Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Sermon Notes on Joel 2

These are notes for a sermon I preached at Holy Trinity REC in Houston. The text is Joel 2, and the title is “An Army of Bugs”:

  •  “The Day of YHWH is coming”: judgment within history, not just at the end. 
  • God’s most common means of chastisement is military disaster, as described in Dt. 28:47-68. (Read it.) There follows a description of the horrors of conquest and siege warfare, resulting in cannibalism. And God did indeed bring foreign invaders to punish Israel at various times in their history. But here in Joel 2, the army marching to invade Israel turns out to be even more frightening because it is not human.
  • 2:2 – the lowering clouds threaten, but the symbolic threat turns out to be a literal threat: clouds turn out to be locusts. I have discussed the lexicography here
  • They are actual bugs sent by God to punish Israel. God cares more about Israel than about the rest of humanity. In the book of Jonah, we see him send Jonah to Nineveh because He cares about the 200,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left. But how many things does he send to focus on Jonah and ultimately change his attitude? Sea, winds, rain, Sun, a fish, a vine, a worm. God cares about His people and he focuses His created works upon them for their conversion. We’ll come back to Jonah later. 
  • This plague of locusts is a fulfillment of Deuteronomy’s threat that “the Lord will strike you with all the plagues of Egypt”, and especially 28:42’s threat that “locusts shall consume all your trees and the produce of your land.” 
  • Joel 2 calls these locusts “a people great and strong”. Some church fathers say that this means they aren’t really locusts, but a foreign army like locusts. But it’s pretty clear that they are real locusts. Their location moves across the country as a storm front on a weather map; a boundary between green and bare: the garden of Eden before them, a desert behind. But the way they are described reads like something out of a Stephen King novel. 
  • The science fiction author Arthur Machen wrote a classic story called The Terror. It opens with a series of puzzling deaths, apparent murders and freak accidents: airplane pilots downed by flocks of birds clogging their propellers; men trampled by sheep and gored by oxen; children suffocated by swarms of moths that appear as a cloud rising from the forest. The premise of The Terror is that God has somehow temporarily removed from every animal the fear of Man that had been put upon them by the Lord after Noah’s flood in Genesis 9:2. Joel 2’s locusts are intended to evoke similarly terrifying emotions. 
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book On the Banks of Plum Creek describes the inexorable march of migrating grasshoppers:

    “Caroline!” he said. “Here’s a strange thing. Come look!” All across the dooryard the grasshoppers were walking shoulder to shoulder and end to end, so crowded that the ground seemed to be moving. Not a single one hopped. Not one turned its head. As fast as they could go, they were all walking west.Ma stood beside Pa, looking. Mary asked, “Oh, Pa, what does it mean?” and Pa said, “I don’t know.” He shaded his eyes and looked far to west and east. “It’s the same, as far as the eye can see. The whole ground is crawling, crawling west.” Ma whispered, “Oh, if they would all go away!”

  •  Insects are wondrously made, but there is something creepy about them too. Owen Barfield summer it up: “The trouble about insects is that they are like French locomotives – they have all the works on the outside.” And that’s part of the terror of God’s arthropod army in Joel 2: they are the original robots – non-human, automated, operating in fearful synchrony and with no apparent will to be reasoned with or pleaded to. They are inexorable. Even to this day, if a movie director wants to make an army less sympathetic, he makes them more like insects. The faceless storm troopers of StarWars are clad in exoskeletons like insects. 
  • The locust army is without any of the weaknesses of humans on the march. Their synchrony is perfect: “every one marches in formation, and they do not break ranks.”(2:7) Compare my oft-repeated classroom demonstration of Greek hoplite warfare: break the shield wall or turn the end of the phalanx, and the fornation breaks down. Not so the locusts: “though they lunge between the weapons, they are not cut down.” (2:8) Walls and ramparts are no defense: “they run on the wall; they climb into the houses; they enter at the Windows like a thief.”(2:9) 
  • The overall effect is to make the reader more afraid of bugs than he would be of enemy soldiers. The people’s expected reaction is actually shown in the passage (2:6): “Before them the people writhe in pain; all faces are drained of color.”
  • So great is the terror that it is described in the cosmic imagery of the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars (2:10). These are the powers that had been set to rule the day and night, to govern times and seasons; they are the authorities set over the original creation, and their glory is bodied forth visibly as light. But now they are completely overshadowed by the Day of the Lord. “For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; Who can endure it?”

II. Turn to Me

  • The horror of the locusts is revealed and described so luridly because God has a purpose for it: to frighten Israel into repentance:”Now, therefore, says the Lord, Turn to me with all your heart…”(2:12) This repentance is to be expressed with the usual Biblical gestures and rituals: fasting, weeping, and mourning. God’s people abase themselves and show contrition. They turn away from their sin. But it is also a turning toward God. 
  • This language of “turning to” God of course denotes repentance, but I wonder if perhaps we can get more out of with by considering it within the divine “marriage” of YHWH and Israel. Secular marriage expert John Gottman speaks of spouses “turning away, turning against, and turning toward”, where the former two responses are bad news for a marriage, while “turning toward” your spouse is what will preserve or save a marriage. YHWH is the husband of Israel; Israel is God’s wife. He urged her to turn toward Him, shuvu adhay.
  • And why? “For He is gracious merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.” (2:13)
  • We cannot help recalling the words of Heinrich Heine: “Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son metier.” Yes, this is presumptuous, but it is also true. Exodus 34:6-7 (read it) is “God’s business card”. And it basically says that God is a professional forgiver. Our Anglican Prayer of Humble Access puts it well: “thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”(Property=distinctive attribute.)
  • Not everyone is happy about God’s business card. In Jonah 4:1-4, Jonah hates it. He kvetches about God’s forgiving character in a blasphemous parody of Exodus 34:6-7 that would be comical if it weren’t so sad. 
  • Notice the king of Nineveh’s decree and its rhetorical question: “Who can tell if God will turn and relent and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Correct our usual English understanding of “Who knows…?” – Esther 4:14, 1 Cor. 7:16.) Back in Joel 2, we can now understand properly 2:14’s rhetorical question. “Who knows if He will turn and relent…?” In Hebrew idiom, the question implies that He probably will; after all, it is His property to have mercy.
  • Israel’s repentance is described in Joel 2:15-16, but with imperatives: a series of staccato commands urging the response of national repentance. Like Nineveh, which repented in sackcloth and ashes from the king on his throne down to the beasts of burden, Israel’s repentance is total, from old men down to babies, encompassing every sex, age, status, and station of life.  
  • Just as Moses insisted that Pharaoh could not just let the men of Israel go out of Egypt, but said to Pharaoh, “We will go with our young and our old; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we will go, for we must hold a feast to the Lord.” (Ex. 10:9), so in Joel, the repentance is total, involving everyone, even those who because of age or extreme youth would not have been usual participants in temple worship. Even the bride and bridegroom, who are the last people you would expect to engage in mourning, leave the bedchamber where they would have enjoyed their wedding night, and trade their nuptial raiment for sackcloth. 
  • They are engaged in pleading the covenant, a God-and-Israel business. So we also repent corporately, and not just through representatives. The covenant was a means by which God was able to dwell with Israel. This involved a continual disinfectant process to deal with Israel’s sin, and that meant sacrifice. Thus, the priests are told to weep “between the porch and the altar” – the usual space they would have traveled on their way to sprinkle blood from the sacrifices before the veil of the holy of holies. 
  • Utterly absent here is any sense of entitlement: no pleading of Israel’s merits or good works; nothing but the covenant, God’s love for His people.
  • “Spare Your people, O LORD, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. “Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” The plea is like that of Psalm 115:1-2: “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, But to Your name give glory, Because of Your mercy, Because of Your truth. Why should the Gentiles say, “So where is their God?”” It is a plea for God to be concerned about His reputation. 
  • Or again, it is an echo of Deuteronomy 9, when Moses recounts how he pleaded with God for Israel after their rebellions; how the Lord told Moses that He would destroy Israel and make a new people from Moses himself. Note the pleading, how it is the same as in Joel 2: “Therefore I prayed to the LORD, and said: ‘O Lord GOD, do not destroy Your people and Your inheritance whom You have redeemed through Your greatness, whom You have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” – so it is in order not to waste the effort of the Exodus. “Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” – not their merits or good deeds, but the fact that you made a covenant with them. “do not look on the stubbornness of this people, or on their wickedness or their sin,” – if you do hat, you will find plenty of reasons to destroy them — “lest the land from which You brought us should say, “Because the LORD was not able to bring them to the land which He promised them, and because He hated them, He has brought them out to kill them in the wilderness.” Yet they are Your people and Your inheritance, whom You brought out by Your mighty power and by Your outstretched arm.’” (Deuteronomy‬ ‭9:26-29‬)
  • This is how we too approach God today: we do it corporately, together; we rend our hearts, not our garments; and we plead the covenant, and the blood of the sacrifice by which we were redeemed; we plead with God for His name’s sake, and that His name not be blasphemed, slandered, among the nations. It’s in our prayers in the BCP: “O Lord, save thy people. // And bless thine inheritance.” And in the Penitential Office (REC BCP, p. 51): Minister. O Lord, save thy servants; Answer. That put their trust in thee. Minister. Send unto them help from above. Answer. And evermore mightily defend them. Minister. Help us, O God our Saviour. Answer. And for the glory of thy Name deliver us; be merciful to us sinners, for thy Name’s sake.
  • Or again, p. 52 in the REC BCP: “TURN thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, Who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, And in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, And let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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