I made a mistake yesterday. I read the Bible. I know, I know…shame on me. But I was reading through the texts for tonight, and all of a sudden I realized that I had never read the book of Joel before. In fact, I’ll admit my first reaction was…”Joel? Joel? Where the heck is that book?” I couldn’t even tell you where it was in the Bible, let alone what it was about. So I had to flip through these fancy little tabs on the side of my Bible before I discovered that it was towards the end of the Old Testament. Joel is what we call one of the minor prophets. It was only three chapters long, so I thought, “Ah, what the heck. I’ll read it.”
It was a mistake. Much of the book is about a terrible plague caused by locusts that leads to the starvation of animals and the people of Israel. It paints images where there are no pastures for the animals. The cattle groan; the sheep walk around in that daze you get when you haven’t eaten in awhile. The crops in the fields…they droop. So withered and ruined from no rain. Fires appear to be everywhere and all things seem destroyed. And then, last but not least, there are the people. They are in anguish the book says, and their faces grow more pale by each verse. To top it all off, Joel, this prophet, has the nerve to suggest that the people have brought this on themselves. They have turned away from God and, now, God is punishing them.
It is such a dark text. It doesn’t feel very good to read. It doesn’t reflect the god so many of us know in Jesus, or the god we learn about in Sunday School. And it certainly did not seem like an appropriate text for this eve of Thanksgiving. A time when we celebrate the homecoming of family members we’ve missed all year long. A time when we feast and celebrate with the people we love. A time when we give thanks for all that we have. So, what’s a preacher to do? “Pick a different text!” my friends said.
But then, I started to think back on the past couple of days, weeks, and months, and I realized – maybe Joel isn’t such a bad book for Thanksgiving after all.
Holidays seem to be a time when our minds drift off into the distance and look back on the past year and we remember all that has happened since the last time we gathered together like this. Are there any newbies to the earth who celebrate this holiday season for the first time? Are their loved ones who we never imagined wouldn’t be around this year? Are there some who are wondering if this might be their last holiday season? As my mind journeyed back over 2012, I realized we are not so different from the people in the book of Joel. This year, we too know of withered crops. Just this summer, farms 30 miles south of here had to till up their corn much too early because there was no water for the crops to drink. The East Coast knows what it is like when everything seems to be on fire and all is destroyed. And I can think of people in our community and in this very room who have felt the tight-chest that anguish can bring. Anguish over the loss of a spouse, or a sick parent, or a friend who died much too young. Anguish over the loss of a job or a marriage in ruins. Anguish over the constant loneliness that the night brings.
This past week, I sat beside a woman, with an oxygen tube draped over her face, who paused mid-sentence to take a couple deep breaths out of exhaustion brought on by a very short walk. You know she wonders, “Just how long can I keep this up?” This past week, I sat at a table that used to occupy four of us, only now just three remain. And that empty chair weighed heavy on our crooked hearts. This past week, I heard the prayers hidden behind tear-laden health updates on a man so many people love.
No, we aren’t so different from the people in the book of Joel. But, unlike Joel, I’m not a big fan of saying that all of this is something we have brought on ourselves by turning away from God. However, we do know what it is like to wonder. To wonder if God is punishing us and why any of us deserve it. Joel raises that question that so many of us ask, “Where is God in all of this?”
Which makes the words from Joel chapter 2 that we just heard feel like such a seismic shift in the story. Do not fear, it reads. Do not fear, O soil. Do not fear, animals of the field. Children of Zion, rejoice and be glad. For God has poured down abundant rain. The threshing floors will be full of grain again. I will repay you and you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, the Lord says. You, my people, shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in your midst and that I am your God.
You see, in the midst of what seems like chaos and destruction, Joel proclaims God’s response and promise – restoration. In the midst of what seems like chaos and destruction, there will be restoration says the Lord. Which, turns out, has been the Christian story all along. Sarah’s closed womb is restored and gives birth to Isaac. The Israelites, held in bondage and slavery in Egypt, are restored by being set free. Blindness is restored into sight. The father’s family is restored when his prodigal son comes home. And Jesus, the one whose beaten and broken body is laid in a tomb, is restored through resurrection. Looks like the god found in the book of Joel isn’t so far off from the one we’ve come to know.
I read a sermon this week. It said, “Few believe the present recession will do anything but deepen, that unemployment and inflation will do anything but rise…Maybe the city will continue to cut back music programs in the public schools.” Pretty bleak stuff. Fears we all have. But you see, that sermon was written in 1980. 32 years ago. And you know what…we’re still here. And for as bleak as it looked back then, there has been restoration. There has been much for which to celebrate and give thanks in the past 32 years. And now, we pray for restoration again.
In order to see this restoration, Joel has specific instructions. When it gets dark and stormy, when life seems less manageable than it was last year, when it feels like everything is just going to the pits, Joel calls us to worship. Joel says to blow the trumpet, call the assembly, and gather the people. Bring together the congregation, both young and old. And so we do. Even now. In the midst of a hard year, we come together for worship on this Thanksgiving Eve to receive the grace of God found in the fellowship of friends and strangers, in the hymns that wash over us, and in a tiny piece of bread and small sip of wine taken into our bodies.
I am often one who wishes Holy Communion was a bigger display of a meal. With such small wafers and smalls cups we forget that we are having a meal up here. The Christian meal. Like many of us will tomorrow, tonight we gather as a family at a table and we eat. In fact, there is one similarity in particular between this meal tonight and the meal many will eat tomorrow. Both are about thanksgiving. Another word for Holy Communion is the eucharist. And eucharist is Greek for Thanksgiving. Both meals are about offering thanks to God for the whole of our lives.
But you know, tonight, I’m kind of glad the wafers and cups are so small. They remind us that Thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist is about being thankful for all things, even the small stuff. We are called to be thankful for even the small things in our life. To live a life of gratitude for everything, because in the end it is not ours. It is all a gift from God.
Whether they are big things or little things, we are called to be thankful for them. Like a roof over our heads. A bed to sleep on. Oxygen that helps us breath. Grandsons who remind us how to smile again. Friends and family who gather around in a time of grief and loss. Or a meal that holds us over tomorrow, whether it comes from grandma’s oven, the VFW or McDonald’s. And sometimes just noticing those things is the restoration we need.
It is not easy to do this. To be thankful for all the little things in your life. We know this thanks to Joel and the events of the past year. But I think Joel’s word for us tonight is that in the midst of what is. In light of whatever is going on in your life, God is at work in it, and hope is always the last word. Or as one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says, while things will fall apart for us sooner or later, for all sorts of reasons, we “never die to the love of God, and that in between the cracks of that great truth there are a thousand reasons to say thank you to God and to one another.” Happy Eucharist, friends. Know that I am grateful for you. Amen.