Pastor Eric Schroeder - The Third Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, June 26, 2022

Text: Joel 2:12-18

Watch Service Video

Wisconsin isn’t such a bad place to live. Maybe you’ve had one of those conversations before where you’ve discussed the pros and cons of living in various places. Florida is a nice place to visit if you can manage the humidity, but then you’d have to deal with the occasional hurricane (alligators could be a pro or a con, depending on who is judging). Arizona sounds nice in the winter but can get so hot that you don’t want to be outside during the day during the summer months. California might have some beautiful scenery, but they also have wildfires, earthquakes, and smog. Alaska has long days all summer long, but almost total darkness in the winter. What about Wisconsin? Sure, there might be cold and snow in the winter, and maybe some tornados or flooding every now and then, but generally speaking, the natural disasters here are rare and not too widespread.

What about the land of Judah? The prophet Joel ministered to a people who were intimately familiar with a disaster beyond anything that we may have ever experienced. We don’t know much about Joel other than the name of his father (Pethuel), and we have no way to know the time frame of his ministry. What we do know is that the land of Judah had very recently been devastated by a plague of… locusts, which might not sound all that scary to us. Maybe we picture a grasshopper—even a great big grasshopper—and we don’t get too excited about that. So maybe some recent events can help put things in perspective.

When it comes to locusts, it isn’t about any one particular insect…the problem is the number of them and the appetite of the swarm. You might not have heard anything about it since the rest of the world was talking about COVID, but just two years ago there was a plague of locusts in Eastern Africa, and it was the worst such event in the last 75 years. Picture a huge dark cloud rolling in at ground level—a cloud made up entirely of locusts. If conditions are right, a swarm might cover a square mile at a time, and biologists estimate that a swarm like this can be made up of over 100 million locusts. If that seems like a lot, listen to this: in northeast Kenya, a single swarm covered over 900 square miles at one time—an army able to consume as much food as 90 million people every single day! They eat the crops, and the vines, and even strip the bark off the trees; anything that they can eat, they will eat…and they keep multiplying as they ravage a region for months or even years.

Back to Joel…maybe when we think of a prophet’s job, we assume that it is all about telling the future as God reveals it. But Joel’s first task was to make clear that the recent plague of locusts was no accident, no merely natural occurrence—it was a deliberate act of God. So, the first question is this: Why would God send such devastation on his own chosen people? Our verses make it clear that God was using this physical disaster to bring about a spiritual revival among his people. In other words, God used the locusts to break up the people’s routine and grab their attention, and then he sent Joel to issue a call to repentance. What’s more, God inspired Joel to go into great detail and describe exactly the kind of repentance that the LORD was looking for.

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, 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 relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.

The call itself uses the same word that we heard Hosea use last week, and Joel employs it twice in two verses: “Return to me with all your heart…Return to the Lord your God.” And it’s a fitting description of the kind of repentance that God desires in us—picture a complete 180-degree adjustment where we turn away from our sin and turn toward God. Joel doesn’t specifically call out any particular sins here, although the context might indicate one general sin that we can all fall into: it seems that many of the people were simply going through the motions in their worship of God. They were good at going where they were supposed to go and saying what they were supposed to say and singing what they were supposed to sing and sacrificing what they were supposed to offer.

Does any of that sound familiar? Has church ever become just a routine for us, as if we can come in and sit in our normal spot and just by being here for an hour, we can call that worship? We all know how easy it is to mumble through the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed without thinking at all about what it means. Any of us can write out a check or set up online offerings as if we are simply paying one more bill. We could even join in the confession in the early part of our services as if our sins are no big deal and it doesn’t really matter because we are going to be forgiven anyway… Can we even call it worship at all if that’s how we treat our time together?

God’s Word convicts all of us; at the same time he invites us. “Return to me with all 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.” When we are genuinely and sincerely sorry for our sins, and whenever we confess them, we personally encounter a God who has every right to punish us, to make us pay for our sins for all eternity…but who loves us enough to give us the opposite of what we deserve. God reveals his character here just as he revealed it to Moses on Mount Sinai, and reminds us that even as the Almighty Lawgiver, the very one who commands absolute perfection of every human being, is also remarkably patient and forgiving, and we get to know him and his compassion every time we turn to him in repentance. We open up our hearts and we are met with a divine heart full of grace, undeserved kindness for sinful people like us, all for the sake of God’s covenant with sinners for Jesus’ sake. When our hearts are sincere, then and only then do our acts of worship become true worship.

Let’s read on. 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. 16 Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. 17 Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ ” 18 Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people.

From the sampling of society that Joel lists off, he makes it clear that repentance is for everyone, young and old, and there is never an inappropriate time. In those days the newly married were exempt from military service for a year, but they weren’t exempt from repentance. All are sinful. All need to repent. It’s a point that is just as relevant today as it was back then. We all need forgiveness, and we turn to God in repentance because in Christ, we have forgiveness in full measure.

Towards the end here, we see a question that maybe we’ve heard before. Likely it isn’t a locust invasion, but it might be another natural disaster, a war, or an act of violence that we read about. It might even be a question that we ask ourselves in a time when it seems like everything is falling apart around us…”Where is God?” And to be sure, it can be hard to picture why God would allow such things or even send such things, unless we pause and think that God might be using temporary hardship to spare us from something far worse. Here’s what I mean. In Joel’s day, it might have been a natural response to go through a locust plague and a resulting famine and think that nothing could be worse. But God also inspired Joel to use this event as a preview of what he calls, “The Day of the Lord.” Other prophets use the same expression, and most of the time God is reminding his people that someday this world will end and make way for eternity. On that day, “every eye will see him” and no one will ask, “Where is God,” because he will be standing here to judge the living and the dead. The problem is that for so many people who failed to repent in this life, that day will be too late.

Until then, whenever we hear someone ask “Where is God,” or we are tempted to wonder ourselves, we get to look through the eyes of the New Testament and see Jesus first on a cross, and then coming out of a newly empty tomb. “There is God!” And we get to be 100% certain just how gracious and compassionate our God is, and exactly how he took pity on us. We see that our forgiveness wasn’t free, but it won’t cost us a thing because Jesus made the full payment when he was nailed to a cross, where he bled and died for the sins of the world. His heart was pierced instead of ours, and by his wounds we are healed.

Wisconsin isn’t such a bad place to live, but it pales in comparison to the home that Jesus won for us. Thank God for teaching us to repent, to turn from our sin and turn in faith to Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who promises that he will rescue us from this world of disaster and danger and give us life everlasting with him. May his Spirit ever work in us, that we live lives of repentance and cling to our Savior Jesus. Amen.