From Lament to Hope
Joel is one of the Old Testament prophets, who struggled with God at a time of both a huge locust swarm, and a severe drought. Although such disasters in the bible are often understood as analogies, standing for ‘invasions of foreign armies’, or ‘unjust leaders exploiting the people of Israel’, it seems that these locusts, and this drought, were real disasters that happened in Joel’s time.
We too live at a time of conjunction of disasters. Climate change is real; the science is well understood, though a few powerful people are still focusing on their own personal desire to make maximum short term profit, even if it brings the point of crisis closer. The Corona Virus Disease, Covid 19, is real; it is causing many deaths, there is no vaccine, and we are not yet testing enough people to be able to track and trace who is catching it. Even the end of this year, making real our exit from the European Union, which will cause significant change, in a way that many people feel that we are not yet well prepared for, feels to some like another disaster on its way.
What we can get from prophets like Joel is an assurance that the people of God have faced difficult times. Lament is an appropriate response. Tell God how you feel as Joel did: “Hear this, O elders, give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? 3 Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. 4 What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten. Joel 1:2-4
What to do?
We start with the lament:
5 Wake up, you drunkards, and weep
8 Lament like a young woman dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth
11 Be dismayed, you farmers, wail, you vine-dressers
13 Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests; wail, you ministers of the altar. Come, pass the night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God! Grain-offering and drink-offering are withheld from the house of your God. Joel 1:5,8,11,13
Joel spoke the name of the disasters falling on God’s people in his time. It is important that we try to speak the name of the difficulty we are living through.
People are dying because of the Corona Virus, in our hospitals, in our care homes, in our community. We pray for all who are affected: suffering, nursing, and caring for them. The climate is changing, and those who have done least to cause those changes, the poorest communities around the world, are those who are already suffering most, and we pray for them. If we name our challenges, if we bring them before God in lament, then we can have faith that God is with us, and have hope that God is bringing healing to our situations. This is the context for Joel’s vision of God answering his lament with the promise of restoration of
the land, 22Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield Joel 2:22 and the people: 28Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. Joel 2:28-29 It feels important to me, that restoration is not just for us, individually, but for us collectively, as
community; all of us together – even the animals. This gives us hope in the context of climate change – we try our best to use clean energy, reuse and recycle, and as many of the climate pledges as we can. (climatevision.co.uk/top-ten-pledges)
One of the good features of our Covid response has been that most of us have accepted the lockdown collectively, as collectively is the only way it will work; redemption is for us all.
17So you shall know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy mountain.
And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it. Joel 3:17 ‘Strangers’, here, means enemies; no people will dwell here except friends of Judah. Later prophesies, together with the words of Jesus, allow us to understand that there would be no strangers because we will all be united, not just Jew and Gentile, but ‘all flesh shall see it together’ (Isaiah 40:5 KJV has it right, I think.)
We might read in Psalms:
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation towards us. 5Will you be angry with us for ever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? 6Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you? 7Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. Psalm 85:4-7 Tell God how you feel, but also remember, God has rescued and redeemed his people before. Several times, times without number.
God has the solution to this, though he asks us to do our bit:
13When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 (1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; 2 to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, 3 to the music of he lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. 4 For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy) Psalm 82:1-4 (1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep) Psalm 121:1-4 These can reassure us, but ultimately we have Jesus own words in John’s Gospel:
1‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.’ John 14:1-3
So, we are living through a dangerous pandemic at a time of climate crisis. I have no idea how it will end, and am not sure that anyone else has, either. Will there be a vaccine, will the virus mutate and be less deadly, will social distancing simply make it die out thanks to ‘test, track and trace’? I don’t know. Will we all do our part to reduce our impact on the climate, and will our governments and big businesses take our lead and do their bit? I don’t know. However, I hope, I believe that God has it in hand. We must do our best to conform to our civil obligations. We must worship and thank God in the name of Jesus, and do our best to live in the strength of the Holy Spirit. And, I believe, we need to ‘be still, and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) – we must let God be God.
I am praying that you are all keeping happy and healthy, and looking forward to meeting face to face as soon as we are able.
Yours in Christ,
Tony Le Fevre 27th May 2020