Proper 25 – Joel 2:23 – 32
The Book of the Prophet Joel is one of the shorter books in the Bible. A mere three chapters, it can be found towards the end of the Old Testament in the midst of what is known as “The Book of Twelve” – twelve short books that were found together on one parchment, likely because each of them is very short.
We don’t know much about the prophet, Joel. His book doesn’t contain many personal details, simply that he’s the son of Pethuel. We can tell from the details of the book that Joel is writing at a particularly challenging time as locusts have devastated the crops. The people are starving and they are dying. It’s a frightening time and it’s left people dismayed, mourning as their joy withers away.
Now, we don’t know for sure if Joel is writing about a literal infestation of locusts or if something else is going on. It sure sounds like swarms of locusts descending on the world as the people knew it then, however, the situation he describes could relate to just about anything that threatens to overwhelm and changes everything we’ve ever known.
Over the past many General Conventions, in reading the State of the Church report, it’s become quite clear that the Episcopal Church is experiencing decline. Membership is down across the church. Average Sunday attendance has dropped. Pledge increases have not kept up with the increase in expenses that are a part of reality. The sheer number of actual churches across the Episcopal Church has significantly dropped as many, many churches have had to close their doors.
Reading the reports that come out of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, listening as the budget is presented at our own Diocesan Convention, and participating in budget preparations in congregations over the years has often left my stomach churning, wondering about the viability and future of the church.
When I listen to the words of the prophet Joel, I can easily translate his experience into the current reality of living in a post-Christian world that seems to have left the church in a hopeless spiral of decline. Maybe, just maybe, the state of the church is like the locusts of Joel’s prophecy.
The reality of the present culture has devoured the fields of the church’s congregations. At times we may even feel completely lost by all that we face. We pine for the days of yester-year when church pews were full, Sunday Schools overflowing with the excited voices of children eager to learn, and budgets balanced so much so that we built a church in every town, often more than one, and as soon as the doors were opened the tide of newcomers was almost more than the church could bear.
Faced with such a perilous situation as we face today, we might, along with the people Joel was addressing, be finding our joy withering away as the overwhelming state of affairs threatens all that we have known. We, like Joel’s audience, may find ourselves mourning all that we thought was our reality forever.
In today’s passage from Joel, we see an abrupt about face. He’s just taken a chapter and a half to paint a devastating picture of the reality the people were facing. And now he switches gears.
“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God…the threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.” (Joel 2:23a, 24)
Somehow in the midst of all of the suffering, starvation, malnutrition and death that’s been happening, Joel sees another way. He knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the challenge that hungry swarms of locusts presents isn’t the end of the story. God is merciful. God will provide. The current reality won’t last forever.
That seems like something to celebrate, doesn’t it! God’s mercy is going to flood in and the fields will produce not just enough, the people are about to be eating in plenty! Abundance! More than the people could possibly imagine in the midst of all that they were facing.
And why? Did you pick up on the why part of the equation? So that the people will know that I AM is in the midst of them. “You shall know,” Joel’s prophecy announces. “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.” (Joel 2:27a)
Joel goes on to say that the spirit of God will be poured out on all humankind. Notice here that prophets will be both male and female. Old men are about to dream dreams and young men are going to see visions. Even slaves, both male and female, will receive the spirit that God is promising.
God’s divine breath is about to blow across the entire globe and affect every single human being! There’s an inclusive nature to this prophecy that’s impossible to miss. We might even describe this, in the words of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, as a Pentecost moment!
It’s hard not to hear the story of Pentecost in Joel’s writings. That image of God’s spirit being poured out is that exact same description of the events of the day of Pentecost when people from every nation gathered in Jerusalem. It was in that moment that God’s Holy Spirit burst open the windows of the locked house where the disciples had gathered in fear.
The power of that Spirit drove them out into the streets proclaiming the transformative love of Jesus in a world that was hostile to that message. So hostile that they had just executed God’s Son and messenger in the most painful and humiliating way that humankind has ever designed.
God’s love was never going to let the darkness of that first Good Friday win. That’s the thing about God’s love and the ways that God interacts with the world. God is never satisfied with the situations that drive us to the place of lament.
Joel’s community was mourning, lamenting as they gazed at the fields destroyed by locusts that seemed to have invaded their land. They grieved as food supplies dwindled, as starvation took over, as they buried their loved ones.
God is never satisfied with such heartache! God will, says Joel’s prophecy, pour out on the world and lives will change. All people, men, women, young, old, slave and free, all people will experience transformation as God’s spirit flows over and fills them with a new vision, a new experience of God’s presence in their midst.
Why? So that we will always know that God is in our midst. In good times and in bad. In challenging times and in times of celebration. In times when the fields are utterly destroyed and in times when we eat in plenty and are satisfied.
Joel’s words point to the reality that God’s plan for our lives and for our world is nothing less than love and transformation for all people. So, what does that mean for a church that is in the midst of a spiraling decline that shows no signs of stopping.
If Michael Curry is right, and I suspect he is, we are standing at the brink of another Pentecost moment. A time when God’s Holy Spirit will flow over and fill us to the brim. And it will, if history proves true, drive us out into the world to cry out and share the difference the love of God has made and is making in the world. Not to bring us back to where we were. God is, I suspect, doing something new in this moment.
I believe that the world that we live in right now is very similar to the world in which Joel found himself. We may not have locusts swarming and covering the sun. They may not be eating all of our crops and leaving us starving for a morsel of food.
But people are hungry, starving for a word of hope. Throughout our history we’ve seen how God’s love of the world, God’s mercy for humankind, has brought about transformation. We’ve read the stories about God’s spirit being poured out on all flesh. We’ve witnessed times in our own lives and experiences when God’s presence has been unmistakable.
Right now, right this very minute, God’s Holy Spirit is burning in this place. It’s dancing across the tops of our heads. It’s filling our hearts and souls. We’re so full of that Spirit that we simply can’t contain it. It’s bursting out of our very pours, rushing for the windows and the doors of this building. God’s Spirit is racing through the city of Fenton and to the ends of the earth, desperately seeking to fill all of the people it encounters.
It’s that Holy Spirit that’s causing new dreams to become reality. All people everywhere, all people everywhere, all people everywhere are being touched by God’s Holy Spirit. They may not know what’s happening. When you don’t know the story of Joel, when you’ve never heard the words of that first Pentecost, you may not understand what’s happening.
But we do. We have the stories. We’ve lived the transformation. We can bring understanding to the new visions and dreams that are being shared inside and outside these walls. We share the story. We share God’s hope for the world. We name the presence of God.
Why? Because, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.” (Joel 2:27a) We are a part of God’s plan. A part of this Pentecost moment. Are you ready to see where God’s Spirit will take us?