The book of the prophet Joel begins by describing a destructive locust attack on the country, one that was connected to the coming of the Day of the Lord. The prophet looked around and saw “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Locusts were covering the land “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” These devouring insects were like “a great and powerful army,” and Joel predicted that “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come” (Joel 2:2). The people of Israel were challenged to repent — to change their ways and return to God with fasting and mourning.
In ancient Israel, the Day of the Lord was preceded by locusts, but the national disaster could have been caused by frogs, gnats, flies, boils, or hail — whatever would get the attention of the people. Today, we might be hit hard by a flood, a drought, a power outage, a virus, or a Wall Street crash. Many times through history, reports The Atlantic magazine, people have looked around and felt that the end was near. In the 20th century, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury predicted that we would have to colonize Mars because of a global nuclear war. Then, on December 21, 2012, the Mayan Apocalypse was supposed to occur. Those were bold predictions, but none of them happened. Astrophysicist Adam Riess says that “the universe has at least 30 billion good years left,” and our sun should last for another four to five billion years. “As for the Earth, its life span depends on how well we take care of it.” With such widespread failures to predict the future accurately, what are we to make of Joel’s expectation that “the day of the LORD is coming, it is near” (Joel 2:1)? This prophet called for national repentance, warning that a great locust plague was a sign of the beginning of the judgment of God. But Joel’s prediction was not in error, like the Mayan Apocalypse of 2012. He saw locusts and was right to call for people to respond with repentance and prayer.
The very same is true today. Regardless of the particular events going on around us, the power of the Day of the Lord is that it grabs our attention and offers us the possibility of transformation. Our challenge is to shift our focus from the outside to the inside, and to follow the guidance of Joel in making the choice to return, learn, gather and pray. First, we return to the God who says, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12). To return to God is to repent — to turn around and go in a new and opposite direction. Novelist Ron Rash tells haunting tales of the American South, especially the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. “Evil always rises up,” he says. “And yet there are always people who fight against it. I am fascinated by the war between what is best in our natures and what is worst.” When we repent, we fight against evil, return to God, and turn toward what is best inside us.
After returning, we learn about the nature of our God, one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). These are the exact words used to describe God after the people of Israel sin by making a golden calf: God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). Merciful, not wrathful. Slow to anger, not quick to condemn. Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, always working for good in our lives.
Then we gather as God’s people, knowing that a transformed life must be lived in community. “Gather the people,” says Joel; “Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast” (Joel 2:16). Gregory Boyd is an introverted pastor who has discovered that he really needs to be with others. He is now part of an extended group of about 30 people that meets once a week. “We are made in the image of the triune God, whose essence is loving community,” he concludes. “We are created for community.” Each of us is made in the image of the God who is — in God’s own self — a sacred community made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Finally, after returning, learning, and gathering in community … we pray. Between the vestibule and the altar, Joel calls for the ministers to pray, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery” (Joel 2:17). Such a prayer is called an intercession — asking God to act in the lives of others. In Joel, the ministers are asking God to spare the people, but other intercessions can request healing, strength, peace, or help. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says that intercessions should “be made for everyone … so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim 2:1-2). At the end of the day, we are supposed to pray for ourselves and others, asking for God to heal us and help us. Instead of feeling dismay, we pray — pray for God to transform us into the people that God wants us to be. This passage from Joel is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it speaks of a “day of the LORD” that motivates us to return, learn, gather, and pray. This is a day that leads to real change, for the better.
1. What meaning do you attach to the Day of the Lord, in
the past and today?
2. How is repentance, for you, a return to God and to what
is best inside you?
3. Where do you find significance in gathering in community
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