Sermon: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 23rd October 2016, St Alban’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, St.Alban’s Epping, 23rd October 2016

Rev. Paul Weaver

“QUALIFYING FOR THE KINGDOM”

(Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:15-30)

The book of the prophet Joel is not one of the better-known parts of the Old Testament. It is there among the Minor Prophets, only three chapters, and we don’t know much at all about its author. Indeed, we are not even sure when he lived or when the book was written: perhaps 3 or 4 centuries before Jesus, but we’re not really certain.

And yet parts of the book are better known than we might have expected. One part is a traditional reading for Ash Wednesday, and the other is actually quoted by Peter in his sermon on the day of Pentecost.

The setting of the book is a terrible plague of locusts which has devastated the crops, and caused great desperation and confusion amongst God’s people. We of course are familiar with stories of such plagues in our own country. Joel seeks to help the people make sense of what has been happening.

The prophet’s message is that God is punishing his people for their consistent unfaithfulness to him. They must acknowledge their sin and repent if they want to receive God’s blessing again. Otherwise there is the threat of even greater acts of judgement: the coming Day of the Lord is not to be taken lightly.

And in this context we hear those famous words:

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…

Rend your hearts and not just your clothing.

Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful,

Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

 

It is a strong and urgent call to repentance: as I said, this passage is often read on Ash Wednesday, as we begin Lent with its themes of reflection, repentance and self-discipline. And in the second half of Joel, from which our first reading came, it seems that the people have repented. The priests and people have turned to God in humble prayer, as a token of genuine repentance.

And the Lord responds: the locusts have gone, the rains have come. Joel has pictured the locusts as a terrible invading army: that army no longer occupies the land – perhaps there are indications that in response to the people’s repentance, the Lord will keep his people safe from the threat from other armies, those armies of surrounding nations.

But now there are further blessings promised by the Lord: not just material and political and military blessings, but spiritual blessings. The Lord will be in the midst of his people, and they shall dwell in security.

But there will be something more. The Spirit of God, poured out by God from time to time on his prophets, and even sometimes of kings and priests, will be poured out in a new way.

The Spirit of the Lord will be poured out on all God’s people – male and female, young and old, even slave and free. The prophet sees this as a sign of the coming of the great Day of the Lord, when all people will come to see that the Lord truly is God; the Day of the Lord when creation itself will be turned upside down, when all evil will be put down, and the Kingdom of God will be established in its fullness. The Day will be awesome, terrifying in many ways, but also wonderful, for “everyone – everyone – who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

It might seem very different, but this dramatic passage from Joel links up quite closely with Jesus’ message in our reading from Luke. For like so much of the Old Testament, the message of Joel finds its fullest meaning through the coming of Jesus.

When Jesus says in our reading from Luke that the kingdom of God is for those who are like children, it is easy to be distracted from what he is getting at. It is not that children are cute or sweet or open or even humble – certainly not that they are innocent: no realistic parent would suggest that!

No, children are dependent people: they need what others – in particular their parents – can provide for them.

Jesus says that the qualification for entering the kingdom of God is not being good, or doing good deeds, or going to church or singing in the choir or a whole lot of very commendable things. He says that to enter the Kingdom, you must receive it, just as children receive what they need from their parents or others who look after them.

Our place in God’s kingdom is not something we must work for, not something we can deserve or earn: it is a gift to be received. That is why faith, dependence on the grace of God, is the central response to the Gospel of Christ.

That was the problem with the rich man. He thought that by keeping the commandments the way he thought he should, he could qualify for the kingdom. He thought that he could achieve a place in God’s kingdom. No doubt he thought that his wealth was an expression of God’s approval, as many people did in that era.

Jesus didn’t argue with him about the details of the commandments. He didn’t refer him to the Sermon on the Mount, where he explored the commandments in an uncomfortably deep and revealing way: a way that allows none of us to persuade ourselves that we really measure up to God’s standards. He simply set the man a test: “Give away that wealth, that comfort and security, and come and follow me.” That seems to have been too much for this man, who thought he had it all worked out.

What really mattered to this young man? I suspect that many of us would go away from a conversation like that one with Jesus, feeling rather troubled and uncomfortable.

The disciples were confused: they too assumed that wealth was a sign of God’s favour. But no: wealth is a test, a challenge, an opportunity for generous service. And it can be a barrier – a barrier to a real relationship with God. Wealth won’t get anyone into the kingdom. Respectability or religiosity won’t get anyone into the kingdom.

What Jesus is saying is that in fact none of us can get ourselves into the kingdom. None of us can work our way into God’s kingdom – not even the best of us. But what is humanly impossible is possible with God. It is God’s grace that opens the kingdom to us. Salvation is God’s gift.

When the people of Joel’s time received God’s blessing, was it because they deserved it? Of course not! The first thing they needed to do was to recognize their need of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace. And so they turned back to God: they repented.

And it wasn’t just superficial: it wasn’t just going through the religious ritual of tearing their clothes. Their hearts had to be in it. And in his love and mercy God forgave them and blessed them. Repentance means a change in direction, a change in outlook: it means turning to God instead of living our lives turned away from him.

Of course, that change of direction will be expressed in the way we live our life. But whatever good things we may do in our new life, they do not achieve us a place in God’s kingdom: rather, they express our response to the love of God which has been poured out to us.

Salvation is a gift, never an achievement. We come in humility, seeking God’s forgiveness. We come as children, needing what God has to offer. We come in genuine repentance, looking to Christ, and serious about living as his followers. To us who all fall short, Jesus says: “Come to me.” And then he says: “Follow me.” Amen.

Paul Weaver