WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING, AND WHAT HAS HEAVEN TO DO WITH IT?Reflections on Joel the Prophet
I’m entirely convinced that the Old Testament prophets are some of the most relevant and most important literature in which we can immerse ourselves.
You’re welcome to disagree with me on that point, but that’s the case that I’m going to make this morning for the book of Joel and that Jeremiah and others have been making about the prophets all summer.
The prophets were public truthtellers, speaking into and interpreting a chaotic world in order to address what the kingdom of God and its people ought to look like.
Over the course of just a couple hundred years, God’s people had gone from a kingdom with their own land and a dynasty that would have no end, to a fractured kingdom that was erased from the map and dynasty erased from history.
So If you’ve ever questioned why bad things were happening.
If you’ve ever wondered why evil so often wins.
If you’ve ever felt as if God is distant or even absent.
If you’ve ever reflected on your experiences and thought the Bible was full of empty, made up promises.
If you‘ ever looked around and wondered, “What the hell is happening, and what has heaven to do with it?” Then the prophets have something important to say to you.
That last question — “What the hell is happening, and what has heaven to do with it?” — is a central theme and struggle within the prophets, and indeed of Joel to whom we turn today.
Now, before we jump into this or any passage of the Bible — or any literature for that matter — it’s important to start with who the author is, when they were writing, and to whom they were writing.
So who was Joel? We have no idea. We know from the first verse that Joel is “son of Pethuel,” but we have no idea who Pethuel is either.
How about when was he writing? We have no idea. Scholars debate where to locate Joel, placing the authorship anywhere from the 8th Century BCE to the 4th Century.
Awesome. Good start.
Fortunately, these facts don’t prevent us from a good story. The author of Joel makes it quite clear that he’s writing to the people living in the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital of Judah.
These are God’s people in God’s country under God’s protection.
BUT as Joel brings us up to speed in the story, things are not going well for the people of Judah and Jerusalem.
Joel describes a famine of epic proportions, one so bad that they’ll be telling its story for generations.
There’s no wine, no food, no wine, no water, no wine, no industry, and no wine. Ok, so Joel wants us to know there’s no wine. “WHY’S THE RUM GONE?!”
In the ancient world, wine was a sign of God’s blessing and meant for celebration. In other words, even God’s blessing and all causes for celebration have dried up.
As all of this is going down, we can imagine the people of Judah saying, “What the hell is happening, and what has heaven to do with it?”
Well the most pragmatic answer is that famine was apparently initiated by a swarm of locusts that ate everything and destroyed everything and killed everything. What is happening is a natural disaster.
Perhaps what’s happening is that a fallen world is coming undone.
Ok. But then there’s also two mentions of an army. First the locusts are described as “an invading nation” and “a mighty army.” Are these terms metaphors for the locusts, or are the locusts a metaphor for an invading army like the empires of Assyria and Babylon? We don’t know.
Perhaps what’s happening is their godless enemies are back at their evil charades.
Ok. But that still wouldn’t explain what heaven has to do with it: why God would allow his people to be toppled by their enemies?
What’s more, in chapter two Joel mentions another army descending on the Land led by none other than Yahweh himself.
So perhaps what’s happening is that God is angry. And perhaps the devastation besetting God’s people is actually the wrathful hand of God exerting itself through military force.
This answer certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented in religious history.
In the Old Testament, God is routinely carrying out his anger in murderous ways. Ways that get cheered on by God’s people. Why? Because it is violence against the other — the evil, the empire, the enemy.
The Egyptians and the Canaanites and the Philistines deserve to be squashed.
The prophets have to wrestle with a different problem: what do we do with violence against Israel and Judah? These are God’s people.
So in 740 BCE, the Assyrian Empire is depicted as God’s enforcers to wipe out the northern kingdom of Israel.
And a hundred and fifty years later in 586, God seems to use the Babylonian Empire.
Now, a quick note about these and any other answers to “What the hell is happening, and what has heaven to do with it?” It’s ALL conjecture.
It’s all a projection of humans trying to interpret the chaotic world in which they find themselves from within the chaotic world in which they find themselves.
At CCR I preached an entire series last summer on the book of Job and the impropriety of giving God or even ourselves the blame for when bad things happen.
AND, when we find ourselves asking what the hell is happening and what has heaven to do with it, Joel suggests we *might* find our answer somewhere much less comfortable.
Perhaps the problem is us. And by us I don’t mean singular us but plural us.
So what the hell is happening, and what has heaven to do with it?
Perhaps the universe has gone of its rails in monstrous ways.
Perhaps we’re under the terror of the monsters from that country over there.
Or perhaps God is playing the part of the monster.
But Joel offers a different and more challenging response. Perhaps we are the root of the problem. Perhaps in the pursuit of power and prestige, we have become the monsters in our own NIGHTMARE.
Which brings us back to locusts. It’s pretty clear that Joel was using the locusts — whether real locusts or a metaphor for an invading army — to retell the story of plagues against the Egyptians when Israel was leaving Egypt.
You see, the story of the exodus from Egypt is about foreigners in a foreign land.
It’s about people who are very religious but have no devotion to Yahweh.
It’s about leaders with a hard heart who ignores Yahweh and the cries of the oppressed for their lives to matter.
It’s about moral bankruptcy that lead to political and economic and ecological decay.
And it’s about the wine running out (those slaves who made the wine have run away).
Then we fast forward to the story of a famine in Judah, and Joel interprets the current events as a flipping of the script of the Exodus story..
God’s people are now foreigners in their own land,
They are very religious but have no devotion to Yahweh.
Their hardened hearts have led them to ignore Yahweh and the cries of the oppressed for their lives to matter.
Their moral bankruptcy leads to political and economic and ecological and relational and physical decay.
And yes, their wine is gone.
Joel seems to be implying that the liberation from Egypt — their defining story — may as well have never happened.
Yes, the arrived in the land. But they immediately began their own empire-chasing journey and constructed a narrative to suggest that God was blessing it.
And in the process, they merely brought the empire and all of it’s plagues with them.
What a depressing interpretation of an already depressing situation. But Joel means to do do something with this story, calling God’s people to repentance. A hard turn. And not just an individual guilt-induced apology, but rather a corporate lament and reorientation.
Individual innocence, after all, does not preclude the need for corporate lament.
As we saw in our scripture passage for today, Joel is calling out everyone. All ages and professions and social standing. No one has an excuse, not even the nursing baby or the couple preparing for their wedding.
He says, let’s throw a feast and retell our defining stories and remember our God and remember who we are.
And what’s going to happen? Who knows. Perhaps this will continue as they are. But perhaps he will return and relent and leave behind a blessing.
It’s in the midst of their corporate lament that God reminds them both who they are — his beloved children — and who he is — a gracious and compassionate father.
Their repentance begins an individual and corporate turnaround, one that brings with it the return of their food and water and industry and — you guessed it — wine.
The turnaround is so profound that Joel gets a glimpse of what God’s people will one day be empowered to do.
“After all of this I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will have revelatory dreams; your young men will see prophetic visions. Even on male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will produce portents both in the sky and on the earth—blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sunlight will be turned to darkness and the moon to the color of blood, before the day of the Lord comes—that great and terrible day! It will so happen that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered. For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who survive, just as the Lord has promised; the remnant will be those whom the Lord will call.”
In Joel vision, communal lament and repentance will free God’s people from self-induced nightmare, waking them to a new reality more beautiful and liberating than they could have even dreamt.
Now, for those of you who did not agree that this several millennia old textual artifact had anything to say to us.
We’re living in 21st Century America in the midst of unbelievable racial conflict, socioeconomic inequity, and ecological decay.
We see this from the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia to the dark alleyways of Minneapolis. The world is not right.
I cannot tell you how many times in the last year that I’ve looked around and wondered, “What is the hell is happening, and what has heaven to do with it?”
We live a land that was not our own yet has become hostile to foreigners.
We are citizens of a nation that is very religious but has no real devotion to Yahweh, the covenant God.
We are led by individuals and systems who ignore Yahweh and the cries of the oppressed who beg for their lives to matter.
We are seeing moral bankruptcy that had is teetering on the edge of political and economic and ecological and relational and physical decay.
And guess what? There’s even talk of a wine shortage.
In 2015, author Ta-Nehisi Coates released his award-winning book “Between the World and Me.” Coates is an African-American, an atheist, and an activist, and the book was a letter to his son explaining the black experience of race, society, and history in the United States.
Daniel Jose Camacho, reviewing the book for “The Christian Century,” said this:
Many Christians in the United States have calibrated their God and their faith to the myth of the American dream. We have confused tragedy with providence, conquest with destiny, human-made policies with natural law. Although the Bible repeatedly says that liberation requires memory of bondage and torture, the American dream simply shrugs and asserts that America focuses on the future and transcends old sins. So, when Coates writes that “America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men,” it is good news. If God is not the author of American nightmares, then people are. And if people are, then people can, in principle, bring about change.
From thousands of years and half a world away, Joel speaks to us the healing power of communal lament. God beckons us:
To grieve over the state of our world.
To examine our own role within the chaos.
To advocate for renewal and justice.
And to do so expecting that change is possible and that God will be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.
This is a beautiful dream. AND as those who live on the other side of the Jesus event, on the other side of death and resurrection, we have even hope for an even more beautiful reality.
For it is in Jesus and his kingdom that we have God’s definitive answer to “What the hell is happening, and what has heaven to do with it?”
Into our chaos, God responds with a new defining story:
The world is coming undone, but I am making all things new.
You were a long way off, but I am bringing you near.
You were the subject of wrath, but you are my dearly beloved.
You were left for dead, but I am bringing new life.
You were trapped in a nightmare, but have been awoken to a dream come true.
Still basking in the light of the resurrection, the author of the New Testament book of Acts does some of his own creative interpretation of current events by saying this is Joel’s dream coming true.
On the day of Pentecost, as the followers of Jesus are filled with the Holy Spirit in the days following his resurrection, some onlookers suggest their erratic behavior is the result of having too much wine.
Yes, the wine of God’s blessing is again flowing among the people of God, says the Apostle Peter. But what you are witnessing is the result of corporate repentance and a willingness for God in Jesus to give us a new defining story.
And what happens in Acts? Another corporate repentance that sees hundreds of people choosing to follow Jesus, to be liberated, and to adopt his story as their own.
In the midst of the chaos, our world desperately needs needs a defining story.
We need corporate lament that replaces personal.
We need real devotion that replaces religious observance.
We need a tender souls that replace hardened hearts.
We need hands that care for the oppressed that replace deaf ears that ignore them.
We need liberation and justice and mercy that replaces devastation.
We need a new dream that awakens us from our American nightmare.
And who better to be the public truthtellers of this defining story than us.
So when those in our homes, in our places of work, and our city look around and ask “What the hell is happening, and what has heaven to do with it?”
May we be prepared to respond with a more compelling story of reality.
May we both join in the lament for that which brought the chaos, and also join in the restoration.
And may we dismantle the facade of a violent empire in order to point people to the peaceable kingdom of Jesus. A God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.