Even Now

As I considered the very words that quenched my thirsty and parched soul in one of the hardest times of my life, I knew they were ones I needed to revisit, not only in this new page of life, but a new liturgical season as well.

Entering into the book of Joel, the prophet who only identifies himself clearly as a son of another person named Pethuel, as well as clearly knowledgeable of other prophets before his time or during his time—we see disaster, ruin, wreckage. A plague of locusts has marched through the already remnant of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, destroying everything in their path, leaving nothing behind. As these people attempt to rebuild their city, they then also lose their crops, the foods that not only nourish them in their hunger but mark their practices of feasting and offerings to their God. Broken and languishing would be excellent adjectives to describe the hearts of those Joel addresses and is part of.

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The Call

Even now —
this is the Lord’s declaration —
turn to me with all your heart,
with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Tear your hearts,
not just your clothes,
and return to the Lord your God.
For he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger, abounding in faithful love,
and he relents from sending disaster.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
and leave a blessing behind him,
so you can offer grain and wine
to the Lord your God.
— Joel 2:12-14

Joel not once mentions the sin the audience must have done in order to deserve something like this, after all, that’s how we assume things work in this formulaic manner, correct? We don’t have a full answer to why this has happened; we don’t understand whether or not these locusts were actual insects or a description of the armies that flew through and plummaged in the same methodical and extensive manner the aforementioned would, but Joel still calls these people to repent. With what would be known of the covenant curses and blessings in Deuteronomy 28, the immediate thought would be that they had once more failed to uphold their end of the deal. Not only this, but the buzzing of the insects in their ears would have called to mind their ancestors’ stories of the similar plague that was yet another miracle and help to getting them up and out of the hands of Egypt. Why God? Why us, why this?

Regardless of what has happened and what they have or haven’t done to deserve this, Joel is aware that the curse remains, that sin lies within themselves, their community, the land. Joel calls them in light of the bleak picture that they see to even now return to their God. Abundant grace lies in repentance, in this call that says you are never too far to return. Twice he invokes the pronoun YOUR God, presupposing that the covenant hasn’t been broken, that this God remains faithful even when we are faithless, upholding his end of the deal.

Throughout the entirety of the book of Joel, his prophecies center around the Day of Yahweh, this day when God would intervene and make everything that is wrong right again. We want deliverance, we want these things to be true, but we also must acknowledge that much that is wrong lies within us as well. Without grace outside of ourselves, the Day of Yahweh has much to fear.

Joel addresses our want to avoid the consequences of our actions while still doing what we do, repentance as a show without any true change, the tale of not only their context but ours as well.

Joel issues a striking warning against a dichotomy of purpose and performance, of motive and the mechanics of repentance. Yahweh’s appeal had been for penitence within the cultic sphere, neither conscience nor cult being sufficient without the other. Joel knows too well the duplicity of the human heart to let the occasion pass without stressing the necessity for both, and cautioning against a hollow ritualism.
— Leslie C. Allen

Even in the words of this call to repent is a show and tell of the Lord’s great goodness, his mercy and forgiveness of sinners like us. While their world swirls with chaos around them, Joel calls them to faith not in a formula or system, but in a God who knows what lies ahead and can be trusted.

Obedience

Blow the horn in Zion!
Announce a sacred fast;
proclaim an assembly.
Gather the people;
sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the infants,
even babies nursing at the breast.
Let the groom leave his bedroom,
and the bride her honeymoon chamber.
Let the priests, the Lord’s ministers,
weep between the portico and the altar.
Let them say:
“Have pity on your people, Lord,
and do not make your inheritance a disgrace,
an object of scorn among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’
— Joel 2:15-17

As we think again of our context, we have to see that if the whole of their people can be called to the temple, their population after all of this mess could really be that small.

The intensity of the people’s repentance is to be matched by its extensiveness.
— Weiser

No one here gets a free pass on the repentance that needs to happen, not infants, not the bride and bridegroom (Deuteronomy 24:5). They communally repent, coming together, not just as individuals recognizing their sin, but as a people united. We have much to learn from this example with not only how they seize the grace of God in their lives through repentance, but how they embody it as a collective.

God’s Promises

Then the Lord became jealous for his land and spared his people. The Lord answered his people:
Look, I am about to send you
grain, new wine, and fresh oil.
You will be satiated with them,
and I will no longer make you
a disgrace among the nations.
I will drive the northerner far from you
and banish him to a dry and desolate land,
his front ranks into the Dead Sea,
and his rear guard into the Mediterranean Sea.
His stench will rise;
yes, his rotten smell will rise,
for he has done astonishing things.
Don’t be afraid, land;
rejoice and be glad,
for the Lord has done astonishing things.
Don’t be afraid, wild animals,
for the wilderness pastures have turned green,
the trees bear their fruit,
and the fig tree and grapevine yield their riches.
Children of Zion, rejoice and be glad
in the Lord your God,
because he gives you the autumn rain
for your vindication.
He sends showers for you,
both autumn and spring rain as before.
The threshing floors will be full of grain,
and the vats will overflow
with new wine and fresh oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust ate,
the young locust, the destroying locust,
and the devouring locust —
my great army that I sent against you.
You will have plenty to eat and be satisfied.
You will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
My people will never again be put to shame.
You will know that I am present in Israel
and that I am the Lord your God,
and there is no other.
My people will never again be put to shame.
— Joel 2:18-27
The promises are written in prophetic perfect, attesting to the sure conviction that God will hear the people’s cries and will change their plight, so much so that this future expectation is written in terms of actions that have already been completed. It is a remarkable act of courage to imagine the resumption of ordinary life activities once more when the disaster’s devastating effects are still all around.
— Juliana Claassens
They are urged to take a joyous leap of faith and to transcend the dismal present by praising him for what is as good as done, since his word guarantees its fulfillment.
— Leslie C. Allen

In these verses, the disaster that we see in the verses before it are all miraculously reversed, all in verbs that are in a tense that proclaim it done. It is finished. While their current circumstances don’t show these promises to be true, God’s Word is true.

This is a world where Yahweh reigns, where things are as they should be, and God has done it. There is nothing to pat the audience on the back for, but a God to be praised.

Lenten Hope

The connection from their life into ours seems too far to grasp, and yet, it is closer to us than we think. Once more, as we think about the transition as Ash Wednesday recalled “From dust we came, to dust we will return,” we look now at this season of Lent, where we symbolically follow Christ into the wilderness.

Ash Wednesday is the annual reminder that we are far more weak, frail, broken, and marked by sin than we think. It’s also the reminder that God is far more gracious, merciful, present, and loving than we can believe.
— Rich Villodas

As Lent postures us to fast from lesser things, we must feast on Christ. All of the promises God makes here are fulfilled in our Christ. Jesus comes calling, saying, “even now, return to me.” He knew they couldn’t repent on their own, fix what was broken around them, as they begged for the Messiah to come, for the Day of the Lord. He came. He is God with us, you will know that I am present, becoming the covenant, fulfilling the covenant, making a new covenant that cannot be broken by our unfaithfulness. He puts shame to death, my people will never again be put to shame. He is the grain, the new wine, the fresh oil, and we will be satiated with Him. The gospel is the greatest, most gracious reversal of them all.

As we seek to live into this next forty days, we journey on in repentance, because time and time again has proven itself that even the curse has given way to miraculous blessing. Let us go out daily remembering what we look to in light of the one who conquered death, even as we feel the ache of death. Although the locust seems to have eaten, we are the ones who will eat and be satisfied.