Friday, 4 December 2020

Hope in the face of despair

 Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

6th December 2020


Joel 2.12-13, 21-22, 28-29


One of the mantras of Citizens UK,

            the community organising network that we’re part of here at Bloomsbury,

            is that the ‘world as it is’, is not the same as the ‘world as it should be’.


And it seems to me that this observation

            takes us right to the heart of the season of Advent,

when we recognise that in some deep and profound way the world is out of joint,

            that it isn’t what it could and should be,

            that something is persistently and obstinately wrong.


In many ways, Advent 2020 exemplifies this for us

            more than many years have done.

I don’t know what you were hoping for in 2020, but I bet it wasn’t this!


Can you cast your mind back to nearly a year ago,

            to New Year’s Eve - the dawn of a new decade, a time for fresh hope?

Well, here we are… and who’d have thought it!?


Things don’t always turn out as we hope,

            and the world as it is, is not the same as the world as it should be.


Well, we’re not the first generation in history to have our hopes dashed,

            and we won’t be the last either.

The Prophet Joel, from whose book our reading this morning comes,

            lived in just such a time.


If you’ve been with us over the last few weeks,

            we’ve been journeying with the Old Testament prophets

            through the time leading up to, and into, the Israelite exile in Babylon.


Well, Joel picks up the story after the end of the Exile.


Following a generation of captivity the winds of political change had stirred in Babylon,

            and the new ruler Cyrus decided

            that exiled peoples could return to their homelands.


So the Exiled Jews had set off back to the land of Israel,

            with a mission to rebuild their capital city,

            and to restore and re-consecrate their Temple.


But things were never so straightforward.

            For starters, not everyone had gone into exile.


The Babylonians had taken the educated and the elite,

            but the working classes had mostly remained in the land of Israel.

Whilst in exile, the exiles had forged a new kind of Judaism,

            they had written their scriptures,

            and created ways of being that allowed them to keep their faith

                        even when separated from their land and temple.


To put it another way, the Jewish faith had evolved in Babylon.


But those who had stayed in the land knew nothing of this,

            and so when the returners came back to Israel,

there were tensions from the beginning

            between those Jews who had been exiled, and those who had not.


It’s a bit like going to an Irish bar in New York:

            it’ll be more stereotypically ‘Irish’ than any bar you will ever find in Ireland itself,

and you can just imagine the difficulties that would emerge

            if someone decided to try and force everyone in the mother country

            to start adopting the characteristics developed by those who had left

                        a couple of generations earlier.


In addition to the cultural and religious tensions,

            things were not helped for the returners from exile

by the fact that they had come back to a time of famine and drought.


There’s been a plague of locusts (1.4) which has wiped out the crops,

            and people are starving.

The great return is not turning out as it was supposed to.


And it’s into this context the book of Joel comes to be written,

            as a response to a natural disaster

            and a general air of tension and disappointment.

The world as it was, in post-exilic Israel,

            was not the world as it was supposed to be,

and Joel wrestles with that reality before God.


The first thing to notice about Joel’s response to this situation,

            is that he is rather more pro-worship than some of the other prophets of his era.

Whereas Amos and Isaiah are scathing about the kind of worship

            that makes people feel good but which doesn’t result in social justice,

            Joel has a different approach.

He calls people to turn towards God with weeping and mourning,

            to rend their hearts and not their clothing.

Joel’s response to calamity is to bring that hurt and pain

            before God with brutal honesty,

not through some public show of piety,

            but with a genuine expression of grief.


And he assures those who would do this

            that God is gracious and merciful,

            that God will not be angry with them,

                        but rather will respond with steadfast love.


But for Joel, this turning to God is not simply

            about people being honest with God about the difficulties of their lives,

            although it certainly starts there.

Joel rather has a more holistic perspective

            on what returning to God might mean.


For Joel it encompasses not just hope for the individual,

            or the community that they are part of,

but also for the environment in which they live.


Writing off the back of a natural disaster,

            where nature has gone awry and people have paid the price in their suffering,

            Joel speak words of comfort not just to people but to the planet itself.

He tells the soil not to fear,

            he speaks to the animals, the pastures, the trees and the vines,

            and he offers a vision of fresh hope and restoration for the natural world.


There is something deeply profound here

            about the interconnectedness of people and planet, of humans and nature,

                        that both need the mercy and love of God,

            and that the future of one is tied inextricably to the other.

Without the land, the people die;

            but without the people, the land is untended and unfruitful.


And then we get this extraordinary vision of hope,

            which we more normally encounter at Pentecost

                        because it is quoted by Peter in his sermon

            following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples in Jerusalem.


But heard here in its original context,

            the promise of God’s restorative Spirit carries a promise of great hope.

The traditional and deeply rooted barriers that exist in society,

            of age, gender, and social status,

            are broken down by the coming of God’s Spirit;

and Joel offers a vision of an egalitarian community

            where not only are people at one with nature,

            but where people are united with each other.


And so we come to today, and to 2020.

            And the divisions in our world are plain to see.


From the injustices of race and ethnicity,

            highlighted so powerfully this year through the Black Lives Matter protests;

to the disproportionate health impacts of the pandemic

            on the elderly and the vulnerable;

to the ongoing denigration of people

            because of their gender or sexuality;

to the way climate change is affecting most

            those who are most impoverished;

to the global economic injustices caused by financial systems

            that protect the wealthy and keep the poor, poor.


And what, I wonder, can we hear from the book of Joel,

            as we come to the end of a year

                        when it has been as clear as ever

            that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be?


Advent is a time for being honest about the distance that exists between us and God;

            between the kingdoms of the earth, and the kingdom of heaven.

It is that place in the Christian year when it is OK to not be OK;

            to admit that we have turned from God,

            or to lament that God seems to have turned from us.


As we await the birth of Christ, the coming God to humanity,

            we wait in solidarity with exiles,

            in unity with those who suffer and struggle,

            and in concord with creation as it groans with suffering.


So here, in Advent 2020,

            I wonder if we can hear Joel speaking to us?

Can we hear the call to turn back to God,

            to rend our hearts and not our garments?

Can we discover an honesty in our worship

            that takes us to the place of raw reality before God?


Over the next couple of weeks,

            we have two events coming up at Bloomsbury

that may be particularly helpful to those of us

            who want to bring our whole selves before God,

            with all our grief, pain, and anxiety.


Firstly, on Sunday evening next week,

            we will be having a meeting called ‘A Safe Place To Talk’,

which is particularly set aside for those of us who suffer

            with times of poor mental health,

for us to be honest with one another,

            and to share our struggles and find strength in community together.


And then, on the Monday evening of the 21st, the Longest Night of the year,

            we will have what is often called a Longest Night Service,

                        or sometimes a ‘Blue Christmas’ service,

            where we will recognise before God

                        that sometimes life is difficult, sad, unresolved.

Do come along to these if they would be helpful to you.

            There will be more information in the news email,

            and again in next Sunday’s service.


But more than this, can we also hear Joel’s call to creation,

            to a world facing natural disaster,

            that God is still capable of bringing new life where life as it was has died?


We are still in the grip of the worst pandemic in living memory,

            and although there is good news on the horizon with the vaccine,

            many will still die before we get through this.


And whilst the government’s ambitious promise this week

            that the UK will cut emissions by 68% by 2030 is unquestionably good news,

there is much still to be done both in London, our country, and the world,

            before we find our way through the looming climate emergency.


It is so good to have people from Bloomsbury

            participating in the London Citizens Just Transition campaign,

where we are calling on Mayor to create 60,000 good green jobs,

            and to upgrade 100,000 homes by retrofitting green energy heating and insulation.


Tackling the climate crisis is an opportunity to make people’s lives better here in London,

            as well as around the world.

Caring for creation, and caring for the poor and the vulnerable, can go hand in hand,

            and I think Joel would agree,

            with his vision of the interconnectedness of people and planet.


And can we hear Joel’s call, to live into being

            the world of equality that dawns in our midst,

as the Spirit of God breaks down the barriers

            that divide humanity, communities, and families.


I remain endlessly proud to be part of a community of faith

            that fearlessly articulates our values of inclusion for all,

            regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.

The Spirit of God is truly poured out on all, without distinction.


And for all of its shortcomings,

            this year of mostly online worship

has enabled people to join us who would otherwise not have been able

            to worship with us due to age, infirmity, or distance.


The gathering of our community before God

            to hear the words of good news has continued,

            and has even strengthened in some ways.


People have forged new bonds,

            and we have re-focussed as a church on the gift of our gathered community,

            creatively working out what it is to summon God’s people to worship,

to turn once more to the God who gives new life to all.


As Joel put it:

            The Lord is gracious and merciful,

            slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.



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