Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Lord In Our Midst: God With Us

Have you read a good fairy tale lately? Don’t you just love how the good guy always wins in fairy tales? The stories always turn out the same way. Some bad person enters and causes all kinds of havoc, but in the end, the good guy always finds a way to win. It’s no different in the movies. Wonder Woman and Spiderman win, sorry to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it yet. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and Toto return home safely and the wicked witch is defeated. In Star Wars, Luke and the Force defeat the Dark Side. The hero always rides off into the sunset on his trusty horse with the love of his life right by his side. In the period of two hours the world is turned upside down. Then the hero enters. And the world is saved.

Life is great in children’s books and Hollywood, but that isn’t how real life works. In the real world, the good guy doesn’t always win. And sometimes, where I come from, the good guy loses! And you know what is really upsetting? Have you ever wondered why so many good things happen to bad people? The dishonest man at work gets the promotion. The bully at school makes the team, and the one he picks on is told, “Come out again next year.” We know this much: Real life is not like the movies! But I really wish it was! I want the world to be a fair place. I want the good guy to win. And I want the bad guy to be punished. But as you and I know from experience, that’s not the way this world always works.

Let me give you an example. To begin with, you have to understand something. The people of Israel were a proud people. They were literally “the people of God,” those chosen by God from all the people of the world to be His special people. And you need to remember that God made them that way! It’s not that they were born arrogant. It’s not like they arbitrarily took this honor upon themselves. God did choose them! He called Abraham. And he chose Isaac, not Ishmael! He sent the promise through Jacob, not Esau! God was the parent that looked at all of His children and said, “You are my favorite!” And because the children of Israel grew up with this God-instilled confidence, they expected certain things in return. They expected to be safe from their enemies. They expected to have a relatively peaceful life. And they expected to receive God’s blessings more than everybody else.

But often those Israelites rolled out of bed and noticed something: Sometimes the good guys don’t win! The story of Israel, in fact, is not a happy story if you are an Israelite. They were routinely beaten by their enemies. They were often taken captive. Far from being favored, it appeared they were the smallest kid in the schoolyard that always gets picked on. One such occasion is recorded by the prophet Joel.

READ JOEL 2:1–6 CEB

Now there is some disagreement among scholars as to what exactly is taking place here. The text speaks of an invasion of locusts. Some believe Joel is talking about an actual swarm of locusts—in plague like proportions! Some of you who have lived in Abilene have seen invasions of crickets or black beetles. I remember experiencing an invasion of black beetles while we were living in Stamford! It was impossible to walk on the street anywhere without crushing a couple of beetles with every step. It is also possible, however, that Joel is using the metaphor of locusts to describe a literal army. Notice the military imagery throughout this book. I tend to go this way; others go with the locusts. It really doesn’t matter. Whether you believe this is a literal army or a plague of locusts, the message is the same. These were not good times for the so-called “chosen people” of God! And I have to imagine many of them were just hoping for a small victory every now and then. Just a glimpse of hope, and Joel does give them just a bit. Joel 2:12 says very plainly:
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “turn to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Now some of you might not have noticed, but what I just read is probably different from what you have in your text. One word makes all the difference. One appropriate way to translate this passage is to replace the “return” that is in many of our translations with the word “turn.” You say, “Well, does that make much difference?” Actually, yes, it does. I do not believe God was calling these people to “return” to Him, as if they were caught in some sin, as if they needed here to repent of something. Notice the curious omission in Joel of any judgment on Israel that is so apparent in the other prophetic books. Nowhere does Joel tell the people to turn from their evil ways or to leave their lives of sin. I think God is here calling the people of God to “turn” to Him during this time of suffering—in the midst of this plague that has arrived, or, in the midst of the invasion—in the midst of their difficulty, and here is God’s promise to the people. In the midst of your suffering, if you “turn” to Me, I will be there! And then I will send you my Spirit.

READ JOEL 2:28–32 CEB

You see, God offered these people the same gift He has given you and me. When tough times arrive, He told them, “If you turn to Me, My Spirit will arrive.” “It will arrive to deliver My people.”

Here’s the message I believe God was ultimately giving this community of people through Joel: “You are the people of God. Now act like it.” You are the people of God and because of that fact, you have access to a power that is beyond human comprehension. You have access to the Spirit of the Living God. You have access to the power of the Creator of the universe. So, why is it that you make it a habit to act as if you must meet suffering alone? God tells His people in Joel 2:27 that if they will only turn to Him, they will know that God is in their midst. God was always there for His people. The power of God was always available. But they could not open their eyes wide enough to see!

Have you ever felt abandoned? Like you are alone in the world? Like no one is on your side? Like everyone is in on a giant conspiracy to make your life miserable? I think at some point in our lives, each of us has felt like this. Have you ever seen the poster:
Missing Dog
Blind in one eye
Missing one leg
Hair is falling out
Cut off tail
Answers to the name “Lucky”
Sometimes we feel like that dog. Everything piles up on us. We have this great name: “Christian,” but why is life so difficult? Sometimes you have to stop and honestly ask,
God are you really there?
God do you really exist?
Why is all of this happening?
If there is a God, why does God hate me so much?
What did I do to deserve this?
Sometimes, during times like these, folks—good folks—give up on God altogether. “If this is how life with God is, why bother? If this is how God treats His children, I’m out of here!”

Have you ever felt like that? There is a story in the Bible that speaks to moments like that. Elisha and his servant are in a camp about to be attacked. People surround them on every side, and it looks like there is no way out.

READ II KINGS 6:15–17 CEB

God is more powerful than anything you are up against! When it looks like everything is lost, pray that God will open up your eyes.

Some people think the Old Testament has no bearing on our lives. The fact is, we are constantly reliving the stories of the Old Testament. Joel wrote this message to encourage Israel in their most dire state. Many of us have similar feelings. We think God has left us. We begin to wonder if there is a God at all. Did you know that you can go to God with these feelings? God can handle it. He’s heard it before. Do you remember the psalms that were read a few minutes ago? The reason we read those is to remind each other those people questioned God. Those people were not afraid to say, “God, where are you?” Do you remember this passage from Hebrews?
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. (Hebrews 6:19)
Say these words out loud with me. Say them again. Jesus Christ is our anchor that sustains us in times of trouble. I really believe we are the good guys. We may not always win here. But I’ve been given an advance copy of how this play turns out. My Prayer is for God to open our eyes to His power around us.

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