The title of the sermon is NOT directed to Presbyterians!!
A variety of factors intersect for this Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) text of Joel 2:23-32: a) this Sunday is designated Reformation Sunday, of course not in the RCL; b) the decision process for including certain Old Testament/Hebrew Bible texts and not others in the RCL is highlighted by the selection of Joel; and c) the task every preacher faces of understanding a lection so vivid on the surface yet so enigmatic when the preacher begins digging into the interplay between literary, historical, religious, sociological, and theological forces at work in a text, not to mention the ever complex engagement of the past with the pressing issues before us in the 21st century. There is hope despite our presbyopia.
First, the role of the celebration of the Reformation in RCL is complicated at best. Part of the goal of the RCL was drawn from the Roman Catholic lectionary tradition. In fact without that Roman Catholic tradition and then working with the various revisions of the then one year cycle it would be interesting to ask whether or not Protestantism would ever have made the step toward a common set of lections. Many Protestants this week will at least take note of Reformation Sunday if by nothing other than singing "A Mighty
Fortress Is Our God."
The question for all of us in Protestantism on Sundays where we wish to have our worship reflect the individual traditions of denominations and other important social causes, "How does this work with the
lectionary tradition?" Reformation and Tolerance is the theme for 2013 in what has been called the Luther decade (begun in 2008) and will end with the celebration of the 500th year of the Reformation in 2017. How have we failed and succeeded with the notion of tolerance? How has our vision been hampered?
Good resources exist for reflection on these lectionary matters. The publication this week in the
Christian Century (October 30, 2013) of an article entitled, "What's the text? Alternatives to the common lectionary" is sufficient to whet your appetite if interested. Then you can download the Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary (1996) which will give a more in depth historical perspective on the
The second factor is what to do with helping myself as well as my congregation deal with a book so rarely in the lectionary readings. We cannot just listen to a lecture or give a lecture instead of a sermon in case our congregations have not worked with a particular Biblical book. There are many Old Testament/Hebrew Bible texts missing from the RCL, even many of the New Testament texts do not appear. This circumstance has lead to the publication of Year D by Timothy Slemmons. He attempts to give an expanded use of texts by adding the D cycle to supplement cycles A through C. Given the Bible literacy of so many contemporary Christians I think whenever we get a book like Joel in our lections we need to recollect the absence that is so present in our congregations. To whom can we attribute that part of our lack of vision?
The third factor, closely related to the second factor is how to make a text present to the congregation when most know so little about the Biblical book. To top that off Joel is at best enigmatic (to borrow a term from Kathleen M. O'Connor in her fine little commentary in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary (one volume commentary on the entire Bible).
The Christian who reads Joel 2:23-32 will undoubtedly have heard of Joel since it is in the lection for Ash Wednesday in each of the three cycles. Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 is ALWAYS the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible
text for Ash Wednesday. It would be fair to ask is there no other Old Testament/Hebrew Bible text that would help Christians better internalize the meaning of Ash Wednesday?? I think we need ask how to refocus our
attention to get answers to this question.
In two of the RCL cycles we get a portion of Joel. The Ash Wednesday reading is in Joel 1:2-2:17 which is directed toward the judgment of Judah rather Joel 2:18 ff. which addresses the restoration of Judah and a small stream of hope that contrasts with Joel 1:2-2:17 which is more focused on Judah's judgment and
response to their ruin.
The issue is how in a sermon can one deal with our text. We know Luke quoted Joel in his second volume, Acts 2:17-21 a portion of our Joel reading (albeit in the Greek Old Testament [Septuagint]). Some significant but small changes exist in Luke's quoting Joel. Take a look at those carefully. This slight variation shows how the writer of Acts was using a part of his authoritative tradition found in the Old Testament to speak to his audience. I would argue that the writer of Acts gives just one trajectory for us in the 21st century when we try to unravel our ancient traditions so that they might give some clear vision for us in the 21st century.
I would argue that our vision of Joel need not have us focusing and even complaining that our arms have become too short to read the books in front of us. How many times have you stretched your arms to get the text in front you to try to better see it?! I know I have. Our abilities to see and understand are forever changing. Many of us do have a diminished ability to focus on near objects when reading or doing close work. That is called presbyopia.
Joel tells us that God will pour out an ever flowing spirit for young and old, sons and daughters, women and men. This enables us to become partners with our God to find our way forward, to find new ways to put light on the subject.