Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Sound the alarm!!!”
These are not words that one would hope to hear at the outset of the Holy Lenten season, yet these are the very words with which we begin. The prophet Joel speaks to us from a place of antiquity with great zeal, yet his voice is continually pushed to the margin. Since the time of the prophets, the people of God have proven perpetually lacking in concern for their own moral and religious state, and it is to this end that the prophet Joel pleads with them. As one rushing to save victims from the flames of a burning building or an impending storm, the Prophet Joel pleads, “Rend your hearts.” Those receiving his message, however, go about their everyday lives assuming the words of this ancient scroll represent a commandment of no consequence.
The prophet Joel warns us of the awful judgment of God that will be brought about because of the wickedness of people. Among the other prophets, Joel proposes a philosophical framework here that is foreign to our contemporary worldview: God is affected by the actions and attitudes of people. We read Joel’s words from the perspective of our relatively comfortable lives and ask ourselves
What’s the big deal?
Is there really anything worth being so upset about?
Are things really that bad?
Joel’s words could not be more necessary in our contemporary pop-theological milieu. We have embraced a status quo theological ethic, parading that “God’s got it all under control,” and that our existence in the world as loyal subjects really consists of a verbal confession and recognition of a non-invasive Lordship. Yet in our pedestrian submission to the status quo, we have betrayed our romance with God prescribed by the covenant with his people as heralded by the prophets. The heart of the matter here is not just a lack of righteous action, but a lack of righteous indignation. The problem is indifference. God’s people do not care. They have lost the love of their youth, as Jeremiah writes. We the people of God have passed the buck along, all the while ignoring that by which we will ultimately be judged: the condition of our hearts. In a world of self-righteous individualism, prophetic chastisement regarding the condition of our hearts is not well-received. What Joel is calling for here is a reassessment of obedience and the covenant relationship between God and his beloved. The assessment provided here is that of an estranged marriage; a failing romance.
The numbness and hardness of heart confronted here by Joel was also addressed by Jesus in the Gospels. In Matthew and the Gospel of Mark, it is the hardness of hearts that Jesus cites as reason for exceptions and provisions to be given by Moses in the law regarding marriage and fidelity. As we navigate the ethical labyrinth of the West in the twenty first century, my pastoral sense is that we are ministering in a culture that prefers to engage their faith in a similar fashion with which they approach their taxes, looking for loopholes. We look to justify our actions, or lack-there-of, in comparison with the average. Yet there is no room for average in the words of the prophets. The prophets, namely Joel, speak a language of extreme consequence and grandeur. We do not know how to interpret their words in our contemporary situation because the drastic ramifications of their words cannot fit neatly into our worldview. We are not convinced that we are in trouble. We are rather satisfied with ourselves. The extreme doom foretold by the prophet Joel has been passed down to us as an expiring lament.
At the outset of this season of Lent, Joel reminds us that God is the judge, and that the dreadful day of his wrath is coming near. I hope that this point rings clearly through this short essay. We are a people who have turned away to other gods and been unfaithful to the one who called us. The Church is in need of a gut check; a heart check. Might we, as Joel suggests, “rend our hearts.”
I cannot end here, and neither can Joel. Although God is affected by the rebellion of his people, God is also affectionately pursuing his people. We are those he loves. We are but a turn from the open embrace of our Father who loves us. As preachers and those entrusted with the task of shepherding God’s people, may God give us the strength and temperament to call his people and beckon them to turn to him in this season of Lent. God’s judgment may indeed be looming, yet his grace pursues us all the while. This is the great juxtaposition of the prophetic voice.