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Chosen Hope                        Joel 2:23-32                          October 24, 2010
 
Hope is an option. Have you ever thought of it that way? We want to be hopeful. We ‘hope’ that hope will fall in our lap as if it were something that someone can hand us. Hope is an option, though many people turn to despair instead.
 
Today’s passage opens with an address to the “children of Zion” (v. 23). This expression for the inhabitants of Jerusalem found only here and in Lamentations 4:2 and Psalm 149:2 (cf. Zechariah 9:13). Zion was the ancient Jebusite stronghold that David captured (2 Samuel 5:7 = 1 Chronicles 11:5). It became the representative name not only for the city of Jerusalem but also for the country and even for the entire people of Israel.

It’s worth noting that the expression “the Lord your God” (v. 23) is not an empty rhetorical phrase, as it often strikes our modern ears. I used to think it was redundant. Rather, it’s a reminder that the biblical writers understood Yahweh to be Israel’s God in particular, (Yahweh was not just any god!) while recognizing the (inferior but acknowledged) existence of the deities of other nations.
 
The prophet Joel brought a message of hope to a people under God’s judgment. The nation of Israel had been called out to be God’s covenant people. God’s only requirement was obedience. The nation instead, repeatedly turned to foreign idols. They chose a life of independent, self-seeking, self-indulgence. God had been cut out of the equation. None the less, hope is promised when there is true repentance.
 
A brilliant grad student had been studying her mentor professor’s topic of expertise — the literature of Charles Dickens. Midway through her studies, she wanted to branch out and write her dissertation on the work of Jane Austen.

The student’s adviser tried to dissuade her. After input from another professor — an Austen scholar — the student had decided to change her emphasis away from Dickens. Her mentor was disgruntled but still humored her with guidance on how to approach her interest in Austen.

By year’s end, the student finished a strong dissertation and presented it to her committee for approval. But now the shocker:
 
Out of the blue, her mentor cum adviser suggested that some of the student’s foundational observations came from personal conversations with him. He claimed that she had taken his ideas and published them without acknowledging the source.


The accusations were untrue, but the student cowered in indecision. This woman’s future could go in one of two directions.

One, she could take control of the situation, rat out her petty professor and let the real truth come out. Not only had he taken “his observations” on Austen from another expert, but he’d left his previous appointment under scrutiny of plagiarism. The student would be in the clear. Undoubtedly, she wouldn’t have known this.

Or two, she could shrink back and take the fall. After all, their conversations had probably shaped her observations somehow. Maybe it was her fault; the professor is a learned, widely published scholar, while she’s just a grad student with aspirations of greatness.
 
She supposed a panel investigation would make her sleepless and ill, and probably wouldn’t change anything anyway.

From deeply ingrained insecurity, the student chose the second option. As a result, she never completed her degree and today is working a cash register somewhere, wallowing in despair and withering in the heat of self-doubt and low self-esteem.
 
 
Her therapist, Martin Seligman, knew which way the story would end before she ever made her decision. He knew her past and her emotional patterns. She had already learned to be helpless in such situations.

Seligman is a leading psychologist in the movement called “positive psychology.” In the late ’60s, he coined the phrase “learned helplessness.” Seligman notes that for every infant, “life begins in utter helplessness.” As we grow and mature, our independence and control of our worlds grows with us. Yet in adversity, some people fall back into a sort of learned helplessness.

Seligman’s research shows that people may wrongly perceive that they have no control over the outcome of a situation. Then, once this perception becomes a pattern, people will behave helplessly even when the chance to help themselves is available.

They have learned there is no hope.
 
Seligman tells this student’s story to show how such hopelessness can affect real-life situations. For example, we might hear someone say, “Why vote when politicians don’t create any real change?”

Or, “There are so many diets out there and none of them work. I just need to stop caring about my weight.”

Or, “I’m tired of one horrible breakup after another — I’m done with dating!”

After initially giving us the bad news through his early research, Seligman has since turned his attention toward the good news. His book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life offers the countermeasure to learned helplessness.

“Learned optimism” is the attitude that failures and negative experiences are just flukes or, at best, just one-time occurrences. They’re externally caused, not brought on ourselves. They are Irregular, not permanent; specific to one situation, not to be generalized in other experiences or endeavors.

We can learn either helplessness or optimism. Then, when life’s difficulties show up, we’ll be preconditioned for either despair or hope.

Let’s briefly look at 2 Joels. The first Joelhas it half right.
       
His weekly TV sermons are viewed by 7 million people, and he’s written the best-selling books Your Best Life Now, It’s Your Time and Become a Better You.

Joel Osteen has come under scrutiny from sacred and secular sources alike for preaching a positives-only version of Christianity.

A CBS 60 Minutes report notes that “Osteen preaches his own version of what is known as the ‘prosperity gospel’ — that God is a loving, forgiving God who will reward believers with health, wealth and happiness. It’s the centerpiece of every sermon.”

A typical sound bite: “You are supposed to live a victorious life — an abundant life. You are not supposed to live under your circumstances. You’re supposed to rise above your circumstances.”

In his most recent book, Osteen claims, “If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you.” Really? Where does God fit in this equation?

What do I do with pain in my life? Why do bad things happen to good people? How does suffering fit the Christian life?

Joel Osteen may be a Christian brother who very likely has a gift for encouragement, but he admits he’s willing to tell only half the story. There’s nothing about sin, judgment, or consequences. There’s nothing wrong with listening to Osteen as long as we remember “the rest of the story.”

Learned optimism is a helpful contribution from Seligman, but it’s an incomplete picture when it’s the only thing preached.

In real life, “things” sometimes hit the fan.
 
The second Joel has the other half right.
 
The Old Testament Joel tells a fuller story yet still encourages optimism. Our text would agree with Seligman and Osteen — our best days are still ahead of us. But it does so with existential honesty. It’s a gritty challenge to choose hope for the future, not to learn helplessness from the past.

A broad overview of the book of Joel reveals that Joel is different from what we expect of the other prophets. It has none of the usual indictments on the social, moral and religious failings of God’s people. No scathing commentary on Israel’s leaders.

Instead, Joel is written to a community reeling in pain and in need of hope. Though everyone thought “the day of the Lord” was going to be about their deliverance, it turned out to be destruction — on them and not their enemies!

A massive swarm of locusts had devoured the land (1:4). Most commentators believe these locusts were a literal plague of insects. Others see them as metaphoric of an invading army.

Though real locusts are likely, the effect on the people was the same. Their food and way of life were destroyed. Feed crops were gone, and soon the herds dependent on them would die. The people’s gladness and joy had withered. Their worship was cut off with the destruction of their cereal and wine offerings (1:5-13).

Now the people were left groaning and mourning their losses. Catastrophe had shattered their lives, their hope and their faith. They would have to try to pick up themselves so they could try to pick up all the pieces.

But into that bleak reality, God speaks. God wanted more from the people than just weeping and wailing; God wanted them! “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (2:12-13).

How utterly counterintuitive! God had delivered this pain into their lives (v. 25), and he didn’t want their groaning; he wanted them to turn to him in relationship.

Pain was an act of redemption. The catalyst for need. The basis for deeper relationship with God.

Starting in 2:18, the rest of the book of Joel looks into the future. What will the people’s response be?

Will it be a learned helplessness? They were “God’s people,” and God made this happen to them. God always lets bad things happen to good people, right?
Or instead, would it be a learned optimism? Or, more theologically appropriate, a learned hope? Or, more experientially appropriate, a chosen hope?

Knowing God, can we guess what this text is going to encourage?

“[B]e glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your validation” (v. 23).

“I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (v. 25).

“[M]y people shall never again be put to shame” (v. 27).

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” (v. 28).

“[E]veryone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 32).

Sounds like hope. There is no room for learned helplessness with this God.

Isn’t the position of Israel the same one we find ourselves in so many times?

A loved one battles cancer and despite the prayers of the faithful, he or she dies. A layoff crushes a promising career and brings financial crisis. The kids get bad grades despite the hours we spend on homework with them. Our prayers still feel as if they’re bouncing off the ceiling.

So now what? Are we going to learn helplessness or choose hope?
Seligman suggests the ABCDEs of changing from learned helplessness to learned optimism. They can easily be turned into a practical application for Christians to choose hope over despair.

A: Adverse situations — identify those you regularly encounter.
B: Beliefs — note all the beliefs about those events that come to mind.
C: Consequences — reflect on the consequences of living based on those positive and         negative beliefs.
D: Disputation — challenge the usefulness of unhealthy beliefs and focus on positive       counterevidence.
E: “Energization” — be ruthlessly committed to living life based on positive beliefs and disputations of the negative.

Choose hope and don’t settle for helplessness.

The story of Israel and Judah obviously had further ups and downs as years progressed. Our biblical Joel is offering a future promise and not the immediacy of the prosperity gospel. The key to this text is that hope is an option. It’s always an option because of the character and promise of our God. Christians are promised hope in abundance in the New Testament: Eph.3:20-21; Eph 1, Eph 3; and Phil 1; Col 1, to name a few.

We don’t need to learn helplessness from our pain, and we don’t need to resort to a positives-only picture of life with God. We can learn optimism by trusting God, taking every thought captive and choosing hope. Take your wandering thoughts and line them up with what Scripture says about you, God, and the world we live in. Therefore, choose hope. Amen.

Rev. Rosemary Stelz

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