Read this: Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
The Christian year is only two weeks old and already we are being told to repent. To throw ourselves down as hopeless sinners. To admit to God how despoiled and besmirched we are, because only then will we have the chance for redemption and grace.
How’s that for a “Good morning to ya'”? No wonder people are avoiding church like nuts and gum. Together at last!
Growing up outside of the church, I certainly had a dim view of repentance talk. It conjures up images of a spider being held by God over the fires of hell. I didn’t understand why Christianity always seemed so preoccupied with the nature of sin. Now, years and many academic degrees later, I understand that much of that has to do with the interpretive voices that won out–Paul, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards–but there is certainly more to it than just citing sin. Only through the recognition of sin, says the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, can we understand the power of grace. Only the darkest hour gives way to dawn.
The prophetic book of Joel is complicated. Frankly, that is an observation that can be made about any book in the Bible. The history of Joel is contested. We also don’t know much about the prophetic figure himself, whose name means “YHWH is God.” Although I am not a Hebrew Bible scholar, I play one in this blog and I am swayed by the theory that Joel is written as a prophetic book that can be applicable to just about any situation; in other words, the work is intentionally vague in terms of establishing an historical context so that the prophetic words will be seen as relevant at all times. The Day of the Lord appears throughout the Hebrew bible–and is largely supplanted by the Parousia in Christian lore–but it represents a day in which truth will out. Good will overturn evil. Death will be no more; suffering will lose its say.
And, frankly, if you’re an evil person, you’re gonna have a bad time.
This sets up an interesting theological quandary. Are we good because we fear something?Are we good because we think we’ll get something? Or are we good for the sake of goodness.
You better be good for goodness sake, indeed.
Joel calls for a spiritual change by conjuring up images of traditional Jewish repentance, that of renting (rending) clothes. Instead, though, he calls for a renting of the heart. This is reminiscent of what Paul will later write in Romans 2:29, when he calls not for a circumcised penis but rather a circumcised heart. Joel uses the breadth of repentance imagery to detail what seems to be required: fasting, weeping, mourning; all that is missing is ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων, the gnashing of teeth. Joel’s God wants the whole production, it seems.
Starting to feel like the spider again?
Since the book of Joel is designed to be applicable outside of a specific situation, something we cannot say for everything that appears in the Bible, let’s look at it in terms of Christians now. For us, living in the 21st century, most likely in the United States (I do not fool myself into thinking I have much of an international readership). We are at the start of a new year, and like every Christian year we are in Advent. It is a time of preparation. And unlike what marketers will have us think, it is a time not to prepare for Christmas Day. Not really. It is a time to prepare for the coming of God into the world.
Now, this is confusing or perhaps contradictory. If God is omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent, it means that God is always and has always been present, right? If God encompasses all, why would we need to prepare for a coming of God? The Christian answer is, as one might expect, both maddening and profoundly beautiful. We live a both/and existence. Of course, God is here. But each year at Advent, we prepare ourselves liturgically for the coming of Christ at Christmas, just as we prepare ourselves spiritually each day for the coming again of Christ, the Parousia. God is here and not yet.
I have written before about my trepidation regarding the Parousia or theology that is inherently eschatological or apocalyptic. I shan’t belabor that point by trodding upon already traversed ground, except to say that a religion focused on the next world to the exclusion of this one–or as a justification for expecting people to accept degradation here and now–does not work for me. It has done incredible damage to people of color, especially as used to mollify or even sanctify the effects of slavery. That doesn’t work for me, but that’s not to say that I don’t leave lots of room for positive eschatological soteriologies. or, to lose the jargon, for ideas about God’s goodness that link the end times to human salvation. I just don’t write those sorts of theologies.
However, Joel has a powerful word for us here on the Second Sunday of Advent. Joel is saying, “Slow your roll. You’re looking ahead to the coming of God, and yes it is exciting. But are you ready? Really ready? You’re looking for the hope, joy, goodness, mercy, justice, compassion, radical love, and abundant blessings that come with God, says Joel. But have you thought about the ways in which you might have blocked these in the past year? Have you thought about the ways in which you might have interrupted the work of God in others? Reasonable people can disagree, but I think that the point is not to render ourselves slobbering, weepy messes who are filled with self-loathing and ugliness. I can’t really fathom a God such as that, frankly.
Yet what Joel is pitching I can catch. There’s a process to being able to enter more deeply into a relationship. For example, I had a wonderful, incredible dog named Guinness. She was my boon companion. My best friend. We were together for 14 years. She passed away on December 26, 2010. I still have a difficult time talking about her without crying. I have had opportunities to get other dogs, but I have refused. Why? Because I am afraid that I will expect a new dog to be Guinness. I will not accept and love the new creature for who she is, I’ll expect her to be Guinness. That’s not fair. That’s not a good relationship. It’s the same reason we are ill-advised to go from one serious romantic relationship to another without proper time, distance, reflection, and mourning.
Our lives are filled with deaths that we do not mourn properly. Sometimes those deaths are of our civility. Our goodness. Maybe not total deaths; maybe deaths of small aspects of our goodness or our civility. But deaths nonetheless that we really should recognize before we try to move forward. Joel reminds us that before we can expect an outpouring of Spirit; before we can even attempt to dream or have visions of goodness, we must repent. We must return to God. We must be honest about what we have done and have not done. I’ve been living that a lot for the past two weeks. There may be no crying in baseball, but there is repenting and mourning in Advent.
We can and should be critical of the Bible for sometimes presenting women as inferior to men; we should be critical of the Bible for seemingly approving of various forms of slavery (although I argue the “acceptance” does not apply to the form of race-based slavery that emerges from conquest of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, but that’s another post). In our criticism, though, we should also note that God’s promises cut across those lines, even when humans try to stop it. Everyone can repent. Everyone can return to God. Everyone can mourn the ways that they have failed to be all that we can be, and everyone can receive an equal outpouring of the Spirit. Everyone can have prophetic vision and dream impossible dreams.
We are at a crucial time in our nation’s history. Trite, but true. I’m willing to hold some major, major differences with people in holy tension as long as we can agree that we can’t let some deaths occur. We can’t let women fear that they will be grabbed by any parts of their body, or that Muslim women should be grabbed by the hijab. We can’t allow a legal system that does not protect everyone equally, and we cannot accept the feeble excuses or justifications for why it is not so. Friends, I speak loudly and with passion but that doesn’t mean that I expect others to agree with me. I, frankly, enjoy hearing contrary opinions as long as we are agreed that all of us have repenting to do. All of us have ways that we have failed. All of us have reflecting and considerations that we must do in order to move forward.
Advent is a time in which we can reinvent ourselves. Not inauthentically, but in the image of God. We’ll be given new eyes and new ears, and by the time we wear those down and risk becoming deaf and blind, God will be once again on the way (while also by our side). Weird, I know. But I am grateful for weird. Weird I can do. I speak fluent weird. For a weird God, let the people of the Church say…