It’s good to see you all. My name is Ryan, and I’m excited about opening up God’s Word today. We’re going to work our way through this little book of Joel.
My son Max earned his private pilot’s license this past January, continues to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. He even took me for a ride up there five thousand feet in the air. So, the kid that I taught to drive a car took me up in a plane, which was quite an experience. And I wasn’t even nervous. I knew what Max had gone through to qualify to fly that plane. Pilots are continually training to fly when everything goes wrong. They have to be ready to land that plane in a field, on a highway, or even in water in case of emergency. A pilot trains to be a pilot when everything goes wrong.
And I wonder if that’s not how we should view this life of following Jesus. Should we not train to follow Jesus when things go wrong? Just as we want a situationally aware pilot in a metal tube up in the air, so, as we walk through life, we want to be situationally aware of what’s going on and ready to respond to it. So, what do we do when disaster strikes? And I mean real disaster, disaster like this.
“And we begin tonight with the monster hurricane and its deadly impact already.”
“The flash flood threat across the Gulf Coast tonight after days of record rain. Still more is on the way.”
“Now to Australia, where they’re facing those massive fires, already among the worst in that country’s history.”
“While turning overseas, another powerful earthquake riled Turkey and Syria today.”
“Good evening. The massive and volatile weather system we’ve been tracking here the last few nights is extending its astonishing reach and impact.”
How do we respond to that? How do we prep ourselves to be ready for fire, floods, earthquake, famine, disease? So, like pilots, we have to train, and we actually have a manual of sorts. And it’s this little book of Joel. BibleGateway.com describes Joel as one of the top ten least read books of the Bible. It’s actually the ninth least read book of the Bible. So, real fast, what do we know, and what do we not know about the book of Joel?
Well, we don’t know when. We don’t know when Joel was written. Joel doesn’t give us a time frame. Scholars think it was probably around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, which is kind of like at the end of the timeline of the Old Testament.
We don’t know why. Unlike other prophets, Joel doesn’t tell us at the beginning of his writing, “Hey, this is why God sent me. This is why I’m talking.” We don’t know why. But I think those two unknowns, the why and when, help create this feeling of timelessness with the book. And we can look at it and respond to it today just like the people of Israel responded in that moment. The timelessness of Joel allows us to view real natural disaster and the response of God’s people as a test case for ourselves.
So, what do we know about the book of Joel? Well, we know Israel is in the middle of natural disaster, and the natural disaster is locusts. Joel 1:4,
“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.”
Now we’re somewhat removed from locusts. So, let’s look at a recent locust swarm that happened within the past two years. If you are prone to that heebie-jeebies feeling because of bugs, I would strongly suggest just close your eyes for about twenty-three seconds.
A locust swarm like that can destroy one acre of land in one hour. So, in Joel, when we look at this moment, we can ask Joel questions, right? We can say, “Hey, Joel, how bad was it in your day?” And Joel would answer this way. “This disaster is generationally unique, and it’s so bad you need to tell your kids about it.” Joel 1:2-3,
“Give ear, all the inhabitants of the land. Has such a thing happened in your days or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it and let your children tell their children and their children to another generation.”
How bad is it, Joel? Joel would tell us, “Drunks should panic.” It’s a funny way of describing it, but this is what Joel says. Joel 1:5,
“Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it’s cut off from your mouth.”
Wine is gone.
How bad is it, Joel? Farmers are failing, and gladness is disappearing. Joel 1:11-12,
“Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished…. Gladness dries up from the children of man.”
Joel says it’s so bad that worship halted. Joel 1:8 and 16,
“Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.”
The grain offering, and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord,
“joy and gladness from the house of our God.”
So, this moment is generationally unique. It demands retelling, drunks are panicking, farmers are failing, gladness is disappearing, and worship is halting.
And with that backdrop, what is Joel’s message to God’s people? I would put it this way. Natural disaster is a supernatural moment to spiritually reorient. Natural disaster is a supernatural moment to spiritually reorient, to figure out where you are. In engine failure, a pilot has to reorient his flight plan and figure out where he’s going. In natural disaster, God’s people have to reorient their lives, their thinking, their thoughts, and figure out where they’re going.
Pilots, I have learned, have a lot of acronyms to remember everything they have to do, and so I thought an acronym might help us today. How do God’s people spiritually reorient? We reorient FAST. F-A-S-T. We fast, assemble, speak, and think. That’s how we reorient. That’s what we do in natural disaster. Listen to what God says through Joel. Joel 1:14,
“Consecrate a fast [set apart a fast]; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.”
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.”
God’s people reorient FAST.
The first thing we do is we fast. Biblically, fasting is the purposeful removal of food to focus on prayer. John Mark Comber, pastor and author, says this.
“Fasting is praying with your body.”
Now, don’t miss the intense irony of this step in spiritually reorienting in the book of Joel. When the locusts show up, food disappears. And then, Joel looks at people and says, “It’s time to fast.” Now, the smart aleck in me wants to look at Joel and go, “I’m already doing that. Not voluntarily. I’m stuck.” But Joel focuses us on real nourishment — our interaction with God in prayer. So, we fast.
In natural disaster, God’s people assemble. In the comic book world of Marvel, when disaster strikes and humanity needs aid, two words bring hope — “Avengers, assemble.” When disaster strikes, God’s people assemble. In the middle of calamity, God’s people gather; we don’t scatter. We congregate; we don’t isolate. Joel emphasizes assembling. Did you hear it in the text? “Call an assembly. Gather all the people. Set apart the congregation. Assemble, everybody.” Leaders multiple times are called to show up.
Joel wants kids in attendance. Did you see that? Bring in the kids. Even nursing infants need to be at this gathering. Assembling is so important that Joel, I think, comically invites newlyweds to return from their honeymoon. “Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.” When disaster strikes, all of God’s people assemble. Simply put, we cannot make it through disaster alone. We can’t make it.
When disaster strikes, God’s people fast, God’s people assemble, God’s people speak, which is actually just a word for pray, but “pray” wouldn’t fit into my acronym; so, I went with “speak.” So, when I say “speak,” you think “pray.” Joel helps us pray all kinds of prayers in the middle of disaster, all kinds of prayers. And we begin with honest prayers. And I think this is a great message for all of God’s people in all types of suffering moments. The Bible is full of honest prayers. Joel doesn’t cover it up. Disaster is terrible. He doesn’t try to make the harsh reality nice. Look at the reactions in prayer. Chapter 1, verse 9 — we mourn. Chapter 1:13 — leaders are supposed to lament and wail. [Chapter] 1:14 — we’re supposed to cry out; we’re supposed to scream. In chapter 2:17, we’re supposed to weep. We begin with honest prayers in times like this. We pray radical prayers or, I’ll put it this way, “nature prayers,” which is weird. I already know that’s a weird way of saying it, a “nature prayer.” But listen to what Joel does. Joel 1:17- 20,
“To you, O, Lord, I call. For …”
Now, that little word “for” is going to tell us why he’s praying. So, we can ask Joel a question. Joel, why are you praying?
“For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water books are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.”
There are fires we’ve heard about in the past week, ravaging through Canada. Joel would look at those and cry out because trees and land are being destroyed. Why would he do that? Because Joel is so connected between God and God’s love of his good creation. God pronounced everything he made good. So, when fire and floods destroy land, Joel offers up this prayer saying, “God, what you crafted is being destroyed!” He’s so connected to his God’s love for creation that he prays. The devastation of creation motivates prayer.
We pray responsive prayers. Joel 2:12-14,
“‘Yet even now, in the middle of locusts,’ declares the Lord, ‘Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and drink offering for the Lord your God?”
Disaster is a moment for a spiritual well-check. It allows us to look at ourselves and do a well-check. Where am I in relation to God? How close am I? Have I sinned against him? Have I moved away from him or moved toward him? And as we discover that, we return to him. In biblical language, we repent. We have a complete change of mind that changes life and behavior. And Joel warns us here that it’s possible to do a spiritual well-check and then have a pretend change of life. Joel says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” That’s a weird phrase for us because we don’t do what they did in their culture. In their culture, when they returned to God, when they repented, they would tear their clothes as a sign. God, through Joel, is looking at God’s people and saying, “Hey, I don’t care about your torn shirt. I want to know if you have a broken heart. Your heart is what matters.” So, in this moment of disaster, we can spiritually reorient back to God through responsive prayers. Joel motivates this responsiveness in prayer, not because the disaster is bad, but because God’s good. “He’s slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.”
So, we fast, we assemble, we speak, and we think. We train ourselves to think. In emergency, in general, I think there’s two types of people — panickers and responders. Those of us who are panickers, we either lose our minds completely, or we freeze completely. You have to train to think, to respond in time of emergency.
Joel gives us two things, just two things to focus our thinking on during disaster, the first of which is this — Joel tells us to think God rules over nature. Remember, in times like this, God rules over nature. Throughout the scriptures, God’s rule extends over nature, over fire, water, hail, snow, winds, floods, frogs, donkeys, the sun, and the moon, just as examples. God rules over nature. God rules over the natural disaster happening in the book of Joel. He’s in charge.
“I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.”
Now we’re going to get to that promise here in a minute about restoring. But when I read the book of Joel, and I’ve read it a ton over the past year or so (this is a weird way to put it. Don’t judge me), I would like to suggest to God a few edits, and this is one of them. And hopefully I’m not alone here … of struggling with that phrase at the end of the promise, “my great army, which I sent among you.” I’m going to be honest with you. I feel like I need to get God off the hook there. There’s something in me that when I hear that, it’s like, “Oh boy, how can I massage those verses to make that not sound like that, to make it sound different?” There’s something in my brain that tells me that would be better. If God had nothing to do with it, it would be better.
So, then I ask myself the question, “Is that true? Is it true, if I could get God off the hook here, it would be better?” Well, there’s only so many things we can believe about this moment then. So, in order to handle that, if we wanted to edit it, we could believe that there is no God at all, and we just dismiss this all. And therefore, every disaster that happens, we attribute to chance or Mother Nature. And in that moment, then nothing really matters at all. There’s no meaning at all. It just is, and what happens happens, and who cares? So, now we have no hope in disaster if we take God out of the middle.
We could say that God’s evil. Because that is true; therefore, God is evil. But the problem with that is that God, in the same Bible that this is written in, says that he’s actually the one (this is in Romans 5 and 8) who’s going to solve the problem of a broken planet and broken people like you and me, and he’s going to do that by the sacrifice of himself. Well, now, that doesn’t make any sense at all. How does an evil God sacrifice himself for the good of people and planet?
Well, we could create a distant God — “Yes, I believe in God. Yes, I believe in Creator God. He kind of did it, and then he kind of did a step back and is hands off.” Well, now I’ve got a really, really powerful god I believe in, who is completely distant from me when anything bad happens, and now I have no comfort in disaster. So, if I unhook God from this moment in Joel, I have no hope, I have no comfort, and it doesn’t really make any sense.
Or, we have to embrace a concept beyond ourselves, and that is a sovereign (a God who is in charge), good God … a sovereign, good God, a creator God, who rules his creation, the God of the Bible, who exists outside of time, who created a good world that he loves, who created people that he loves with the capacity to choose whether or not to trust and obey him. And humanity chose to not trust and obey God and rejected God, and that rejection separated God from man and God from creation; therefore, man and creation are both broken. But God is still in charge of that broken creation. He can still, in his infinite capacity, rule over fires and locusts and floods, and in those moments, he can accomplish purposes for good that are outside of our realm of understanding. We can choose to believe in a good creator, sovereign God, who displayed his love for humanity and creation in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A sovereign God, who will one day return in the person of Jesus Christ to create a world where only righteousness dwells, only right things happen; locusts are always kind in that world. A sovereign God, who is so beyond our understanding, it makes our brains cramp to think about him. And yet, a sovereign God, who is so powerful but is right with me in the middle of disaster, providing comfort and hope and sense. So, in the middle of disaster, we train ourselves to think “God rules here.”
We also train ourselves to think that God returns. God returns. We think about a future day when God comes back, when God is here. Joel 2:1-2,
“Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the lands tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
“For the Day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?”
Two months ago in our series in 2 Peter, we learned a lot about the Day of the Lord. What is the Day of the Lord? And we discovered from Peter that the Day of the Lord is terrible to think about and terrific to think about. So, these are Peter’s words about the Day of the Lord, same Day of the Lord that Joel’s talking about.
“But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief [it’s going to be a surprise], and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed…. But according to God’s promise we’re waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
So, look at Peter’s description there. That first part — complete cataclysmic change of creation; everything done on earth is going to be exposed. There’s a sense of judgment here. What has been done on earth will be exposed for what it is, and God will take care of all wrong. That is a terrible day to consider!
But then there’s that promise. We’re waiting on this new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells all the time. No locusts, no fire, no flood, no reason to do a spiritual well-check anymore, because everything is righteous! That is a terrific day to consider! Peter highlights for us in his letter that the Day of the Lord is interpreted through the lens of where you stand with God. It determines whether it’s terrible or terrific.
Hundreds of years prior to Peter’s letter, Joel highlights three aspects of that return that we need to think about — the reality of God’s future judgment, God’s offer of salvation, and God’s promise of restoration. Those three things we hang all of our thoughts on in the middle of disaster. God’s future judgment, Joel 3:2,
“I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land.”
God is going to have a day of collective judgment of the nations, and Joel’s saying today’s disaster, what’s going on right around you with these locusts, that’s going to push your mind to figure out your future standing with God. As terrible as this locust day is, a day coming where you’re separated from God is more terrible to consider.
When it comes to judgment, my belief is that there’s a cultural idea that we don’t judge people. But actually, everybody judges people. We’re all judgmental. But we’re all okay with judgment, especially when it’s us out. We just don’t like to receive it. There’s a reality of judgment coming because of who God is as good Sovereign Creator God. Joel is trying to get his people to think ahead. Consider the end of the story.
We also think about God’s offer of salvation. Joel 2:30-32,
“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
Sounds terrible! And just like in Peter: promise.
“And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Whether it’s that literal locust devastation or a future devastation of judgment, Joel cries out to everybody, “Call on the name of the Lord and you will be saved.”
Joel even uses a metaphor to help us think about it and feel what that’s like. He says this — Joel 3:16,
“The Lord roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake.”
Terrible day! God’s voice roaring out of Zion, cataclysmically changing everything — works exposed, dealing with everything!
“But the Lord is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel.”
Present disaster, future day of the Lord … The reality is God is our salvation. God is our refuge and stronghold in the middle of crisis.
Interestingly, the apostle Paul read Joel and gives him a shout-out in Romans 10:9-13,
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
There’s Joel’s word.
“For with the heart one believes and is justified,”
That word just means you’re declared right with God.
“and with the mouth one confesses and is saved…. For [and here’s the shout-out to Joel] everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
That last phrase is directly from Joel. Paul, hundreds of years later, continues to trumpet Joel’s message of salvation and the source of that salvation being Jesus Christ. Joel and Paul agree we all need rescue. Joel and Paul agree that rescue is found in the person of Jesus. We need real rescue, rescue beyond the locusts. We need heart-level rescue, and the only source that can rescue a heart is Jesus. God pleads in Joel, “Return to me with all your heart.” Confess with your mouth, believe in me, and you will be saved, and you will be in a stronghold and a refuge in time of crisis.
This rescue that takes over at a heart level energizes us to endure the disasters of today while we borrow hope from a secure future. We endure today, borrowing hope from a secure future.
Finally, Joel shows us God’s promise of restoration. Disaster isn’t the end of the story in Joel. Joel 2:23-25,
“Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God.”
Put yourself into the position of being in the book of Joel. That is an odd message to receive while you’ve got locusts spinning around your head. “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God.” How in the world can we do that, Joel? Who do you think you are? Because of this, he says,
“The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will restore to you the years the locus have eaten.”
God comes in and says, “I’m making a promise here. Losses are going to be repaid.” Gladness and rejoicing don’t disappear in disaster. We look forward. We don’t ignore today. Again, we can keep saying it. Joel is super honest. It’s a terrible day of locusts, but we’re looking out there to endure today.
Natural disaster is a supernatural moment to spiritually reorient. God’s people need to respond FAST to reorient. We fast; we remove food to focus on prayer. We assemble; God’s people gather; they don’t scatter in the middle of disaster. We speak; we pray all kinds of prayers in the middle of disaster. And we think; we think “God rules over natural disaster, God rules over nature, and God is returning.”
And God’s made some promises. He’s going to take care of evil, he’s going to save people, and he’s going to restore what’s gone. So, at this point. I think it’d be really great if all of you and your brains were asking me this question, “Ryan, why does this matter at all?” Thank you for asking. I’ll try to tell you. Why does this natural disaster thing in Joel matter?
First, I want to talk about something in our culture. I want to give some freedom to highly empathic people. This is what I mean. I just want to tell everybody right now, not every natural disaster in the world is your natural disaster. Joel is about God’s people in the middle of disaster responding to disaster. In our culture, because of news, Facebook, Instagram, internet, we have access to every disaster in every place in the entire globe. And this is pure Ferguson opinion. I don’t think we were created to handle it. We would be doing our fast response every other day. None of you would work. We’d all be here. Joel is training us to respond to our disaster. There are other responses in the Bible to what happens outside of us — mercy, aid, love, compassion, thirty other sermons we could do. But I want us to be careful here. Let’s endure the disasters that we are in.
Second reason this is important — you don’t know your future. We don’t know our future. We don’t actually know what’s going to happen. I know South Carolina isn’t a hotbed of natural disasters like other places on the globe, but friends, only a couple of years ago we had a hurricane go right through Taylors and destroy the homes of several people in our church, one of whom, had they been home and in bed, a tree would have fallen through them. We don’t know where we’re going to be. So, this book is a gift to us. You don’t know that you’re always going to live here. You don’t know where other people are going to be and what they experience, and then you can give away the gift of Joel to somebody else in a different place.
Third [reason] why this message matters — we always need a reminder to look forward. I’ve told people in my office this over the past two years, over and over and over that I meet with. The more I read the Bible, the more I’m convinced no matter where you put your finger down, in one way or another, somewhere around there, it’s telling you to look forward. Look out. Jesus is coming. Look for Messiah. Look for the end. Endure today but look out there. It’s coming. If Joel accomplishes nothing else in us as far as spiritual discipleship other than “lift up your eyes and look out there,” then Joel is an amazing little gift to us.
Finally. I believe the FAST response — fast, assemble, speak, think — can generally apply to all suffering, not just natural disaster. Joel’s context, really specific — locusts, natural disaster. But consider that response in light of any suffering that you’re going through. Purposeful removal of food to focus on prayer. Assemble. Brothers and sisters, this is experiential, but I’ve been a pastor for fifteen years, and way more often than not, when tragedy strikes, people pull away rather than moving towards. Fast. Get together with God’s people. Pray all kinds of prayers.
You see that theme when Paul writes Philippians.
“In the middle of suffering, rejoice. And again, I say, rejoice.”
You see this in the response of the book of James, where
“consider it joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”
We need to be ready to think about God’s return and rule in all types of scenarios, not just natural disaster, but all types of suffering. So, Joel’s message for us is timeless, and it trains us to respond to real natural disaster and to real suffering.
The pilot never knows when he’s going to need his training. But his passengers, his passengers’ family, and his family are really, really thankful when he knows how to respond in the moment and uses his training. May God through Joel train us to be ready to respond to any disaster. Let’s pray.
God, I want to thank you for this ninth-least-read book in the Bible, Joel. It is an amazing book. I hope to meet Joel one day in eternity. Would you use this Word the way you want? Spirit, would you go into hearts of kids and adults and help us see you, to know how to respond, to believe in you, to believe you’re good, to believe that you rule, to believe you’re returning, to believe you save? Allow it to sink deep into our hearts, I pray in your name. Amen.