Who in the world is this Joel guy, anyway? It might be one of the shortest books in the whole Bible- in mine at home it takes up just over 4 pages; you could probably read it through in about five minutes.
He is shrouded in mystery and obscurity: all we know about Joel is what comes about in this prophecy, and that’s next to nothing. He says his name means, “Yahweh is God” and that he is the son of Pethuel… which doesn’t really help us because… who’s Pethuel? His several references to the temple lead some scholars to think that he lived in Jerusalem, but that is only conjecture. The time of his prophecy? Anywhere between 835 BC and 200 BC… that’s 600 years…
Yet for a guy who only gives us 4 plus pages of prophecy, he packs quite a punch. He does everything a prophet should do, and he does it very well. In fact, part of the effectiveness of Joel is the shortness of it. He doesn’t get caught up in long oratorical poetry or drawn out metaphors. He is straight to the point. Concise. Which leads us to feel a real sense of urgency from his words.
The first chapter of Joel recounts a large plague of locusts that have left the countryside in ruin. Crops have been destroyed, left completely obliterated, which leads to widespread starvation; the food supply has literally been eaten up. So he begins with by lamenting the horrible, ruined state of things.
And he doesn’t hold back- he affixes the blame squarely on the shoulders of the people. In this part, Joel is doing more “forth-telling” than “foretelling” about the future. We sometimes mistake prophets as being oracles or future seers; someone who predicts what is to come. However, the business of the prophets was more diagnosis and prognosis than prediction.
Prophets work much in the same way that doctors do. They look at what is going wrong, figure out what is going wrong, and then address how to right the wrong. Prophets discerned with unusual clarity the significance of current events and the circumstances of God’s people. Based upon their diagnosis, they spoke a word from God to provoke the people to change. By speaking God’s word to the world, prophets call the people to radical transformation.
So Joel is taking an everyday occurrence- albeit an unusual everyday occurrence- and interpreting it as an act of God. “The locust plague that we are now experiencing,” he says, “is an act of divine judgment calling us to repentance, renewal, and redemption!”
Picture the landscape: bark stripped from trees, food vanished, seeds shriveled, granaries empty, cattle and other livestock moaning from hunger and thirst, streams evaporated into dry creek beds. Because Joel is an Israelite, the divine plagues of Moses spring quickly to mind, and he sees this natural disaster as a spiritual sign, a divine invitation to turn to Yahweh for redemption.
But that is only half the story. Prophets didn’t just go around casting God’s judgment and lamenting the loss of God’s favor upon the people. They also cast a positive vision for the people of God. Repent! They would call! Turn back to God! The rains will return. The vats will overflow with new wine. The threshing floor will be filled with grain again.
And that is where we pick up in Joel this morning. Your old men shall dream dreams! Your young men will see visions! Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy! Words that we just heard repeated on the day of Pentecost by Peter. In the midst of disaster and discouragement, the prophet’s role was twofold: prophetic critique and pastoral comfort. They kept the dreams of God’s people and His kingdom alive in times of disaster and discouragement.
“Walter Brueggemann captures this dual role of the prophets nicely when he says that the prophets both criticized and energized. On the one hand, they disturbed the status quo. They questioned the reigning order of things. They viewed the normal state of affairs in a different light and advocated a new way of seeing and living: personally, socially, spiritually, economically, politically; in short, in every dimension of life. The prophets afflicted the comfortable and the complacent” (Clendenin). This is usually the part we don’t like very much. We don’t like being told we’re not doing it right, or worse, that we’re in the wrong. We especially don’t like to hear that when we suffer, we’re the ones responsible for our own pain.
At the same time, the prophets also comforted the afflicted. They intended to, “generate hope, affirm identity, and create a new future,” says Brueggemann. They offered more than a negative critique; they were also about positive affirmation and encouragement. “Do not be afraid,” says Joel.
Prophetic critique demands radical change: “Wake up! Weep! Wail! Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on my holy hill!” There is an urgency to it; it is impatient for change, and rightly so.
Pastoral comfort, on the other hand, is different. It invites us to patient endurance. Despite all the violence and turmoil we witness in this world, we keep holding on to that hope the Psalmist articulates, that God, “hears our prayers, answers us with awesome deeds, and stills the roaring of the seas.”
Now, take a minute and think about how that works. Agitation for change and quiet persistence. Critique and challenge with comfort and encouragement. We need both sides of the prophetic voice.
This August is the 53rd anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This moment in history reflected the endurance of African-Americans who had suffered 400 years of slavery and racism, and also the agitation for change on the part of King and many thousands of ordinary citizens. The dream was kept alive by both critique and comfort, by confronting an unjust and biased system, but also comforting and encouraging those who sought justice and fairness.
Where is the prophetic voice speaking in our world today? There is plenty to lament: racism and bigotry continue to plague our nation; images of violence and war seem to be stuck on repeat; distrust, greed, deceit; natural disasters, both ecological and human-made. From the brave voices of the Black Lives Matter movement to those that stand up to corporate greed to combat climate change, there are voices very loudly pointing us toward God’s justice.
Joel says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Friends, we live with hope: all things will be made new; and we have already glimpsed that world to come, already tasted that new life; it comes in Jesus Christ. All injustice, all violence, all things that are broken are made new in Christ, but we don’t get there simply by believing. Yes, God works wonders in this world. But hard work is required of us to make that heavenly kingdom an earthly reality.
First, we are called to repentance. To repent literally means to turn. For Joel, repentance comes in four steps: lament, prayer, fasting, and confession. Each step is a turn that brings us back in alignment with God’s love. As God’s beloved community, we are called to respond to the needs of the earth, its people, and all its creatures by turning to God. Then, and only then, can the restoration of God’s good creation be complete. In Joel 2, it was accomplished by more than an act of God: the people cleared, planted, and harvested the fields, vineyards, and orchards. The hard work of renewal is done in partnership with God
This is an important reminder that the work we are called to do cannot be done if we close ourselves up in our temples to pray. We must work hand in hand with God and with one another to restore creation and to thrive in Christ’s love.
This morning, I want to encourage each of us to consider how God might be calling us to work for His purposes. Are you an agitator? A comforter? Are you somewhere in between? The church and the world need both prophetic critique that demands change and pastoral comfort on the long road of endurance. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, it is time to dust off our tools and move back to the fields. The locusts have moved on, and it is time to start the hard work of healing the land. Amen.
Clendenin, Daniel B. “Comfort and Critique: The Prophet Joel and a Plague of Locusts.” Journey with Jesus. N.p., 2013. Web. 27 May 2016.