Practicing Thanksgiving

Joel 2:21-27

Jeremy Richards

How well do you know your prophets? You probably know or have at least heard of the big ones, the major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. But how well do you know the 12 minor prophets? Can anyone list them, or can we come up with them together? I can’t list them from memory, but here they are: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

But we’re not interested in all 12 of the minor prophets this morning, we’re interested in just one: Joel. What is the book of Joel all about? Who was Joel? What was the context in which Joel was written? If you don’t know, then you’re in good company. Neither do scholars. Most of the books by the minor prophets give us some kind of context. For example, those of us who attended our Sunday School on Amos might remember that the book began,

The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

The beginning of Amos gives us background on who Amos was – a shepherd from Tekoa, who he was addressing – Israel when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam was king of Israel, and when his prophecies took place – two years before the earthquake. We don’t know when that was, but apparently his readers would have.

But, unlike Amos and most of the other minor prophets, Joel gives us no such context. The book simply begins, “The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel.” All we’ve got to go off is that his name is Joel and his dad’s name is Pethuel. We don’t know anything else about him. We don’t know when Joel was written. Scholars have argued that it was written anywhere from the tenth century to the second century – ya know, just a span of 800 years! As far as location goes, Joel speaks of Jerusalem, Zion, and Judah a number of times, so he was most likely from the southern kingdom of Judah, but that’s all we’ve got. Where he delivers his prophecy and who his audience is, we don’t know.

All we really have to go off is what’s in the three chapters that make up the book of Joel. Joel’s prophecy is primarily in response to a plague of locust that has come through and devoured everything, leading to a drought and even fires. The book begins (read Joel 1:1-4), and later Joel says, (read Joel 1:19-20).

In addition to these natural disasters, chapter 2 predicts that a powerful army is on the way to conquer the people, unless they repent and return to God. In a rather well-known passage, Joel pleads, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

So, based on what the book says, the context in which Joel’s prophecy was given appears to be a nation that has been ravaged by natural disasters and is threatened by violence. And out of this bleak picture of war and devastation, we have a text assigned for…Thanksgiving of all days. Side note: our readings today aren’t actually the ones assigned for today, they’re the ones assigned for Thanksgiving, but since we’ll be celebrating a Thanksgiving dinner today after the service, I thought they were appropriate.

So, in the midst of so much hopelessness, these words of hope spring up, like flowers in a parched land:

(Read Joel 2:21-27)

Joel speaks these hopeful words in a moment marred by natural disasters, with the threat of violence hanging over the land.

Perhaps we can relate. Maybe, today, we know a little something about fires devouring, hurricanes flooding, and droughts robbing the earth of water. Maybe we know something about armed gunman entering schools, hospitals, restaurants, shopping malls, and places of worship with guns created solely to take life. We know what it means to live in a time of uncertainty – uncertainty about the future of our government, the future of the environment, the future of our lives and lives of our children.

It can be difficult, in moments like these, to be thankful. It can be difficult to see God in times like these, just as it was difficult for the people of Judah to see God in the midst of their current circumstances. But this is Joel’s primary goal: to assure them that God is present. They aren’t alone. God isn’t far away and distant, God is right in their midst. Our passage this morning ends with this assurance: You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.” Towards the end of the book, Joel says, “The Lord roars from Zion, [God utters God’s voice] from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake. But the Lord is a refuge for the Lord’s people, a stronghold for the people of Israel. So you shall know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy mountain” (3:16-17).

Joel wants this down and out, bedraggled people, devastated by environmental catastrophe and fearing military violence, to remember that they are children of God, that the God of their past resides in their present and holds their future. The God who created them in God’s own image, the God who called Sarah and Abraham out of Haran, the God of Miriam, Moses, and Aaron, who rescued the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh, the God of Rahab and Ruth and David and Solomon – that God is their God, and that God is in their midst. That God is a stronghold, a refuge for the people of God, even when things look dire – especially when things look dire.

We are blessed to live in the future that Joel looked forward to. We live after the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Through Jesus, we’ve been adopted into the family of Israel, through the Gospel writers we hear the stories of Jesus, God made human, literally walking amongst us as one of us, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we continue to experience the presence of God in and amongst us today. The Gospels tell us that the coming of Jesus was the beginning of a new age, that through Jesus God was beginning a new rescue plan, the redemption of all of creation.

If you can remember way back to February of last year – who remembers what I preached on on February 18th, 2018? – we read the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark, when Mark says that as Jesus came up from the water the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. The New Testament scholar Joel Marcus called this tear in the heavens a “gracious gash in the universe,” through which, “[God] has poured forth [God’s] Spirit into the earthly realms.” [i] The picture that emerged was of a irreparable tear being made in the cosmos, through which heaven was pouring out onto the earth. God was starting a new thing through Jesus, and God’s spirit was now present in a way previously unheard of.

The writers of the New Testament believed this, that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is redeeming the world. This new redemption that started with the coming of Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection, is being continued through the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out through this “gracious gash in the universe,” onto the Church (us!), who is the body of Christ on earth. This is the story we have inherited, the story that shapes us as followers of Jesus. This is the hope we confess and the mission we continue as the Church in the 21st century.

But how can we really believe these things? How can we say God is doing a new thing, when the world looks the same as ever? If anything, weapons have become more deadly and natural disasters more devastating since the days of Joel. How can we say God is with us when we continue to suffer, when life continues to beat us down. How can we maintain our faith? How can we maintain our hope?

Where is God?

These are difficult questions, but I have to believe the answer begins with gratitude. Gratitude isn’t a feeling, it’s a spiritual practice. In the words of Molly T. Marshall, the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, “Gratitude does not flow out of happiness. Rather, gratitude creates happiness…It is an essential practice that positions us to receive life’s blessings and burdens with openness and trust. Giving thanks with a grateful heart is transformative.”[ii]

Gratitude is a way of seeing the world, a way of life, that looks for the presence of God that so often goes undetected, finds it, magnifies it, and lets it motivate us to participate in the work God is doing. While news anchors and politicians try to out-shout each other, and Netflix tries to distract us from the things that matter, the Spirit of God is moving in the world, often through those who stop long enough to listen for the mutterings of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who so often speaks in a silent whisper and not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. In other words, God is working through those who live lives of gratitude.

Every year, at Thanksgiving, my family passes a bowl of M&Ms around the table, and people grab one M&M for everything they’re thankful for, and then we go around the table and share what each M&M represents. (This year I made the mistake of just grabbing a bunch without thinking it through and had to get pretty creative with the last few things I was thankful for). Another way of saying this is each M&M represents a place where we see God, where, despite the uncertainties of life, the troubles we face as individuals and as a society, we see goodness, we experience grace. It’s a chance for us, like Jacob at Bethel, to wake up and exclaim, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).

Continually, throughout Scripture, the people of God are commanded, or at least encouraged, to give thanks. Often even during times of hardship. Once again, this isn’t based on feelings. God isn’t telling God’s people to feel happy when they really feel sad, or to pretend they aren’t suffering when they are. Instead, this is a spiritual practice. Finding the beauty in life is a vital act of resistance to all the ugliness of life.

Repeatedly the psalmist begins a psalm in utter hopelessness and yet, somehow, by the end of the psalm, finishes with praise (for example, Psalm 13 and 22). Usually what happens is the psalmist starts with personal trouble, but over the course of the psalm remembers how God has delivered in the past, and ends with the assurance that God will once again deliver. This is what we do when we give thanks. We, in the midst of our trouble, remember how God has worked in our lives, and we begin to look for where God might be working in the present.

Thanksgiving is a common theme in the New Testament, as well. Repeatedly, throughout the various letters written to churches facing all kinds of challenges, the authors exhort them to give thanks, as in Ephesians 5:19-20, when the author encourages the church at Ephesus to commit themselves to “…sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Or the author of 1 Thessalonians who says, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (5:18).

Thanksgiving doesn’t ignore or minimize the struggles we face, the burdens we carry, or the wounds we bear. On the contrary, it’s the armor we wear in the midst of the struggle, it’s the extra strength to carry our burdens, it’s a salve for our wounds.

Thanksgiving becomes all the more vital the more daunting our circumstances become. Gratitude is the intentional act of looking for God when life’s circumstances become unbearable.

Maybe the book of Joel gives us very little context because it’s essentially timeless. To live between natural disasters and violence wasn’t new in Joel’s day, nor is it new in our day. It’s the story of most people, throughout history.

While we can be sure that our world looks different than Joel’s in some ways, we have much in common. We live in a time where global warming and it’s symptoms threaten to change our way of life forever, the way the swarm of locusts affected Joel’s listeners. We cannot enter a public place without the fear of violence. Our children learn active shooter drills in school, the way Joel’s listeners must have planned for an attack from an outside army.

 In the midst of all this, we also face personal struggles and challenges. I know that for some of us here, every day is a battle. It may seem that our circumstances will overwhelm us. But, during the season of Thanksgiving, we stop and remember the good that continues to persist, the good that is stronger than we often realize. We stop and give thanks for the grace God has shown us: family members we can depend on at all times; spouses and partners who love us unconditionally for who we are; friends who become family when our family lives far away, is estranged, or is no longer with us; a church community who continues to point out the working of God in our lives when we cannot see it ourselves.

The more discouraged we become, the more thankful we must become. Instead of simply fighting against the bad, we must see the good and practice it. We must look that much harder for the work of God in our midst, and we must join in that work, so that the good we are thankful for today might spread to those who haven’t experienced it yet.

May we remember the ways God has blessed us, so that we can find strength for today and hope for tomorrow, and so that we can, in turn, be a blessing to others. Amen.

[i] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, 165.