Joel’s prophecy is thought to date somewhere between 500 and 350 B.C. As my colleague Taylor Burton-Edwards has noted in the worship planning notes, “Though Joel himself may well have been a pre-exilic prophet, what we read from him in today’s reading has also been understood to ‘speak forward’ (prophesy) to a time when the Babylonian invasion and exile would be over and returning exiles would need reassurance of God’s provision as they sought to rebuild from the ruins.”
Joel’s preaching focuses around an infestation of locusts that threatened to destroy the land. For Joel, the swarm of locusts opens the prophet’s eyes to a vision with a double meaning. In the locusts, Joel sees the nation or army that will come and visit God’s judgment upon the people of Judah for their unfaithfulness, much in the same way that the plague of locusts had come to Egypt in order to soften Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 10:1-20). And through this conqueror, the coming day of the Lord is represented as “powerful and innumerable; its teeth are lions’ teeth” (Joel 1:6) and its strength “like war-horses as they charge” (Joel 2:4).
In response to his vision, Joel calls the people to return to the Lord with weeping and mourning, repenting with sackcloth and lament, wailing and offerings and fasting. They are to “sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land” in the house of the Lord and cry out for mercy (Joel 1:14).
There are not many readings from to book of Joel in the Revised Common Lectionary. In addition to today’s reading, a lesson from Joel appears as the Old Testament reading for Thanksgiving, Year B, which includes most of the verses from today’s text. The only other time we read from the book of Joel in the Revised Common Lectionary is on Ash Wednesday, in which we hear these verses announcing the terrifying day of the coming of the Lord in judgment: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near; a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Joel 2:1-2). We read this passage as we call upon people to observe a holy Lent by self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading and meditating upon God’s Holy Word.
What we don’t read on Ash Wednesday is this other piece of prophecy from Joel. Here the prophet points the people to a future not only beyond the present crisis, but all the way to the other side of the exile that is to come, to a time when they will be back in the land of promise and their lives will be fully restored to their previous bounty.
It must have been hard for these folks sitting smack-dab in the midst of disaster to imagine that one day their world would be made right again. It must have been hard for them to believe that the Lord still cared about them.
It must have been hard for them, just as it is hard for all of us when disaster is visited upon our lives.
I think of all the times I have sat with a person trying to comprehend a devastating personal crisis: divorce, the death of a friend or family member, diagnosis of a serious or even terminal illness, job loss, bankruptcy, foreclosure, unemployment, addiction, depression.
And I think of all the times I have borne witness to a community or nation caught in the throes of a natural or human-made disaster: devastating floods, fires, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts, persecution, oppression, war, and even genocide.
It is hard to know what to do or say to folks in the midst of a crisis. I’ve had training, of course, so I’m pretty clear on what NOT to say. (It never hurts to do a little reminder session for our people in the pews, though.) Figuring out words that might bring comfort and healing is always more difficult.
But here we have Joel giving us beautiful words of hope, promises from the very mouth of the Lord God, to cling to. I have tried to modernize here for our present day, but please feel free to adapt for your own context.
- I promise that one day, abundant rain will fall and water the fields.
- I promise that one day, the threshing floors will be full of grain, and the vats will overflow with wine and oil!
- I promise that one day, those locusts will be gone, and fields of new, green, tender vegetation will be growing in their place.
- I promise that one day, there will be plenty of food for all God’s children.
- I promise that one day, the clean up from the floods and fires, the hurricanes and the tornadoes, the earthquakes and the bombs, will be finished; and your homes and businesses will be rebuilt.
- I promise that one day, this period of unemployment will be over, and you will have work again.
- I promise that one day, you will be finished with your divorce, and you will be in a better place.
- I promise that one day, shame will no longer control your life.
- I promise that one day, your grief will become manageable and you will smile and laugh again.
- I promise that one day, the war will be over, and you will be able to go home.
- I promise that one day, there will be justice rendered against those who have persecuted you.
- I promise that one day, you will be free from the chains that bind you.
- I promise that one day, you will no longer be a slave to your addiction.
- I promise that one day, your life will be restored, and you will once again praise God and give thanks for all God has done for you.
- I promise that one day, Christ will come in final victory, and we will feast at his heavenly banquet!
I promise you. One day, it will come, says the Lord. And on that day, I will pour out my very own Spirit upon you and everyone you know: from your great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers to your newborn sons and daughters; from the undocumented workers washing dishes in restaurants to the wealthiest traders on Wall Street. One day, all of God’s children will be restored; and they will once again dream dreams, and they will see visions that will lead to a better tomorrow.
It is hard to hear the promise of “one day” when we are in the midst of a crisis. Even if the words fall on our ears, they may not be able to break through to our hearts enough to fill them with hope. But we must believe that even though there are days of trial and tribulation, one day always comes. God promises us: one day ALWAYS comes.
And we believe God’s promise because we are not people stuck perpetually in a cycle of death and destruction. We are an Easter people! The good news is that our God in Christ promises hope for restoration in every situation! There is new life, even on the other side of that which we call death. God promises there is always Resurrection for those who love the Lord and seek to be his disciples. So let us, children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord our God! For God has given us the early rain for our vindication; God has poured down for us abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil, and the Lord IS our God and there is no other.
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