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Where’s God’s mercy? (January 29, 2023)

A uniform lesson for January 29, 2023.

Uniform Lesson for January 29, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Joel 2:21-27

There may be no darkness-to-light experience as stunning as the lifting of a plague of locusts. In certain parts of the world, a horde of locusts can be so dense that it blocks out the light of the sun, like the text shares in verse two: “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Midwesterners may think of dust storms and tornadoes. Coastal folk may imagine hurricanes. City dwellers may remember Code Red days when the smog of internal combustion engines reduced the sun to an angry smear. Whether we take Joel’s locusts literally, as a plague of winged insects, or figuratively as an invasion of armies from the north, the prophecies of Joel forecast a day when God’s people will be cloaked in darkness due to God’s judgment followed by a day of renewal and celebration due to God’s mercy. What’s most remarkable about these particular promises is to whom they are addressed: not only to “the children of Zion” but to the soil, the cedars and the sea hawks (vv. 21-23). How wide, we might ask, are the bounds of God’s mercy?

The scope of God’s judgment

While we most often read later verses in Joel around Pentecost, we seldom read the earlier verses of impending destruction. It would be hard to imagine a more devastating description of impending disaster. The locusts fly in on a series of devastating raids (Joel 1:4). The fig trees are splintered and stripped of their bark (Joel 1:7). “The fields are devastated, the ground mourns” (Joel 1:10). And, finally, “joy withers away among the people” (Joel 2:12). A judgment that begins in nature, ends with a human toll. God judges God’s people by judging the creation as a whole. We creatures of dust cannot rejoice when the soil is in mourning.

Detached from Pentecost, it’s impossible to read the book of Joel without thinking of the Spirit in a more ecological context. Just as God made the whole of creation good, so God can allow the world’s forces to move in a decidedly un-good fashion. Swarms of locusts can get out of control. Storms can become even more ferocious and devastating. Soil can turn toxic, oceans can rise and pollutants can block out the life-giving light of the sun. The portents of the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood of Joel 2:30 have often been heard in “supernatural” terms, but human neglect and over-consumption can rain down a judgment that not only dries up homo sapiens’ hope, but the hope of the whole creation. In Joel, the bounds of God’s judgment are broad indeed.

The scope of God’s mercy

Maybe it now becomes clear why our lesson begins with God, through Joel talking to the dirt (v. 21). God then moves to the animals, the pastures and the trees bearing fruit (v. 22). Only then does God address God’s people: “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God” (v. 23). Why? Because God has “given the early rain for your vindication,” and “the early and later rain, as before” (v. 23). God’s redemption in Joel begins in the soil, then moves to plants and animals, and, lastly, to you and me. This is a reverse judgment story; a new creation parable. God cannot judge or save people without judging and saving the rest of creation. We are inextricably linked together: from the soil, to the cities, and to the stars. Yes, as the hymn “There’s a Wideness to God’s Mercy” states, as there’s a “wideness” to God’s judgment, there’s a countervailing “wideness” to God’s mercy, “as the wideness of the sea.” To continue: “there is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven/ there is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.”

Never again

We must therefore wrestle this week with the deep connection between human sinfulness and the hope of all creation. Just as our recklessness can cause all nature to sorrow, so our faithfulness might help all of nature sing. I’m left haunted by the promise with which our passage ends. What is the sign that God is amid God’s people? God promises God’s people will “never again” encounter such shame or devastation (v. 26). Tell that to the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. Sing it to the residents of New Orleans. Prophesy it to the polar bears or the Arctic glaciers. This promise comes with an edge, reminding us that our “shame” and the “shame” of creation are woven together in an inextricable way (v. 26).

For discussion:

What is God saying to the soil today?

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