Power and presence

This is a sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Joel 2:23-32.

The prophet Joel wrote, “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

I wonder if you think that’s about the end of the world?

It isn’t, actually, but in order to make some sense of it, we need to know something how these kinds of images are used in the Bible.  Because of course, this isn’t the only place where we see this style of writing; Revelation and Daniel are the most prominent, but there are little bits of this kind of writing in several of the gospels and dotted through Paul’s letters too.  But what are they about?

These verses from Joel, like the other passages of Scripture I mentioned, are written in a style called “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is the not the whole truth about reality.  Behind all of life – says apocalyptic writing – is deeper truth and deeper meaning.  This kind of writing is a little peek behind that veil – beyond the physical things we can see and touch – using symbols to let us into the deeper truths and meanings of life.  Things are not as they seem!

It’s almost like writing in a kind of symbolic code, crafted to be a powerful source of encouragement when read as they were intended.

So let’s try to read them as intended, for our encouragement and benefit.

It’s probably easiest to start with the idea of the “day of the Lord.”  Here, it doesn’t mean, the day the Lord comes back and the end of the world and all that stuff.  What it means is a day – any day – when the Lord’s presence is known among us, whether in grace or in anger.

So Joel is basically saying, the Lord is coming, and it is not possible for us to experience the awesome – in the old-fashioned sense of the word – and holy presence of God in a way which leaves us unaffected.

Small wonder, then, that in the New Testament when the gospel writers wanted to find words to describe what they had experienced in Jesus and at Pentecost, with the pouring out of the Spirit, they echoed the images we find in this section of Joel.  They needed language which would talk about God’s presence in a new and powerful way among them, and a way to make sense of it, and this kind of writing from Joel gave them the words for that.

So the portents in the heaven and the earth and all of that: what Joel is trying to say is that, this is big.  It’s not just a matter of personal piety in my heart, or our little community believers.  This is for everyone, everywhere – “all flesh,” Joel says – and even has cosmic implications reaching to the heavens.

God is coming to be present to us, and nothing will ever be the same again.  That’s basically what Joel’s saying here, in a nutshell.

And I wonder, sometimes, whether it’s a message we need to be reminded of.  There is a temptation, I suspect, to get a bit comfortable with God.  To come to church because it is familiar and we have an affectionate attachment to it, or to the people.  To come to communion because the ritual is comforting.  To want a tame God, a God who doesn’t stretch us too much but lets us feel at home.  (Even worse, a temptation for those in ministry to see what we do as just tasks in a job).

And I wonder whether, when this temptation is at work, we lose something too important to let go so easily.  Sometimes non-churchgoers joke with me that they don’t come because the roof would fall in or lightning would strike; and while I recognise that they’re being flippant, at least there is, in those comments, a lingering sense of a God of unexpected power, who interrupts our lives for God’s own purposes.

Why do atheists recognise that side of God, so often more readily than we do?

What would it be like if we came to prayer with the sense that in reaching out to connect with God we are doing the spiritual equivalent of touching a live electrical wire?  What if we expected to be, in some way, jolted, thrown, disrupted; dare I say changed?

What would it be like if, when the Eucharist is placed in our hands, we looked at it not as a familiar object but as our invitation to God to be at work in us in the most intimate way possible, even to the breaking and re-making of whatever in us most needs God’s attention?

What would it be like if we opened the Scriptures expecting them to re-shape our minds, so that we look out at a world which seems new, full of God’s hitherto unrecognised possibilities and potential?

I believe that kind of encounter with God is possible.  More than possible, I believe that kind of encounter with God is and should be normal.

God is coming to be present to us, and nothing will ever be the same again.  That’s what Joel was saying.  It’s what the apostles recognised.  It could be our own experience as well.

This is, of course, the fundamental sort of experience which drove the charismatic movement, but it’s not true only for charismatics.  The Holy Spirit is at work in the whole church, men and women, young and old, powerful and disempowered, according to Joel; and therefore knowing something of the transforming presence of God is for the whole church too; for each of you and for me and for every person around the world who knows that Jesus is Lord.

When we get past the language of blood moons and portents, that’s the deeper reality behind the veil of the surface of our lives which Joel is pointing us to.  A God of power, of dynamism; and a God of presence, a God who comes to us and is at work amongst us.

And Joel’s challenge to us, I think, is to take that God seriously; to pay attention and to reach out to connect with that power and that presence.  And to accept that that might mean that things will never be quite the same again.

Have you ever thought about the radical implications, when someone says to you, the Lord be with you?

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