Commentary on Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
For preachers and congregations that have followed the Revised Common Lectionary in the past, it may seem out of place to read portions of this Ash Wednesday text in the midst of Advent. But bringing Joel into Advent results in some promising homiletical adventures.
Joel opens in lament over a country in ruins. Note that most of the destruction described is not necessarily from a human enemy, rather the crises are environmental. Why will this destruction fall upon Judah? We lack specifics. From 1:13 we can assume that the destruction is impending. Joel paints a vivid picture. Land plundered and burned, animals crying out to God for water … all of earth seems to lament. With resources devoured, Judah will not have anything material to offer in worship of the Lord. How then will they offer a sacrifice and repair the relationship with their God?
Joel speaks. At the heart of right relation is not the material resources Judah brings to the temple for worship. The prophet’s aim is to rightly order lament and ritual to prevent the day of the Lord from overtaking Judah. This ritual return may not require a standing temple with the regular order of ritual activity at all.1
Another connection for preaching into our context rises to the surface: how many of us are preaching in the ruins of pandemic this Advent? Or the ongoing calamity of climate change? Our sanctuary may stand, but it stands empty, or at the very least, far from capacity.
Nonetheless, without the familiar handles for connection with God, Joel assures Judah that worship is still possible. How?
The movement of this passage, and perhaps for ordering a sermon, is return, rend, and reward.
Return to God
Joel does not specify how Judah turned away from God. Yet we know that a return is called for. How will Judah return to God, without temple, without material offerings? With a return to God’s service.2
The preacher may want to connect to ancient understandings of Advent as a season of repentance and fasting in the church before Christmas. But there is a nuance to this repentance, perhaps distinct from Lenten repentance.
Rather than focusing on guilt and blatant accumulated behaviors in need of Lenten scrutiny before Easter, Advent repentance may be a turning away from the cultural accumulation of happy, holly jolly Christmas. After all, Joy was born in the midst of the, well, feces of life. Sing Advent’s songs of waiting and watching, and find joy in singing together (from our homes or bubbles): “a thrill of hope” in the midst of a weary world before breaking out into Christmas songs.3
Rend your hearts
Some scholars see the rending of the heart as being a “sign of sincerity, the heart being a symbol of the innermost part of a human being.”4 What does the Hebrew word for heart mean? Not feelings, as we in our Western Hallmark-itized culture might assume.
In the Hebrew meaning, heart implies “determination, purpose, or courage.”5 In other words, this original meaning better relates to the first invitation in verse 12—your weeping and lamentation are welcome. Even if you have nothing else to bring, that would be enough. You do not need to feel happy or better to courageously rend your heart to God. Even in sorrow, we are invited in this pericope to sincerely commit to follow God rather than anyone or anything else. Where our heart pledges allegiance impacts our actions (our worship in the true sense) in the world. So return your pledge to God.
If the people respond to Joel’s call to return to God and rend their hearts in worship, they will be rewarded not necessarily with avoiding the day of the Lord, but with the endurance to persist through the day of the Lord. And ultimately, all of Judah will also receive God’s Spirit in the flesh. Not just the temple priests and those ordinarily associated with that holy connection to God. All flesh. This is the reward.
Receive the reward
We skip ahead to verses 28-29 in our pericope, as God speaks again in the first person about the reward for returning to God and rending the heart to God:
If you return, turn to God
With your whole heart
Not just the happy parts
But the weeping part
Fasting from whatever keeps you from connecting
Mourning honestly what is to be mourned,
Then I, God, will pour my Spirit on all people.
Often we approach worship from a place of positivity—that if I were to approach God with sadness, grief, regret, weeping, then the Spirit will not fall upon me. Not the spirit of Christmas, let alone the Holy Spirit.
But that is not what God is speaking into Judah through the prophet Joel.
Some churches hold space for this grief outside of the regular Sunday ordo. This may be done through a Blue Christmas or Longest Night service sometime around the Winter Solstice.
But consider it a gift that the Narrative Lectionary creates space through Joel to hold weeping in worship from the start this Advent. We are a grieving people, a weeping people. We are not sure how to return to God without our sanctuaries, our past patterns for worship. This lament is welcome before God.
Hear the Good News: the gift God wants from us is our whole heart. And the gift of God’s Spirit will not be withheld until that heart is no longer broken. No, She arrives, binds up our wounds, replaces our doom with visions of what could be and to helps us to hear one another into being and building the Kindom of God.
- Elie Assis, The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope, 1st ed. (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 144.
- Eveline van Staalduine-Sulman, “Targum as Interpretation and the Interpretation of the Targum: Joel 2:12-14 in the Targum and Its Latin Translations of the Sixteenth Century,” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 83 (2018): 21.
- Cappeau, Placide. 1847. Oh, Holy Night. Translator John S. Dwight.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
When we have strayed, you have called us to come home to you. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” With all our hearts we return to you, and gratefully accept your gentle love, for the sake of the one whose spirit lives in us, Jesus Christ our loving savior. Amen.
Lost in the night ELW 243
O come, all ye faithful ELW 283, H82 83, UMH 234, NCH 135
Spirit of gentleness ELW 396, NCH 286
Spirit of mercy, truth, and love H82 229
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me UMH 393, NCH 283
Rejoice, rejoice believers, Adam Gumpeltzhaimer