In the midst of a time of chaos and disaster, the prophet Joel saw hope and divine promise.
told by Deborah
Do not be afraid, O land; celebrate and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!
Do not be afraid, wild creatures, for the valleys and the hillsides are turning green. The trees are bearing fruit; the fig tree and the vine will yield their riches.
O people of Zion, celebrate and rejoice in the Lord your God who has poured out the abundant rains for your redemption. The harvest will be plentiful; the silos will be filled to bursting, the vats will overflow with wine and oil.
“I will make up to you for the years that the crops were devoured by locusts, parched by drought, washed away by floods — destroyed by My great army that I sent against you.”
You will have plenty to eat, and be satisfied, and you will praise the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.
“And never again will My people forsake Me.
“And you will know that I am with you, that I am the Lord your God, and there is no other.
“And never again will My people forsake Me.
“And after this I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy; old men will dream dreams, young men will see visions. Upon all my servants, male and female alike, I will pour out my Spirit in those times.
“I will display signs in the heavens and on the earth: blood and fire and columns of smoke.
The sun will be dimmed and the moon turn red in advance of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
And all who pray to God will be saved; for there will be deliverance on Mount Zion and Jerusalem, as the Lord has said, among the survivors, those who are called by the Lord.
There will be signs in the heavens and on the earth: blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be dimmed and the moon turn red…
I’ve been there: I have seen the sun turn to rust and the moon glow red, witnessed columns of fire and smoke reaching into the sky, watched flakes of ashes falling like snow — praying that they were no longer burning, my eyes stinging from the caustic fumes. And I have seen the aftermath: trees turned to charcoal, smoldering beams, collapsed walls, shattered glass, mounds of ash and pools of metal; ghostly remnants of homes, schools, businesses — silent witnesses to the terrible destructive power of fire, red in tooth and claw.
And, once again, we in California are experiencing these awesome “signs.” Many thousands have been evacuated, many more await, with bags packed, and a multitude of us have spent several days (literally) powerless: without heat, hot water, or access to information (in many cases the internet and phone systems were down).
As I was buying a few items before the power outage was scheduled to began, the young woman cashier sighed and shook her head, “I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said, “if Starbucks is closed.” Meanwhile, my hairdresser’s sister was camped out in her car, afraid to return to her home; the governor was photographed near a burned-out grove, looking as confused and ineffectual as one of the Darling children on arrival in Neverland; on the roads people were driving wildly, honking horns, running signals.
It is not a time that inspires either hope or confidence in humankind. Not even in ancient biblical prophets.
The passage concludes with Joel’s optimistic prediction that “there will be deliverance among the survivors.” I just don’t buy it; it doesn’t ring true, based on the survivors I have known. Those who have come through these awesome/awful events may have been “delivered” — but many are damaged; suffering from wounds that carry no visible scars.
The land will heal, in time; the rains will fall, grasses will grow, trees will sprout new leaves. But pain and loss persist. There are empty spaces that cannot be refilled. The terror of the flight for safety through columns of flames and billowing smoke, the anxiety and stress, the concern for self and others … these do not disappear with the final All Clear.
We tremble at the sound of sirens, our hearts leap to our throats at the sight of a wisp of smoke, we sleep but we do not rest, on the alert and utterly exhausted, we hoard batteries and bottled water, sleep with flashlights under our pillows, and crave power from electrical chargers like weird alien beings.
“Be kind to one another,” the County Emergency Notification Service message pleads as the citizenry groan and shiver and stare at the orange-tinted sky.
They cry: Peace, peace, when there is no peace at all.
~ Jeremiah 6:14b
Joel announces a cause for celebration — in advance of any good things actually happening. He foresees greening yet-to-come, fruit yet to ripen, abundant harvests yet to be gathered in, lavish feasts yet to be prepared.
It is a shout of holy optimism that makes no sense at all.
None of the blessings the prophet predicts has happened — yet. But a lot of bad stuff has occurred. The people are hungry and scared, desperate and downtrodden, having endured years of crop failures and natural disasters. Life sucks.
But God is generous and good, Joel insists; and just as the All Gracious One has poured down abundant rain, so, too, will abundant mercy be poured down, and God’s wisdom will be abundantly poured out: inspiring and infusing all people with divine understanding. Lastly, there will be abundant deliverance: everyone will be saved from harm.
All will end well. In the midst of all the chaos and the shambles, while the figs are still green, the vines are still bare, while the fires are still burning, Joel proclaims the divine assurance that our Lord Christ will often repeat: “Do not be afraid.”
Don’t be afraid, despite …. despite whatever you are going through, however deeply you are grieving, however hopeless you are feeling. God’s grace and forgiveness is greater…. greater than all that is or can ever be.
That is the glorious assurance. We are to take heart, and to take strength in that Promise.
It is human nature: we want to know the “why” behind our misfortunes. How did this happen, what caused these problems? Better yet: who can we blame?
Joel attributes the peoples’ miseries to their having forsaken God; ignoring the holy teachings, following their own whims and desires. According to the prophet, God responded to their unfaithfulness with an attack on their crops: “My army (of locusts) that I sent against you.”
Yikes. How can the prophet suggest that our loving God would bring about hurt or harm? On the other hand, there is a certain logic behind such thinking: if we credit the Divine as the source of what is good, who else could be responsible for the evils that befall us?
This brings us to the question of Free Will, and the fact that our actions have consequences. Can God protect us from ourselves? Perhaps not without our cooperation. Can God stop the hand of the arsonist? Block power to an electrical transformer? Cause industry executives to cease their greed and become responsible stewards? Make politicians wise instead of crafty? Create peace and goodwill among all people?
When things go wrong we accuse God (“Why couldn’t God have prevented this?”), but we have been provided with holy teachings and divinely-sent prophets to instruct and inspire us — and, as Christians, been given the ministry of the Lord Jesus. People are not mere mute and helpless game pieces moved around the board of Life at Someone Else’s will. Where is the line between guidance and control? between consent and obedience? between choice and obligation?
To what degree is God in charge? And how much is our responsibility?
Many of the “whys” in our world and our lives will remain unknown; the simple answer is: there is no simple answer. We can only live in faith, striving for the same extravagant holy optimism that Joel proclaimed, even — perhaps especially — in the midst of distress and disasters.
May the Spirit of grace and holiness abound,
Make it a practice to seek, “in signs in the heavens and on the earth,” divinely-sent indications of redemption and renewal, causes for hope, and reasons for rejoicing.