When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series this year after a long and intense seventh game, one church in Illinois posted the following on Facebook: “FYI, if you made any promises during the bottom of the 9th, service starts at 10:45 Sunday Morning.”
Though it made me laugh, I think that this posting echoes a prevalent and problematic sentiment that we find in much of popular theology: That God is someone we bargain with, like a loan shark who we better repay or else. We can be led to imagine that God demands our best, that we should pay God back for favors God does for us through our good behavior or regular prayer or church attendance, and that the threat of divine punishment is always looming should we fail to live up to our promises.
But our faith is not so much made up of our promises to God, but God’s promises to us. This Advent, as we focus on God’s promise coming close, we read surprising promises from the prophet Joel.
In these verses, Joel doesn’t speak of God’s need for us to live up to the grand promises we make to God. Instead, he speaks about God’s longing to dwell with us right where we are, in the complexities and pains and broken hopes and regrets of our lives. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” God says through Joel. All God requires of us is what life eventually makes in us: a broken heart.
The entry point for God’s mercy, grace, and steadfast love into our lives is found neither in our strength nor in our efforts to please God. Instead, God first appears in our weeping, our mourning, our hearts torn open by this hurting world. And God comes to these places not in judgement but with healing, redemptive love.
This promise has radical implications for the church. People usually join an organization because of shared interests or affinities, or because they feel moved by the mission. Sometimes we join organizations because they’ll give us more status or respect, or because we feel like our strengths will be well used. But with the church, it’s different: what binds us together before anything else are our needs and weaknesses. This revelation isn’t fun, because people’s needs and weaknesses aren’t always easy to deal with. Yet, as Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Only that [church] which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”
This promise is that our rended hearts and our weaknesses, once touched by God’s love, paradoxically become bridges between each one of us and one another, and between each one of us and God. Joel sees these bridges between us being built in surprising places. God gives him a vision of the coming future, when God’s Spirit will be poured out on all flesh. And, to emphasize his point, he names certain people who will be bearers of God: old and young, women, and slaves. In Joel’s time, these were people on the edges and the bottom of society. Yet they are the ones God chooses to breathe the Spirit into.
This Advent, may God touch our rended hearts with a promise of wholeness that comes close to our pain and isolation and dwells there until they are transformed into bridges that build to surprising places and people. Come, Lord Jesus.