What can you tell me about the Book of Joel? If you can’t really think of much that is no surprise. Joel was one of the 12 minor prophets – along with Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The Christian Bible divides these prophecies into 12 separate books. Our version of Joel has 3 or 4 chapters depending on the translation. Either way, it’s not very long, but it is so very rich in content! This is not an easy book to preach and certainly not the first choice for many, including myself – it rarely comes up in the lectionary – that rotating list of weekly reading used by churches all over the world. But, for some reason, I was so deeply called to preach from it this week. You know no one is really sure what the historical content of this book is or even who Joel really was. But I think, like so much of the Bible, this book can teach us something about our relationships with each other, with ourselves, with all of creation and indeed, with God.
The book of Joel is probably most remembered when it is quoted by Peter in the book of Acts, “But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: ‘Men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel.’” We usually read this passage at the time of Pentecost which was exactly 20 weeks ago today.
The book of Joel is also one of the first places that speaks of the “day of the Lord” and “the day of judgement”. The Book of Joel is definitely apocalyptic in its message. And I think this is what grabbed my attention.
This book has so much doom and. Talking about a plague of Locusts as an army sent by God to punish the people for some kind of transgressions that are not actually stated takes up the first half. In the middle section Joel called that people to lament, repent, and pray saying that if they do God will have mercy on them… maybe. All this gets tricky for those of us who believe that God loves all of God’s creation and not just certain people when God, speaking through Joel talks about saving some and destroying others…We really need a lot more time than this sermon to work out a belief about what the scriptures might mean by God’s judgement at the end of time. So, for today, I want to draw your attention to the warning and instructions held in this book and how we might think about them in our own context.
Do any of you know what a locust looks like? If you said, “like a grasshopper,” you are right. Did you know that the plagues of locusts are not just Biblical? In the 1870s on the Great Plains of America trillions of locusts disseminated the landscape – they were so thick that their crushed bodies literally stopped trains. In 1915, locusts swarmed the area around Palestine and Syria leading to the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon that lasted 3 years… The last locust plague in Africa was just in 2004. Each time the land, the livestock, and the people were affected in the same way as they were in ancient times. The land was stripped bare and no crops grew. Without growth, livestock suffered, and people starved.
Famine is extreme scarcity of food – not just food for people, but food for all of creation. The book of Joel speaks to this reality. The verses immediately before the ones we read today said, “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.” Here, Joel calls all of creation to remember that God’s abundance is always at hand… patience and persistence in faith must be practiced to move from such incredible scarcity.
But, what does that have to do with us? Surely, we are not about to be hit by a plague of locusts here in East Hants. No, we aren’t. But, like the people at the time of the prophet Joel, in many places in our world right now it truly feels like the end is near. We hear and read regularly that the earth is dying. This is not just some prophetic fantasy – the science speaks for itself! Amphibians, like frogs and salamanders are disappearing at a dangerous rate thanks to pollution, climate change, and human-made problems. Bird populations are declining across the globe, many fish and reptile species are at extreme risk, and invertebrates (from insects to shellfish to earthworms and corals) are dying at an alarming rate and we haven’t even mentioned the over 12,000 plant species at immediate risk.
FEMA – The United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency reported just this week that there is a great strain on its workforce thanks to an “unprecedented level” of natural disasters it is now dealing with. The increase in the incidence and intensity of tropical storms like hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons around the world is real. Flooding is the earth’s most common and the leading cause of death from natural disasters. Drought and fire have been plaguing California for the last 8 years… These examples are only a smattering of the examples of how the world feels like it is ending… and I haven’t even mentioned all the ways that human beings are trying to end each other – as of this month every continent on earth except Antarctica and Australia has ongoing armed conflicts from Major Wars that have killed approximately 100,000 people so far this year to what Wikipedia politely calls “Skirmishes and clashes” that collectively have resulted in approximately 1000 deaths. Some of these conflicts have been going on for 50-100 years – these numbers don’t even touch the deaths from domestic violence, drug overdose, and suicide.
So, forget about old testament doom and gloom that we like to ignore… “The end is near” feels very real these days. Whereas Joel saw the plague as a punishment from God for some transgression or sin of the people, I view the current state of the world as a consequence of human action. Joel and I see God through a different lens. He from his context and I from mine. The lens through which I see God is not rose-tinted as those of us who believe that God is Love may sometimes be accused of wearing. The lens through which I view God is Jesus Christ and through Him it doesn’t get much clearer. Human beings have a choice – a literal God-given choice to walk in the way of God or take a path away from God. God is not the source of all evil in this world – God doesn’t punish all God loves.
Joel would say that the locust plague came because human beings offended God so God broke God’s relationship with them and punished them until they fixed the relationship with repentance and prayer. My understanding of God teaches me that natural and man-made disasters are upon us now, not because we offended God and are being punished, but because these events are a consequence to us walking away from the way God calls us to be in this world. The root of all evil – as we learned a few weeks ago – is not money. The root of all evil is a love of money – an attachment to greed – an addiction to scarcity.
So? What do we do? If we lean on today’s scriptures, we can come a little closer to rebuilding a relationship with each other, with creation, with ourselves and with God who NEVER stopped loving us just because we stopped loving God!
The first call is to lament – and I think that is where many of us are right now when we look at where the world is. It is just so unbelievably sad that it is overwhelming – we are at risk of giving up because we don’t even know where to start. We ask ourselves – What do we do first? How can we do anything at all about problems that are so enormous? We have to let the sadness of all of this sync into our bones and let it make us uncomfortable until we can’t deny it anymore… like we learned in our grief group last week – denial serves us for a little while, it protects us, but we can’t stay there forever if we want to change.
The next call is to repent – this word we are coming to learn together means to turn our faces back to God – this is a call to change our ways. Repentance means asking ourselves, “Is this what God is calling me to do?” about everything… this isn’t easy work! God calls us to walk in the way of Jesus Christ –the way of justice, mercy and unconditional love. How can we be more forgiving of ourselves and each other? How can our purchases ensure fair treatment of workers around the world? How can what I say and do be loving at all times even when it isn’t easy? How do we fight back against systems that are created to make the rich richer and the poor poorer?
Finally, we are called to worship together – to join together in communities of faith. In communities just like this where we feel a sense of unity and care for one another. Here we are called to worship God who has created and is creating… We are called to come together and turn away from scarcity and turn back to abundance. We are called to remember all that God has provided for us already. Here we remember the tough times that we have walked through, and we remember that we are not alone. We live in God’s world. Here we come to praise God and reset our sights for the days and weeks ahead. We set our sights on gratitude, on abundance, on the never-ending and always present reality of God’s love in this world.
It is in our remembering that we come back into relationship with who and what God calls us to be as a people created in love. We are called to love God and God’s creation and one another. That’s it. Anything else is not God’s calling, but a lack of listening for God’s voice in our ears. When we return to God with all our hearts, I believe that anything is possible. God is always walking with us, like a faithful parent running behind a 6-year-old who just took the training wheels of her bike, God is there – waiting to catch us if we fall. We can trust that. We can’t forget it because we will fall down – and as humanity we have fallen down – in so many disastrous ways.
So, when the world feels too overwhelming and the doom and the gloom feel like too much. Let it bother you, but don’t do it alone. Don’t run away from it and into the comforting arms of the world who will try to sell you something to fix your feeling of despair. Instead, turn to each other and back to God. All of us in this room right now have heard this message together. We can lean on each other in the days and months ahead when we feel lost in the desert and starved for good news. Look to God to provide. God will provide everything you need for this journey – keep watch – and keep dreaming – look at all the miracles God has brought creation through thus far – we can survive this too. God being our helper. Amen?