No one who is currently an adult will ever forget September 11, 2001. It was a day when the people of the United States of America felt the horror of a devastating attack on our country. It shook us like few things have the power to do. In like manner no one living at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor will ever forget the feelings of anger, vulnerability and fear.
It is certainly true that those who had homes lost in devastating forest fires will never forget watching the flames get closer, having to evacuate their homes, and then returning to the ashes of what used to be their treasures.
The book of Joel was written to people who had a vivid memory. He wrote his letter during a time of crisis and he used that crisis to try to awaken people to their need to align their lives with God. This morning we look at the three different elements of this message from Joel: the Crisis, the Response, and the Renewal that God promised.
Joel begins with a crisis. Apparently there was a plague of locusts that attacked Israel. This plague was worse than any plague anyone had ever seen. It was so bad the old men couldn’t even say, “Ah, I remember back in 46 . . . “ We find it hard to grasp how bad a plague of locusts could be. But James Boice paints a helpful picture,
In 1915 a plague of locusts covered Palestine and Syria. The first swarms appeared in March. These were adult locusts in clouds so thick they obscured the sun. The females were about two and one-half to three inches long, and they immediately began to lay eggs by digging holes in the soil about four inches deep and depositing about 100 eggs in each. The eggs were neatly arranged in a cylindrical mass about one inch long and about as thick as a pencil. These holes were everywhere. Witnesses estimated that as many as 65,000-75,000 eggs were concentrated in a single square meter of soil, and patches like this covered the entire land from north to south. Having laid their eggs the locusts flew away. [Boice, Minor Prophets Vol. 1 p. 122]
As these locusts reached their various stages of growth and development they ate progressively more of the vegetation so that nothing was left. They even began to eat the bark of the trees so that the branches were white and bare!
If that wasn’t bad enough it seems that in addition to the locust plague a severe drought also overtook the land. So the vegetation was not only destroyed, there was no way to replenish it. We are told in verse 20 that the streams of water were dried up and the animals panted for water.
Joel helps us understand the devastation by talking to several groups of people.
- The drunkards were to mourn because the vineyards were stripped and there would be no more wine
- The farmers should despair because there was nothing to put in their silos
- The priests should despair because there would be not offerings at the temple
We don’t have any trouble imaging the questions at this time. Why did this happen?
- Where was God?
- Are we being punished?
- Why me?
Joel answers these questions in kind of a strange way.
Joel 2:1-2 (NIV) Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come.
Joel 2:11 (NIV) The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?
Joel says, “if you think this is bad just wait and see what God could do and someday will do.” There is a coming Day of Judgment that will make this plague look like a grade school picnic.
It seems to us that Joel would be well served to get some training in counseling! You don’t tell hurting people that things could be a lot worse!! Yet Joel wants the people of Israel to understand that God allows (and sometimes even sends) tragic times as a desperate attempt to awaken spiritually asleep and dying people. When things go well we have a tendency to drift. We feel self-sufficient. Our “need” for God diminishes and we turn in the direction of sin. Sad as it seems, the devastating times are meant to be a wake-up call from the almighty. These horrible things come because God loves us.
Suppose you have a family member who is engaging in some kind of abusive or deadly behavior. Perhaps they are deep into drugs. The have borrowed from everyone, they have pawned family treasures, you have talked until you were blue in the face. They will not listen.
Then one night you get a call from the police telling you that your family member has been arrested. They ask you what you want to do? There is a good chance that you will tell the police officer or your family member that you will not bail them out. Do you do this because you hate them? No, it is really just the opposite . . . you love them and are willing to take drastic action in the hope that they see the foolishness of their ways. You hope that facing the consequences of their actions will awaken them.
That’s what God sometimes does. He wants us to see the consequence of spurning Him. He wants us to wake up before it is too late. Difficult times remind us that on our own we are in trouble.
- Dipping stock prices remind us that our security is not in the market but the Lord
- Threat of war reminds us that peace is something that cannot be obtained by military might but only by God’s intervention.
- Disease reminds us that life is temporary and we will someday die and we must give attention to the eternal
- The death of someone we love makes us seriously and passionately long to know what is beyond the grave
The destruction or loss of material things reminds us that much of what we spend our life trying to obtain is just stuff that will one day wither in the wind.
In the midst of this crisis, during this time when some people might turn away from the Lord Joel suggests a better course,
‘Even now,‘ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.‘ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing [Joel 2:12-14]
Joel calls the people to repentance. He says it is time to run to the Lord. It is time to confess our sin and turn from it. It is time to get serious about following the Lord. This should be so urgent that Joel says that mothers who are nursing should put off nursing and attend to the matter of getting right with God. The couple just married should put off their honeymoon and head to a place where they can fast and pray. Repentance is serious and focused. It is an urgent matter!
A mother came into her home one day to see her five children playing on the floor in a circle. As she got closer she noticed that they were playing with five skunks. In her well composed manner, she yelled, “get away from there quick!” The children got up and ran away . . . each carrying a skunk.
You know what happened! The children got away but they carried the stench with them. We can’t play with sin. We are like these children, we profess to run toward holiness but we are carrying the skunk of sin around with us. Our repentance must be from our hearts and not just something on the surface.
After the World Trade Center attacks there were several weeks where church attendance was up, the sale of Bibles increased, people freely talked about God and prayer. Everyone knew where to turn. But most have drifted away again. This is what Joel wants to avoid. Many were willing to tear their garments but not their hearts.
These sober words are really a joyful invitation. In the midst of the devastation there is hope. Those who have sinned are told that there is “still time”. “Even now . . . “ Even though we have drifted; even though we have made horrible mistakes in our lives; even though we have consistently rebelled against the Lord; if we will turn to the Lord He will heal us. In verse 32 we are told, “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.” Everyone!
Why is this so? “It is because the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” (v. 13b) His arms are open.
Joel uses the last half of his book to paint a picture of the things that God will do for those who come to Him with all their heart. The first thing he says is that He will renew them. He will do this in several ways. First, he will provide for them (us)
18 Then the Lord will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people. 19 The Lord will reply to them: ‘I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully; never again will I make you an object of scorn to the nations. . . . Be not afraid, O wild animals, for the open pastures are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches. (2:18-20)
Does this mean that we will have all the things we desire? No it doesn’t. God will not indulge us (that only makes us selfish, demanding and never satisfied) but He will take care of us. He will not take away all the painful times of life but will give us the strength to survive any of the painful times. The painful times will give way to joy once again.
There is a second blessing,
28 ‘And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. [Joel 2:28-29 (NIV)]
Perhaps these words sound familiar to you. If so, it is because you find them in the Book of Acts in chapter two. On the day of Pentecost (a festival 50 days after Passover) the disciples were in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit came upon the people with incredible power. People saw what is best described as tongues of fire. And then these people from different lands all heard the gospel in their own language from the disciples. It was an incredible miracle and some people thought the disciples must be drunk. But Peter said that day was a day when God’s promise in Joel was being fulfilled.
Please understand that up until the day of Pentecost God’s Spirit was given to specific people at specific times for specific purposes. His Spirit was given to a prophet so He could speak God’s Word. His Spirit was given to a leader so he could go out into battle. But the rest of the time the people had to search for God. They would offer their sacrifices and hope that God would come to them.
With the coming of Christ, everyone who trusts in Him will is given the Spirit to live inside of him or her. Jesus tells us that the gift of the Holy Spirit will make it possible for Him to be with us always. We are told that the Spirit is given to the Believer to guide us into all truth. (John 16: 13-15)
Paul reminds us that the gift of God’s Spirit
- Enables us to pray (Romans 8:26,27)
- Equips us to serve (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12)
- Serves as a deposit which guarantees our inheritance (2 Cor. 1:22; 2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:14)
- Provides us with the power to do God’s will (1 Thess. 1:5)
Such is the magnificent grace of God. We are sinners but He is willing not only to forgive us . . . He is willing to re-make us and empower us. Don’t miss the nature of this blessing. We take it for granted because we are “used” to it. It is like the blessing of freedom. We don’t appreciate freedom until someone tries to take it away from us. God gives His Spirit to those who turn to Him. It is an astounding blessing that we must never take for granted.
Finally, in chapter 3 Joel tells the people that God will vindicate His people. He will punish their enemies. Those who seemed to have the upper hand, those who seemed to be getting away with everything . . . will indeed face a day of reckoning. They will get away with nothing.
We need to remember this fact because if we are honest, there are times when we envy the wicked. We think
- It would be fun to pursue the lusts of life
- It would be good to be able to get what we want using crooked means
- It would be nice to only be concerned about ourselves.
There are times when these things look good to us. Why not cheat? Why not grab what we can? It is because these people will not get away with what they are doing. They appear to be dodging and repercussions for their sin but this will not be forever.
OK, that’s the whirlwind tour of the book of Joel. Let’s lay out some simple principles for us to hold on to.
First, Joel reminds us that the difficult times of life serve as a summons from God to trust Him. When hard times come we can turn away from God or we can turn toward Him. Turning away is the path of the fool, turning toward Him is the work of the wise. In truth, we deserve eternal punishment. We deserve far worse than what we are receiving. The hard times should drive us to genuine repentance for our sin and to a renewed dependence on His grace and His strength.
If you are going through a time of hardship understand that He has allowed the hard times of life so that we might come to see the sweetness of His love and His grace. It seems absurd, but it is true. Hold His hand and hold it tight. Use the hard times to help you to focus on where your real strength resides. In the times of difficulty “return to the Lord” for He is the one who can help you.
Second, Joel reminds us that the person who trusts in Christ has no need to fear the threats of the world. Think about going to an amusement park. You get on a roller coaster and you experience terrifying plunges, body-jarring turns, speed that makes you feel out of control, and you are turned upside down again and again. When the adventure is over you smile and get in line to do it again. Why would someone willing do this again? Why would someone pay to have this experience? It’s because you know that in the midst of the terror, you are safe. You trust the harness to protect you.
This is what it is like to be a child of God. We may be tossed about by the world. There may be terrifying moments and sudden changes in life. But in the midst of it all we do not despair because God has given us His Spirit to protect us and to make sure we make it safely home. He has promised to care for us. There are times we may feel that we are going to “fall out” of God’s hands but we won’t because He holds us firm in the grip of His grace. He has promised to protect us. His promise is sure.
I don’t know what the future holds. There may be more devastating attacks from terrorists. There may be invading armies. There may be natural disasters that threaten to take everything we have. Whatever the future brings Joel reminds us that it is better to lose everything we have than to lose the Lord. The Psalmist Asaph understood perfectly,
“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.” (Psalm 73:23-28, NIV)
Asaph understood the lesson the locusts were designed to teach Israel. Asaph understood that everything in this world was secondary to walking with the Lord. It is the lesson that we also must learn, one way or another.