Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thankful? For What?

Joel 2:21-27
Upper Rogue United Methodist Church
November 22, 2015

It was early on in my journey as a pastor, but it's a comment that could just as easily be made today: “Pastor, looking around at the way the world is I don't really feel like there's anything to be thankful for; people are out of work, hungry, cold, and lonely. Bombs and missiles are raining destruction, the rain forest is being depleted; what's to be thankful for?”

It's also a comment that could have been made by the Israel of Joel's day when, as he puts it:
Joel 1:6-10 An army of locusts has attacked our land; they are powerful and too many to count; their teeth are as sharp as those of a lion.
(7)They have destroyed our grapevines and chewed up our fig trees. They have stripped off the bark, till the branches are white.
(8) Cry, you people, like a young woman who mourns the death of the man she was going to marry.
(9) There is no grain or wine to offer in the Temple; the priests mourn because they have no offerings for the LORD.
(10) The fields are bare; the ground mourns because the grain is destroyed, the grapes are dried up, and the olive trees are withered.

It should be easy to be thankful when things are going well, but, like a dissapointed child who didn't get everything on her Christmas list, we too often focus on what we don't have, rather than what we do have. And that kind of negative focus leads us to a life of ingratitude and selfishness.

In Budapest, a man goes to the rabbi and complains, "Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?"
The rabbi answers, "Take your goat into the room with you." The man in incredulous, but the rabbi insists. "Do as I say and come back in a week."
A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. "We cannot stand it," he tells the rabbi. "The goat is filthy."
The rabbi then tells him, "Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week."
A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, "Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there's no goat -- only the nine of us."

Joel could have focused on drought and deprivation by locusts that had consumed the land. The grapevines and grain had been chewed to the ground and the trees, stripped of leaves, bark, and fruit stood naked to the sky like a burned over forest. There was no seed to plant and no water to nurture the earth. All that lay ahead was famine. There was not even grain, wine, or animals for the sacrifices. There was no foreseeable future for Joel's people.

But instead of focusing on the calamity around him, Joel called the people to repentance and looked to the day when God would restore the land. That God would restore the land was a given, not a wish.

For Joel, the plague of locusts and the accompanying drought are both a judgment on Israel for years of sinfulness and a foretaste of the Day of the Lord: the time of judgment, and of of salvation when “the arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted...”

In calling the people to repentance, Joel says: Joe 2:15-17 Blow the trumpet on Mount Zion; give orders for a fast and call an assembly! (16) Gather the people together; prepare them for a sacred meeting; bring the old people; gather the children and the babies too. Even newly married couples must leave their homes and come. (17) The priests, serving the LORD between the altar and the entrance of the Temple, must weep and pray: "Have pity on your people, LORD. Do not let other nations despise us and mock us by saying, 'Where is your God?' "

If they do so, Joel assures them, the Lord will restore their fortunes. So there is no need for the land, the animals, or the people to fear; only reasons to rejoice.

Rejoicing and giving thanks when things are bleak does not come easily I am reminded of the Scottish minister Alexander Whyte, who was known for his uplifting prayers in the pulpit. He always found something for which to be grateful. One Sunday morning the weather was so gloomy that one church member thought to himself, "Certainly the preacher won't think of anything for which to thank the Lord on a wretched day like this." Much to his surprise, however, Whyte began by praying, "We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this."

As we prepare to feast with friends and family in the wake of UCC, Paris, the Syrian refugees, and other tragedies weighing on our hearts, it may seem, like it did to that person in my first congregation, or to many in Joel's time,that there is nothing to be thankful for. But if you are still breathing, if you have a roof over your head, if you have food on the table, if you have friends and family around you, you have more to be thankful for than many. When I was in Africa, 20 years ago, working with refugees from the Rwandan massacres, one of the students at the school told us her family was out of food. While we sat around trying to decide what we could do about it, her teacher, who was also there, quietly left and returned with a bag of beans—probably about 5 pounds. “Here,” he said, “I wish I could give you more, but this is half of what we have at our house.”

Amazed at this act of generosity, one of our number asked: “I you just gave her half of the food your family has, what will you do when you run out?” Without hesitation the benefactor replied: “God will provide.” That God would provide was, to him, a given, not a wish. True gratitude and true thankfulness come from faith and trust in God. The same God who called the land, the animals, and the people to rejoice and give thanks. May we answer that call with lives of gratitude and thankfulness. AMEN.

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