Some I EXPECTED. Like Mark, who said God grabs his attention IN CREATION – with jaw-dropping beauty and majesty. Or Ross, who said God shouted at him through NATURAL DISASTERS – like the Boxing Day Tsunami.
Then there was Daphne who said that God grabs her attention through family sickness and difficult times. And Kathryn who said he did through a car accident.
Some were LESS obvious. Tom said that God gets his attention when there’s NO INTERNET ACCESS. And Kristian said that HIS WIFE has been used by God to get his attention. What a good wife!
God can use ALL SORTS of ways to get our attention. And he NEEDS to. Because we’re SO EASILY DISTRACTED. We’re so quick to take our eyes off him, and onto OTHER things. Or onto OURSELVES. So quick to think life is about US making the decisions and steering the ship.
When God wants us to put everything into HIS hands. To CONFESS our independence and rebellion. To walk humbly before him. Recognising our helplessness and need and our DEBT before him.
And that’s why some of the things people mentioned were TERRIBLE things. Like car accidents and family sickness. But God can USE those things to teach us to TRUST him. To put him FIRST. To break our pride. And to make us patient. And to fix our hope on eternity.
But the truth is we don’t really know if it’s GOD who’s trying to get our attention through those difficult things. Or if it’s just the way things work out.
Often, we only work out AFTERWARDS that God’s been using them to teach us things, or to change us. As we LOOK BACK. As we look at the FRUIT of the circumstances.
Or perhaps we haven’t even worked it out OURSELVES. Perhaps SOMEONE ELSE has noticed how we’ve changed. How we have a different ATTITUDE. A contentment. A hope. A humility.
And the REASON it’s tough to work out. The reason it’s so tricky to decide if God’s using circumstances to speak is that there’s NO WORDS that go WITH it. We don’t have HIS WORD to tell what the message IS. We just have him banging on our heads to get our attention. But then not specifically telling us what his message is.
Except through his promises in the Bible. Which speak in a more GENERAL sort of way.
The truth is we only know if God’s trying to get our attention if HE TELLS US. Which is what he does for Israel in the book of Joel. It’s what makes the message of JOEL so different.
God’s using natural disasters to grab the attention of his people. In this case, a plague of locusts. A fairly standard event. Terrible! But not that unusual.
But what sets it apart is that he COMBINES it with his prophetic WORD. He SPEAKS to them once he’s got their attention. See it there? The very first verse of the book. Ch 1 v1
1:1 THE WORD OF THE LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel.
We don’t know anything else about Joel. We don’t know WHEN he lived or WHERE he lived. There’s no historical circumstances we can work out to help us know the setting. And I reckon that means it was some time AFTER Israel had returned from exile. Some time after 500 BC.
Babylon ruled over them, sure. But they’d rebuilt their temple, and life was pretty normal. There was peace. Which was A PROBLEM, because it brought complacency and pride with it.
Which is where JOEL comes in. Because he’s got a word from God for God’s people. v2
2 Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?
4 What the locust SWARM has left, the GREAT locusts have eaten; what the GREAT locusts have left, the YOUNG locusts have eaten; what the YOUNG locusts have left, OTHER locusts have eaten.
Complete devastation. Not a green leaf left. On trees or bushes or grass. Everything stripped bare.
V6. It’s like A NATION has invaded. Teeth of a lion.
Bad news if you’re one of three groups ESPECIALLY.
V5. Drunkards. Wine will be in short supply if there’s no grapes. Looks like you’re going cold turkey!
Or v9. The priests at the temple. Every day they’d offer grain offerings and drink offerings of wine. But when there’s no grain and no wine, then there’s no offerings. And when there’s no offerings, there’s no fellowship with their God.
And finally, v11, the FARMERS. They feel drought and destruction of crops much worse than WE do. We just pay more for our food, or buy something else. But it RUINS farmers.
11 Despair, you farmers, wail, you vine growers; grieve for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field is destroyed.
It’s a terrible situation. The nation’s on the ropes. No wine, no offerings, no food.
How to respond when God grabs your attention
It seems hopeless. But that’s where Joel’s message comes in. Because he’s come to tell them HOW TO RESPOND when God grabs your attention
You see, God doesn’t just bring tragedy on his people FOR NO REASON. This is no RANDOM disaster. God’s not fickle or unpredictable.
He’s RELIABLE and FAITHFUL. He ALWAYS keeps his word.
And the reality is he’d already WARNED Israel what would happen. And God ALWAYS keeps his word.
Back in Deut 28 (p144 – just flip back there for a moment). The people are about to enter the promised land. Perhaps 1000 years before Joel. And Moses spells out the covenant agreement they’re making with God. If they FOLLOW God. If they fully obey him, and walk in his ways. He’ll BLESS them. Children, crops, enemies defeated. They’ll be established as his holy people. v12.
12 The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands.
But then God promises the OTHER side of the agreement. If they DON’T obey him and follow his commands, they’ll be CURSED. Diseases, closed wombs. V22 scorching heat, blight and mildew. V25. The LORD will cause you to be defeat before your enemies.
V28. The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind.
All sorts of terrible things. INCLUDING, down in v38.
38 You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little, BECAUSE LOCUSTS WILL DEVOUR IT.
And then down in v42.
42 Swarms of locusts will take over all your trees and the crops of your land.
God PROMISED it. And God DELIVERED it in Joel’s generation. Because the people had FAILED to follow him. God brings the curses of the covenant on them. And the locusts strip the land bare.
But there’s a PURPOSE to it all. It’s not just meaningless. That’s God’s message through Joel. He tells them how to RESPOND when God grabs your attention. (Back over in Joel again)
And the FIRST way, ch 1 v13, is you MOURN. EVERYONE. The priests and the elders are to organise a .NATIONAL DAY OF MOURNING.
Cry out to the LORD (1:15)
But not just grief IN GENERAL. Direct it towards GOD. The end of v14. “Summon all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God and cry out TO THE LORD.”
He’s the one you’ve SINNED against. He’s the One who can do something about it.
And it’s not just a plea for GOD to do all the moving. All the CHANGING. Flip over to Ch 2 v12. The way to respond when God gets your attention is to mourn, to cry out to the LORD. But then to RETURN TO HIM IN REPENTANCE. That’s the whole reason he brought the disaster IN THE FIRST PLACE. Ch 2 v12.
12’Even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ 13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God,
To REND is to TEAR. And God wants sinful people to respond to him with torn HEARTS. Repentant, sorrowful hearts. Desperate for mercy and forgiveness. Desperate to make amends. To try harder to obey.
That’s what he wants.
And there’s TWO EXTRA INCENTIVES in Joel’s plea that the people mourn and return to God. One NEGATIVE and one POSITIVE.
There’s worse to come
First, the NEGATIVE. The people are to call out to God because of what’s ALREADY HAPPENED. (Look there at the end of Ch 1, v19.)
19 To you, O LORD, I call, for fire has devoured the open pastures and flames have burned up all the trees of the field
Already happened. And there’s nothing left. Nothing to eat or drink or sacrifice.
Which is bad enough. But there’s worse to come. Read on into Ch 2.
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, FOR THE DAY OF THE LORD IS COMING. It is close at hand- 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come.
So, what’s the day of the LORD? It’s the day when God’s POWER will be seen. In THIS case, Joel’s talking about a future event when an army will march against God’s people.
And they can’t expect any help from God. Because he’s marching at the HEAD of it. He’s the One who’s bringing it all on. Look down to v10.
10 Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 11 THE LORD THUNDERS AT THE HEAD OF HIS ARMY; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?
Joel’s saying, “If you thought the FIRST plague was bad, wait until you see WHAT’S NEXT!”
So what IS it? Is it an army? Certainly v2 calls it “a large and mighty army”. It’s an army in v10, too.
But I reckon it’s just a metaphor for MORE LOCUSTS. Look at how they’re described. V3.
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste- nothing escapes them. 4 They have the APPEARANCE of horses; they gallop along LIKE cavalry. 5 With a noise LIKE that of chariots they leap over the mountaintops, like a crackling fire consuming stubble, LIKE a mighty army drawn up for battle.
7 They charge like warriors; they scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course. 8 They do not jostle each other; each marches straight ahead. They plunge through defenses without breaking ranks. 9 They rush upon the city; they run along the wall. They climb into the houses; like thieves they enter through the windows.
Isn’t that just like a locust plague? NOTHING can stop them. Walls, pits, mountains. Doors or windows!
But, ultimately, it doesn’t really MATTER. Whether it’s locusts described using the metaphor of an army. Or an army described using the metaphor of locusts. The point is the same. It’s THE LORD’S DAY. When he comes in judgment.
And Joel finishes his warning (v11)
The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?
God abounds in love
Well, if it weren’t for God, the answer to Joel’s question would be, “No one!” Because we’re HELPLESS before a natural disaster like a locust plague.
Just like we are before a tsunami. Or a drought. Or bushfire. Or flood.
But God answers the question, v12. The only person who stands A CHANCE of surviving the day of the LORD is the person who throws himself on God’s mercy
That’s the POSITIVE incentive to return to God. Because he LOVES to forgive. “Who can endure it?” says Joel.
God answers (v12), “I’ll tell you. But EVEN NOW, with the locusts swarming in the desert, return to me with fasting, weeping and mourning.”
Joel joins in “Rend your HEART.
Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. 14 Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing- grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.
He LOVES a torn heart. And he HATES to send disaster. He’s GRACIOUS, and COMPASSIONATE. And SLOW to ANGER. He MIGHT have pity.
What about us?
And it’s that same plea God makes TO US. “Return to me!”
We may not experience LOCUST PLAGUES. But it MIGHT be sickness or unemployment or a car crash or no internet or beauty in nature or our wives. God will use ANY MEANS to get our attention. To get our attention off OURSELVES and onto HIM. To get our attention of the beauty of HIS WORLD. And onto God’s OWN beauty. To turn us around from rebels doing our OWN thing. To Children, living obediently, for HIS honour and glory.
Jesus – God’s ultimate attention-grabber
We may not have the SPECIFIC word applied to our natural disasters and tragedies that JOEL did. But we do have a very DEFINITE advantage over Israel. We’ve been privileged to witness God’s ULTIMATE attention-grabber. JESUS. Heb 1 says
1:1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days HE HAS SPOKEN TO US BY HIS SON, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
There came a point when God had HAD ENOUGH of prophets. So he sent his son instead. Jesus, God himself, with skin and bones.
And humanity SAW him. Touched and heard him. And he’s spoken a much clearer word than the PROPHETS ever did. And communicated God’s character much more RICHLY.
And, while Joel, can only ask the question, “Who can endure the day of the LORD?” And be uncertain about the answer. “Who knows?” We’re under NO DOUBT who can endure the day of the LORD. The day of God’s JUDGMENT.
Because those of us who belong to Jesus need never fear God’s curse. Unlike Israel. We need not FEAR the dreadful day of the LORD.
The Christian life might have plenty of tough times. It WILL have plenty. That’s God’s promise. But whatever happens to us, it’s not PUNISHMENT. Not CURSE.
Galatians 3.13 puts it like this.
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law BY BECOMING A CURSE FOR US, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that THE BLESSING GIVEN TO ABRAHAM MIGHT COME TO THE GENTILES THROUGH CHRIST JESUS, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
There’s a sermon itself in those couple of verses. But the BASIC idea is that Jesus suffered all God’s just judgment in our place. So that we didn’t HAVE to. He was CURSED that we might be BLESSED. Which is what we have NOW. Even if sometimes life SEEMS like curses.
Blessed with knowing GOD HIMSELF through JESUS. Blessed with his forgiveness and grace and love. Blessed with purpose and perspective and joy and meaning. Blessed with an eternal inheritance. Blessed with his Spirit living with us. Giving us the ABILITY to repent and to serve him truly. More on that next week.
And it’s HIS Spirit who enables us to ANSWER Joel’s question. “Who can endure the day of the LORD?”
“I CAN!,” We answer, “Because I belong to Jesus. Who took God’s curse FOR me!”
So what should we think about those OTHER attention-grabbers? The sickness and the natural disasters and the tragedies?
ONE part of the answer is to say that’s the way the world is. We live in a fallen and broken world. The sin of Adam and Eve. And of you and me. It’s had CONSEQUENCES for God’s WORLD. Romans 8:20-22 says
Creation was subjected to FRUSTRATION, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay…The whole creation has been GROANING as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
God’s world is a frustrating and groaning and broken place. And God’s ALLOWED it. Because ONE DAY, he’s going to RESTORE it. RENEW it. Because he’s going to RENEW US.
And in the meantime, he’s going to USE that brokenness and frustration FOR HIS PURPOSES. Just like he did with the locusts. Romans 8 goes on. V28.
28 And we know that in ALL things God works for the GOOD of those who love him, who have been CALLED ACCORDING TO HIS PURPOSE. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined TO BE CONFORMED TO THE LIKENESS OF HIS SON,
God’s got it all planned out. It all happens so that we’ll become more like Jesus.
It’s the same reason an EARTHLY father disciplines his kids. To make them better. To teach them manners, or to be safe, or what’s right and wrong. Heb 12:7-11 encourages us to
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as SONS. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are NOT disciplined …then you are ILLEGITIMATE children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had HUMAN fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. HOW MUCH MORE should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for OUR GOOD, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces A HARVEST OF RIGHTEOUSNESS AND PEACE FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN TRAINED BY IT.
THAT’S the way to respond when God’s trying to get your attention to it. To rend your heart. To throw yourself on his mercy. To recognise the hand of discipline of a loving Father. Who works ALL things for your good. Good that means he’s conforming you to the likeness of Jesus. Planting a harvest of righteousness and peace in you. All for HIS glory. Amen.