Very rarely do we hear news stories about genuine repentance. We often hear PR statements, statements regretting the fallout of actions, words that express regret for the pain caused – but often not apology and claim to wrong action. We might hear “I’m sorry that my words offended you”. We probably don’t hear, “I was wrong. My words were stupid. I am sorry.”
It is difficult to accept blame. We often want to shift and put the blame outside of ourselves or onto the other person’s reading of our actions or words. Claiming our wrong actions, repenting to God and to each other, intentionally renewing relationships: these are the uncomfortable tasks of reconciliation. While our society is not keen on doing this deep work of reconciliation, we, as followers of Jesus, are called to make right with each other on a regular basis. Our two passages today involve repentance and confession – one in the Old Testament book from the prophet Joel and the other being a parable from Jesus.
As a congregation, as we move out of a place of crisis, as we have signs of hope moving forward, we need to focus on what a healthy community looks like. Many have been working hard (in ways seen and unseen) so that this congregation survives. Now that we are crossing into a more stable place, how do we think about our church’s health and well-being going forward? We do not just want to survive. We want this church to thrive.
Looking at our scriptures today, there are several truths about congregational well-being that we can learn and practice. We see from the prophet Joel that the well-being of the Israelite community required repentance and faithfulness. In the story of the Pharisee and tax collector, Jesus taught his disciples that a humble, contrite heart was essential for faithfulness in God’s eyes. If we seek a healthy church, we must aim to make repentance regular in our lives and in our congregation. The well-being of our congregation requires our regular repentance.
You probably haven’t heard many sermons from the book of Joel—or even other of the Minor Prophets (like Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi). These Minor Prophets are not “minor” because they are unimportant but because they are significantly shorter than Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
At times it can be difficult to learn from or preach from the Old Testament. The context sometimes feels so far removed from our own. It was a different system (sacrifices, Mosaic Law), spread over hundreds of years, and focused on a single people group’s special relationship with God (the Israelites). There is so much disconnect because the church today is not a people group or a country and also because we live in faith under a “new covenant” through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Things look different and are different. Yet, we can still learn from the Old Testament and each Old Testament book (there are 39 in all) is important for our faith. They were Jesus’ Scriptures and are our Scriptures too, even if we do call the New Testament “our creed” and interpret the Old in light of the New.
We come to the book of Joel and need to find out a few things. Who was Joel? What type of genre is this book? What is the context of our passage within the book as a whole? Answers to these questions are important so that we can understand Joel’s words in their proper context and also learn how we might find applications relevant to today.
“The End is Near!” We’ve all seen someone proclaiming the end of the world. It may have been a person on a street corner or a billboard or on an RV a couple years ago. Sometimes, people proclaim the end of the world… and the world around them thinks they are crazy.
In the Old Testament, quite a few people went around saying, “The End is Near”, although it was often more like, “The end as you know it is near”. Joel was one such person, a prophet.
Biblical prophets had two roles: forth-telling and fore-telling. Forth-telling is the act of calling out sin and injustice. The biblical prophets are filled with verses that rail against cheating the poor, doing religious rituals while not caring for those in need, and for worshipping things rather than God. God gave prophets a word of judgment and a call to repentance. The foretelling that happened was when God gave the people of Israel an ultimatum: repent or you will face the the day of the LORD—the consequences of your actions.
The Israelites had a covenant with the LORD, with YHWH. The LORD gave them the land of Israel and promised to bless them if they followed him. If they abandoned YHWH, if they oppressed the widow, the orphan, the stranger, then the LORD would remove his protection. The land would not be fruitful and the nation of Israel would be at risk for attack from its larger neighbors.
For some reason, we see in scripture that the LORD had a special relationship with Israel. There are many things that I do not understand about why God chose to make a covenant with Israel in this way. The New Testament indicates that natural disasters and personal calamity (Jn 9: 1-7; Mt. 5:45; Lk 13:2-5) are not connected with faithfulness. Yet, in the Old Testament, for the specific nation of Israel, it worked in this way. Their faithfulness was tied to the country’s well-being, safety, protection, and the fertility of the land. This is what Scripture tells us.
With this specific context to Israel, we come to the prophet Joel. Prior to our text, Joel has begun foretelling judgment. Israel has not repented. The people are not in right relationship with each other or God. Many prophets—including Joel—have called for the people to repent, to focus their hearts back on YHWH, to consider their actions and their worship, and renew their faith in both word and deed. Joel speaks of a coming plague of locusts that will devastate the land. The bountiful blessing of YHWH will be lacking from the community because they do not repent.
As with other prophetic passages, the message of judgment from YHWH is interspersed with messages of hope, of renewal, of deliverance and salvation if repentance occurs. Future messages and present messages flip back and forth. Old Testament prophecy does not have a linear presentation. In today’s Joel passage, future healing, renewal, and well-being are promised.
The land of Israel is once again prosperous. There are autumn rains, sent by the LORD. No longer will insects plague the land. There are no droughts. The community has its needs met and is overflowing with food. The images used here—grain, oil, wine—these are the epitome of blessing and well-being in the Ancient Near East.
It is in repentance that the people have moved out of the destructiveness caused by their sins and towards a community that is healthy, a community marked by well-being. For the Israelites, the well-being of their community depended on repentance and their faithfulness to YHWH.
The prophet’s message to Israel has a lesson to the church today. The well-being of congregations—the well-being of our community of faith—also requires repentance. When I was considering this passage, considering how meaning translates from the Old Testament Israelite-nation context to the modern context of the church, an image from my garden came to mind.
If you recall this past Easter, we had many beautiful Easter lilies and azaleas decorating the church. Following Easter, these flowers were distributed for planting. I planted an azalea in our still-new and barren yard. I had recently learned to love azaleas and was eager to see the plant take root and grow, and eventually flower next spring as all azaleas do. The plant looked healthy and I saw new growth.
At some point though, the plant began to look ill. Some of the leaves began to turn brown and there were spots on some of the green leaves. No matter if it was given enough water or given some extra attention of mulch, the plant’s health continued to deteriorate. Finally, the azalea died.
One day, I started to pull it up and found that it came out quite easily. To my surprise, the plant had not rooted into its new location. It was exactly in the same “pot shape” that it had been when I planted it. While I had heard of plants being “root-bound” before, I didn’t know of the full implications.
A plant care website describes it this way: “As plants grown in containers mature [whether they containers by the grower or ones you put them in], their developing roots eventually will run out of space. When this happens, the plant becomes ‘root-bound’. The roots will try to escape out any drain holes in the pots. In some cases, they will try to slip out of the soil and over the lip of the pot. And, in nearly every situation, the roots will begin to grow in overlapping circles that follow the inner walls of the container.
As roots take over the interior space of the container, little room is left for soil to hold water, which may lead to root death. Allowing root-bound plants to continue to grow in this fashion will not only stunt the plant’s growth, but also it can bring about the plant’s overall demise” (Fiskars, 2013).
I mentioned what happened to my father-in-law and he told me that it is good to use a knife to slice into sections of the root ball. “Don’t be afraid of killing the plant”, he said, “Cutting it is important.” Slicing into the root-ball allows the roots to become unbound from their choking pattern and to turn their roots outward, into the ground.
As humans, we regularly make mistakes. We at times say the wrong things, hurt peoples’ feelings, deal with others in a pushy or bossy way, or simply do not care when we should be showing a person kindness. As followers of Jesus, we are lead by the Spirit and are being transformed by grace. But we still make these mistakes. As a community of faith, as a congregation, we are a group of people bound together—imperfect and with occasional blunders.
If we are not careful, the human mistakes we make in our relationships and interactions with each other can bog us down. When we start dealing with each other in ways that are not healthy and they continue unchecked, the roots of our mistakes can slowly encircle the community. You might not notice it at first. It could look healthy from the outside. And yet, they might be slowly choking out the life and love of the congregation.
As a congregation, as individual followers of Jesus, we regularly need to take a metaphorical knife and slice into our spiritual root-balls. By this, I mean repentance: meditating and praying about our lives, being open with God: confessing the things that we have done and the things that we have left undone.
If we want our community to be healthy, if we want to promote well-being in our congregation and in our own spiritual lives, we need to regularly turn our eyes inward. If we make a mistake and act in a way that is mean or bitter, etc., we are called to repent, to take the courage to apologize, admit, and make things right. Life in the Spirit, life together as a community of faith, requires repentance so that we might have soft hearts with one another, serve together, and engage one another in loving ways.
Jesus regularly called his listeners to Repent for the Kingdom of God is near. One of our scriptures today is a parable taught by Jesus about repentance and pride. The Pharisee was doing all the right religious things and serving in all the right ways. Yet he came to God in arrogance, “I’m so glad I’m not like that person.”
The tax collector recognized his failures. He didn’t make excuses or blame others. He didn’t say, “I’m sorry that you were offended, God, by my actions.” The tax collector claimed his wrongdoings: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Confounding the 1st Century image of righteousness, Jesus explained that the humble, repentant heart of the tax collector was the faithful heart in God’s eyes.
Later in the New Testament, the Apostle John wrote to his sisters and brothers about the importance of recognizing our sin and repenting, confessing. “…if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 Jn 1:7-10). 1st John has heavy, powerful words for the church.
Thinking about repentance might be daunting and uncomfortable. But we do not stand alone, trying to be our best selves with our own moral power. In our Joel passage, we see God’s holy power foretold by the prophet. First promised in Joel’s prophecy, the Holy Spirit now dwells in the lives of all who are in Jesus. This resurrecting power is what prompts and empowers us to do the difficult task of claiming our failures. The Holy Spirit moves, works, prods, pokes, and empowers our transformation toward holiness and love. Yet our initiative is also crucial and it makes a holy synergy.
Repentance often starts when we stop and take moments in silence, when we find a quiet place intentionally before God. It is there that our hearts are open and we can hear the Spirit’s prodding. It is in the stillness that we hear the call to talk less, to love more; to be gentle, not rude. It is in the stillness that we recognize our wrong, that we claim it, and confess it.
Sisters and brothers, as we continue on this journey together as a congregation, as the Washington City Church of the Brethren, let us commit to confessing our sins—to God and, at times, to one another. The well-being of our congregation requires our regular repentance. Let us be intentional, each of us, to find time to be still, that we might hear the Spirit’s voice, that we might feel the prodding, and slowly cut out the roots that could threaten to choke us. Sisters and brothers, let us confess our sins, for He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.