Hope in God’s Character

Joel 2:12-13

It’s hard to believe it’s already the first Sunday of Advent. It’s hard to believe what started in March is still going on. It’s hard to believe everything is so different from what we’re used to.

“It’s hard to believe” is a phrase I think I’ve said a lot this year. And the longer the pandemic lasts, the harder it gets to believe. It’s hard to believe. Do you feel that? Maybe, like me some days, you feel that phrase at a deeper level than just talking about the passage of time. It’s hard to believe. As we begin the season of Advent, a season of waiting and preparing again for the birth of Jesus, we might just need to pause for a minute and admit that sometimes it’s hard to believe. In Jesus. In God. In all this stuff.

Part of the reason it’s hard to believe is because frankly many of us had a faith that was not prepared to process what we’ve faced this year. It’s not that you personally are shallow, not at all. It’s a combination of what you’ve been taught and what you’ve experienced in your life. Many of us grew up in churches,  tAmerican, middle-class, predominantly white churches where the version of Christianity we were taught did not actually prepare us to wrestle with hard questions and endure suffering. 

Which may have been OK for a while. Because let’s admit that many of us, myself included, have had a pretty good life overall. We haven’t asked really hard questions because we haven’t needed to. We haven’t had to endure prolonged suffering or injustice. So it was no big deal that our faith wasn’t prepared for it. But when something like the pandemic comes along, and we all start asking hard questions about why things happen, about personal suffering, about global suffering, about freedom and responsibility … well, then we discover what we’re made of. Suffering shows us what our faith is made of.

Let me also say that I know some of you have had to wrestle deeply with your faith, and you’re not feeling too shaken up by life this year. If that’s you, I’m glad you for. This morning, I invite you to pull up a comfy seat and hold some space for the rest of us while we catch up.

This Advent as we talk about the great themes of hope, peace, joy and love, I want us to dive a little deeper. Because if we are going to get through this pandemic being the people that we want to be, we are going to need a robust faith, a mature faith, a faith that can help us ask hard questions and endure suffering. Easy answers and just skimming the surface aren’t working for us anymore. Thankfully, Christianity has some deep waters, deeper maybe than you’ve been taught before. I’ll warn you now: not all of the answers you want will be there. But in the deep end of Christianity you will learn to swim strong and steady when the waters are choppy. And you’ll learn to float, to wait when the answer you want just isn’t coming. That’s my prayer for all of us this Advent.

We begin with hope. Advent always begins with hope. Advent always begins with the Old Testament prophets, the ones who taught both of our need to live in alignment with God’s way and also of God’s forgiveness when we fail to do so. The prophets speak of God’s promised future. And they invite us to hope. One of my favorite Christian writers, Jürgen Moltmann defines hope this way. “Hope is the expectation of a good future, awakened by God’s promise, and strengthened by trust in God.”

Strengthened by trust in God. That’s what I want us to focus on this morning. For months now I have been reminding you that the words in the Bible that we translate as “believe” or “belief” or “faith” can also be translated “trust.” Relational trust. The way you trust your family and your friends. The kind of trust you can only have if you know someone. And so question for us this morning is, “Do we know God?” Not, “What do we know about God?” 

But, “Who do we know God is?” Because if we are uncertain about that, it’s very hard to be certain about anything else.  

We are calling this Advent series, “We believe,” because in it we are going to consider what it is that we really believe, what we think is true. And THAT begins with who we believe in, who we trust. 

Our main reading for this morning comes from the book a Joel, one of the Old Testament prophets. The book of Joel is in a group of books called the minor prophets, not because they are unimportant but simply because they are all way shorter than Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Unlike all the other prophets, Joel doesn’t include any time reference, nothing about who was king when Joel was prophesying or when the book was written. It tells the story of a time when the people of Judah, the southern kingdom, faced an impending crisis. Something big and bad was headed their way, and the dread of it was looming over them. The prophet urged them to repent and— spoiler alert— they did. They didn’t escape the disaster, but God promised restoration. Sound familiar? 

This morning we are only going to read a couple of verses from Joel. Then we are going to trace the idea that we find in these verses all the way through the Old Testament. It is an ancient belief statement that is going to help us wrestle with deciding who we think God is.

Here we go. This is Joel chapter 2, verses 12 and 13.

Yet even now”—it is a declaration of Yahweh—
“turn to Me with all your heart, 
with fasting, weeping and lamenting.”
Rend your heart, not your garments,
and turn to Yahweh, your God.
For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, 
abundant in lovingkindness, and relenting about the calamity due.
Who knows? He may turn and relent,
and may leave a blessing behind Him
—so there may be a grain offering
and a drink offering for Yahweh, your God.

Joel 2:12-13

Notice please this description of God: gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abundant in lovingkindness and relents from punishing. This is not original material. If it sounds familiar to you it’s because you heard it two weeks ago in the book of Jonah. Let’s look at it again. When Jonah is telling God why he’s angry he says, “for I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and full of lovingkindness, and relenting over calamity.” (Jonah 4:2) But as I told you then, this isn’t original to Jonah either. Both Joel and Jonah are quoting something their listeners already knew In fact, some scholars count this as the original belief statement of the ancient Hebrews. If they had a statement of faith, if they had to answer the question “Who is God?” this is probably what they would say. I think this is so important that I want you to see all the places it shows up.

We find it first in Exodus. After the Golden Calf disaster, Moses asks to know who God really is. This is how the story says God describes Godself. Here is Exodus 34:6-7:

Then Yahweh passed before Moses, and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, showing mercy to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but bringing the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7

This is the fundamental statement about God. The first time something is mentioned in the Bible is always very important, and here we have it. “Compassionate” comes from the same root word in Hebrew as “womb,” so that’s the nurturing and protective nature of God. “Gracious” means stepping in to help those in physical or spiritual trouble. “Lovingkindness” is the Hebrew word “hesed,” which is the word that we translate as “mercy” in the verse, “Do justice. Love mercy. And walk humbly with God.” And “truth” is sturdiness, certainty, reliability, trustworthiness. In the Hebrew language all of those are adjectives, they are descriptors of God. That’s who God is. 

The text continues though with the second part about forgiving and showing mercy but not clearing the guilty and visiting iniquity of the parents upon the children. And I bet for most of you, this second part overshadows the first part, doesn’t it? Because this is what you are afraid of, and we are biologically wired to respond more strongly to fear than to comfort. Be careful with that. It was a very useful response for humans when we were avoiding sabertooth tigers. But we all know that focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive is a really unhealthy way to live. It’s unhealthy for your theology too. I think we can’t really know what that part means without more information so let’s keep reading.

The next place this belief statement shows up is in the book of Numbers, which is basically Exodus part 2. More journeying, more complaining, more of Moses asking God to be patient with the people. Here’s Numbers 14:17-20.

“Moses said to Yahweh, “So please, let Yahweh show His strength, just as You have spoken saying, ‘Yahweh is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression. Still, He does not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generations.’ Forgive now the guiltiness of this people in accordance with the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You have pardoned this people from Egypt until now!”

Yahweh replied, “I do forgive, as you asked.””

Numbers 14:17-20

Almost exactly the same as Exodus 34, except this time, it’s Moses quoting God back to God. And it works. The important thing to see here is that whatever “not clearing the guilty but visiting the iniquity of the parents on the children” whatever that might mean, it does NOT mean that God doesn’t forgive. Here’s one way to think about it: we know that there are unhealthy things that get handed down in families, one person’s unhealthy choices can have ripple effects for several generations. Sometimes the effects fade in three or four generations as children make new choices with their own children. So  we can see that even with God’s forgiveness, our iniquities have consequences, for us and also for our families and communities. This may be one of the places in which the Bible is just describing something that is already true in the world. 

Next we see this ancient belief statement in the Psalms.

But You, my Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,  slow to anger, full of lovingkindness and truth.

{Psalm 86:15}

Yahweh is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. Yahweh is good to all. He has compassion on all His creatures.

{Psalm 145:8-9}

Yahweh is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness. He will not always accuse, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not treated us according to our sins, or repaid us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His mercy for those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.

{Psalm 103:8-10}

What I want you to see here is that there’s no mention of God’s punishment in these verses. In fact, if anything, the writers go out of their way to emphasize the forgiveness. These Psalmists are communicating a different experience of God than their ancestors were.

Last two verses. These both come from stories at different times in ancient Israel’s history, one before the exile and one after the exile when some people have returned. Both times the nation has gathered together for collective confession and repentance.

King Hezekiah said to the people, “For if you return to Yahweh, your brothers and children will receive Yahweh before their captors, and will return to this land. For Yahweh your God is compassionate and merciful; He will not turn His face away from you if you return to Him.”

{2 Chronicles 30:9}

But You are a God of forgiveness, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. Therefore You did not abandon them, even when they made a cast image of a calf for themselves and said, ‘This is your god who brought you up from Egypt!’

{Nehemiah 9:17}

Here’s the point of reading all these scriptures: If we use the Bible as one of our sources of authority for understanding God, if we take the text seriously, this ancient statement of faith will help us. It gives us a starting place, helping us know what to expect from God so we recognize it when it happens. So start here. Let this statement of faith that we see over and over again help you be certain about who God is, about what kind of a being you are choosing to trust. God is compassionate. God is gracious. God is overflowing with lovingkindness and truth. Make that your firm foundation. Choose to believe something bigger than what you might currently see.

If you do that, your faith will be built on solid ground and other things will begin to fall into place. You will feel less afraid, less like you’re waiting for God to drop the other shoe. Does God punish and discipline? Yes, maybe, sometimes. But that’s not who God is. It’s something God does. It’s something a parent has to do sometimes, and it can be trusted because we know that correction is grounded in compassion and grace and lovingkindness and truth. Does God feel absent sometimes? Yes. Sometimes. But just because I can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not still there. Is the world a mess? Is there suffering? Yes. And whose fault is that? Does a compassionate, gracious, loving, kind and truthful God cause awful things? Or are the consequences of our own iniquity being visited upon us and our communities? 

Plenty of bad stuff happens in the Old Testament. Plenty. And yet throughout it, the people continue to affirm that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth. That is who God is. And God promises to be faithful even when God’s people are unfaithful. No matter what happens, God does not abandon us. No matter what we do, no matter what is done to us, God is there. We may not escape the consequences of what we do. And we will all have to live with the consequences of the world being the way it is. But we are still Yahweh’s people and Yahweh is our God. Yahweh the Compassionate. Yahweh the Gracious. Yahweh the Loving and Kind. Yahweh the Steadfast. That’s who God is. So start there. It is the ground of all the rest of our hope. Our hope begins in trusting God’s character. Amen.

“I Believe” words and music (c) Mark A. Miller

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