October 27, 2019 Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 84; II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Last Sunday I talked about the inevitability of human failure and frailty and the equal inevitability of God’s merciful grace. We concluded the message time singing together, “Marvelous Grace” and then Becca got up and read a passage from Ephesians, a passage which includes these words, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” Jonathan (my son) slipped out of the sanctuary right after my sermon, quickly got changed and headed out for a day of work at P&M pumpkin ranch. I figure only moments after Becca finished reading that Ephesians passage about the gift of God’s grace, Jonathan’s truck went careening off the road a quarter of a mile beyond Virgil and Shirley’s place. It was a combination of factors. Driver error – Jonathan was likely driving a little too fast and braked a little too suddenly in anticipation of the turn. The high winds that day and a really light back end conspired with that mistake and he lost control. The pick-up sailed through two ditches cutting the corner off an intersection before crossing another road and slamming through a deeper, more unforgiving ditch. The front end of the truck plowed into the embankment and the impact sent the steering column forward and down into his legs. The air bag deployed. Wires sprang loose. The air filter burst out. The truck finally came to a shuddering, thankfully upright stop in a harvested milo field. Jonathan was wearing his seatbelt or this story may well have had a very different ending. He unhooked the belt, cracked the driver’s door open enough to squeeze out, and left the pick-up emotionally shaken, traumatized, but physically unscathed. He walked the mile and a half back to the church where Todd found him in the parking lot as people were heading to their vehicles to drive home.
Grace. God’s grace.
Some realities take time to sink in fully and I found throughout the day on both Sunday and Monday, emotion would overwhelm. The reality of God’s saving grace would flood through me and tears would spill out. It’s one thing to stand up here and talk about God’s grace which manifests in our lives in untold ways. It’s quite another thing to experience it in such a direct and intensely personal way.
Over the years, I have been told by any number of people, including some quite close to me, how boring the Bible is. It’s so dry and dusty. The Old Testament prophets go on and on in this archaic language. The Psalms are just poetry – poetry not being high on most people’s list of what they want to pick up and read during their spare time. Paul has this tendency to drone on endlessly about theological fine points. And I will admit, if I’m not in the right frame of mind when I open scripture and begin to read, a thousand other streams of thought crowd their way into my mind and I reach the end of a chapter realizing I have no clue what I’ve just read. Furthermore, I don’t tend to thumb over to Joel or II Timothy for light reading in the evening before bed.
With that said, when I do approach scripture with a prayerfully open mind and heart, I am endlessly amazed at how it comes alive and speaks to me in the most unexpected and thrilling ways. I know many of you have that same experience too. And when I say, speaks to me, I mean me and the particulars of my life here in October of 2019 or whenever it is I happen to be reading. And all three of these texts offer a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about.
First of all, these are all lectionary texts for this Sunday. Did you notice that two of them mention autumn rains? Isn’t that cool? Both the Joel text and Psalm 84 speak about autumn rains. And in the passage from II Timothy 6 we find Paul asking Timothy to do his best to reach him before winter. So all three of these passages seem to be set in the season of fall, exactly where we find ourselves today. This is a thin strand of connection, yes. But it is a connecting point we can make between ourselves and all the folks who come to life in these pages, who lived through the same seasons of the year we do today.
Psalm 84 – I read the coolest thing about Psalm 84 the other week. The commentary writer I consulted suggested the Psalmist, whomever he or she was, was likely sitting in the temple and just really feeling thankful to God. Maybe his son had just had an accident and was spared, I don’t know, but he’s sitting there in the temple and he’s just overcome with gratitude and a feeling of immense protection… grace.
He happens to look up and see some sparrows nesting up in the rafters of the temple. A melody comes almost unbidden to his lips and he begins to sing… “What a beautiful home, God! I’ve always longed to live in a place like this, always dreamed of a room in your house, where I could sing for joy to You, my living God. Sparrows find nooks and crannies in your house. Swallows make nests here. They lay their eggs and raise their young, singing their songs in the place where we worship (paraphrasing from The Message Bible, Psalm 84:1-4.)
How often do little glimpses of nature, just small things, details you forget to mention to your family at the end of the day because the moment was so fleeting – how often do you sense God’s presence or the Maker’s creative handiwork when you see a fox scampering down a back alley or a doe with her fawn? How often does the swoop of the red-tailed hawk or an evening chorus of locusts singing send your thoughts soaring to God? Again, it’s a slender but unbreakable connection between us and that anonymous Psalmist who lived hundreds upon hundreds of year ago. In his words we find ourselves.
Changing gears now, here’s an altogether different story for you… The grasshoppers came in swarms and devoured all living vegetation in sight. Crop ground looked as if it were scorched by prairie fires. The dark cloud of flying insects was estimated at 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide (Hearthstone Legacy Publications).
The plague of grasshoppers occupied territory for an entire month eating everything, from implement handles to material. Pastures dried up. Cattle starved. There were terrible food shortages. Even the wild animals were in peril. Streams of water dried up and fields stood in ruins. Farmers were left to despair. It was a story to tell one’s children and one’s children’s children so that such a time of unprecedented devastation would never be forgotten.
What historical event am I describing here? A number of you probably know your history and recognize this as “The Year of the Grasshopper” as it came to be known, though it encompassed two years as the first year’s plague in 1874 gave birth to the second generation in 1875. Kansas, Nebraska and western Missouri provided the setting. This is the year many of our ancestors came to Kansas to begin farming. Quite an initiation it must have been.
But I wasn’t only describing 1874 here. With the exception of the numbers I gave for the geographic area covered, most of the other description can also be found in the book of Joel, chapters 1 and 2. This book
is addressed to farmers going through a really, really difficult time. Joel calls out to them to keep the faith, to come back to God, to rend their hearts not their clothing. Then he assures them that the ordeal is only for a really painful season in their lives and this too shall pass. God will restore their land. They will once again have plenty to eat. God will send the autumn rains as He did before. Their grain bins will once more be full. And in those better days coming, God will pour out his Spirit on his people and the farmers’ sons and daughters will once more talk about and make plans for the future. Old men will dream about new possibilities. Young men will open themselves to new visions. And everyone who calls on God’s name will be saved.
We haven’t known a plague of grasshoppers in our lifetimes. But some of you perhaps have memories of the dustbowl. We know of farmers in this country who have experienced 100 year floods…two years in a row. We think about the catastrophic flooding in Nebraska this last spring. And quite honestly, farming in general, including right here in central Kansas, hasn’t exactly been a picnic for quite some time now. The book of Joel then reaches out across time to speak to farmers in despair just as surely in 2019 as in 400bc, reminding all of us this is a painful season that will pass. That our God is faithful and will, in God’s time, restore what has been lost. Joel forges a tenacious connection from the past to the particulars of our life here and now.
And finally, II Timothy. Now our lectionary did something pretty unfortunate with this passage as it was read earlier. It cut out the practical and presented us with only the theological when it omitted verses 9-15 and in so doing it kind of breaks the connection. As Paul writes this letter, he is nearing the end of his life. In verse 6 he writes, “the time has come for my
departure, but I have finished the race and kept the faith. I’m ready for my reward.” Then in verses 17 and 18 he talks about God’s faithfulness and protection and gives God all the glory.
That’s all well and good…inspiring even. But then we have these verses that didn’t get read. Verses 9-11 – “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.” Paul is clearly feeling lonely and betrayed.
Verses 13-15 – “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.” So what we see here is a more human Paul emerge.
When we are facing really difficult things in our life, is it okay to experience the whole gamut of human emotion? Is it okay to be frustrated and lonely and inutterably sad? For a time anyway, is it understandable if we nurse some grievances, if we’re angry? Yes! Do these too often overlooked verses from Paul help us feel a little more connected to this great man of faith who lived so long ago? Yes.
This is the unspeakable wonder and beauty of the Incarnation. God became human and walked this earth. We were able to reach out and literally touch him. Talk to him. Hug him. Laugh and cry with him. But God came near so he could also reach out and literally touch us in all the ordinary particulars of our life here on earth. God sat at tables enjoying meals with friends. God watched sparrows make nests. God experienced the crisp air of autumn. God talked with
farmers who struggled. God felt frustrated at our human limitations, tasted the bitterness of betrayal. And God didn’t almost lose his Son in an accident one day, God did lose his Son. God bore the agony no parent thinks they can possibly endure, and one several of you have known personally. God’s child died…so that grace could be born.
The Bible is the testament of God’s relationship with God’s people. We are God’s people. You and you and you are God’s people. That means you are right here in these pages. Find yourself and I promise you the Bible won’t be boring anymore. Rather, you will find these living words flying off the pages to meet you right where you are and right when you are. Hallelujah and thanks be to God. Amen.
Response Song: “Jesus calls us here to meet him”