. Tonight I ask you to ponder this question: is your faith more than skin deep?
You know, sometimes you come across a new fact or idea that is so amazing, it just makes you sit up and take notice. I recently came across such a fact. Did you know that the average human being grows approximately 1,000 new layers of outer skin throughout his or her lifetime? That's right, we shed and regrow skin cells so often that it is the equivalent of growing 1,000 new skins over the course of a lifetime. I have two questions. What would we do if we didn't shed the old skin. We would be humongous-and not very nice-looking, as well. The second question is, why don't we feel as new on the inside as we are on the outside?
Your physical body is not the same today as it was seven years ago. Your arms, legs, and heart are completely different than it was seven years ago. Regardless of your age—your body is constantly changing.
the stomach lining replaces itself every five days,
the liver replaces itself every six weeks,
and the skeleton every three months.
To the naked eye, these organs look the same from moment to moment,
but they are always in flux.
By the end of the year, 98 percent of the atoms in your body
will have been exchanged for new ones.1
Getting a new body would feel mighty good for some of us. But our Bible passage for today is about a more profound and ultimately more fulfilling idea--namely, getting a new mind and heart.
The prophet Joel is speaking to the people of Israel, but he could just as easily be speaking to us today. He is in despair over how the people are practicing an empty form of religion without any heartfelt commitment to God. They observe all the necessary rituals, says Joel, but their hearts are far from God. Their faith makes no difference in their lives. Their sins have separated them from the Lord, and have made them a symbol of hypocrisy among their neighbors. The pagan people who live all around them have heard of the God of Israel--the Lord God Jehovah, the one true God. They hear that this is the Creator God, the Sovereign Ruler over all the Universe. And yet, the pagans can't help but notice that the people who supposedly serve this exalted God are living empty and sometimes even wicked lives. They are no different from everybody else. Their lives lack any higher purpose, and their faith lacks any redemptive power. And so the prophet Joel urges the people to repent, to return to the promises, purposes, and power of the Lord.
"Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity . . . Blow the trumpet in Zion . . . bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, "Where is their God?'" (NIV)
Preacher Vance Havner was once preaching on this passage from Joel 2. Havner believed this message hits too close to home for most modern churches. As he said, "There ought to be enough divine electricity in every church to give everybody in the congregation either a charge or a shock! . . . What do you mean by singing Onward Christian Soldiers' when most of your army has deserted? . . . I agree with Joel," says Havner. "I'm embarrassed when pagans walk by our empty churches, look in on our feeble ceremonies, see us swapping members from church to church, moving corpses from one mortician to another, preaching a dynamite gospel and living firecracker lives." (1)
That stings, but who would deny that he is in some ways right on target? As the cynical philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once asked, "If the Messiah has come, where are his people?"
How about us? Are we "preaching a dynamite gospel and living firecracker lives?" Do we who follow a Savior known for walking on water, changing ordinary water into wine, and raising the dead have any purpose for our lives? And if our faith isn't changing us, then how can we expect it to change the society around us? No wonder unchurched people roll their eyes at us and say, "Where is their God?"
I don't know about you, but I'm tired of being ineffective in my Christian witness. I'm tired of praying at God, instead of communing with God. I'm tired of reading the Bible as an ancient document instead of as the living word of God. I'm tired of coming to church and not expecting to be changed. And most of all, I'm tired of waiting for that good old "bye and bye" when I will see God. I want to see God now, alive and working in my life and in my community and in the world.
So what does it take to get re-connected to the Power? What does it take to restore our souls? The prophet Joel says it takes repentance. "Rend your heart and not your garments," says Joel. "Return to the Lord your God . . ."
I read recently that the ancient Mayan language has over 80 metaphors involving the heart. Everything from repentance, love, comfort, and fear is expressed using the image of the heart. To comfort someone is to "shape their heart." A shaken heart represents a state of anxiety. Repentance is expressed by such phrases as "my heart grows small," "my heart withdraws," or "my heart becomes two." And in the ancient Mayan language, to be at peace is expressed with the phrase, "My heart is seated." (2)
The prophet Joel, speaking in behalf of God wants us to look deep within our hearts--to see if there is any emotion or any attitude that is destructive to our relationship with God and our relationship with one another.
To experience God's power in our lives requires repentance.
Your first reaction to this statement might be to say, "Hey, I confess my sins all the time, but it doesn't seem to make any dramatic difference in how close I feel to God. What's all the excitement about?" Maybe we don't understand what repentance is all about.
Christian writer William Temple puts it this way, "Repentance does not merely mean giving up a bad habit. What it is concerned with is the mind; get a new mind. What mind? To repent is to adopt God's viewpoint in place of your own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God." (3)
What does it take to feel new again? Get rid of your old mind. Get rid of your old heart. Get rid of the self-centered attitudes and emotions that separate you from God.
In 1992, Professors Gloria Clayton and Leonard Poon published their results of an intensive study of centenarians--people who live to 100 years old, or more. One of the men they studied was Jesse Champion, 102 years old, who was active in his local church. In his interview, Mr. Champion said, "I know I've been born again." Then he added, "My hands look new. My feet look new. Yeah, he changed my heart. I had a hard heart, but he changed it." (4)
Can you imagine being able to say, at the age of 100, that everything about you is new? That's truly a person who has found the abundant life that Jesus promised us. What's the first step in discovering that abundant life? Giving up the old life. This is the one evening in our church year set aside for the express purpose of looking deep within our hearts and asking if we really have the heart of Jesus Christ. "Rend your heart and not your garments." Is this the appointed time for you to draw closer to God than you have ever been before? It can happen if you are ready for a new heart and mind.
This sermon is adapted from a sermon by King Duncan.
1. Vance Havner, In Times Like These (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1969), pp. 71-76. Found in Robert J. Morgan. From This Verse (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998).
2. "One From the Heart" by Victoria Dawson, Smithsonian, Feb. 2003, pp. 25-26.
3. William Temple, "Christian Faith and Life," Library of Anglican Spirituality, 1931, p. 67, The Clergy Journal, Feb. 2002, p. 32.
4. Hugh Downs. Fifty to Forever (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994)