Hope Amid Suffering | Proper 25

Joel 2:23-32

 23 Children of Zion, rejoice and be glad in the LORD your God, because he will give you the early rain as a sign of righteousness; he will pour down abundant rain for you, the early and the late rain, as before. 24 The threshing floors will be full of grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and fresh oil. 25 I will repay you for the years that the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust have eaten– my great army, which I sent against you. 26 You will eat abundantly and be satisfied, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has done wonders for you; and my people will never again be put to shame. 27 You will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God– no other exists; never again will my people be put to shame. 28 After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. 29 In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.

30 I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth– blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 32 But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be security, as the LORD has promised; and in Jerusalem, the LORD will summon those who survive.  (CEB)

Hope Amid Suffering

Some people struggle with reading and understanding the prophets. While I love to preach on them, part of that love comes from trying to make sense of what is, at times, my abject confusion. The prophets require study, in one sense, because the context is often needed to make sense of what’s being said in the oracles.

So, here’s some context. The prophet Joel lived in the Post-exilic period of Israel’s history, sometime between 500 and 350 B.C. At this point in time, Israel was a small sub-province of the great Persian Empire. The Babylonian Exile is in the past, but the people still had no king or real ruling class. Their leaders were mostly priests and elders. They had no army to defend themselves, they had no political power, and they had a meager economy almost entirely based on agriculture.

The people were not in a stable, secure situation. And now they have suffered the blight of locust swarms, which have destroyed their crops. These locusts have swarmed not only the crops but also the people in their homes (1.4, 2.3-9). Verse 25 suggests the locust swarms had invaded the land for more than one growing season. Not just a year, but years. Things have gotten bad for the people of Israel.

On first reading, the book of Joel may give the impression of being a narrow, nationalistic work that glorifies Israel at the expense of other nations. Some have even suggested it’s an attempt to explain away God’s apparent weakness and inability to protect the people from the plague of locusts in the first place. Joel says God sent the locusts. If God sent the locusts, there’s no inability to protect. It almost reads like an apology to the nations to prove that the people have not been put to shame by worshipping a weak God.

In fact, this text is what Peter uses to interpret God’s powerful action on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. Peter says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Paul, also, makes Joel 2.32 the heart of his Gospel: “For, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Romans 10.13).

There are few better examples of the enduring nature of God’s grace than the prophet Joel. For Joel, the ruinous visitation of locusts is representative of the judgment of God. Joel draws on the concept of The Day of the Lord, first sounded by the prophet Amos (5.18-20). Joel sketches the need for the people to repent and to cast themselves on God’s mercy when he says, “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. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2.12-13).

We aren’t given the details of the people’s response to his call to repentance, but it seems to have been favorable. With the coming of the autumn rains the prophet begins to speak of a new crop, which will take the place of the one the locusts destroyed. This new crop will fill the lives of the people with plenty again. Jews back then were kind of like Methodists, in a way, their lives tended to revolve around food.

Just as the locusts had served as a paradigm of God’s judgment, the autumn rains now symbolize God’s mercy. It is interesting to note that God goes so far to say that he will repay Israel for what they had missed out on due to the punishment being meted out in the form of locust swarms. Imagine a judge giving a just sentence to a criminal, then when the criminal’s time is done the judge gives the criminal everything he or she missed out on during the time of their punishment! God promises that “the threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil…You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”

Do we, the people of God, remember where it all comes from? Everything we have is from God, and we have received nothing on our own. It’s a travesty that we could possibly take even the smallest of God’s gifts for granted.

Then, almost without our noticing it, Joel’s language begins to suggest an eschatological perspective by focusing on the future Day of the Lord. The prophet’s anticipation over a newly sprouting crop is transformed into a promise concerning the people’s ultimate redemption. In verse 26, Joel moves from the promise of eating plenty and being satisfied to “my people shall never again be put to shame.” The significance of this enduring promise is emphasized by its repetition in verse 27. The reason the prophet is so confident is because God is abiding in and with the people of Israel. God indwells Israel’s life.

The move toward the eschatological is then pushed even further be verses 27 through 32. “Then afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”

Joel’s choice of the words, “Then afterward” is an unmistakable pointer toward some moment beyond the present restoration of the people. When Peter quotes this text in Acts 2, this phrase becomes, “In the last days.” In this “after” time, the Spirit of God will endow all conditions of people: young and old, women and men, bonded and freed—“all flesh” will be bathed in the Spirit of God.

The frightful portents are similar to the ones Joel used earlier in chapter 2, but they are made even more frightening. The moon is not just darkened here, it’s turned to blood. Indeed, blood, fire, and smoke characterize this dreadful time. God’s judgment, painfully described in the earlier passages of Joel, is here revisited with heightened intensity. The great and terrible day of the Lord is surely coming.

Yet, Joel’s words concerning being saved have not been spoken idly. Even in the midst of judgment, there is deliverance for all who invoke the name of the Lord. There is, in fact, to be a mutual invocation: just as those who call “on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” there are also “among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”

In other words, those who look to God for help will experience God’s response. We should also note that to “call on the name of the Lord” means, in the scriptures, to tell others what God has done (Psalm 105.1, Isaiah 12.4)—to be witnesses of a worldview that sees everything in the context of God’s deeds and character; to be evangels—messengers—of the glad tidings that God is the ruler yet; to announce to everyone who will listen that he or she too is offered salvation on the day of the Lord. As Paul explains when he uses this verse from Joel, no one can believe unless he or she has heard, and no one will hear unless Christ is proclaimed. And, so, saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ will come from what is heard, and what is heard will come from our word about Christ (Romans 10.14-17). This is a call to be evangelists to the world around us. And that doesn’t mean standing on a street corner, holding a sign that says “Prepare to meet your God” while yelling at people. It’s about forming relationships and loving people into the kingdom. It’s about serving others, caring for others, praying for others, acting on behalf of others, and talking to people about what God has done for us.

No matter how dark the present moment, no matter how real the justice of God—and for Joel it was very real—judgment does not have the final word. God’s final and gracious word is one of redemption. This is something for us to keep in mind as we come to the end of the Church’s year and approach Advent: a season that is wholly concerned with the call to repentance and the Second Coming of Christ. It’s also not a bad thing to keep in mind with the pending presidential election. God saves, not political leaders. God provides. God sustains. God redeems. God calls. God upholds. The great Day of the Lord is close at hand. It may be upon us at any moment; yet in Christ we will stand.

So go out there and tell someone.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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