For those who want a change from the Gospel
Last after Trinity Joel 2:23-32 (Related)
I wonder how you felt as you read today’s passage, and heard God’s flowing promises of prosperity, as you prepare to face a winter of fuel and food shortages, power cuts and no doubt more governmental chaos? If, like me, you have something of a cynical streak, you might have been thinking ‘O yeah? Fat chance of that happening!’ Or maybe you just separated the two out: that’s the Bible, and it’s all very nice, but I’ve got to survive in real life. If you are feeling any of that, then you’ve got an idea of how the people who first heard those words probably reacted.
It’s not easy to date the book of Joel, but we do know that the nation had suffered a devastating attack from a plague of locusts. That of course was not uncommon in the Middle East, as in parts of the world today. But if you’ve seen them on TV you’ll know how completely devastating locust attacks can be. Literally anything green goes. It isn’t just that there are no crops to eat now: there will also be no seeds for next year. It really is a major disaster. We don’t know when exactly this happened in Israel, but the prophet seems to be using the very real physical invasion of the land as a warning about a different invasion, probably from one of the great empires round the borders of Israel, empires which were constantly looking to expand, and to devour any little nation which got in the way. Whether Assyria to the north east, Babylon to the east, or Egypt to the south west, they were a constant threat to God’s people. If they get you, then mere locusts are a minor irritation in comparison.
So we can’t read our passage, where God promises future abundance, in a vacuum. This isn’t some nice promise to stick on your fridge. These are words spoken to nation on its knees, and scared of much worse to come. So what’s Joel’s message, to them and to us? There are two motifs which stand out, two links which the Bible makes plain are important, but which we humans have so often forgotten and broken.
The first is the link between the created world, the human world and the spiritual world. We do know this, of course: in fact we hear of little else but climate change, which has become the new religion, taught with great fervency in our schools, with his Holiness David Attenborough as the new Pope, and all sorts of observances which we have to follow religiously, like recycling, shunning plastic and so on. Joel knew about this link this too. A couple of verses before our passage, God promises restoration, but not just to humans. Both animals, and the land itself, are told not to fear, because food is growing (v.21-22). The physical land on which we live is an important part of Jewish religion, and its fortunes are controlled by God as ours are. But it is also dependent on us for keeping and nurturing, according to Genesis 2. Break that link, forget to care for the land and the animals who live on it, and disaster will follow. We’re seeing that all around our world today! But Joel knew also about the link between the physical and the spiritual worlds. At the end of our text is the purple passage about the outpouring of Spirit, the passage from which Peter quotes on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, a passage much beloved of charismatics. But it is interesting that spiritual renewal comes in the context of physical restoration. It isn’t just food we need, but we also need to be in touch with God, hearing from him through prophets, and seeing his action in healing, restoring, and other miraculous works. If we believe that what we most need is for inflation to go down, we’re missing the point. What our world needs is the Spirit of God. Of course bad times can help us to break that link, as we focus on the immediate, but ultimately less important things like petrol. But getting inflation down isn’t the be all and end all of life, however that feels to us at the moment. It’s our broken link to God which is the real issue. The rest are just the consequences.
Which leads us on to the second broken link, that between Penitence and Restoration. How do we actually turn things round? The answer to that is hinted at in the final verse of our passage, but expounded clearly in earlier parts of Joel. It rings out loud and clear: we repent! It’s an emotional repentance, one we really feel, as our hearts are torn open and tears flow. I see a lot of anger about the state of our nation, but very few tears, suggesting that we are nowhere near as deeply upset as we should be. It’s a corporate repentance, led by the priests. The trumpet call was like an air-raid siren, which gathered people to shelter, or which roused them up to fight for their lives. And this repentance had to be the highest priority. Even newly-weds are to leave their bedrooms to join in the penitence, so vital is it for the survival of the nation. Whatever you think is more important, drop it. It is those who call on the name of Lord who will be saved, and who will save the nation.
If a leader wants to ‘tear up economic orthodoxy’ one great way to do that would be to call the nation to days of national prayer and fasting. We have done that in the past, and seen God respond, so it might be a good time to do it again, repenting of the corruption, lying, cheating and greed which have become the norm in government, and which, unlike economics, does trickle down throughout society.
How are we to pray for our country and our government, as the Bible tells us to? My prayer is simple: Lord, bring us to our knees.