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The Rev. Harvard Stephens The Rev. Dr. Harvard Stephens, Jr.

The Rev. Dr. Harvard Stephens, Jr., is dean of the chapel at Carthage College in Kenosha, WI.

Member of:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Representative of:

Chapel at Carthage College, Kenosha, WI


In the World for Good

Joel 2:27-28a

September 27, 1998

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, like many church bodies today, has prayed and struggled to come to terms with its mission in our country's urban centers. We have wrestled with racial transition, economic abandonment and gentrification. In some communities we have closed congregations, sold buildings and moved administrative offices to suburban locations. In other instances we have redeveloped city congregations, sometimes witnessing a virtual resurrection of hope and vigor for ministry and community development. As we have examined our faith and our commitment to the city and prayerfully asked the hard questions about God's will for our work in the name of Jesus Christ, in the power of his gospel and in the tradition of our heritage, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has raised a new standard for its urban ministry. As a church body, and in partnership with other churches, community organizations, and institutions, we now proudly and prophetically proclaim, WE ARE IN THE CITY FOR GOOD.

I really like that phrase...IN THE CITY FOR GOOD. It implies both a benevolent purpose and a permanent intention. It also suggests a unique role for the church, because all the good that we accomplish, recognize, or represent in urban ministry is ultimately a witness to the power of a good and faithful God, whose promise was proclaimed by the prophet Joel and fulfilled in the work of Jesus Christ.

I declare to you today that this same God is known "in the midst" of all creations, neither constrained by the ethnicity of Israel nor constricted by the challenges of Urban America. This God transcends time and geography, and yet remains present in our human experiences. This God transforms all culture, and yet speaks to us within the contexts of our social concerns. This God has an enduring love for Israel, God's chosen, and yet this same God is the sovereign Lord whose word embraces all nations, peoples and tongues. Truly, it is this God whom we praise in the name of Jesus Christ--who created the heavens and the earth, who sustains all life, and who is IN THE WORLD FOR GOOD, in the world with both a benevolent purpose and a permanent intention. Let us now consider the voice of God's prophet, Joel, so that we can renew our understanding and our confidence that this God is IN THE WORLD FOR GOOD, present with us in all the circumstances of our life and all the challenges of our faith.

The prophet, Joel, is certainly well known for his announcement of God's promise to pour out God's spirit on all flesh. This prophecy became the theme of the Christian Pentecost and remains the vision of true evangelism. The church preaches the gospel in the hope that the spirit will come and stir up the gifts of faith, empowering all of God's people, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, with an active vision of the coming kingdom.

Often, though, we forget that Joel's prophecy was announced to a people who had endured a great disaster in the form of swarming, crop-eating locusts. Actually it is this experience of disaster that makes the promise of an outpouring of God's spirit so remarkable, because this is a word to the devastated, a word that anticipates with great clarity that the God of Israel would remain active and accessible to the people despite their suffering and in spite of their sin. We receive Joel's words eagerly today, because they speak of the same God who works in our hearts through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now it may be difficult for us to imagine the impact of locusts swarming over and consuming every green tree, shrub and crop in Israel. Invasions of locusts still happen today, but in Joel's time they were capable of eliminating a region's total food supply. This was a major disaster in the ancient world, and the Bible freely acknowledges the compelling force of locusts' disruptive power. Locusts became the eighth plague used by the Lord to bring about Israel's exodus from slavery in Egypt. In the Book of Revelation, we encounter what are literally the locusts from hell, torturous creatures led by a demon named Destruction.

When the people of Joel's community were decimated by the locust disaster, they were hard pressed to understand how God could allow such a tragedy to happen to them. Where is God, they must have wondered in the middle of such total devastation. This is the same question many people are asking today, as we endure tragedies of every sort -- personal, political, social, economic, AIDS, chemical warfare, violence in our schools, chronic unemployment, and ironically still today, incredible natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and floods. If God is IN THE WORLD FOR GOOD, where is God when it seems like our whole world is falling down?

Joel's answer is initially unsettling, yet so important for people of faith, because Joel believed that Israel's latest disaster was a clear indication that the Day of the Lord was near. This 'Day of the Lord' is a mysterious concept that is always regarded as an apocalyptic event -- a sudden conclusion to human history that brings all of humanity to a point of divine scrutiny and judgment. The Day of the Lord is the final transition from the present world to the world to come, and it is a very scary doctrine for anyone who knows and fears what the power of sin is doing to the world in which we live.

If we allow our focus to shift from the locust disaster of Joel's time to the moral and spiritual disasters of the twentieth century, how fearful should WE be of God's response to the continuing scourge of war, the plague of racism, the idolatry of materialism, the scandal of sexual exploitation, and the abuse of technology? We who preach grace must always speak with courage of God's authority to rebuke our cultural decay and social neglect with unwelcome and unexpected events that we, like Joel, may eventually come to acknowledge as warnings -- as necessary intrusions into our comfort zones -- as painful disruptions of our sometimes unconscious tolerance of injustice and evil.

Joel was actually telling his people that the locust disaster was ultimately to be viewed as a wake up call. He wrote plainly, as much to our world as to his own.

Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed -- who can endure it? Yet even now, says the Lord, "Return to me with all your heart. Rend your hearts." Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

How potent this prophecy, refusing to avoid the harshness required to speak truthfully of judgment, yet so true to the heart of the God who is IN THE WORLD FOR GOOD. Joel takes his people's case to the throne of God's mercy, clinging to the promise of love's enduring power and boldly hoping for a total restoration of every blessing that should mark the lives of a people chosen by God.

When we preach the gospel today, we tell the story of God's solidarity with us, even in the face of God's righteous judgments against our persistent sin. Jesus Christ is the heart of God made flesh. He is God's graciousness and mercy, God's abounding love, willing to suffer rebuke for our sake, enduring the locusts of hypocrisy and spiritual blindness and wickedness in high places. He goes to the cross for our sake, where devastation seems so total, and he is crucified and dies in the midst of a disaster called Calvary. He lays in the grave for three days until God raises him up in the power of the resurrection.

And then Jesus becomes Joel's prophecy made flesh: You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

When Christ comes into our hearts by faith, we encounter the fullness of God's presence IN THE WORLD FOR GOOD, and we receive the same promise that: Afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and daughters shall prophesy.

Every year from July to October, the people of the Caribbean Islands live through the hurricane season, praying to God to avert the potential devastation of these natural disasters. I was a pastor on the Island of St. Thomas during the vicious storm called Hurricane Marilyn. After the storm, I heard the stories of children flying through the air from one parent to another, kept alive only by the grace of God and the quick action of people who had no other choice but to hold on to one another and wait on the Lord. I saw huge ships lifted from the water and laying sideways on dry land. I stood in lines waiting for water and gasoline. I slept by candlelight under a makeshift plastic roof. I experienced the peculiar kind of grief that comes when your favorite things are here today and gone tomorrow. And I heard the word of faith grow stronger with each day of recovery as the people of the United States Virgin Islands would look each other in the eye, knowing that THE DAY OF THE LORD IS ALWAYS NEAR, and say with uncommon gratitude: Thank God for life. Thank God for life.

This is now my watchword of faith in the face of disaster. This is my mantra as I serve God in the midst of so many things I cannot understand. This is my portion of Joel's promise from the Lord, that it shall come to pass AFTERWARD, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.

After disasters, the sons and daughters do prophesy, and the gospel's promises stand with an even greater light. For just a while people stop taking so many things for granted, and many little things start to mean a lot, and many former things don't seem to matter so much after all.

And it shall come to pass in the wake of grief and loss.

That we shall know that God is in our midst, and declare that there is no one like God and we will dare to believe that we will never again be put to shame.

GOD IS IN THE WORLD FOR GOOD, with a benevolent purpose and permanent intention, and this will be a sign unto you:

Trees will bear fruit again; homes will be restored again; children will laugh and play again. And our sons and daughters will prophesy, and thank God for life! Amen.


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