WHEN THE ROOF CAVES IN

Joel 1:1-10

 

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            In addition to the big story this week about Osama Bin Laden, did you read the rather scandalous revelation concerning Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel?  It seems, and this was so disappointing to read, Michelangelo tried to cut his expenses by thinning down his paint, and the newspaper said the painting on the ceiling would have been a second rate job if God had not intervened and thundered at Michelangelo, “Repaint!  Thin no more!”

            Well, as we continue our sermon series on the minor prophets, “Repent!  Sin no more!” is a message communicated by all the prophets, and Joel is no exception, but that is not all Joel has to say.  Like every prophet Joel brings the word of God to bear on a particular issue of his day, and no issue captured the attention of the people of Joel’s day more than the calamity that had struck the southern kingdom of Judah.  Let’s take a look at the calamity.  Verse one, chapter one,

 

            The word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethuel:

 

            Note, how Joel’s prophecy is much harder to date than Hosea’s prophecy.  Hosea began his prophecy by giving us the names of the kings of the north and the kings of the south when he prophesied.  Joel does not.  As a result, biblical scholars are evenly divided as the the date of his prophecy.  Some scholars see him as a contemporary of Hosea and others have him living some four-hundred years later.  The only thing we know for sure about Joel is that he lived in the south, in Judah, and perhaps even in Jerusalem given the attention he pays to the Temple and the Temple offerings.

            So, unlike Hosea, we do not know much about the man himself or the time in which he prophesied, but we do know a lot about the disaster that precipitated God’s calling Joel to be a prophet.  Let’s read on,

 

            Hear this, O elders, give ear, all inhabitants of the land!

            Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?

            Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

            What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten.

            What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten.

            What the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.

            Wake up, you drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine-drinkers, over the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth.

            For a nation has invaded my land, powerful and innumerable; it’s teeth are lions’ teeth, and it had the fangs of a lioness.

            It has laid waste my vines, and splintered my fig trees; it has stripped the bark and thrown it down; their branches have turned white.

            Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth.

            The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord.

            The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord.

            The fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails. 

 

            I’m just guessing, but the headline in the Jerusalem World Herald, on the day after this calamity likely read, “Insect Plague Wipes Out Crops.”  Talk about a locust problem!  Cutting locusts, swarming locusts, hopping locusts, destroying locusts consumed everything in sight - figs, grapes, grain - they ate it all.  Moreover, this calamity not only impacted the dinner table, but also religious life for the priests had no food or drink for the daily Temple offerings.  Imagine, last Sunday, having no juice or bread for communion due to an agricultural calamity.  That’s how bad it was in Judah.

            And after any major disaster, people have questions.  Questions like, “Why us?  Why now?  Why here?” and it was in the midst of this calamity God called Joel to address these questions, and in so doing Joel offers two revelations about God that are just as relevant today as they were back then.  One of the revelations is great news, and I am looking forward to sharing it with you, but the other revelation is not so hot.  So let’s start with the not so great and end with the great.

            Revelation number one - the not so great - Our character means more to God than our comfort.  I don’t like that.  I wish God were equally concerned about both, and maybe a little more concerned about my comfort.

            Take Judah.  The people of Judah had become enamored with their ability to produce crops.  They felt their prosperity was a result of their own efforts alone.  They removed God from the equation, they had stopped thanking God for their daily provision, and God pulled the plug.  God sacrificed their comfort to build their character.

            A number of years ago, when I was in another congregation here in Omaha, the Dean of the College of Medicine, Alastair Connell, worshipped with us.  He later went on to a similar position in Virginia.  Anyway, in response to my question - “How did you come to know Christ?” - Alastair told me it was while recovering from heart surgery.  He said a few days earlier, he had been walking, feeling very proud of his accomplishments: self-made man, successful physician, respect of his colleagues, fantastic salary.  He had it all, but then, out of nowhere, he felt a pain shoot down his arm and he immediately knew what it was.  He checked himself into the hospital and surgery was performed the next day.  But it wasn’t just any hospital.  It was a Catholic hospital with a plastic crucifix hanging on the wall across from his bed.  He said he despised that tawdry, cheap, plastic symbol and all it represented.  For him the church was a joke, and well, he had no need for God.

            One day, however, when he was in great pain, he looked at that tawdry, cheap, plastic Jesus hanging on the cross and he heard God say to him, “Alastair, if you think you are suffering, what about my son?  And by the way Alastair, I have you by a thread.  I could snap that thread right now.  Mr. Self-Made Man, what do you want to do with your life?” 

            There he was.  Successful physician.  A man of great learning.  Dean of a medical school.  Hanging by a thread.  No control.

            Alastair decided to make room for God in his life.  Now, please, do not misunderstand me.  I am not saying for a moment that every disaster, every problem, every challenge we face comes from God, but some do.  God directed the locust devastation in Judah and the plagues in Egypt, but there is evidence elsewhere in Scriptures, in the book of Job for example, where Old Redlegs orchestrates such events as well.  To say that God causes every bump in the road gives God too much credit and too much blame.  What we can say, however, is that God does use every bump in the road to mold us into the image of his Son, if we are willing to be molded.

            So, that’s the bad news.  God is more concerned about our character than our comfort.  I don’t like that at all.  Now, for the good news, revelation number two: God promises his people a gift for tough times.

            Turn with me to Joel, chapter two, verse twenty-eight.  This is the most famous passage from Joel’s prophecy.  The Apostle Peter quoted it in his Pentecost sermon.  To a shaken Judah, devastated by this attack of famished locusts, God says,

 

            Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

            Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

            Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

 

            On the day of Pentecost, some nine hundred to five hundred years later, depending on the date of Joel’s prophecy, these words were fulfilled.  Since the Day of Pentecost, every Christian has received this gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit, God in us.

            Let me see if I can illustrate the significance of this.  It’s a fanciful story, it didn’t really happen, but imagine it did.

            Imagine that Jim Karasek and I regularly play tennis against one another.  We don’t but imagine we do.  Imagine we play tennis, and I know this is a stretch, but imagine Jim regularly beats me on the tennis court.

            And imagine that Jim and Connie go way on a little trip, I little vacation, and while they are away I am given a mysterious ability to play tennis as never before, and nobody knows about his newly acquired gift except me.  I look the same on the outside, but all of a sudden I could go on the pro circuit.  And imagine this afternoon Jim and I get together to play tennis, and the cool thing is Jim does not know I’ve been given this mysterious gift.  I’ve been given this incredible ability, and Jim is there, and he doesn’t know it, and he’s saying to himself, “Boy, my patsy is here.  I’m going to feel so good beating him down again!”

            Then with great confidence and great cockiness, Jim says, “OK, Meyer, you serve!” and he says that because he knows he will return every serve right down my throat.

            This time, however, I can’t wait to serve because I have this mysterious ability to play tennis like a pro.  So I toss the ball in the air and hit it, and Jim doesn’t even see it.  It explodes past him - an ace - point Meyer and Jim looks at me and mumbles to himself, “It looks like Reverend Meyer but it plays like Rafael Nadal.”  And then, of course, I go on to beat him in three straight sets, no problem.  Easy peasy.  And Jim wonders if he will ever go out of town on a vacation with Connie again.

            That’s the promise from Joel.  We may look like old Iske or old Boulter or old Perry or old Cordes or old Pollard or old Gastrock, or old Adams or old Hutto, but we are not.  Our Heavenly Father has given us the ability to play the game of life as few have been able to play it.

            Of course, you may be asking, “OK, I buy the fact that I have been given this power, this potential to play the game of life as few others have been able to play, but how do I do it?  How do I tap into that power?”   Well, I’m glad you asked that question, so let me close by passing along the advice of Norman Vincent Peale on this matter.  

            Norman Vincent Peale tells about a woman he met in the Pittsburgh airport.  It was in the days you could smoke in public places, and she had a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and had been drinking, and she recognized Peale as they got ready to board the plane and said, “Are you Dr. Peale?”

            “Yes, ma’am, I am.”

            She said, “I want to ask you a question and I don’t want any fooling around about it.  I want an answer and I want it straight.”

            Peale agreed and she continued, “My question is this: I’ve got a lot of troubles I can’t handle.  I’m licked by them.  If I have the guts to knock myself off, will I go to hell?”

            Peale said, “Look, if you have the guts to live, you don’t need to go to hell.  You can go to heaven.”

            She looked at him and said, “OK, but how in the world do I do that?”

            Peale said, “The only way I know is to take all the problems you’ve got, put them in the hands of God, and leave them there.  Finally, just do the best you can.”

            “Is it that simple?” she asked.

            Peale answered, “It isn’t simple, but that’s how you do it.”

            They parted company.  A few months later she came up to Peale as he was getting ready to give a speech.  She said, “I’ve got the power in my life now.  Thanks.”

            Some terrible things will happen in our lifetime.  Some will be great tragedies.  Some will be overwhelming disappointments.  Some will be significant losses.  But the power of God is offered to all humble enough to let go and let God.  Take the burden off your shoulders and put them on God shoulders because God has bigger shoulders.  You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.