Getting Biblically Woke’d
I hope you saw some fireworks a few weeks ago. I remember waiting for the Union fireworks to begin when a round was fired off to test the wind direction. The boom was so loud that it startled me. But it was nothing compared to my neighbor’s little cannon. It’s the size of a Tonka truck, and when he fired it I swear it restarted my heart. That little thing packed a massive punch.
Over the next few weeks we’re going to study the Book of Joel. It only has three chapters, but it packs a massive punch. Joel grabs a tragedy and uses it to restart our hearts. Through Joel we learn that what we think the good life is isn’t what God thinks it is. We think the good life is things going well for me now. Through Joel God says, “The good life is knowing me well now.”
Now, as we get into this book you need to know that Joel lived about 700 years before Jesus. He lived around at the same time as Isaiah and Hosea. He lived at a time of great prosperity.
Our day is kinda like Joel’s day. The US is the 17th most prosperous nation on the planet, but that’s a misleading statistic because the nations ahead of us are much smaller. Most don’t even have the population of Ohio. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, a nation of 330 million doesn’t compare to one of 12 million. The US could be doing better; you could be doing better—granted. Nevertheless, we live in a time of prosperity like Joel.
Joel’s day was one of ease, and moral sliding, and religious formalism. “Religious formalism” is when you think that if you color inside the religious lines, God is obligated to give you the good life you want. “Formalism” confines God to the the formalities. It’s a transactional religion, not a living relationship.
In Joel’s day, religion was in full steam—no shortage of sacrifices and prayers. But the collective thinking went a bit like this: “If we give God some lip service, if we do the rituals, God will be satisfied, and we can go off and live however we want.” The problem is that God doesn’t delight in rituals, he delights in broken and contrite hearts (Isa 1:10–18).
How do you awaken people to that? How does that get through and take root?
I want you to imagine God saying through Joel: “Your questions and your prayers are religious, not godly. They come out of your efforts to reach me for your purposes. They need to come out of your submission to my efforts to reach you for my purposes” (Larry Crabb, 66 Love Letters, 144).
That’s flipping how we typically think about God on it’s head, isn’t it? How does a tectonic shift of the soul like that come about? It requires folks to “get woke’d” in a biblical sense.
After the Japanese struck Peal Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto, commander of Japan’s combined naval fleet, said: “I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Sometimes a disaster is need to awaken. Think about that as we look at Joel’s book.
Destruction Arrives (Joel 1:1–4, ESV)
The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel:
Hear this, you elders; give ear, all 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.
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.
National Geographic Magazine recorded a plague of locusts that covered Palestine and Syria from the border of Egypt to the Taurus mountains in Turkey in 1915. The first swarms moved in clouds so thick that they blocked out the sun. The females were about two to three inches long, and they immediately laid eggs by digging holes in the soil about four inches deep and depositing about 100 eggs in each. These holes were everywhere. A single square yard of soil could contain 70,000 eggs. After laying their eggs the locusts flew away.
A few weeks later the eggs hatched. The young locusts looked like ants. They didn’t have wings, but hopped around like fleas, covering 4 to 6 hundred feet a day, devouring any vegetation before them. After molting they got their wings, but didn’t fly. They walked forward still eating. Then they molted again into adults, like the locusts that had first invaded.
At the earlier stages the locusts attacked vineyards, the latter stages would attack olive trees whose tough, bitter leaves had been passed over by the creeping locusts. They stripped every leaf, berry, and then the bark. They ate layer after layer of cactus plants. They gnawed off the limbs of palm trees, tunneling deep within to eat the juicy pith.
If you lived in the agricultural society of Joel’s day, you’d see your finances go, your food go, your family’s well-being go, your future health go. Your relationships would get stressed. You’d find yourself dependent upon foreign aid and powers. Not to mention a lot of the materials needed to perpetuate the myth that you were a good, religious person would be gone, because the locusts had eaten the grain and wine and olive oil—goodbye temple worship.
Folks ask, How can such destructive evil befall God’s people who are worshiping regularly? Christians ask all the time, how can God allow tragedy to happen to me?
Well, the same question was put to Jesus. King Herod’s soldier had attacked a group of Galileans at the moment when they were offering sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple, and the question raised to Jesus was: How could this happen in a world run by a good God? These worshipers were killed at the very moment they were apparently being most devout. We know how Jesus answered. He didn’t argue that those who were killed were more evil than Herod’s soldiers. He didn’t say, “Well, accidents will happen. I suppose God merely nodded off for a moment. I’ll speak to him and see if he can’t be a bit more careful in the future.” We know Jesus didn’t respond that way. Jesus actually said, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:2–3).
Woah, Jesus. But what’s he saying? If we listen very carefully, we hear him saying, “You who are objecting to the tragedies are doing so because you’re asking the wrong question. You ask, ‘Why should the disaster come on these persons? Why should God strike the innocent?’ But you should be asking: ‘Why haven’t these disaster come on me?’ For you are making light of the sin in your own heart, forgetting often takes unparalleled disasters to awaken folks from the dullness and laziness of sin.”
The disaster is real. It’s horrible. Jesus doesn’t make light of it, but puts it in perspective. Joel doesn’t make light of it, he asks: “Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?” (Joel 1:2). Joel doesn’t say like a dentist might, “This may cause a bit of discomfort.” It’s not a little discomforting. The destructions and difficulties that hit your life like a tornado hurts, they aren’t “a little bit discomforting.”
Alarm Sounds (Joel 1:5–12, ESV)
So, what does Joel do? How does he interpret it?
He reads the event like it’s an alarm clock going off.
Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth.
(Perhaps the wine drinkers are blind to the distress because their gripped by intoxication, but when the wine supply is gone, they’ll wake up. …)
For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white.
Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.
(Why lament like a virgin in uncomfortable and unglamorous sackcloth? Well, think of a young bride whose lost her husband prematurely. In those days once engagement was announced the couple was essentially married, while the groom went off and built a home, before the official wedding ceremony. So, image the deep sorrow that overwhelms this young bride to be. She is just as lifeless as the fig-trees which have been stripped of their bark because of the locusts. …)
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes.
Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished.
The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man.
(Harvest time was always a cause of great rejoicing for the people. But now, because of the devastation caused by the locusts and the deadness from the drought, happiness had flown away. Everything was dried up, even joy. …)
The more spiritual people hearing Joel, might have realized he was issuing a warning. God wanted a lot from his people, the wholeness of their hearts. Yet the only fruit they produced was religion, and at times even adulterous religious as they worshipped false gods whom they hoped to cajole into giving them the good life they wanted now.
Joel is saying, “Wake up! And mourn for this is horrible! Rend your heart, and not your garments.” The alarm is a call to repentance. “May you cry out to God, may you gain an understanding of yourself like you’ve never had before?”
Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
are withheld from the house of your God.
Consecrate 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.
(“You can’t shoo this go away with some rituals,” says Joel, “for even your supplies are gone. Moreover, the portion that you’d take for your own sustenance is gone. What are you going to eat and drink yourself? Perhaps your hunger pangs will awaken you.”
The Lord isn’t going to allow a little bit of religion to come in and save the day, leaving everything as it was at the root level. He’s not going to let them flash a winning smile and then carry on as usual.
“So,” says Joel, “put on that itchy fabric, let it be a reminder to you to seek God. Sleep in it, mourn in it, and wake up your heart. And, then, lead the people in some authentic action, some soul action. …)
Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God?
(Did you catch that? Joel isn’t afraid of seeing the Lord’s hand in this calamity, even if the locusts have done the dirty work. He doesn’t think God is caught off guard, just as surprised as the people. He realizes that everything is under the sovereignty of God. …)
The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up. How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer.
(The first image that popped into my head when reading this was the dust storms that smacked the plains during the Great Depression. Drought, famine, animals dying. That was the setting for one of Brittany’s favorite musicals, Wizard of Oz. But no one was singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” then.
There have been some local events that have caught our attention like the tornado that hit Dayton in May, destroying Tracy’s parents home. We see folks giving humanitarian aid, and that’s very good, but very rarely do we see people coming together to do some soul work, some confession work, some repentance work. …)
I wonder if you are picking up on the hope Joel is holding out here… He’s saying, “Folks, please understand, that despite your sin—despite that your aim has been to use God (and even false gods) to procure the good life you want, to serve yourself, to look upon God as an agreeable deity largely devoted to helping you out of difficulties—God’s eye is still on you.
He is sovereign over history, locusts and armies, disasters and triumphs, the movements of empires, the rise and fall of nations are all under the sovereignty of God. And the little things in your life are under his sovereignty too.
Folks don’t really like to talk about this because they find it a terror and an encouragement, which means it’s confusing—and that’s uncomfortable. But the Bible isn’t afraid of such talk. When Jonah was in the belly of the fish wasn’t afraid to say, “All of your ways, God. You’re breakers have broken over my. It’s you sending me down to the roots of the mountains” (see Jonah 2:3–6).
I can’t tell you if this or that disaster or hardship is God’s judgment upon this or that; and the Book of Job informs sin and disasters don’t always share a linear relationship. Yet at a minimum, these things are alarms to wake us up, to become aware of how we’ve either ignored God or sought him for our own purposes.
So, there is something within our experience of distress and disasters that’s calling for us to recognize God’s sovereignty, something within the difficult experience that’s calling for us to respond to God.
I’ve asked Brittany to take a minute and to share how the Lord woke her up.
I [Brittany] have two stories to share. The first one is when my younger brother died. I was 17 and very active in church and singing ministries. My immediate response was: “God how could you do this to me? I’ve been singing for you, bringing people to you, etc.” I felt like I was at a fork in the road: go back to church, or leave Christianity altogether. I went back, but mostly out of habit and obligation.
A year later, I was in a worship class where the professor spoke of his own injury and how he’d never got healed of it while another man had. That was a “woke moment” for me; it dawned on me that I’d been relating to God wrongly. I been “doing Christianity” to get God to make my life better, to protect me from tragedies. I was self-centeredly using God, and he needed me to to see it.
My relating to God changed radically from that experience. I felt as though I was close to God: a spiritual guru, doing great things as a youth pastor and worship director. But then my husband cheated on me, and, although I forgave him multiple times, one day he announced that he was leaving me. I’d seen myself as the good one; he was lucky to have me. I was shocked that he felt differently. Over the next few weeks the Holy Spirit used the destruction of my marriage to awaken me to just how proud and self-righteousness I was. I saw that being married to me wasn’t half as delightful as I thought. I saw I was the one in need of God’s grace.
Many think that God helps us through the difficult times by making them better, or giving us a spiritual back rub, maybe a Popsicle. Certainly God gives support. Yet what he’s really doing through our locus-experiences is weening us off of ourselves and awakening us to himself.
At the end of the chapter Joel leads the way for the people by simply calling upon God. …
To you, O Lord, I call.
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 brooks are dried up,
and fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness.
Joel knows the Lord would not desert his people, even though they were sinful, even though there is judgment going on here—in the Bible fires are a symbol of judgment—so he cried out for mercy.
Left to their own devices the people would not awaken and come closer to God. But through one locust-experience after another God tears us away from ourselves, showing us our need for grace, then being that grace to us. It’s like the micro-tears that weightlifting causes to muscles; they tear then repair and grow.
Our tendency is to major either on the holiness and sovereignty of God, or his grace and mercy. But if you put one of those over the other, you get a very skewed picture of God.
His mercy doesn’t render obedience and morality unnecessary, because God is also holy. And yet at the same time God isn’t mad at us because we sin the same way again and again. He knows we’re dust; so he gives the cross.
Do you remember how John describes Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel? He writes this: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Most of us would have said “grace OR truth,” because that’s our experience of things. If someone is gracious, we think, “Well, you don’t really know the whole truth about me.” Or, if someone is truthful, we feel like we’re withering under their criticism. We tend to function as if it is “grace OR truth;” grace somehow compromises truth, and truth somehow compromises grace.
But… Jesus came “…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It’s grace because he reveals the truth about us, but it’s also truth because he reveals the God of grace who meets us with what we most need when we’ve been biblically woke’d through our locust-experiences.
We need to be woke’d to truth and grace, for only then do we find ourselves in a deeper relationship with God, able to submit to his efforts to reach us for his purposes.