Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
It was one of those driving holidays that Sureka and I took before we had kids. We’d driven out to the Western Plains Zoo, and were heading back the scenic route, via Wellington, Orange and Bathurst, when we encountered some wildlife we hadn’t expected.
Now locusts are one of those things that you really don’t grow up knowing much about, in Oxford. It’s rare for them to swarm across the British countryside. So I’d never seen locusts before. I had no idea what the dark cloud we were driving towards was – we were in the swarm before we realised that this was not smoke from some hazard reduction burn, but millions, probably hundreds of millions, of grasshoppers, hundreds of which ended up covering the front of our car, cooking on the radiator grill (which was never quite the same again). The sheer massive of life was something I’ve never forgotten – and the effect on the fields on either side of the road had to be seen to be believed.
Of course, we didn’t depend upon those fields for our food, our livelihood. I could drive away, worrying about the paintwork on the car (remarkably undamaged, in fact). I wasn’t watching the food my family needed to live being consumed before my eyes.
But that was the experience of Joel’s people:
What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
And so, in the opening chapters of Joel, he calls the people to repentance.
But there is something unusual in the prophecies of Joel. Not the call to repentance, to prayer, to “return to the Lord with all your heart” – you’d struggle to find an Old Testament prophet for whom that isn’t a theme. No, the strange thing about Joel is that he doesn’t point the figure, he doesn’t describe the wrongs of the people. In Joel there is no accusation, no list of sins, no litany of the many ways in which the people of God had mistreated the poor, or worshipped other Gods, forgotten the law or behaved immorally.
Joel doesn’t seem to be pointing to a people who have become deeply and obviously sinful. But he sees a message in the locust swarm, none the less – for in the theology of Israel, this disaster could not have befallen them if it were not God’s judgement upon them.
Joel’s call is not to repentance of obvious wrong. Instead his call is this: wake up, and return to me with all your heart.
We might well question Joel’s logic; more likely to see in the swarms of locusts an incredible facet of the natural world than the judgement of God, but it would be hard to fault where he goes with it.
For he calls the people of God to wake up, to return to their first love, their prime priority, their defining centre.
To return wholeheartedly to God.
It’s as if Joel – unusually, again, for the prophets – isn’t looking at the sins of the people as a whole; he’s not pointing to structural injustice, to the systems which oppress, to the tendency of power to protect itself at the expense of others. These are all seen and condemned over and again in the Old Testament. No, Joel is calling on the individual to return to God; and not in some sort of visual, symbolic way (which is often important when a community recognises its failings at chooses to return to the ways of God) “do not rend your clothes,” he says “but your hearts.”
Look inside. See those ways in your life which, if you are anything like me, you, and only you know of, but which stand between you and a richer knowledge of, and walk with, God. Rend your hearts, weep, and return to God. Take the experience of the locusts – whether it be God’s judgement or not – as a reminder of your fragility, your need, your deepest calling – and return to God with the whole of your heart.
For God is gracious and merciful.
God is slow to anger.
God abounds in steadfast love.
Last Friday at Playjays I was sitting on the steps to the upper hall when one of the children, a boy just about to turn four, came very hesitantly over to me. I could see his mum watching from the other side of the courtyard.
“Chris,” he said, “I threw one of the cars into the bushes.”
“Oh dear. Was that a good thing to do?”
“No, it was naughty.” A pause. “Sorry”
I’ve probably never felt more like God than in that moment, when I could say to him “well done, coming and saying sorry was a good thing to do. Shall we go and find the car?”, and see his face light up because no-one was cross with him anymore.
Chatting with his mum a bit later, she told me this was something they were working on; that when he was busted doing something wrong his instinct was to go loud and distract attention, but she wanted him to know he could just say sorry, and move on.
And I was thinking “That’s a good thing to teach a four year old boy. For that matter, it’s a good thing to teach a fourty-seven year old boy.”
Return, repent, for you will be restored.
And then… and then, God promises, you will be filled by the Spirit of God, you will know what God wants of you, you will be sent with the knowledge of the things of God, the ways of God, the mission of God.
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit
I’ve seen much debate about the difference between prophesy, dreams and visions in this text, but surely that’s not the point. Joel’s words speak of a radical change in the way that God will deal with God’s people; a time when the Spirit of God, the knowledge of God, the visions of God, will not be the property of a select few, but will be for all. Old and young, slave and free, sons and daughters (yes, even daughters). An unimaginable gift to all people.
Which is why we read these words as we prepare for Christmas, for the arrival of Christ; of whom the apostle would write, echoing the words of Joel,
Now there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. For all are one in Christ Jesus.
Of course, Paul forgot “young or old”, but that’s ok, Jesus didn’t.
I don’t believe God sends the locusts into our lives, whatever your locusts may be; but I do believe this word: return to God with all your heart, and you will be restored, and you will be empowered to live as one of God’s people, knowing God, speaking God’s story.