On New Year’s Eve 2019, we all saw the social media posts, the Tweets, the Instagram pictures – things with captions like, “Good riddance to 2019. Welcome 2020!” Or “So excited about a new year.” Or “Only good things to come.” It usually takes us a few months to become disillusioned with the year we’re currently living, but 2020 kind of stumbled out of the gate, ran into a wall, burst into flames, and still hasn’t recovered. Australia burned. The impeachment and acquittal of our president. Brexit. Covid-19 quarantines, major sectors of our economy, really of our lives, came to a standstill. Four months into the New Year everyone had a collection of face masks they wore regularly. Significant protests at state capitol buildings. Major flooding just south of us in mid-Michigan. And then both peaceful protests and riots around the issue of race. Thankfully the murder hornets didn’t take hold. 2020 has been rough so far. We’re all a little leery about what plague, pestilence, or disaster is coming up next.
As a church, when we first shut down and went virtual, we figured it would be for a few weeks. Then a few weeks more. Then it was another month or so. Then we just stopped trying to predict it because we were tired of being wrong and just said, “Until further notice.” And of course we know that we aren’t all back here in person yet, and that’s okay. But today, after 15 consecutive weeks, more than 3 months, without a live service in this sanctuary, we are back. We look different. We’re behaving differently. But we’re back. Until the next plague is unleashed, at least. We’re all a little bit “gun shy,” wondering “What’s next?”
That’s pretty much how the Israelites felt in the days in which the prophets, whose writings make up the last segment of the Old Testament, were living. As we continue our summer journey through the “Fly Over Books,” the books of the Bible we rarely pay attention to, we’re shifting from the New Testament to the Old, and we’re going to be focusing on the minor prophets – those small books at the end of the Old Testament, most of which have names people struggle to pronounce. By the way, we call them the “Minor Prophets” not because they are insignificant – they aren’t – but because they’re shorter. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are called the “Major Prophets” not because they’re more important – they aren’t – but because they’re longer, much longer, writings.
Now, before we turn to these prophets, we need to understand something about prophecy. When we think of prophecy, we tend to think of foretelling the future. And prophecy does sometimes do that. In particular, we have the Messianic prophecies, the prophecies that point to the coming of Messiah, the first of which is actually in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Sometimes we think of the book of Revelation as prophecy, but it isn’t. It’s actually apocalypse, an altogether different genre with an entirely different purpose.
But the primary role of prophecy isn’t so much foretelling the future as it is explaining what God is doing in the present. Helping people to understand what God is doing during confusing times, and giving HOPE for the future. It isn’t so much FOREtelling as it is FORTHtelling. But it can include both. Today, and again next Sunday, we’ll be looking at two significant passages in the prophet Joel, and I invite you to turn there now if you have your Bible with you. If not, you can follow along on the screen or use the Bible app on your phone or tablet. I preach from the English Standard Version, or ESV. Joel 2:12-18.
So what was Israel experiencing that caused God to speak these words through his prophet Joel? They were experiencing a plague, a pandemic. It was a plague of locusts destroying their crops. And because of that, they had nothing to eat. Look up at Joel 1:4. And then down in Vv. 10-12. To be fair, sometimes in prophetic literature invading armies are referred to as a plague of locusts, but that isn’t what’s happening here. When armies are depicted as swarms of locusts, the things they’re said to be doing are consistent with what armies would do – destroying cities and burning villages, things like that. This is actually a plague of locusts, of insects. It is a natural, and a national disaster.
But God is doing something here. He is inviting his people to come home. To return to him. Look at Joel 1:5. And then 2:1. And then, down in our text, V. 12. God is trying to get their attention. He is calling them back to himself. They’re a distracted people, self-confident, self-assured, they believe the future is theirs. Their real trust is in the strength of their economy and the power of their army. And so, while they still participate in the worship of God, their worship has become hollow, empty. They’re doing all of the right things, but their hearts aren’t in it. They worship God. They trust, place their faith in, themselves.
After all, they’re God’s people, and bad things don’t happen to God’s people, right? God will protect us FROM tough times, right? Actually … no. We all experience hard times as individuals, and we also experience hard times as nations. But God does USE the hard times we go through. He uses them to correct our ways, to discipline and refine us, to shape us. He uses them to draw us into a deeper relationship with him. And he uses them to equip us to serve others. Often, it is in those places of deepest pain and need in our own lives that we find ourselves reaching out to and loving others. And we can do that because we know deep pain. There IS a strong temptation to assume that we suffer because of our sin, and this isn’t always the case. Sometimes we are suffering because of the sin of others, or because we live in a broken world full of pain and death. But while we can’t assume that suffering is because of our sin, we also can’t rule it out. But through it all, regardless of WHY we are suffering, God is using the tough times we face to refine us, to draw us close to him, and to equip us to serve others.
God is calling out for his people to return to him. To come home. We are asleep and far from him, some of us even as we worship him. We are physically alive, but spiritually asleep. So God is blowing trumpets, sounding alarms, crying out for his lost people to come him. That is God’s cry to humankind: Come home. When humanity fell into sin, we ran and hid from God. And in the Garden his question, his call, rings out, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). And that call doesn’t change. On every page of Scripture and in the very person of Christ and every action he took, God is calling out, “Come home.” Revelation 22:17 says, “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come.” From Genesis to Revelation. Come home.
But instead of coming home, we run farther. We’re afraid, because of the lies we believe about our Heavenly Father. You see, instead of looking to Christ, God in the flesh, to see what God is like, we create God in our own image. Some of us view God as an unapproving father figure waiting for us to mess up so that he can shame us. Someone we can never please. Some of us view God as an angry policeman, again, waiting for us to mess up, but this time so that he can punish us. A God who delights in punishment. Some of us view God as distant and detached. Capable, but not all that concerned with what’s happening in our lives. Sadly, for most of us, these lies about who God is, about what God is like, come not from our experience of Christ and knowledge of truth but from our own relationships with our very human, broken earthly fathers. But that isn’t the God revealed to us in Christ. That isn’t the God Joel knew, the God who revealed himself to his people through the prophet Joel. Look at Vv. 13-14.
God is GRACIOUS. That word paints a picture of a person in authority granting a favor not because he must, but because he wants to. There is nothing coerced about it. God is calling out to us to come home not because he has to, not because we’ve performed some religious rite or ceremony in the right way and thus bound God to do it, but because it is in God’s nature to love us, and thus God wants us to come home. In Christ, God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
And God is merciful. The word translated as mercy is actually related to the Hebrew word for “womb.” To show mercy is to show a motherly love and compassion for the helpless and needy. God’s heart breaks for us even in our rebellious, sinful state. He longs for us to return to him. The picture is of a mother waiting anxiously for her wayward child to return home.
God is slow to anger. It doesn’t say that God never gets angry. It says that God is slow to anger. He is incredibly patient with his wayward people, and he provides ample warning. He has given us his Word. He has given us himself in Christ. To his people he sent the prophets to warn them. And God’s anger is not uncontrolled explosions like our human anger tends to be. It is fixed and predictable, God’s orientation toward all that separates us from him. And God always provides ample warning in this life. He desperately tries to get our attention.
God is full of steadfast love. This is God’s loyal love. God’s love that will never die, will never grow cold, and will never fail. The love of God that will not ebb or flow. 1 Corinthians 13 gives the most beautiful description of God’s love for us. We so often interpret this as the ideal of our love for one another, and in Christ, it is. But this is actually a picture of God’s love for us. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (13:4-8). THIS is God’s steadfast love.
And God relents over disaster. Even his judgment, executed in this life, in this world, is not irrevocable. God will relent. His judgment, his discipline, is designed to draw us back to him. It is intended to turn the wrongdoer from evil, the sinner from her sin. In Ezekiel 33:11 God says, “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
We have a God who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and who relents over disaster. The locusts were ravaging their land, but God is a God fully capable of relenting in his discipline and, because they did not have grain and grapes for grain and drink offerings, might just bring them himself, on behalf of the people. THAT is the God who is calling out to us, “Come home.”
Will we turn? Will we come home? Look at Vv. 15-17. The people are called, together, to a worship service. And it looks kind of like any other worship service they had half-heartedly participated in. A penitent fast. A solemn assembly. But this time, it was to be a priority. None of the normal exemptions for brides and bridegrooms. No exemptions for children and infants. No exemptions for the elderly. ALL were to come. This time of repentance was of the highest priority, and it wasn’t individual. It was communal. A people repenting before THEIR God. A people repenting for their sins as a people, for the sins of their culture. For their half-hearted pursuit of God. For giving lip-service to their special relationship with God while they made their own way in the world in the strength of their own hands and the wisdom of their own minds, without any real dependence on or trust in God. And they were coming with nothing. They had no grain for a grain offering or drink for a drink offering. The locusts had destroyed it all. They were coming before God not with their riches but in their poverty. Not in strength but in weakness. Not in wealth but in need.
And they were coming whole-heartedly. Look at the first line of V. 13. The heart, in the Old Testament, isn’t primarily the seat of emotion, as we tend to view it today. It was viewed then as the seat of what we would call the mind and the will. And that’s what God wants – our minds and our wills. Outward religious observance, outward spirituality is worthless without a change of heart, which – if that means a change of our minds and wills – means a change in the orientation and direction of our lives.
God takes our decisions, our choices, seriously. To repent is to completely change your direction or your mind. It is to switch from going one direction to going the opposite direction. Confession of sin can be related to repentance, can happen with repentance, but confession isn’t repentance. To confess is to admit that our sin really is sin, that we really are separated from God, and in need of his grace and mercy. To repent is to turn toward and completely reorient our lives toward God, loving God and loving others without exception.
Now, look down at V. 18. The Bible frequently describes God as a jealous lover, which a lot of people view as a huge flaw. In his book titled Is God a Moral Monster?, Paul Copan asks the question, “When can jealousy be a good thing?” Here’s part of his answer: In God’s case, it’s when we’re rummaging around the garbage piles of life and avoiding the source of satisfaction. It reminds me of a comic strip I once saw of a dog who had been drinking out of a toilet bowl. With water dripping from his snout, Fido looks up to tell us, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” Instead of enjoying fresh spring water, we look for stagnant, crummy substitutes that inevitably fail us.
Copan goes on to comment: A wife who doesn’t get jealous and angry when another woman is flirting with her husband isn’t really committed to the marriage relationship … . Outrage, pain, anguish – these are the appropriate responses to such deep violation. God isn’t some abstract entity or impersonal principle … . We should be amazed that the Creator of the universe would so deeply connect himself to human beings that he would open himself to sorrow and anguish in the face of human rejection and betrayal.[i]
I wish I could tell you that coming to Christ would end all pain and suffering and tragedy and hard times in life, but it doesn’t. Those of you who know the story of my family know that to be true. Becky and I have held two sons, Aubrey, Sterling, and Eli two brothers, in our arms, as they died, and laid them in the ground. We’ve experienced more than our fair share of “hard times.” The loss of a child stays with you forever. And God did not save us FROM that. I wish he would have, but he didn’t. No, but God has walked with us THROUGH it all. That is his promise. That is his call to come home.
God is calling: Come home. And he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and he relents over disaster. There is no one better to come home to. Will you come?
[i] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (BakerBooks, 2011), p. 35