Fourth Sunday in Lent

Prophet Joel watercolor
The prophet Joel

I’m guessing at least a few people here have heard those “good news, bad news” jokes. Like the one where the doctor comes into the room and says to the patient, well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news … the good news is, we’re going to name a disease after you.”

Or the one about the old friends Rosie and Phyllis, who have been playing softball together for decades; at last Rosie is on her deathbed, and her friend Phyllis tries to lighten the mood a bit and says, listen, Rosie, you be sure to give me a sign about whether there’s softball in heaven, OK … and they say their good-byes. Lo and behold, the next night Phyllis is awoken by a brilliant, ethereal light, and there’s Rosie standing by her bed, looking very chipper, and she says, Phyllis, I’ve got some great news, and … well, some less great news, the great news is, not only is there softball in heaven, a bunch of the old team is here, and the playing conditions are outstanding: the fields are beautiful, the equipment is top of the line, the weather is always perfect, you couldn’t ask for anything better … so Phyllis says, that is great news – so, what’s the not so great news? And Rosie says: you’re pitching Tuesday.

So, this good news bad news structure – I would argue Joel has a lot of that going on in this prophecy. The good news is, in this famous line, “yet even now” it’s not too late for things to go right. God loves you, God wants to have a relationship with you, and God is going to be open to really, really blessing you, to making sure you’ll have everything you need or could ask for.

But, this is good news that comes after an announcement of bad news that will curl your hair. The disaster, the great and terrible Day of the Lord that Joel has just been describing, the complete decimation of all sustenance by locusts from the desert … this disaster is designed to reduce people to a state of helplessness and hopelessness. Nothing anyone can do in the normal scheme of things is going to help. There is no remedy for what is happening here. It is bleak.

So Joel’s word of good news seems to be a little late, doesn’t it?

Make no mistake, I’m not suggesting that it is anything other than a word of genuine good news. In a terrible situation like that, I’m sure I would appreciate knowing I could still turn to God as a last resort. When we have completely hit bottom and it looks like we are literally out of options, I agree that finding out that turning to God actually is an option … that is good news.

But I can’t help feeling I would have appreciated hearing it a little earlier, say, before the locusts arrived in the first place. As my grandmother used to say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – and usually feels a whole lot better, to boot. I can’t help feeling I might have preferred to turn back to God with all my heart before the great and terrible day of the Lord dawned.

I’m not sure this philosophical speculation is Joel’s main concern – he is busy reminding some people who are in an extreme circumstance that they can still turn to God, and that as helpless and hopeless as things seem, they can still depend upon God – that is, they do depend upon God, but they can count on God to act on their behalf, even in the midst of this disaster. I don’t think Joel is all that concerned about the philosophical implications of the situation: why does the disaster have to come in the first place? Why not intervene a little earlier, before things get so … well, disastrous?

But I’m reading Joel’s prophetic words today. And I can’t help asking myself … what happened to turning to God before it’s the last resort, before things are as bad as they can be? Because if things do get to be as bad as they can be, might I not be more inclined to blame God, than to turn back to God?

I got pretty stuck thinking about this; and then I thought of … step one.

I expect a lot of people are familiar enough with 12 step programs, for whatever reason, to know something about the steps, so I expect a lot of people know about step one. But for everyone who doesn’t, step one is, basically, an admission of powerlessness. In Alcoholics Anonymous, it goes “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and could not manage our own lives.” In other programs, depending on what a person is trying to gain some recovery from, that identification of what we are powerless over changes – because it might be narcotics, or food, or our loved ones with addictions that we are powerless over – but the key is that recognition that there is something that we don’t control.

We are, of course, living with a whole lot of consequences of our own behavior, but they are the consequences of being out of control, of being powerless to keep on doing what we’re doing, and obtain different consequences from it. We might be “managing” – by moving from crisis to crisis, if you call that “managing” – but what we’re not doing is choosing our own good. And for a lot of us, it seems to be true that being willing to try some of the solutions that might work for us requires that we see beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the solutions we’ve come up with ourselves are insane. Maybe that’s because for addicts, the solutions we come up with for ourselves always seem, not coincidentally, to involve hanging on to what we’re addicted to: still drinking, or still having access to our credit cards, or still looking at porn “a little”,  or whatever it is.

Being willing to turn to solutions that will work, or that even might work, solutions that involve actually quitting our substance and not going back to it, seems to require admitting that it controls us and not the other way around, that we’re literally helpless and hopeless without God’s help and hope.

It strikes me that the people Joel was talking to might have been like us in that way. We don’t know what had gotten them turned away from God. We don’t know how long they’d been living that way, or with what negative effects, or maybe even effects they they had been willing to convince themselves were positive, or at least not all that bad. Unlike some of the other prophets, Joel doesn’t denounce the Judahites for their social injustice, their greed, their idolatry. All we know from Joel is that when this thing happens, turning back to God with all their hearts is still possible, and will be beneficial. And is necessary: because they are seriously not in control of what is going on, of what happens in and to this land and its people and all its inhabitants; at this point, it is clear that everything depends upon God.

Neither Joel nor the people seem to wonder why this has happened; no one seems to suggest that somehow God has made a mistake; although Joel doesn’t tell us why the people need to turn back to God, there seems to be no confusion about why that’s needed, or what that will entail. It’s as if somehow, everyone involved already knows … maybe, it’s like the way those of us who have been smokers know, knew, for a long time, this wasn’t what we should be doing – until finally something got us to the point where we said, once and for all, OK, I’m done …

It is equally clear that God in this passage takes no pleasure in showing the people this rocky bottom. The plague doesn’t happen because God is having so much fun. It happens, rather, because this is what it takes the people to perceive the reality of their situation, the consequences of that reality, and what it all means about their relationship to God, and God’s relationship to them.

God really does have their backs. God really does have good news. But God’s good news can only be actualized if the people embrace the way of life that God has offered them. It can only become real when they embrace God’s way of life, rather than one or more of the ways of death that they have been pursuing, one of those ways of death people even today are continually tempted to pursue as opposed to God’s way of life. Those ways of death are really, naturally, incompatible with things going well over the long haul. (Here again, I expect we all have our own examples of choices and practices that we know are incompatible with health and happiness, but that maybe have that ability to suck us in from time to time; examples of lessons we have had to learn, maybe just once, maybe more than once … ).

So, I think the prophet Joel is speaking to us, also. “Yet even now,” God says, if you return to me with all your heart, if you fast and weep and mourn and rend your hearts rather than your clothing, if you practice the kind of repentance that involves throwing yourself on the mercy of God, rather than doubling down on reliance on your own resources, then yes, God can work with your situation, just as God worked with the seemingly helpless and hopeless aftermath of the plague of locusts. Even now, in 2017, in our lives, God can, and will, work with that radical recognition of our radical dependence on God for … well, for literally everything.

And if we accept that, and make that turn, then, whether our days are full of “health and wealth,” as some of those megachurch preachers like to proclaim, or if our days are full of something less than that, as Jesus’ own life seems to proclaim, especially as we are on our way towards Jerusalem and Holy Week and Good Friday … whenever God is in the midst of our lives, that will be good news. Even, I believe, if we find out that they’re going to name a disease after us, or that we’re pitching on Tuesday.

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