TEXT: Joel 1:13-20; Matthew 4:5-7
Last week we began our Lenten series from the Old Testament book of Joel and we talked about some of the damage COVID caused to health, the economy, community, and even worship. I talked about direct impact, such as loss of life or compromised health. And I also talked briefly about the things we lost or had to give up for a while.
Today we will look at a second calamity that fell on God’s people in the time of Joel and what God instructed His people to do through the words of the prophet Joel. It is a continuation and building on last week’s themes. We are to lament and grieve, but also REPENT and turn freshly to the Lord. And Joel will start to introduce the theme of the Day of the Lord, when God will make all things right.
Drought, Lament, and Repentance (Joel 1)
It was not enough to experience the locust plague and the damage to crops, trees, and vegetation; the people also experienced a drought and some resultant fires on the heels of the locust plague. This would have meant no re-planting, no recovery, and a prolonged period of famine, suffering, and starvation. The latter part of our reading (vv.16-20) from Joel describes the effects of the drought:
16 Has not food been cut off before our eyes,
Gladness and joy from the house of our God?
17 The seeds shrivel under their clods;
The storehouses are desolate,
The barns are torn down,
For the grain is dried up.
18 How the beasts groan!
The herds of cattle wander aimlessly
Because there is no pasture for them;
Even the flocks of sheep suffer.
19 To You, O Lord, I cry;
For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness
And the flame has burned up all the trees of the field.
20 Even the beasts of the field pant for You;
For the water brooks are dried up
And fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.
Again, God’s prescription through Joel was the same: grieve and lament what is lost!
13 Gird yourselves with sackcloth
And lament, O priests;
Wail, O ministers of the altar!
Come, spend the night in sackcloth
O ministers of my God,
For the grain offering and the drink offering
Are withheld from the house of your God.
And to underscore the difference between grief and lament, this is public, in community, and before the Lord.
14 Consecrate a fast,
Proclaim a solemn assembly;
Gather the elders
And all the inhabitants of the land
To the house of the Lord your God,
And cry out to the Lord.
Call for fasting and prayer; call together the priests, elders, and congregation in assembly. Cry out together to the Lord.
That’s all the call to LAMENT. The first call to REPENT is tucked in there in verse 15:
15 Alas for the day!
For the day of the Lord is near,
And it will come as destruction from the Almighty.
The day is coming when the Lord will judge the earth. This “Day of the Lord” is first presented here as judgment and destruction. But as it is developed in the next chapter (and in the next few weeks), it includes the call to REPENT – to turn back to the Lord in obedience and faith. Then God’s judgment will not mean destruction, but justice, salvation, restoration, and hope. God will set things right in the end.
What will we do in the meantime? How will we relate to God? To whom will we listen and turn?
Tempted to Test God (Matthew 4)
The Devil came to Jesus a second time after he had been in the wilderness fasting and praying for forty days. And the Devil told Jesus to throw himself from the top of the Temple to prove he was the Son of God, quoting scripture that Angels would keep him from harm. Jesus responded by (again) quoting Deuteronomy, saying: “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Mt. 4:7; Dt. 6:16) The rest of the verse from Deuteronomy 6 explains the context. We are not to ‘test’ God as the Israelites tested God at Massah, where they basically demanded water from Moses as proof that God was real. This was just like what the Devil was doing: demanding God prove Himself instead of trusting God and listening to His Word.
I’ve certainly heard and known people do this with God, making deals or giving God ultimatums: “God, get me through this and I’ll start going to church”… “God if you are real, you would heal this person I love.” I heard similar statements more than a few times during COVID, refusing any precautions because God would not let a person of faith get COVID. (But people of faith get sick, get hurt, and die all the time!)
God is not ours to manipulate or test, but to listen, follow, and obey. It is certainly acceptable to pray to God and say, “Here is what I want”; but not “Give me what I want, or else!” You (and I) may have never said it quite that bluntly, but I know I have been guilty of my faith rising and falling with my perception of how well God has answered my prayers or protected my loved ones.
The prescription and the way forward is the same as it was in the time of Joel: grieve what has been lost, bring it to the Lord as LAMENT, and turn freshly to the Lord and REPENT.
Lament and Repent
In addition to COVID, I believe we have experienced a cultural drought (and sometimes fire) because of the polarization of politics. As I shared in my testimonial sermon a few weeks ago, one of the great strengths and things that drew me to this church was a shared conviction that Jesus Christ and God’s Word were pre-eminent over all things. One of the great fruits of that shared conviction was a strength of community and commitment to shared worship, ministry, and mission. But personally, one of the greatest challenges of recent years has not been COVID, but the way our cultural polarization has impacted our church. And while it’s complicated to untangle why, one of my greatest discouragements has been seeing beloved church family separate and leave over politics and ideology.
And I don’t say that to point fingers, but to do what Joel says: to grieve and lament. And part of doing that well is admitting my own part in that. We all want to put God to the test and have God back up our personal views. But it doesn’t work that way. If God says seek justice, we should do that whether Democrats, Republicans, our momma, or our best friend thinks we should. If Jesus tells us to forgive an enemy or turn the other cheek, we should do that whether it scores political points or not. It’s not really a contest between locusts and drought or between COVID and polarized politics; we need to grieve it all. But for me, the drought that our cultural allegiance to politics has wrought on us is gut-wrenching.
And so again I am drawn to Joel and what the Lord is saying through Him. I… we… not only need to acknowledge loss, but bring the grief of it to the Lord. I and we not only need to lament loss, but turn freshly back to the Lord, to His Word, to obeying wherever the Lord leads us…. WHEREVER the Lord leads us.
There’s even more going on in Joel as there is for us. So we’ll press on next week, not discouraged, but hopeful that the Lord is present and not turned away, that the Lord will set things right, and that we can be a part of that.
And remember: even in… especially in the face of sin, death, and doubt, Easter is coming! Amen.
Some Music Used
- It is Well (Bethel)
- And No Bird Sang (Wagner)
- Creation Sings the Father’s Song (Gettys)
- Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken
- My Soul Longs for the Lord
- Is He Worthy?
- Lion of Judah