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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Joel 2
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 long.

         “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 locust left,
                  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, individually.

         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 individually.

         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.”

         Ultimately, that’s 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 midst.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated February 17, 2013