Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
October 27, 2019 –Reformation Sunday
It is important to place our Hebrew Bible reading from the prophet Joel in its historical context to understand its meaning, and the thrust of all our readings for this day of Worship. While some scholars disagree, the weight of authority places this writing after the fall of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, during or after the return from Exile in Babylon.
Catastrophe has befallen the people whose great king, David, had been promised an heir of his would be on the throne of Israel forever. The Day of the Lord has become a day of judgment and the people are bewildered and crushed under the weight of defeat after defeat.
But it is also a day of salvation because the Persians under King Cyrus have permitted the people to return to their homeland, after three generations in exile, and the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt. Cyrus rules with a tolerant hand and allows God’s people to worship in their own old ways, but hey must labor under Persian rule setting taxes and limiting civil freedoms.
So we see the great wheel of history at play in these verses, lifting a nation and a culture to the peak of world renown before it is cast down by the weight of foreign armies and alien designs. I share a picture with you that I took last week in New York
One of the tall ships of days gone by lies permanently at anchor in the East River, below the great Manhattan skyline. It is a symbol, perhaps of the great victory the colonists won over King George III in the Revolutionary War.
It still speaks of a Day of the Lord as it whispers equality and the freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The skyline used to have the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background, but they were destroyed by the terrorism of 9/11.
But the spire of One World Trade Center is the tallest point now. Nations are lifted up, thrown down and…sometimes…rise again…chastened by their misfortune…renewed in their national purpose…committed once again to a destiny of faith and hope.
We see this same theme run all through the Bible. Jonah runs from his calling and is cast into the sea only to be swallowed by a great fish.
Washed up upon the shore he goes to Nineveh to proclaim the Day of the Lord is coming to a people whom he despises. He doesn’t want to be their savior, but they heed his warning and repent in sackcloth and ashes.
The Lord relents of the divine plan to destroy them, making Jonah even more resentful of them…oblivious to the miraculous transformation he has fashioned in them…simply because he accepted his call to proclaim God’s word to a people who did not hear it…until he arrived.
He will be lifted up 3,000 years later by a high school biology student who contended with her teacher when he said that a whale has too small a throat to swallow a man.
“But a whale swallowed Jonah,” she protested. The teacher repeated it was physically impossible. “When I get to heaven I am going to ask him,” she said.
“What if he went to hell?” the teacher argued. Without missing a beat the girl said, “Then you ask him!”
In Jonah we see the great wheel turn…not as he wants it to…but always toward God.
Peter takes the words of Joel we read today and sees in them the meaning of the great day of Pentecost. A band of Jesus’ followers were in hiding when tongues of fire fell upon them and rested on each of them.
Suddenly they found themselves in the marketplace proclaiming the divinity of the Galilean who was crucified. They are full of new wine, the witnesses say, but Peter stands among them and says,
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions,and your old men shall dream dreams.’
Over 3,000 people are baptized into a faith in a risen Christ. Down and up, around and around, dead and alive again, in hiding and out in the open for all to see and hear, the great wheel turns and the Day of the Lord comes again and again.
Paul would claim this message of hope among the ruins as the centerpiece of his ministry. The Pharisee of Pharisees is blinded so that he can come to truly see. He is cast into prison so that he can convert the head jailer and his family to the One True Faith.
He loses all things and gains all things. The prizes of this world are only so much rust and dust and decrepitude. He comes to understand that ‘rich’ isn’t when you have a lot, but when you have enough…an eternal purpose…a timeless truth to devote ourselves to.
His name is known these thousands of years later by people who could not name half a dozen Roman emperors or recall the names of a dozen American presidents.
Even knowing he is in his last days …being poured out as a libation… he recalls with joy that when everyone deserted him the Lord stood by him and gave him strength. Like Jonah he carries a sacred Word to a godless people… us Gentiles…and we received it and carried it to places he never could have gone and a time he would not live to see.
The Day of the Lord, then, is not a day that will come and go. It happens again and again…in this place and that…to this person and that…always making the world a better place…the hour it strikes a better time…so that hope can endure…faith can continue…and love can find every heart.
We live in a day that is full of hope and foreboding…truth and cunning …faith and despair…just as every generation has lived. It is the best of times and the worst of times… again…just like it was in Charles Dickens’ days…and Shakespeare’s days…and Jesus’ day.
They had the gift of insight and the calmness to see beyond the sin of that time into the opportunity to remind everyone that we are not the authors of the script the world is reading…but our character…what we are willing to hold dear at the risk of all that can be done to us…for the sake of all that can come to light through us… that heart of our character is our destiny.
Everyone has free will…but every action we take produces an equal and opposite reaction. So the powerful can make themselves weak and the wise can do foolish deeds… and vice versa. The wheel turns.
So we find Jesus this day speaking to self-righteous people about something beyond power and weakness…greatness of spirit. He tells of a Pharisee who thanked God that he has been such an important person with much to be proud of the tax collector only asked that his sins be forgiven.
The humble one is praised for his greatness in Jesus’ parable, and the great one is humbled. The wheel turns again.
Our world is stitched together in such a way that the man the world would say is good is showing his bad side and the man we would guess at first to be bad shows he has a goodness at the center of his heart.
It’s like the story of The Verger, written by Somerset Maugham. The verger prepared his little church on a corner in London, St. Peter’s of Neville Square, for whatever the service was going to be that day… communion, baptism…readings and carols…kind of like our Worship Committee endeavors to do.
He had been at the church for many years and he had always done his job well when they got a new vicar, who was shocked when he learned his verger couldn’t read or write. The vicar simply wouldn’t have it and he let the man go.
On his way home the verger wanted to have a cigarette but he was out. He was surprised to learn that there was not a tobacco shop on the street, and it occurred to him it would be a good place for one, that he had enough in savings to open one and did.
His competence served him well again and he prospered so much that he found another place that needed one…then another…and another. He found himself doing so well that all his day was spent going from shop to shop, replenishing supplies and collecting profits.
One day his banker asked him to step into his office and said he had such a balance in his account that he really should invest some of it. The verger was agreeable and said he would come back the next day to do what needed to be done to make it happen.
The next day the banker was happy to push the agreement across his desk and ask the verger to read it and sign it. “Well, that’s the thing,” the verger said. “I can neither read nor write.”
The banker was astonished and said, “That’s incredible! Do you know where you would be today if you could read and write?”
“Yes,” the wealthy man replied. “I’d be the verger at St. Peter’s of Neville Square.” The poor man became a rich man because of his weakness…his lack. The rich man, the vicar, became poor in many ways, because of his pride, when he cast off such a humble and competent assistant.
So these are days, my friends, when we need to put on our sackcloth and ashes and ask ourselves whether we as a nation are going to have mere transactions with each other… or whether we are going, once again, to build relationships that endure through seasons of hope and seasons of despair.
The wheel turns and the one who was our enemy just yesterday will be our friend tomorrow.
How can we build a better world…a better nation…a stronger community…a more loving village …a place that does not eat its seed corn but plants it and waters it and weeds it and watches over it with love?
We sit in a beautiful church…and the building is lovely, too. We live in a gorgeous village…that happens to boast of a spectacular setting, too.
May God give us eyes that can always see how blessed we are, by nature and each other, every day.
People are drawn to this place by the natural beauty and the friendliness of the people. They stay because of the clean waters and the hope the setting and its people inspire. When they stay, they give us a whole package of new gifts and graces we can weave into the fabric of our community to make each life sparkle in a new way because they are here. I think of our summer friends as I say that…
Our little faith community has given itself, this town and its people the gift of gratefulness through the great strides we have made financially and the great dreams we are sharing as we look to a new day and a new way to be in relationship…to be in community …to be one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.
The humblest soul among us is the one that will open the way to a future that will make our church a place of continuing hope farther into the future than any of us can see, and our village a place of great thoughts and great deeds that will be told over and over long after everyone has forgotten our names.
For it is as true today that everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled and everyone who humbles themselves will be exalted. No matter what happens when the day of the Lord comes to this place everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be blessed with salvation.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.