Joel 2:18 2/18/19

“THEN THE LORD BECAME PASSIONATE ABOUT THE LAND, AND HAD PITY ON HIS PEOPLE.”

Joel 2:18 CEB

Background of Joel

Joel is an interesting book. It is one of what we call the minor prophets. They are “minor” because the book is short (3 chapters), not because they aren’t important. You can find the minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament, after the major (long) prophets and Daniel. Usually, these books deal with Israel or Judah either about to be exiled by Assyria or Babylon or already in exile. They typically explain why they are facing hardship and what promises to expect in the future.

Joel is different. It appears to be a story about an actual locust plague eating up crops. It’s possible the locusts are metaphors for an invading army like Babylon, or Assyria, or even Persia or Greece, but Joel is unique in not mentioning those empires by name. Joel is also unique in that he says nothing about blaming Judah/Israel for their situation (though he does recommend fasting and repenting in passages leading up to today’s passage). Like other prophetic books, their present situation leads to some bold promises about the future of the kingdom of God, some of which Peter will use in Acts 2 to describe Pentecost.

Today’s passage

Joel chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 describe the locust plague situation. Then, Joel recommends crying out to God. Our passage today is God’s response. He will care about the land and take pity on his people.

Thoughts

Our God is a God who takes pity on us. God sees our pain, hears our groaning, feels our circumstances more deeply than we do. God also responds to our prayers. We have the hope that whatever we are going through, we can turn to God to find comfort.

Unbelievable Promise

If you’ve ever been through a trial like Joel is describing, you probably know that the wait is painful. If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God fix things immediately? In fact, why doesn’t God stop them from happening in the first place? I learned a large and probably unhelpful word in seminary to describe these questions, Theodicy—the question of why a good and all-powerful God lets evil exist and bad things happen. I can’t say I have all the answers here, and a lot of the answers I do have are beyond the scope of this entry.

But what I do see in this passage is an unbelievable promise: in 2:25, God not only promises to fix Israel’s problem, God promises to restore the years that the locusts ate. That’s right. Our God can heal old wounds. He can give us back what we lost. I see this play out time and time again in people’s lives. Rather than being grateful that God fixed a problem but wishing God hadn’t waited so long, I’ve seen God fix a problem and then use the pain to make something beautiful. An adult with a troubled childhood can offer hope to others with the same testimony and feel more intensely the joy of their freedom from it. A family that lost someone can comfort others while drawing closer together and experiencing community in a way they could never have dreamed of. Our God may be mysterious. God may wait longer than we want. But no matter how long we suffer under a blanket of locusts, God can bring a healing that not only stops the problem but brings flowers from the mud and the rain.

Shuffled thought (off-topic and not that inspiring)

I once heard a pastor say that the locusts in Joel were a metaphor for modern-day helicopters and it was all reference to whatever war we were facing at the time. You know, because locust plagues make a loud buzzing noise, and because this book that has been inspiring hundreds of generations is probably only written to reference our current geopolitical situation. Please hear and heed my sarcasm here.

We often try to take the apocalyptic books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation and try to make all the mystical language be metaphors for geopolitical stuff in our world (i.e. whoever is president at the time must be the anti-christ or great prophet). While you might be right, chances are you are not. Every time there has been a major upheaval in world politics or events (every eclipse, Reformation, American Civil War, French Revolution, WWI, WW2, Y2K, even the advent of Walmart’s inventory system) there’s been someone who amassed a following on the idea that we lived in the end times…..and they all turned out to be wrong.

Instead of reading prophetic and apocalyptic literature in an attempt to predict the near future, let’s remember that only God knows when Armageddon is coming (Matthew 24:36, not even Jesus or the angels know). Let’s seek to encounter the Word in the Word and live our lives by the principles of the kingdom of heaven. Then, whatever happens, we’re ready.

Leviticus 2:11 2/11/19

“No grain offering that you give to the LORD can be made with yeast. You must not completely burn any yeast or honey as a food gift for the LORD.”

Leviticus 2:11 CEB

 

If you’ve ever heard me preach, you know I often approach the Bible a certain way.  I typically look at the passage from a bunch of absurd angles before being led by the Spirit (you hope) to focus on what God might actually be saying to us.  Let me show you my rabbit hole with this passage.

 

This passage is bizarre.  Let’s be honest, to our modern ears the whole book of Leviticus is a little bizarre. There are some good memory verses and rules to live by for sure, but they are awash in a sea of seemingly arbitrary laws with even more arbitrary details.  When I read through chapter 1 and 2, I immediately recalled Monty Python’s King Arthur’s encounter with the knights who say “ni!”  In order to pass through the forest, Arthur and his men must obtain a shrubbery (one that looks nice and is not too expensive).  Then, once said shrubbery is obtained, they are told they must supply a second shrubbery, a little taller than the first, and cut down the largest tree in the forest with a herring.  

 

I feel a little bit like Arthur when I consider applying these verses to my life.  Why does God want bread?  Why only certain ingredients?  And, aren’t the Israelites wandering around like nomads?  Where would they obtain enough bread to need specific rules to govern how they sacrifice it?  Not too mention, they are, in fact, allowed to offer bread with honey or yeast, as long as it isn’t burned (see verse 12).  Is this so that the Levites can eat the good bread that isn’t burned, or is it because God doesn’t like the way burning yeast or honey smells?  I don’t like the smell of burned pizza crust (yeast), so maybe God’s on to something.

 

Scholars have different opinions on these rules.  Some suggest that honey and yeast were used in pagan rituals, and therefore not appropriate as a gift to the one true God.  Some suggest that yeast was a common metaphor for how sin grows, and yeast is prone to mold faster (get corrupted).  And of course if you know anything about the Exodus story (the Israelites fleeing slavery), you know that unleavened bread without yeast was eaten, so they could leave in a hurry, so maybe the offering should remind them of their freedom from slavery.  Of course, none of this explains why you can offer it unburned (except my theory about feeding the Levites).

 

Even though my understanding is incomplete, the conclusion I can draw for us is this: our worship, our sacrifice should remind us of the God we serve.  We don’t just sacrifice for catharsis, feeling good about giving something away.  We don’t just worship because we like to sing, or yell, or dance, or clap our hands.  We do it as a response to God, a specific God that delivered the Israelites from slavery and delivers us from our sins.  Worship shouldn’t just feel good or let us check a box on our to-do list.  It should draw us closer to the God of the universe that never stops loving his people.  

 

Worship with all your mind, focusing intently on the object of our worship, the triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Worship with all your body, energy, and material sacrifices because when we realize who this God is, we realize that to give up everything for him is to gain more than we could ask, think, or imagine.  This is what your life is about.  This is what you were born for.

 

Oh, and please don’t set any bread on fire during church….or say ni at old ladies.

Exodus 2:5 2/5/19

 “Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her.”

Exodus 2:5 CEB

Here’s the situation: Israel is enslaved in Egypt.  They have grown so numerous in population that Egypt feels threatened and begins a genocide on all male children (so they can’t grow up and fight or make Israelite babies, and then girls will have to look elsewhere for children).  Moses’ mother, Jochebed, has her baby and obviously doesn’t want him to die, so she puts him in a watertight basket and floats him down the river.  Then comes the verse mentioned above. None other than Pharaoh’s daughter sees the baby and raises it as her own.  Moses, instead of being abandoned, instead of being slaughtered by the fearful Egyptians (fear makes people do terrible things), is raised in royalty.  Ironically, the very child that the royal family takes on becomes the leader that will defeat the Egyptians and lead the Israelites to freedom.

Jochebed (I was taught this is pronounced Joke-a-bed) is desperate.  Like any and all good mothers she doesn’t want her boy to die.  She floats him down the river.  I don’t know if she was trying to lure the princess in, or she just trusted God with her last hope that Moses would be okay, but we have no indication that she saw what was coming or knew who he would become.  Her desperation became the liberation of all her people.

In everyone’s lives, we find ourselves in desperate places.  We see no hope, no way out, no best-case scenario.  But our God is bigger than that.  He can take our desperation and turn it into liberation.  He can take our worst (whether it’s something we did or something that happened to us) and turn it into a joy that is so far beyond what we can ask, think, or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).  So if you are in that desperate place, cry out to God to show up in a way you never thought of.  God’s good at that.