by David Baer, December 4, 2016
Text: Joel 2:12-13,28-29
I’m going to use a big word today. The word is anticipate. Does anybody know what it means? When you anticipate something, it’s kind of like remembering, only in the opposite direction in time. When you remember, you’re thinking about something that already happened. When you anticipate, you’re thinking about something that hasn’t happened yet. And it might be something you’re really excited about, like going to a friend’s birthday party; or it might be something you’re not so excited about, like getting a shot at the doctor’s office. Anticipation means looking forward to something that’s coming.
Now, during the month of December, what’s the biggest thing everybody is anticipating? Christmas, of course! Has any of you ever woken up on December 25 and said, “Wow, what a surprise! It looks like it’s Christmas today! I had no idea it was coming!”? Of course not! By the time Christmas comes, you’ve been anticipating it for weeks. What are some of the things you do, or things that happen around you, that help you anticipate Christmas? A lot of families put up decorations and buy a Christmas tree. You might go looking for presents for your family. But regardless of what you do, there is Christmas music on the radio, and all the stores are decorated for the season. There is no way you can avoid anticipating Christmas.
We’re anticipating Christmas at church, too. We did something different at the beginning of our worship service, something we don’t do every Sunday. Do you remember what it was? We lit two candles on the Advent wreath. Every Sunday between now and Christmas, we’re going to light another candle, and then another, until Christmas Eve, when we light the Christ candle in the center.
Our Bible passage this morning comes from the book of the prophet Joel. Prophets are special men and women who help God’s people anticipate the things God is doing. Joel wanted to tell the people about something called the Day of the Lord. He wanted them to anticipate it, to be ready for it. God was going to come to be with them, he said. But what happens if God comes and sees us fighting with each other? What if God comes and sees us lying to one another and stealing, Joel thought? He looked around and saw so many people doing things that would make God sad and angry, and he wondered whether God coming to be with us was something to be excited about, or something to be afraid of.
In three weeks it’s going to be Christmas. We’re going to celebrate Jesus coming to be with us, so many years ago, but we’re also anticipating Jesus coming to be with us again some day, just as he promised he would. And like Joel, maybe we wonder whether that’s a day to be excited or scared about. There are a lot of things that would make Jesus disappointed or angry. There are so many people in our world who go hungry, while others have more than enough to share. There are people who are treated unfairly because of where they’re from, or how they worship God, or the color of their skin. And every one of us sometimes makes the wrong choice too. Are we ready for Jesus to come again, or do we secretly hope he’ll take his time getting here?
In the prophet Joel’s time, there were rituals people could perform to show they were sorry and wanted to make different choices. They might fast, meaning that they would stop eating for a while, enough to make their bodies hungry and uncomfortable. They might tear their clothes—that was a big deal, because they didn’t buy clothes at the store. Every piece of clothing took hours of hard work to make, so when somebody ripped their clothes, you knew they were serious.
But Joel said that what God wanted was not broken clothing. God wants broken hearts—not broken by God, but by everything about ourselves and our world that ought to make us heartbroken. God wants us to be bothered by the things in our life that aren’t good, and by the things around us that aren’t fair, that aren’t right. “Return to me with all your heart,” God says. “Come with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” We’re allowed to meet God weeping. We’re allowed to be sad. We’re not ready for God’s coming. But God is telling us that the best way to be ready is to say, “God, we’re not ready.”
(Can we say those words? “God, we’re not ready.”)
But because of what Joel tells us, we can be hopeful. In fact, Joel says that when God comes to be with us, God will pour out God’s spirit on everyone—young people and old people, men and women. Everybody will see visions. Everybody will have messages from God. We might not be ready for God, we might not be connected with what God is doing. But God is able to give us that gift. We’re not ready, but God is more than ready for us. So we can say, “God, we’re not ready, but we’re not afraid, because you are good.”
(Can we say that together? “God, we’re not ready, but we’re not afraid, because you are good.”)
When I was a kid, there was an older woman in my church named Miriam Palmer. And every year in December she would bake a birthday cake and bring it to our Sunday school class. We’d sing happy birthday to Jesus and eat the cake, and it was terrific. It was a small thing, but it helped us anticipate Christmas for what it really was—the birthday of Jesus. She was elderly and we were little kids, but somehow God had poured out the Spirit on all of us to celebrate in a way that made Christmas real.
Our lives and our world are not ready for God. But God’s Spirit has been poured out on you too—it doesn’t matter how old or young you are. What gift have you been given to share with others? How are you going to make Jesus’ coming real for your neighbors this year?
We are not ready for God. We can’t possibly be. But God’s Spirit makes a way in the desert, lifting up the valleys and leveling the mountains. God wants to be with us, God is already with us, and we don’t need to be afraid. Even so, come Lord Jesus! Amen.