The second chapter of Joel naturally divides into four sections, (2:1-11; 2:12-17; 2:18-27; and 2:28-32). It is instructive to note the primary themes of these four sections (taken from the Commentary on the Book of Joel by Elizabeth Achtemeier in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary):
Joel 2:1-11 – The Day of God’s Army
Joel 2:12-17 – The Call to Repentance
Joel 2:18-27 – The Restoration of Communion with God
Joel 2:28-32 – Signs of the Coming Day of the Lord
It is important to read, interpret, and preach every text in context. Nowhere is that more important than Joel chapter two! The movement of this text is a standard pattern of prophetic speech – a warning of coming judgment, a call to repentance, followed by a promise of restoration and blessing. The fourth section of Joel 2 is one of our holiness tradition’s most significant texts – the promise of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, a promise fulfilled in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost. So let us not forget to pay attention to the larger context as we wrestle with the specific lectionary text given to us.
Our passage, assigned to the church for Ash Wednesday and the launch of the Lenten season, includes two of the four sections of Joel 2 – the warning of judgment, and the call to repentance. This is so appropriate for this day (and season) in the Christian year. Ash Wednesday is the launching point for our journey through this preparatory 40 days of Lent (remember, the Sundays during Lent are not counted as a part of Lent – we speak of them as Sundays in Lent rather than Sundays of Lent. Sundays are days of feasting, not fasting, days of celebration – even in a season of repentance).
However, the first section is truncated in the lectionary passage, giving us the first two verses as a summary of the warning of impending judgment. It would be helpful to at least include verse 11 in your reading and preaching, since it concludes the first section and gathers the entire unit together through the use of the image of “the day of the LORD” as an inclusio (or envelope) structure. Literarily, the function of the inclusio is to shine a light on this particular image as the central theme of the entire paragraph.
But before we turn to this important concept (the day of YHWH), we should note the opening line: “Blow the trumpet in Zion” – words that are repeated in verse 15, although for a different purpose, which we will discuss. This is a powerful image as well. The shofar (trumpet, ram’s horn) has long functioned as like a warning (think tornado siren) for Israel. The shofar blast was sounded by sentries to warn the people of an imminent enemy invasion. What is remarkable about the use of the shofar here is the identity of Israel’s foe, for the One who is coming (as enemy) in judgment is Lord YHWH!
Let that sink in for a moment. The alarm that is sounded on God’s holy mountain is announcing the arrival of YHWH, Lord of the covenant, coming to judge His covenant partner. This is the announcement of the Day of the LORD. Amos 5:18-20 is helpful as we think about how the prophets took up this concept of the Day of the LORD – once seen as a day of hope and salvation – and reinterpreted it in light of Israel’s failure to keep covenant with YHWH. The coming of God is wonderful, if God is stepping down (as in the Exodus) to save and deliver. But when God comes in judgment – that day is one of trembling, darkness, gloom, clouds – even thick darkness. As Joel wraps up this section in verse 11: “Truly the day of the LORD is great; terrible indeed — who can endure it?”
This is a hard truth in our day of cheap grace and shallow discipleship. But judgment is the work of God – and judgment begins with the people of God. Perhaps that is where we open the sermon. Following Paul Scott Wilson’s Four-Page format, begin with Trouble in the World. Identify and name the failings of the church today – our lack of biblical literacy and fluency (attentiveness to God’s word), our accommodation to the ways of this world, our allegiance to political parties and systems (dare we say it – Christian nationalism) that has drawn us away from our sole allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, our divisiveness and division, as well as our neglect of the poor and marginalized all around us. There is plenty of indictment to go around.
But remember, while identifying our sins and failures is a necessary first word in pastoral prophetic preaching, it is not the last word. The prophets are as clear about the purpose of judgment as they are descriptive of and laser-focused on the sins of the people that have invited God’s judgment. Indeed, God does comes to judge the people – but not to destroy them (us), but to impinge upon them (us) the need for repentance.
In the second section, several ideas and images are central to the text – first, the word “repent.” In Hebrew the term is shuv and the NRSV translates this word as “return” – a very faithful translation of the term. It means more than simply “about face;” it has more of the force of “to the rear march!” You have been going in this direction (away from YHWH), it is time to do a 180 and begin moving toward YHWH – “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart…” The term occurs three times in verses 12-14 – twice about the “repentance” of the people of God (“return to YHWH” – vv. 12-13) and once about the hope and possibility of God’s repentance (“Who knows, YHWH may repent – shuv – and change His mind and leave behind a blessing.”)
This idea of God “repenting” and “changing God’s mind” about judgment is not unique to Joel. In fact, there are a number of instances of this happening in the Bible, such as Exodus 32:1-14. But nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Jonah 3, where, because of the repentance of the wicked Ninevites, God repented and changed God’s mind about destroying the Assyrian capital – a decision that really ticked Jonah off as he wanted to see God’s judgment unleashed on Israel’s enemies.
The basis of this amazing (and often misunderstood) idea of God changing God’s mind, is rooted in the unchanging character of God – we are reminded of this in Exodus 32-34, Jonah 4, and here in Joel 2. We are invited and able to repent and turn to God precisely because of the nature of God. Because God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing…” (God is love), God’s every move, attitude, and decision toward us is rooted in God’s character. Here lies one of the most powerful statements of the character of God in all Scripture.
Finally, the remainder of the passage, verses 15-17, flows out of the invitation in verse 12 – to return to the LORD with “fasting, weeping, and mourning.” Once again we hear the command to blow the trumpet – but no longer as a warning of enemy invasion. Instead, the shofar inaugurates a solemn communal fast in which all of God’s people turn to God and cry out in genuine repentance. Throughout the passage, the focus is not on outward actions but inward attitudes of humility and obedience (rend your hearts, not your garments). How appropriate that this text is assigned to lead us into the season of Lent – a season of fasting, prayer, and repentance, in which God’s people are instructed to whole-heartedly seek the Lord.
So your sermon could follow this simple, Four-Page structure. Open with Trouble in the World (as mentioned before) and turn to the Trouble in the Text – the sound of the trumpet that announces the coming of God in enemy terms. The first trumpet call tells us that God is coming in judgment. Then move to the Grace in the Text – verses 12-17 – and the second trumpet call. This is good news in the text, because the prophet is opening up the possibility and promise of repentance. In this move we will express what these communal acts of repentance look like. They are solemn, heart-felt, communal and intergenerational. The faithful response to God’s word of judgment is for all the people of God to humble themselves, seek God’s face, and turn from unfaithful ways. This is what repentance looks like in the text – a response to God’s gracious character.
For the final movement of the Sermon, the liturgy and imposition of ashes that are a part of our participation in the Ash Wednesday service become a way to discover Grace in the World. By responding to this word from God with prayers of confession and the imposition of ashes on this first day of Lent, we enter into this holy season encouraged because of the faithfulness of God. We leave the sanctuary of God rejoicing (even in our repentance) because God’s final word for us is neither judgment nor condemnation, but salvation, hope, and new life. Thanks be to God!