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I Am in the Midst

Old Mystic, November 22, 2009
Thanksgiving Sunday
Joel 2:21-27

Summary

The season of Thanksgiving is a time of celebration and of recognition of God’s presence in our midst.

 We constantly live in a tension between suffering and blessing and God’s promise of redemption is God’s very presence in us and with us and the opportunity to experience him in all circumstances.



Sermon

Our passage today is a passage of hope. It is a promise that can be located in the future; it speaks about the blessings that follow the “day of divine judgment,” blessings that according to the prophet come as a vindication because God’s people have returned to God in faith and repentance. But it is also the experience of the people of Israel after undergoing a devastating plague of locusts and the experience of all those who walk and want to walk with the Living God in the tension between blessing and suffering.

The blessings are described in beautiful poetry by Joel, in significant portrayals of the realities of his audience.

Do not fear, you animals of the field,
For the pastures of the wilderness are green;
The tree bears its fruit,
The fig tree and vine give their full yield.

O children of Zion, be gladAnd rejoice in the Lord your God;
For he has given the early rain for your vindication,
He has poured down for you abundant rain,
The early and the later rain, as before.

Joel speaks to an audience that when deprived of the “green pastures,” the trees bearing fruit, and the vats full of oil and wine, would find life impossible, unsustainable, and even meaningless. We can’t perhaps help but compare their plight with ours in this time of “economic downturn.” A metaphor of a “plague of locusts” could very well be applied to life as it is experienced by many living in the world today, not just in the United States—if the current crisis has affected us, can you imagine what people may be going through in the impoverished third world?

The so called economic downturn can—and in fact it is—kind of “inconvenient” for most of us. Some might have taken pay cuts; others may not be able to change their cars, or take a cruise to the Caribbean, or buy a new and more comfortable home. Yet, we do not have to go very far to realize that the “locusts” may have hit us hard as a nation. Many auto workers have been laid off as we witness the shrinking and bankruptcy of GM; the unemployment rate is nearing to being the highest since the Great Depression and, as a consequence, people can not afford to pay their mortgage, are facing potential foreclosures, and have lost life savings and benefits, including retirement and health care insurance. It can certainly feel like a plague for many!

The eternal appeal, however, whether in good times or when the pastures are not so green and the trees do not bear fruit, is that God is always there. “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.” The passage bears the festive tone of people rejoicing because they have been blessed but at the same time it is in tension with the intense suffering they had gone through. God was in their midst during the plague of locusts as it is now that they have been delivered. Whatever the situation, we can come to God in worship and with thanksgiving because He is in our midst.

A call to be thankful is a permanent call when we acknowledge that God is in our midst, the both transcendent and immanent God. This message does not attempt to make theological statements about God in spite of my use of words commonly used to describe God’s nature. What I am trying to convey is the conviction that the God creator of heavens and earth, the One who is totally beyond our realm of existence, A God who is “completely other,” mighty and incomprehensible, is also very close to us; to our hearts, our lives, and even our bodies.

When we experience God’s closeness and we realize how present he is in the world around us and in our own lives, we enjoy a glorious walk even when the path may be difficult. Sometimes, we may feel like Saint John of the Cross in his Dark Night of the Soul, when escaping from prison after intense suffering, found himself in the middle of nowhere, in complete darkness, and desperately running for his life. Yet, at that moment, he also found that he could depend in that presence of God, even in the “dark night of the soul.”

Joel’s language about trusting God’s provision is powerful. “He has given the early rain* for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.” Needless, to say, rain was so important to an agricultural society as that of Israel in the time of the prophet’s writing. And it is a very powerful metaphor for us, 21st century onlookers. God is the sustainer of life. This is not to say that we are not responsible for what has been handed down to us. We are stewards of God’s creation, we have a calling and duties to fulfill, and we have work to do. Yet, we can dwell in God’s closeness. “I Am in the midst of Israel.”

As we approach our traditional celebration of Thanksgiving, we are once again reminded of how God sustained the pilgrims, the first settlers in America. It was God’s providence through the Native Americans who generously brought food to help them get through the brutal winter. It was not an easy time; not everyone was able to survive in those days. Yet, God was in their midst. Roger Williams, our Baptist forefather and the founder of the State of Rhode Island, knew that God was sustaining the new settlement when Chief Canonicus of the Narragansetts gave him the large piece of land that became the nucleus of what we know as the state of Rhode Island and the Providence plantations. God was in the midst of them in times of suffering and in times of blessing. He is the sustainer!

Joel was what scholars call a “temple prophet.” He lived in the time after the return from Babylon when life and worship were again centered on the rebuilt temple of Jerusalem. He summoned the people to “Praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.” Joel is also the prophet who quoted God as saying, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams.” Indeed, Joel’s appeal is a powerful call to experience God’s presence, as close as God’s spirit upon us. And also, it is a call to worship God; to express our love and our thankfulness to a God who is with us in good times and in those times that are not so good; the God who is in the midst of his people.

So, Thanksgiving is here, once again. And we may be tempted, as it is so prevalent in our culture, to measure God’s blessings in material terms. In a sense, we would be right, if we understood that God is our sustainer and we only counted what the essentials are for us to lead happy and blessed lives. Yet we can go deeply wrong if we surrender to the wiles of the gods of materialism and we are not satisfied with what we have and therefore want more; when we keep succumbing to our human nature and seek more and more possessions. We must be thankful at all times and that could mean to be happy with very little or nothing. And, even if we are reduced to having virtually nothing, let us say, the prophet Habakkuk put it,

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
And no fruit is on the vines;
Though the produce of the olive fails
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock is cut off from the fold
And there is no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord;I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
And makes me tread upon the heights.

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