Holy (Dis)Comfort: Listening for God’s Word in the Minor Prophets
“Joel” (selected verses)
June 6, 2021
This morning, we continue our summer series on the Minor Prophets,
those twelve prophets in the Old Testament whose messages are not minor
but whose books are relatively short.
Today, we turn to the prophet Joel, whose name means “Yahweh is God”.
Before we listen for God’s Words of Holy Comfort and Discomfort in Joel,
I want to share with you a story:
High on a grassy plain at Philmont Scout Ranch, deep in the mountains of New Mexico,
a crew of thirteen year old Boy Scouts, all from the suburbs,
stood on a warm sunny afternoon listening to a cowboy named Levi.
Levi, dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, of course,
was instructing us about how pack the saddle bags on burros
that we would be hiking with for the next several days.
Suddenly, as if from nowhere, there came a roaring noise,
a noise that none of us had never heard before.
The ears of the burros stood on end as we all stopped in our tracts
and turned toward the direction of the noise, emanating from further down the plain.
Over the edge of that plain came a thick, dark, swirling cloud, undulating in the summer sun,
and moving right towards us. We stood frozen in our tracts, dumbfounded,
until finally somebody yelled, “Bees! Bees!!”
We took off in every direction like pellets from a shotgun.
Levi, the cowboy, ran into his shed, locked the door, leaving us all to fend for ourselves!
Our crew of rising 9th graders raced around in circles as the swarm of bees came upon us.
The bees were bouncing off our bodies and hitting us in our heads and faces.
Our arms were flailing about and we had no idea what was about to happen to us.
Then suddenly, just as soon as they arrived, they continued on their way,
buzzing up the hill and out of sight.
The backstory is that this was the summer of 1979,
the summer when multiple news stories had reported scenes of killer bees
swarming north from South America. You can imagine our shock and our fright –
this strange occurrence of creation – bees buzzing around your head by the thousands,
roaring as they flew. Were these the killer bees from South America!?
Fortunately, someone soon told us that it was just a local hive on the move.
It is not unusual for a queen bee to move her hive during the summer months.
And when the queen bee decides to change her habitation, the whole hive takes off with her.
Have you heard about Brood 10, the Great Eastern Brood of cicadas?
They have been in the ground for the last 17 years and will soon appear in force.
As many as one million and half could appear per acre.
One trillion cicadas in all will rise from the ground over the coming months,
looking for a mate and making all kinds of noise in the process!
Scientists report that as soon as the soil reaches 64 degrees in the affected areas,
the show will begin; the chorus will be loud, and the cicadas will sing, or rather ,
rub their wings together, more than a month.
We will not likely see or hear them in Decatur,
but about 35 million Americans in 14 states will get to enjoy the show.
They will be so loud in certain areas that people won’t be able to hear a jet plane overhead.
Fortunately, Brood X is not predicted to cause much destruction,
other than a few small trees perhaps, nor will they be dangerous to humans or animals. (cnn.com)
Our neighbors across the ocean are not so fortunate.
Despite an earlier decline in their numbers, there is currently an upsurge
in bands of desert locusts across eastern Ethiopia and northern Somalia.
This is part of an ongoing, multi-year infestation in the horn of Africa.
Last year, Kenyan farmers watched helplessly as their farms’ total annual yield was destroyed
in less than 24 hours, part of the worst devastation from locusts in 70 years. (fao.com, dw.com)
Sometimes, in our modern world, where we buy most of our food from the local grocery store,
wrapped in plastic and packaging, we can forget that we are mere human creatures of the earth,
radically vulnerable to strange and unpredictable forces of nature.
Last month, do you remember the unusual hail storm that struck Decatur?
The weight of the hail split a large pine tree in my neighbor’s yard, devastating the fence
that runs along our property line and causing a huge mess in our backyard.
Our neighbors down the street were not so fortunate.
The large tree that fell in their yard devastated their house!
When the prophet Joel of the southern kingdom of Judah witnessed the devastation
caused by locusts, he interpreted the event not as some natural occurrence of creation,
but as a sign of God’s judgment.
To the prophet Joel and other ancients, a locust plague or something like a pandemic
was a sign that God was displeased.
Hear selected verses from the prophet Joel, beginning in the first chapter:
The word of the Lord came to Joel, son of Pethuel,
Hear this, O Elder, give ear all you inhabitants of the land.
Has such a thing happened in your days and the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it
and let your children tell their children and their children of another generation
what the cutting locust left, what the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust has left, the destroying locust has eaten.
Wake up you drunkards and weep, and wail,
all you wine drinkers over the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth.
For a nation has invaded my land, powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions teeth and it has the fangs of a lioness, it has laid waste my vines
and splintered my fig trees and stripped off their bark and thrown it down
and the branches have turned white.
Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth.
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord
and the priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord, for the fields are devastated.
The ground mourns; the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up and the oil fails…
The seed shrivels under the clods, the storehouses are desolate,
the granaries are ruined because the grain has failed. How the animals groan!
The herds of cattle wander about because there is no pasture for them,
even the flocks of sheep are dazed…
The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army.
How vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his commands.
Truly the day of the Lord is great, terrible indeed. Who can endure it?
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting,
with weeping and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation, assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast,
let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say “Spare thy people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the nations, ‘Where is their God’?
Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people.
In response to his people the Lord said, “I am sending you grain,
I am sending you wine and oil and you will again be satisfied
and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations…
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locusts has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer,
the cutter, my great army which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied
and praise the name of the Lord your God who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God
and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When the prophet Joel wrote these words, all seemed lost.
All the crops – the wheat, the vineyards, the fig trees – had been devastated by the locusts;
there would be a frightening lack of food for at least a year to come.
This was a time of crisis, not unlike the dust bowls in the Midwest in the 1930’s.
Something terrible had happened and no one knew what the future would hold.
People were fearful, afraid, wondering how they would feed themselves and their children.
In the midst of the crisis, Joel cried out, “What shall we do?”
What shall we do at such a time when all seems lost,
when we cannot do anything to save ourselves?
“Return to God,” he cried out. “Pray, fast, gather all the people together in worship.
Bring in the honeymooners off on their honeymoons.
Carry in the babies who are still nursing.
Gather the whole community and humbly cry out to the Lord our God.”
“Who knows if God will turn and relent?”, Joel asks.
Who knows if we humbly turn and repent, perhaps God will restore us?
Who knows? God may restore the grain and the wine and the oil.
Joel and his contemporaries had realized that they could control God,
nor could they fully control their environment.
As modern, educated people, we have sought and found answers
to many of nature’s big questions.
We have studied the life cycle of the cicada and the locust, of the pine tree and the hurricane.
We have explained how a tornado will occur and we can predict them fairly well.
And yet, we cannot explain why the tornado will devastate one home
while the two on either side stand unaffected.
We cannot fully explain why one hurricane will bog down over somewhere like Honduras
for five days, as did hurricane Mitch in 1998, causing tremendous devastation,
while another hurricane will shift course at the last minute
and miss causing unparalleled devastation in somewhere like Miami.
Sometimes, the question will be asked: Is this the work of God?
Did God send the lightning to my door and not to my neighbor’s?
Did God give the illness to me or my loved one as a sign of God’s punishment?
Jesus responded to such a question when he said,
“Those eighteen who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them—
do you suppose they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
No, I tell you,” Jesus said, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. (Lk 13:4-5)
What Jesus was saying is that we are all human. We are all mere creatures of the earth.
We are all susceptible to the processes of nature and the accidents of humanity.
Natural events like droughts and hurricanes and pandemics remind us that we are only human.
Freak accidents remind us that we are not in control.
The world is not ours to oversee; we are mere stewards, caretakers,
who are very fortunate if we are able to mitigate life’s dangers and live a full span of human life.
When illness comes or tragedy strikes, people of faith will often not ask the question:
Why me? Why did this happen to me?
Instead, they may ask: Why not me? I am just another vulnerable human upon this earth.
There are hopeful consequences when humans do good, when we till the earth well,
when we irrigate the crops sufficiently,
when we work with creation to produce a plentiful harvest or develop an amazing vaccine.
And there are terrible consequences when humans misuse the earth or misuse one another,
when we fail to give the land rest, or when our irrigation affects those who live downstream,
or when our experiments in science or warfare or economics threaten human life.
Human misbehavior can lead to great suffering.
Though we are radically vulnerable as human beings, we are also radically dangerous.
We are at risk of overpopulating the earth.
We are at risk of damaging the seas and the skies beyond reparation.
We are at risk of constantly fighting with one another or enslaving one another.
Our warring ways have led to nuclear bombs that still threaten our very existence upon the earth.
Joel says, “Teach the children.”
Tell the children about the wonders of this earth, about both the good and the not so good.
Tell the children how the locust plague came and wiped out everything
and how we were utterly devastated, how we were without hope in this world,
how everybody was going hungry and was afraid.
And then tell them how the next year was amazing, how all the crops were restored,
how the granaries were full again,
how the wine began to flow again, how all were able to eat again and be satisfied.
Tell the children that the people sinned.
Tell them that we failed to love our God and that we abused our neighbor. Have you ever seen a double rainbow, one that stretches from horizon to horizon?
It is an incredible sight, a glorious sight, but truly, just a natural occurrence.
In the whole scheme of things, a double rainbow that catches your breath is no big deal,
even though it can feel like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Have you ever witnessed some other event in creation – the presence of a bird,
the call of an owl, the
Such blessings may not be any more pinpointed than a locust plague or a tornado or a hurricane,
but they are still reminders that we are dependent upon God for the blessings of this earth.
We are not in charge. We never have been or ever will be.
The terrible things that happen in nature cannot be avoided,
nor can we control all the good things that may come.
Neighbor’s tree fell on their house at that certain time and in a certain way
where no one was harmed, while just down the street,
another tree fell and the second family was not so fortunate.
And tell them that there were consequences for human sinfulness.
Tell the children, Joel said, that the Lord is above all, that the Lord is a fortress,
who dwells in our midst, that the Lord was present with us in the midst of the crisis.
Remind them that the Lord is a wild and free God that we will never understand.
Tell them that God is nevertheless our hope and our trust. Most of all,
tell them that “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Yes, the storm may come, the illness may surge, beyond our control.
And there will be serious consequences for things we should have done differently,
but come what may, God will be with us. God is abounding in steadfast love.
God refuses to let us go.
In Jesus Christ, God came to show us a still more excellent way –
the way of love, the way of truth, the way of life as it is meant to be lived.
In the death of Jesus Christ, God revealed some of the worst
that humanity can do to one another – a crucifixion, no less, but in his resurrection,
God has shown that nothing, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us
from the loving ways of God made known in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Rev. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Volume VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Limburg, James. Interpretation: Hosea – Micah. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.