February 17, 2013 - First Sunday in Lent
We dropped on the
benches panting. Our high school basketball coach had been running us up and
down the bleachers next to the football field. Up and down, up and down, till
we were already to fall over. It felt so good to sit down. But it didn’t last
“Up you go!” shouted
the coach, “Give me two laps!” and sent us off to run around the track. That’s
how it went. Just when we were certain that we had to stop or die, he would
find some new way to push a little further, a little harder. I imagine some of
you experienced that sort of thing and worse in boot camp.
When we get to verse
12 of Joel 2, it feels like God is a cruel coach or drill sergeant. The first
part of the chapter, verses 1-11, describes a series of locust invasions, which
are detailed in chapter 1 verse 4:
What the cutting
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
And what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
Verse 7 of chapter 1 describes
how that “army” of locusts, “laid waste my vines, and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches have turned
white.” Verse 10 tells that “The fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for
the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails.” And there is more
about the devastation of the wheat and the barley, all the crops of the field,
all the fruit trees, devoured and wrecked by the locusts.
Verse 16 of chapter 1
cries, “Is not the food cut off from our eyes, joy and gladness from the house
of our God?” And the ruin of the crops affects the livestock in verse 18, “How
the animals groan! The herds of cattle wander about because there is no pasture
for them; even the flocks of sheep are dazed.”
So the first part of
chapter 2 is an extended metaphor, comparing those hordes of insects to an
invading human army. Some Bible readers believe that in fact there was a
human army that invaded after the locusts came. In any case, Joel was writing
to people whose food supply had been almost completely destroyed. They had
suffered about as much as they possibly could and still survive. They were
going hungry. And what does Joel say, both in chapter 1 and here in chapter 2,
that God is asking them to do? Fast.
It’s as if God were
telling them, “You’re hungry? You’ve had enough? Well get up and do some more.
Fast. Go without food altogether.” It’s cruel and harsh, and to our ears
sounds almost senseless.
You and I are well-fed.
We can walk into Winco or Fred Meyer and find bins heaped with fresh fruit from
all over the world. We push our carts down aisles lined with forty different
kinds of bread or any sort of meat or fish or poultry we choose. Most of us
haven’t any real clue about what it’s like not to have enough to eat. Yet we
still find the idea of fasting cruel and harsh and archaic. Surely God doesn’t
expect us to do that?
God’s Word shows here
that He clearly expected fasting of people lots worse off than we are. And
Jesus expected fasting. He fasted Himself, as we heard in today’s Gospel
lesson. And as we will hear next week in Matthew 6, He clearly expected His disciples to fast. John Wesley was fond of pointing out, when he taught
Methodists to fast and pray, that Jesus didn’t say, “If you fast…,” He
said, “When you fast…”
So why do you and I
have so much difficulty doing it? Why is this spiritual discipline, mentioned
so often in Scripture, practiced by the Lord and by His disciples, so daunting
for us? There are many reasons, those packed shelves at the grocery store and
full refrigerators at home among them. But at least part of the problem is the
way we’ve come to understand and undertake almost any spiritual practice.
What do we sometimes
ask ourselves or each other during this week in the church year? Isn’t it “What
will I give up for Lent?” or “What are you giving up for Lent?” We’ve made the
idea of fasting into a personal, individual choice of something to sacrifice to
the Lord for six weeks. We each individually seek the Lord, trying to better
myself and my relationship with God.
Even our Lenten
Covenant sheet we distributed this morning might give that impression.
Privately, by yourself, choose two or three ways to grow closer to Christ and
His life and sufferings in this season. You do it your way. I’ll do it my way.
Each of us will come to the Lord in the way you or I want, personally,
I’d like you to look
now at verses 15 and 16 of Joel 2. God did not ask individual Israelites to privately
choose some form of repentant devotion. When He said, “sanctify a fast,” He
told them to “Blow the trumpet,” and “call a solemn assembly.” Then He said to
“gather the people” and He meant everyone: “the aged,” “the children,”
even “infants at the breast.” “Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride
her canopy.” Even newlyweds on honeymoon were not excused.
This time of national
fasting and prayer was not every man or woman at home, participating as he or
she could fit into his or her private schedule. No, it was everyone, regardless
of age or circumstance, coming together to seek God.
What we see here is
the Bible’s general understanding that spiritual discipline like fasting and
prayer is most often a corporate rather than a private exercise. Yes,
individuals do pray and fast alone. We saw Jesus doing that in Luke 4 today. But most of the time, generally, spiritual life happens as we read it here in
Joel, together, as the assembled people of God.
One of the reasons we
find it so hard to fast is that we treat it as a solitary exercise in
self-control. I’m going to master my body, focus my thoughts, train my spirit
to be more holy. That’s not bad, but it suggests that spiritual life is all
about me, about bettering myself, about my own status with the Lord. It’s not.
When Christ went out alone to fast and pray, He didn’t do it for Himself, to
make Himself a better person. He did it for us. When you and I fast and pray,
let us not just do it for our individual selves, but for each other.
Look at the prayer the
priests were told to pray in verse 17, “Spare your people, O Lord…” Sure, they
would have confessed their individual sins and prayed for their own souls, but
the prayer God gave them and told them to pray was for the congregation, for
the whole assembly that was gathering before God. So the prayer gatherings
we’re holding on Wednesday evenings in Lent are not so much about individual
requests as they are about prayer for our church and for each other.
It’s simply better and
easier to live spiritually and engage in spiritual discipline together. Ask
anyone here who has participated in the 30-Hour Famine our youth have done in
the past. Fasting together, in a time of learning, service and even some fun,
is much better than suffering through the hunger pangs and headaches by
yourself at work or at home.
This is challenging, I
know. It’s especially difficult for those of us, like me, who are introverts at
heart. We don’t necessarily feel stronger in large groups. Our emotional energy
is drained when we reach out to those around us. We would much rather get
through our fasting and prayer alone than to be together with a group. We need
to go off sometimes by ourselves, like Jesus did, to recharge our spiritual
batteries. Yet it is in and as a group, as a body, that God blesses our
spiritual discipline. Most of the time Jesus surrounded Himself with friends,
with disciples, and He constantly placed Himself at the service of the crowds.
Fasting is a way to
say, together, that we trust in God and that the true source of our life is
God. And God Himself is corporate, a Trinity. God is not a solitary individual.
When Jesus went out in the desert, He was not alone, but in the company of the
Father and the Spirit. And as Jesus said, we do not live by bread, by food
alone, but by hearing and receiving what God has to say to us. And He speaks
most often to us together.
When we place our
corporate hope in God and not in the next meal, that is when God begins to pour
out His blessings on us. As you can read here in Joel 2, the famine and fasting of Israel was followed by feasting. Verses 18 to 26 are a
promise that God will restore and replenish all that they lost. Verse 19 says,
“I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied.” Verse 24 is
extravagant, “The threshing floors will be full of grain, the vats shall
overflow with wine and oil.”
Genuine fasting that
humbles us together before God, depending solely on his provision, leads in
that direction. It’s fasting to feasting. After Jesus’ long fast and
temptation, we’re told in Matthew’s Gospel that angels came and ministered to
Him, fed Him. God promises that if we come together and pray in humility and
sacrifice, then He will come to us with restoration and blessing. Read all
those verses in Joel 2. It’s beautiful.
A few years ago, I and
our congregation experienced something like a plague of locusts. We had some
conflicts. Some people moved away or left. In the middle of it my mother died.
A good friend got angry at me. Then the recession started. Like the swarming
locust following the cutting locust and the hopping locust eating up what the
swarming locust left, it felt like one thing after another, devastating us.
Yet we humbled
ourselves, cut some things back, prayed a lot and God answered. Many of you are
part of the blessing He poured out. He restored our children’s ministry and
gave us a new ministry in the Egan Warming Center. For the past three years,
for almost the first time in our history, God used your generosity to meet our
budgets and more. It happened as we assembled together to seek the Lord.
Now though, read verse
27. All those blessings are wondrous, as verse 26 said. Yet here is the
greatest blessing. “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.”
God asks us to come
together, asks us to engage in spiritual discipline like fasting and prayer,
for one huge reason. It’s not about individual improvement, although that
happens. It’s not all about enough to eat and being a successful congregation,
although that happens. It’s about God being with us, God being here among us.
It’s about us being brought together in the wondrous, glorious life of God the
Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As God is three
different persons in one God, united in perfect unity, we come into His
blessing when we as different persons come together in unity before Him and
with Him. That’s where we find the greatest blessing, the most extravagant
outpouring of His love.
When I was young, my mother
taught me a lesson in manners. Whenever we sat around the table, whether just
the family or with company or in someone else’s home, you sat and waited until
everyone was served before you started eating. It was a hard lesson for me. I
still sometimes find it difficult, especially at dessert time.
Our hostess places
that luscious piece of pie in front of me and I pick up my fork, poised to take
a bite. Then I glance around the table. She’s still cutting slices, scooping on
ice cream, and passing plates around. She’s pouring coffee. It’s taking
forever. My ice cream is melting. I just want to dig in and savor the warm
tartness of berries against the cool sweet of the ice cream. But we wait, wait
until everyone has some and the hostess herself sits down and joins us. That’s
what I was taught. And that’s how we come to God.
Fasting is waiting for
each other. It’s a patient refraining from food that may be right there before
us, so that there is opportunity for everyone to join in. If we fast and give
away what we might have spent on food that day, then we are actually waiting
for someone else on the other side of the world to join the feast.
When Paul wrote to the
church in Corinth about their problems in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper,
that’s what he told them in I Corinthians 11:33, “when you come together to
eat, wait for one another.” Join in a little fast until you can see that
everyone is included, everyone brought together into the feast.
May you and I learn to
fast like that, together. Yes, we will do our own individual Lenten disciplines
and fastings of various sorts. But let us also learn how to fast together, to
wait for one another, to seek the blessing of God for us all and not just
The most extravagant,
most wondrous outpouring of blessing shows up in Joel 2 verse 28 and 29. You may know that Peter quoted these verses and what follows on the
day of Pentecost, what some have called the birthday of the Church. When the
disciples came together and waited for each other and for the Lord, He did as
He promised here, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your
daughters shall prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men
shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants, I will pour out my Spirit.”
what fasting is for, to seek the outpouring of God’s own self, the Holy Spirit.
That’s how it’s true for us, as it was true for Israel, that God is in the
midst of us. The Holy Spirit comes. The Holy Spirit draws us all together,
anyone who desires to be with Him, into the life and blessing of God. Verse 32
says, “Then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Those
same words were echoed in our text from Romans this morning, right after Paul
talked about being together in Christ and that God makes no distinctions among
people. Anyone who wants to be included is included in His blessing.
I invite you into the
Lenten discipline of fasting. Maybe you will give up something. That’s O.K. I’m
doing that too. But even more I urge us to fast together from our
individualism, from our false perspective that spiritual life is all about how I feel, how I relate to God. Let us fast from self-centered selfishness
and instead come together in a corporate fast that is really a feast of joy,
trusting in God for all we need and finding His Spirit right here, in our
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj