Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Mark 1:9-15, Luke 18:9-14
A Plant Geek
Last week, I was talking with someone about the plants I have in my garden. I mentioned the different herbs that I grow and how my bay leaf tree has survived several years, even though it is not technically zoned for our city. According to the USDA Hardiness Zones (which provide a planting and climate guide for gardeners), most of the District is Zone 7A and Bay Laurel shrubs are technically rated as hardy at Zone 8. This friend was really surprised that I knew this; he had no idea that such zones existed.
While I’m not an expert (nor do I have my degree in horticulture, like someone else in the room), I suppose I have a basic gardening literacy. I can converse about annuals and perennials that can grow in our region and I know a little bit about shrubs and trees. This literacy allows me to make informed choices about what plants to grow and where to put them in my garden. I could spend my whole life gardening and not get to the full depth of all knowledge on the subject. However, I have the tools that I need to function and flourish, producing food and beauty while learning a little more each year.
An Obscure Book, Important Lessons for a Community
Like with gardening, the Bible is an area where there is an unlimited amount to know and learn. There are obscure references and details that pastors or seminary students can joke about or spend hours discussing the nuances or arguments around. While some of us can geek out about the Bible, we don’t all need to know Greek or Hebrew or be able to discourse on ancient near eastern creation stories. You don’t have to be an expert or go to seminary to have functional bible literacy.
Pastors and teachers can highlight the main points and contexts of different books so that we can all be conversationally fluent in church and when doing study on our own. Biblical literacy gives us tools to encounter scripture: to understand a bit about a book’s culture and circumstances, determine the applications to the original audience, and then apply the text to our own journeys following Jesus. The goals of our sermons at Washington City COB are to encourage and challenge each other, while also equipping everyone with skills and tools for working with the Bible on their own.
As part of that, I have both a survey and a confession (since it’s Lent, confessions are appropriate). Let’s start with the survey. Don’t raise your hand physically but, in your head, raise your hand if you’re ever read the whole book of Joel. If you have read Joel, do you think you could give a brief synopsis of what the book is about? I openly confess that I would not have been able to do so before my sermon preparation this week. In some ways, it’s surprising, since I’ve read it several times, was a Hebrew major, and have taken an Old Testament survey class—where I was required to memorize at least one distinctive word or phrase about every book in the Hebrew Scriptures. I couldn’t remember the keyword on my own in 2018, so I dug out our old textbook. Joel’s keyword is locusts. But, while locusts are certainly distinctive, that doesn’t really tell you much about the prophet’s message.
Joel is a short book, with only three chapters. It’s a little strange, but with important prophetic calls and precious promises that extended from Joel’s time to the future. Our passage in Joel was an alternative Ash Wednesday reading and it’s fitting both to think about Lent (which started on Wednesday) and to provide some guidance for our community discernment process. As you heard during the announcements, we are continuing our post-Brethren Nutrition Program discernment, talking about covenant community, membership, ministry, church roles, and spiritual gifts.
My sermon title today is, Everyone, Come to the Fasting Party! This could be bias, but I think my title is more helpful to remember the context of Joel than just “locusts.” In a pivotal and crucial time for the people of Judah, Joel calls the entire community of faith to join in communal repentance and fasting. Joel speaks on behalf of Yahweh, connecting the hope of community renewal and restoration with an intentional reorientation toward the LORD. In a time of crisis, the people’s hope hinges on the nature of Yahweh and of the promise that Yahweh is not finished working, revealing, and transforming.
Locusts and a Community in Crisis
While I may think “Everyone, come to the fasting party!” is a better summary description of Joel, there are certainly locusts in the book of Joel. They are nasty locusts, not fun, chirpy cicadas or 17-year slumberers. Chapter 1 starts out saying, “Pass this story on to your children! Has anything like this happened before? Locusts came and ate everything we had.” Joel recounts the devastation and the mourning of both people and animals. The people are in crisis, with their survival threatened. While Joel doesn’t say explicitly that sin is the cause of all this ecological devastation, it would have been clear to the prophet’s audience.
In the Law given through Moses (commands written in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), ecological devastation is presented as a consequence of the people’s sins (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living includes both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. The Covenant was an agreement between the people and Yahweh and there were serious implications for breaking the Covenant. In other prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die.
Here in Joel, locusts devour, “animals groan,” “herds of cattle wander” aimlessly without food, and “even flocks of sheep are dazed” (v. 18). The last verse in chapter 1 says, “Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness” (v. 20). Amid this devastation, it is clear to the prophet Joel what action is required to rescue to community from the brink.
Blow the Trumpet
If this were a play, there would be a cue for the sound of a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn used in Jewish rituals, especially the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Inspired by my father-in-law’s occasional use of props during sermons, I had Nate bring in my Kudu Antelope horn from Kenya. [trumpet sound] The trumpet in our text likely would have been a ram’s horn or the horn from another animal, made into an instrument that could send a signal to the people. People groups in Kenya like the Njemp or Maasai have traditionally used this horn to communicate between villages in the Great Rift Valley. Our passage begins with the LORD saying, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” (v. 1). The LORD gives a message that everyone in Judah needs to wake up—to tremble even—and the day of the LORD is at hand.
The Day of the LORD is a motif used throughout the prophets, used to describe when Yahweh is breaking into history to either bring judgment or deliverance against the people of Israel and Judah or other nations. The Day is not like one temporal day (evening and morning), but a cosmic event in salvation history. The Day of the LORD is God at work, making things right through judgment (since people were judged for injustice and idolatry) or making things new through a promise of transformation and wholeness.
The prophet Joel receives the word to sound the horn, the day of the LORD is near. While an impending day of darkness and gloom—not to mention the preexisting locust devastation—sounds harsh and terrorizing, Yahweh really has the people’s interests at heart and wants to keep the Covenant, no mater how many times the people try to abandon it.
The LORD, Yahweh, desires that the people come back with open hearts. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12). God wants relationships with humans. “Return to me, come back to me, come home,” God beckons. Joel calls the people to turn to God, not just with some outward expression, but with true inward repentance and transformation—a genuine reorienting of their lives to Yahweh.
The God that awaits the people is neither a tyrant nor an apathetic or impassive divine being but the “I Am”—the One who has consistently self-revealed as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 13; cf. Exodus 34:6). These words to describe Yahweh are the same as those revealed to Moses in Exodus and then used repeatedly throughout the Hebrew scriptures. In this call to return, God demonstrates proactive love by reaching out, despite the people’s obstinance and attempts at life without God. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12).
A Crucial Spiritual Detox/A Fasting Party
Fasting is mentioned again in verse 15: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, gather the people. Sanctify the congregation, assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy” (vv. 15-16). The trumpets are blown, the people are on high alert, and everyone is called to partake in what could be called a communal, spiritual detox program. A healthy detox eating program might eliminate fast food, junk food, chips, soda, and other empty calories that aren’t good for you and replace them with fruits and vegetables, water, whole grains, legumes, and other healthy options. In this biblical, spiritual detox, the people stop everything that they are doing to focus on Yahweh.
It’s a time to assess where the people have been self-indulgent, self-sufficient, and have worshipped that which is not God. It’s a time to repent of how they have worshipped things, placed profits, personal comfort, or material possessions over people. It’s a time to recognize and confessing of having lived as though they had no need for God. For our individualistic culture, fasting, repenting, and mourning over sin are things that we are generally inclined to do privately. We don’t say, “Hey, let’s everybody come to the fasting party!” partly because our culture assumes that our own lives and decisions are independent from those around us. “You do you, as long as you’re not hurting anyone directly.” But for the people of Israel, the individual’s relationship with God is linked to the community’s relationship with God.
Individual repentance is linked to the corporate or communal repentance; individual well-being is inseparable from the community’s well-being. The call to return to God goes out to everyone: young, old, men and women. It’s not just the priests, not just the prophets or leader, not just adults—everyone’s faith matters. The whole community is called to “declare a holy fast” (v. 15). The elderly, the children, “even infants at the breast” and newlyweds on their honeymoon: the crisis facing the community required that everyone partake in the communal fasting and repentance.
Looking at the rest of Joel, we see that Yahweh promises deliverance and renewal, a restoration of the land. Beyond that, the people are given hope of a new Day of the LORD, an era where the Spirit of God will fill and inspire people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21). The Apostle Peter cites Joel’s prophesy in Acts 2, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills and dwells the Jesus-followers.
Individual Vs. Community Well-Being
The particularities of the Mosaic Covenant, the blessings and curses and the connection between sin and the fertility of the land of Israel, those don’t apply to the new covenant in Jesus. Yet, there are certainly other relevant thoughts and questions that this passage raises for the church today. One question is this: how does our own faith affect the faith of the community? How are the health and well-being of our individual relationships with God—our individual Jesus-following—linked to the health and well-being of a congregation? In other words, when I’m not prioritizing my relationship with God, it makes sense that it would hurt me. But does it hurt others?
When I’m distant or aloof from God, it likely affects how I relate to my spouse, my broader family, and also to my church. I imagine that I’m not able to fully be the blessing that God has designed me to be, via my spiritual gifts and talents, if God is not the center of my life. I think for a time of community discernment—like what we’re trying to engage in at Washington City—it’s important to recognize the synergy between our individual spirituality and the state of our community. We need all levels of our lives to be syncing together and seeking after the Spirit.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time that Christians have used for centuries to prepare their hearts for Easter, to detox from the things that distract from our Creator, and to repent and seek God’s renewing presence. Fasting is an ancient practice and an important tool to be used, whether you are fasting from lunch, chocolate, Facebook or something else. Fasting helps us reorient our lives towards God, creating a reminder or an absence that compels us towards God. Some people don’t cut out things but add a spiritual practice for Lent: they read a Lenten devotional, commit to reading one of the gospels, they add times of prayer to their daily routine, or commit to doing a specific service.
If you want ideas or resources for fasting or spiritual practices during Lent, Nate and I are available to talk through it with you. We’re past Ash Wednesday, but it’s not too late to start something. Our journey towards renewal, toward community discernment, toward the Last Supper, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb all lay ahead.
The call to return, to draw near to God, rang out for the people of Israel and it also echoes to us today in 2018. God is still saying, “Return to me with all your heart.” It’s easy to turn God into an abstraction, an impassive deity. Yet, we see here in Joel and in many other parts of scripture—in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, in Jesus’ general interactions with everyone—that the Creator of the Universe lovingly calls each of us to God’s self.
Where do we find our hope during personal crisis or as a congregation in transition? We find hope in knowing God and being known intimately and deeply by God, in experiencing abundant love, mercy, and God’s purpose for our lives. Sisters and brothers, is God calling you to return, to draw near? What can you do this Lent to prepare your heart for Easter, and to get in sync with God’s Spirit that is moving in our lives, in this church, and in this world? Everyone, come to the fasting party and let’s prepare our hearts for Jesus. Turn, return to God—for God is where wholeness and completeness, steadfast love, fulfillment and blessing will be found. AMEN.