Return to me
As I start this second message in the book of Joel I want to remind you of what we said about “locust-experiences” last week. Sometime the locusts come and destroy everything, but even they are under God’s sovereignty. Because that’s true we can turn our hearts to heaven and pray, asking a hard question: “Lord, what are you saying to me?”
That’s not an easy prayer. We’d much rather complain, or doubt, or look for our own solution, or all of the above.
Yet the Spirit of God is stirring in the one who turns their heart to God in prayer like that. What’s most alive in them is to lean into God, to lean into that locust-experience with wonder. And I think that’s what the Lord desires. Because in such a moment an intensely intimate relationship forms. If we attend to the locust-experiences, we’ll learn some hard, uncomfortable truths, but also find ourselves held by mercy.
Now, we saw the devastation the locusts brought last week. So, we might be expecting the Lord to say through Joel, “Hang in there! Things are bad, but they’ll get better. Just have hope.” But Joel does precisely the opposite. He doesn’t say things will get better, he says, “B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet”—sounding just like BTO too.
The Day of the Lord
The literal invasion of the locusts is used by Joel as a warning of something far worse: the coming day of the Lord.
“The day of the Lord” is a technical phrase used by many prophets to speak of a future, catastrophic, and final judgment. The day in which God intervenes in history to judge believers and unbelievers. Jesus, Peter, and Paul all spoke about that day too, telling that it would “come like a thief in the night” (Matt 24:43; 2 Peter 3:10; 1 Thess 5:2).
To be told, “Judgment is coming,” feels harsh. It’s not cozy and comfortable. So, what are we to make of it? How do we really listen to it?
I think if we realize that God wasn’t required to give a warning, that he’s not required to call people to himself. Then, we can conclude that the entire message of Joel—even the hard parts like this—fall into the category of love. “The word of the Lord came to Joel” (Joel 1:1) we read at the beginning of the book; in other words, God spoke into the spiritual poverty and moral mess, but he didn’t have to. He sounded an alarm because he loves. If you work for the fire department and a tornado report comes, you sound the warning sirens because you care, because you want people to be safe. Well, it’s the same with God.
And with that we begin at Joel 2:1:
Blow a trumpet in Zion;
sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
((The watchman are looking; they blows the trumpet; they breaks the glass and hit the red button. Wake up and smell the coffee… something is coming. Be prepared.))
Let all the inhabitants of the land 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!
Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful people;
their like has never been before,
nor will be again after them
through the years of all generations.
Fire devours before them,
and behind them a flame burns.
The land is like the garden of Eden before them,
but behind them a desolate wilderness,
and nothing escapes them.
((Everything is unmade. And notice that Joel has to tell them to tremble. Why? Because of spiritual lethargy—it’s not that they don’t take the disaster seriously, it’s that they don’t even see it.
Here’s a tough quiz to take on yourself, right now. Silently, ask God to open you to honest answers for the following questions:
How often do I need to be right?
How often do I want to control the situations and people around me?
How often do I find myself criticizing others?
How often do I find myself defending myself?
How often is retaliation on my heart or tongue?
How often is withdrawal my response to things or people to?
Please understand, I just failed that quiz. I’m a mess, frankly.
I don’t preach because I think I’ve gotten it right. I don’t say, “If you try hard you can be as good as me.” I preach because I am convinced of a truth, which we need to hear again and again, a truth that needs to be held up before our eyes regularly. And that truth is a double-edged sword, it diagnoses me and it delivers me.
I sit up here and point to Jesus who I need even more than you.))
The warning of this chapter is a diagnosis. It’s spoken into our lives, presupposing we’ll do something with it, that we’ll respond to it.
So the warning siren continues to sound, waiting for a response …
Their appearance is like the appearance of horses,
and like war horses they run.
As with the rumbling of chariots,
they leap on the tops of the mountains,
like the crackling of a flame of fire
devouring the stubble,
like a powerful army
drawn up for battle.
Before them peoples are in anguish;
all faces grow pale.
Like warriors they charge;
like soldiers they scale the wall.
They march each on his way;
they do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another;
each marches in his path;
they burst through the weapons
and are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
they run upon the walls,
they climb up into the houses,
they enter through the windows like a thief.
((“Like a thief” … it’s the same language Jesus, Peter, and Paul used speaking about the final judgment.))
The earth quakes before them;
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
The Lord utters his voice
before his army,
for his camp is exceedingly great;
he who executes his word is powerful.
For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome;
who can endure it?
((And there we are: “the day of the Lord… who can endure it?” We’re unmistakable reading about the final judgment. No one is going to out run it. Everyone will experience it. Nothing will be the same after it. No more pride, no more spiritual complacency, no more religious formalism.))
When I was preparing this message and read that I squirmed a bit, honestly. I got really uncomfortable because I realized this message was being spoken not to unbelievers, but to those who claim to be believers. Joel is preaching to the choir. He’s talking to me. “Are you listening, Dan? Are you taking this to heart? Are you letting it effect you, right now?” Honestly, I heard it, and I stopped for few minutes and confessed a few things to the Lord and repented.
What’s coming to you now in your hearing? Take note of it. God’s asking to meet with you about those behaviors, that attitude, those thoughts.
If you’re feeling a little pressure right now, then perhaps that’s a proper response. I hope you’ll attend to it. Because that’s where this passage wants to move each of us.
God is ministering to us through his word, right now.
I realize this is rather dark, that it’s a dark invitation. I realize there’s nothing glittery, no sing song salvation here. There’s no, “Follow this good example, and you’ll be saved.”
The dark invitation is actually saying: “All of human effort is utterly shipwrecked. All are naked, and thirsty, and outcasts, and sick. But very few see it and acknowledge it. Very few respond to it, becoming aware that what is most alive within them is a longing for refuge and salvation.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, there is a parable in which Jesus comes in glory with the angels and he sits on a throne. Before him are all the nations, and he separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31–33). In that scene, the criterion for rewarding the sheep is simply acceptance by faith of a King who appeared to us as the last, the lost, the least, and the little. The righteous, in that great separation of the sheep and goats, are simply those who have trusted. Their true and authentic trust has justified them.
The invitation in this chapter is about awakening to that place of trust through the process of self-examination.
Return to the Lord
What do you do once you’ve made a self-examination? Well, instruction is given in the next part of our passage.
“Yet even now,” 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.”
((In other words, despite all you’ve discovered about your inner darkness and disobedience, I’m holding out to you the hope of mercy.))
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 a drink offering
for the Lord your God?
((“Return to me” … that’s the message. God sees our hearts and he desires them to be stirred up, such that what is most alive in us is a desire to move towards him. Fasting, weeping, and mourning are all outward expressions of the inward state that God desires. King David knew that inward state and said: “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa 51:17).
So, right here, right next to the description of the day of the Lord, right next to the darkness, there’s a point of light that sparkles.))
One day in a Sunday school class a little boy described repentance as being sorry for your sins. But a little girl next to him added, “It’s being sorry enough to quit.” She was right. Repentance is essentially an about-face.
Repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia, which means “a change of mind.” And do you know what also changes when your mind changes? Typically, when your mind changes, your will follows.
Spiritual repentance involves a change of mind with regard to two relationships: the one you have with God and the one you have with your self. It involves seeing both differently.
Consider… If we look at the two greatest commandments—to love God first and to love others as much as you love yourself second (Matt 22:36-40)—and if we look at lists of sins throughout the Bible, we can discover the root of sin. The underlying factor of sin is: selfishness or self-seeking.
Therefore, loving ourselves first, “me-for-me’s sake,” is the root of sin. But what does that mean? It means seeking my identity within myself, and tossing the part of reality I’ve been made for—God and others—in the trash.
But, and it’s a big “but,” how do you arrive at the place of repentance? You don’t just decided at 2:22pm on Tuesday to repent. It’s a radical change within the mind and heart brought about by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit brings awareness of something. The Spirit bring conviction of something. The Spirit places a holy pressure on your soul.
And so … this mean—if you find that such an awareness and pressure is within you—the Spirit is near you, present with you. God is not without mercy. Mercy is there before you. The question is will you take hold of it through submission, responding to what the Spirit shows? Or will you fight against it, trying reinforce of your soul in opposition, and quench the Spirit?
I pray the Spirit’s pressure will bring you into prayer, which simply “is the natural cry of a child for a parent” (Steve Brown, Approaching God, 65).
And that prayer is the very last thing we encounter in our passage.
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.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
((There’s the prayer. It’s a cry for mercy. “Don’t let us be made to look silly in our faith, Lord. Vindicate your name by showing us mercy,” the ministers pray.
And here’s a promise from God: “I’m doing something. In the midst of all of this I’m not silent or aloof or busy on the toilet. I’m already working, already moving you towards me in prayer. I’m already present.))
My friend, Steve Brown, writes about John Warwick Montgomery in one of his books. My wife thinks I have too many degrees. Well, Montgomery held 11 earned degrees in philosophy, librarianship, theology, and law.
Anyway, Montgomery once was preaching on prayer an spent the first half of the sermon talking about the difficulty he had in preparing a particular sermon. After most of a week was gone, he decided to pray:
“Lord, it’s John.”
God answered, “I know.”
“I’m having trouble with this sermon.”
“You do know, Lord, that it is getting late, and I’ve got this deadline coming up soon.”
“I’m uncomfortable with what I’ve done so far on this sermon.”
“I know. Your discomfort is from me. That is so you would come to me.”
Then John recounted the conversation he had with God whereby he discovered some important things about prayer by praying. At the end of the sermon, John said he said, “Lord, you know something? You are incredible and wonderful.”
And then John said that God said, without a trace of arrogance, “I know.” (From Steve Brown, Approaching God, 119).
But ya know… that’s the mercy.
God brought John to prayer and then to praise. God brought John out of himself. God brought him into a place of deep dependence. That’s mercy. It really is.
Joel wonders, “Who can endure the day of the Lord?” (Joel 2:11). Well, the answer we’ve learn from today’s passage is this: The one who repents, finding themselves in deep dependance upon God. That person, when the day of the Lord comes, will look into the face of their Judge and see a Savior there.