The book of Joel is one of the smallest books in the Bible but it also one of the most significant. Peter takes the words of Joel to describe what is happening at Pentecost as the Spirit of God is given as a sign that the new age inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus is here. But as pivotal as Joel’s words are for the narrative arc of the scripture, it’s quite vague as to when and why Joel wrote. There are no names of kings listed to offer a timeline and the only place that is noted is “in Zion” which would suggest Jerusalem. Scholars suppose that Joel is later than most works that comprise the Old Testament, likely to have been compiled sometime after the exile of 587 BC and the first phase of the rebuilding of the temple completed in 515 BC.
Joel describes an “army of locusts” sweeping over the land coupled with crippling drought, an ecological disaster leaving the people with no food. The harvest has failed. Whether Joel is speaking literally about locusts or symbolically describing a marauding army who is devastating the land is unclear, but what’s clear is that the people are left utterly destitute, powerless in the face of forces larger than themselves.
As I write in March of 2022, the words of Joel are far too descriptive of our own moment. An “army from the north” has swept into Ukraine causing the world to teeter on the brink of World War III and setting off cascading effects that could define our world for decades to come (For important caveats on how the events in our own day are related to words in the scripture see the brief excursus below). Couple this emerging geopolitical catastrophe with the ongoing warnings about the climate in peril, a crisis of meaning and truth, and a seemingly incalculable host of other injustices, and we are quickly overwhelmed.
Excursus: It bears mentioning because of a particular strain of biblical prophecy (and those that tend to enrich themselves off of this genre) that the events described in the Bible are not the biblical writers describing 21st-century geopolitics. The fact that Russia is invading Ukraine, despite what certain “end-times” preachers might say, has nothing to do with the words of the prophets in the Old Testament, the words of Jesus in places like Matthew 25, and the words of Revelation. To ignore the original events that those prophets were referencing—events like the Babylonian exile, the coming of the Messiah in the line of David, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, and the clash of the faithful church of the lamb with the seemingly unstoppable Roman imperium—is to miss the message that our call is not know in advance when the end will come, but to live as people of the new age, people secure in our hope and empowered by the love of God, even in the midst of the travails and suffering of our own age.
Our default responses tend to fall within a few broader categories. The first response we can easily fall into is simply to numb ourselves to the pain, to “amuse ourselves to death” in the words of Neal Postman, to lean out, watch Netflix or scroll Instagram. It’s all too heavy to carry anyway, let’s eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. Huxley’s Brave New World bears so many prophetic parallels to our own, not least of which is the ready availability of soma, that blissful cocktail of good feelings that represses reality. The second response is to find an enemy to hate. Our circumstances, we reason, must be the product of somebody or some group of somebody’s and we will find them and eliminate them. We look “out there” for the source of al that ails the world and our lives, sure that there is somebody to blame. This leads to silencing dissenting voices, contempt, and even at times, violence. Lastly, and often this is a product of the other two, we are moved to despair. How could we not be sad and heavy-laden all the time? From all appearances the world is a sad, heavy, seemingly random place. Our hearts fail us, we cannot see any path towards a future.
Practices Of Ash Wednesday and Lent
The practices of Ash Wednesday may seem like the most useless, impractical response to a world in ashes all around us. But perhaps when the world is engulfed in chaos, the rhythms of lent are exactly the way that God restores us to not be swept up in the whirlwind of suffering but to find ourselves solidly grounded in the true story of the world, the story of the salvation of our God. Lent is a season in the church calendar that immerses us in the journey of Jesus to the cross, contemplating his suffering love and soberly acknowledging our collective and individual brokenness, the wages of sin, and evil loosed upon the world by our rebellion against God.
When we look at the words of Joel, and his proposed response to the chaos of his day, we are challenged and compelled to quell our defaults in favor of something far more difficult and far better. Joel gives us a framework for lent that will lead us to a brighter hope in the midst of all of the very real suffering that surrounds us.
A nation has invaded my land, a mighty army without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness.It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white.Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth grieving for the betrothed of her youth. Grain offerings and drink offerings are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests are in mourning, those who minister before the Lord.
The fields are ruined, the ground is dried up; the grain is destroyed, the new wine is dried up, the olive oil fails.Despair, you farmers, wail, you vine growers; grieve for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field is destroyed. The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree— all the trees of the field—are dried up. Surely the people’s joy is withered away.
If our first response is to lean out, to ignore the pain, then the first counter-rhythm of lent is to lean in. Lent invites us to look upon the world and ourselves as they are, and to simply hold the anguish and confusion of it all in the gaze of God. N. T. Wright notes that majority of the psalms are psalms of lament. He then goes on to describe the psalms as the “prayerbook of Jesus” and thus the “prayerbook of the church.” He makes the stunning point that just as Jesus carried the sorrows of the world in his prayers and ultimately on the cross, so the church is to carry the sorrows of the world in our prayers. Lament in the words of Walter Bruggemann is “the utterance of protest and grief that acknowledges present trouble…” but “refuses to present trouble as final destiny.” Lament is a protest of hope.
Fast, Pray, Repent-
“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,
If our default is to look for enemies, the challenge of Joel and Jesus is to look inside. Yes, as Jesus embodies our enemies may be very real and their threats may not be idle. But our call is simply to start by investigating our own lives before God and out of the well of that life, empowered by the Spirit to move towards Jesus’ radical command to love our enemies. Our tendency is to distance ourselves from our own participations in sin and death. But the words of the scriptures pierce through our denials and finger-pointing. We are the one’s who have not loved God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.
One of the beautiful things about the book of Joel and a reason it is such a good trellis for Ash Wednesday and Lent is the pace with which the book moves from lament, repentance, to the extravagant response of God’s abundant forgiveness, restoration, and provision:
Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given you the autumn rains because he is faithful. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before.The threshing floors will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil. “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten— the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm— my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed.
Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed. “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.Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls
Though our hearts quickly fail us and we find ourselves in despair, lent is not a season of condemnation, but of restoration through honesty and repentance. Healing begins with a diagnosis, and the diagnosis is not fatal if we will allow it to be held in the hands of our savior. We are sinners. But Christ Jesus came to save sinners. We are dust and to dust we will return. But King Jesus breathes life into the dust and raises the dead bones to life. When we turn to him, acknowledging that all of our hope is in him, he will pour out his Spirit in even greater measure. We will know him as he is-faithful, just, loyal, unfailing in his love towards us. And though there may be darkness all around us, we will know that the day of the Lord is a day of salvation and deliverance.