Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
The people were in a state of total exhaustion. They were demoralized and wholly spent. In a time of national emergency, they had already given their all and there was just nothing left.
This was the situation in which Joel was writing, and Israel had been emptied by war, famine, disaster and misrule. God had certainly been chastising the nation yet this word of prophecy was one of hope and renewal.
It may have been received with some cynicism just as we may feel when offered insincere encouragement like “Things are bound to improve” or “It can’t be as bad as all that” by people hastening away from our misfortunes so as not to get embroiled in our miseries.
But Joel offers real consolation when all is dark and cold and there is no glimmer of hope. He speaks, less as a coach trying to rally a team to renewed effort or a politician calling for more sacrifice while claiming generous allowances, and more as a heavenly Father who does indeed want the best for His people.
This is a call to look upwards in their hearts when all others are smothered in despair. It is a call to look forwards and not back and to be expectant with a real and genuine hope rather than with wishful thinking or false visions.
For when God speaks to His people He never trivializes their pain or sufferings, and always seeks to heal and to renew. Hence the acknowledgement of the days that the locust has taken, in all its swarms and devouring energy.
None of the privations of the past have been denied and yet He also looks to His people to see them as lessons to be learned and examples to be avoided.
On the other hand the vision for the future is of a time when the Spirit of God will abide with all people, regardless of rank or learning.
Even the most lowly would be raised up and honoured, and those who normally had no standing would be given new worth and a new place in the land and among the people.
There is nothing phony or cheap or clichéd in the promises of God and when they are made, they are made with total commitment for their fulfillment.
For Paul the lesson is rather different. He is in prison and his case, which he had appealed to Caesar, had gone badly. He is now a condemned man and awaits only his execution.
As he looks back, he does so with some sense of thanksgiving that he has been able to stay the course and maintain his Christian life and faith. In this sense he is still secure in his faith, knowing that his time is short.
All his journeys, the beatings and imprisonments, the hungers and thirsts, the betrayals and the disappointments are now placed into the context of his service to the gospel of Jesus and in all of this there are no regrets. This is a life wholly fulfilled in the call of God and nothing is wasted.
His life is now to be finally poured out as a sacrifice before God, and he is composed and settled. This is not a time of ranting or recrimination but of peace in the lines into which his life had been led.
Whereas the Israel to whom Joel was writing might have been in two minds over whether there was any future or hope, Paul is convinced and has no bitterness.
He does refer to his trial and he knows that those who could have supported him and failed to do so will have to answer for this, for Paul’s mission was as an apostle of the Lord, and was not self-contrived. In himself there are no regrets or misgivings.
And so Paul waited calmly and gently for the end of this life and the beginning of something far greater and more wonderful.
For Jesus the message was about whether we are to stand on our own merits or to plead for mercy, regardless of what we have earned or achieved.
The Pharisee was praying within himself, wholly engrossed in his self-image. He imagined that his good works as he saw them would indeed raise him to favour in the sight of God, and he had become the measure of his own success and self-worth.
The tax collector nearby might only have served to reinforce this delusion, and so boosted his pride and conceit.
The tax collector however was wholly realistic in his view of his state and could only plead for mercy. His sins were all before him and they pressed upon him as he went up to the temple, and as he stood before God.
Here was no pride or self-satisfaction, even if he had made a generous living from raising taxes from his own people.
Yet in acknowledging his need he had already opened himself to receiving forgiveness and renewal. This was a heart that God could turn around and use, and which in so doing that He could bless.
Whereas the Pharisee may have imagined that God owed him a favour, the tax collector was in a far stronger position to receive the things that God indeed had for him.
The point in all these passages is that it is the Lord who sees and rewards and acknowledges, and He does so in his own time and manner. It is when we are most reduced that we are most open to His blessing, and we dare not regard our works or successes as tokens of personal merit or deserts.
Joel made solemn and glorious promises to a people reduced by their times so that they might indeed look up and behold their God.
Paul, after a lifetime of service was ready to surrender it all to the Lord and to await the promises that God had made to him, without smugness or conceit. He stood on the message of the gospel of mercy and not on his own works. It may perhaps be that he looked with relief that he had been able to complete his course and ministry and that he had been able to maintain them to the end.
Jesus’ parable also stresses that it is never our self-image, or our self-appointed good works that ingratiate us before God. It is rather the simple acknowledgement of our need for His mercy in all things, and this is readily and generously given when asked with a sincere heart.
In short, while we owe the Lord all that we have and are, we can never give enough. On the other hand it is when we present ourselves as empty and in need that we are open to receiving the fullness of God’s grace.
To put it another way, the less we have of ourselves, the more that we can offer it to God for His service and majesty.