(This sermon is dedicated in loving memory of Mrs Audrey Evans 1941-2021)
Please read Joel 1 v 1-15 and pray; “Almighty God, we bow in your presence. May your Word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher, and your greater glory our supreme concern, through Jesus Christ who is Lord. Amen.”
Last week, I began this series of sermons on the prophet Joel by inviting you to imbibe with me the great and clear bible teaching that emerges out of the meaning of Joel’s name, namely the teaching that the Lord is God (the actual meaning of Joel’s name) and the Lord reigns. The bible asserts and declares that God is Sovereign and Supreme over all – including viruses. God is not some kind of weak deity who acts like a passive bystander or a helpless spectator – a kind of absentee divine landlord – the god of the deists, who believe that God created the world, and then just let it carry on in its own merry (or not so merry) way. No! The Lord reigns (Psalm 99:1f) and it is a very active, hands-on reign!
To quote the late biblical writer/theologian A.W. Pink who wrote at a time of war;
Without a doubt a world-crisis is at hand, and everywhere men are alarmed. But God is not! He is never taken by surprise. It is no unexpected emergency which now confronts him, for He is the One who “worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Ephesians 1:11) Hence, though the world is panic-stricken, the word to the believer is “Fear not”! “All things” are subject to his immediate control: “all things” are moving in accord with his eternal purpose, and therefore “all things” are “working together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose……Yet how little this is realised today even by the people of God! Many suppose that He is little more than a far-distant Spectator, taking no immediate hand in the affairs of the earth.” (The Sovereignty of God p 16)
Do you believe and live in the light of the FACT that the Lord is God and that the Lord on High reigns? Can you pray these words with King David; O Sovereign Lord, you are God! (2 Samuel 7:28a)
I outlined last week that in Joel, and indeed many of the other prophets, we see how God’s reign and providence extend over all things, including;
- God reigns over nature and the natural order. (Jesus commanded the wind to be calm and the sea to be still; see also Psalm 50: 9-12)
- God reigns over Israel, his own “called out” and separated people. (2 Samuel 7: 23-24) God also reigns over His Church which comprises of both Jew and Gentile. (Colossians 1:18)
- God reigns over all nations of the earth. The nations appear to Him like “a drop in a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15) and its people are “like grasshoppers”. (Isaiah 40:22)
- God reigns over all history – and God knows history’s end point, which Joel refers to as the Day of the Lord. (Joel 3: 14-15)
- God reigns over the salvation and judgement of the world – of all individuals and nations. (Joel 3:12ff)
Now, I want to press on with an overview of Joel chapter 1, and share with you what the word of the Lord was that came to Joel, son of Pethuel. (Joel 1:1)
Joel leaps straight into the heart of the issue facing his people and Jerusalem. A massive, unprecedented plague of locusts has recently completely ravaged the land. Although locust plagues were not an unknown quantity in this part of the world, nothing like one has occurred before. It was truly unprecedented in its magnitude and effects. (Read: Joel 1 v 2-4)
And there is of course a parallel here with what we have faced over the past 14 months with Covid-19 and the lockdowns. This has been an unprecedented period in our history relating to a virus rather than a plague of locusts. Nevertheless, we can still ask the same question Joel asked of the elders of his own people: Has anything like this happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?
I will come back to that pertinent question next week, but I want to continue with the overview. In much of the first chapter, we go on to see the devastating economic catastrophe this locust plague has caused. Israel’s economy was largely an agricultural one – and it has been laid to waste. Everything has been badly, ruinously affected. The vines are no more! The fig trees are ruined! The grain of the harvest has been completely destroyed. Everything has “dried” up (v 10,12) and withered away – whether it be the pomegranate, the palm or the apple tree. This has all led to “joy” being sucked out of the land. Joy has withered away just like the trees and vegetation. (v12) Everything has been stripped bare. (v7) The image of “white” trees is most telling – completely stripped of their bark.
Is this not what has occurred in our nation in recent months although not to same extreme extent? The economy grinding to halt with devastating effects. Millions told to stop work. Huge swathes of the economy, shut down, almost in an instant? Will some of it ever re-open? The true extent of the economic damage and the gigantic mounting debt of the country is yet to be fully revealed. The joy has been sucked out of our nation, because so much of what brings and inspires joy has simply been closed down. Joy has evaporated! Depression is at an all-time high amongst our people and at a desperately alarming level among young people and children. Protecting the NHS during Covid was one thing. Protecting it from the tsunami of serious mental health issues resulting from lockdowns will be quite another.
Let me press on to one other vital point. In Israel, there was one key thing that happened besides the calamity that hit their precious agricultural economy; the Temple worship also ground to a halt. It had been forced to stop because grain and drink offerings could no longer be offered (v8). There were now no supplies. Much of the worship life of the Temple was suspended – at least for now – and so those who “ministered before the Lord” were in mourning. The priests were effectively redundant. Can you see more parallels with our own situation? Churches asked to close. The cessation of all worship and mission activity! No services of holy communion. No gathered worship and fellowship. Mission to the neighbourhoods put on hold for months and months. No singing. We could at least pray and begin to think how we might worship without our physical buildings and their life-giving physical gatherings. I saw a sad shabbily written sign on one Church door; “Closed until further notice.” How tragic.
How does this relate to God – the God who reigns – the Holy and Awesome One who not only created but sustains and maintains this world by means of his powerful and gracious word? (Hebrews 1:3)
What was Joel’s message to the people around him about the sovereign God? Let me start with Joel and then let me circle back to our situation, because although there are many parallels as we have seen, there is one very important difference. But first to Joel and the locust plague. When true prophets like Joel spoke, their words often “cut to the heart” and to use a phrase plucked from 1 Samuel 3:11, the prophet’s message or, word from the Lord, (1:1) “made the ears of everyone who heard it – tingle! Be ready for a shock! Be prepared for a challenge! Here is the word of the Lord!
As you read and study the prophet Joel, and open yourself up to his message, you discover that the prophet compares the locust plague to an invincible army. But what is most astonishing and even shocking, is that the Lord God (Yahweh) is at the head of the army! There are two occasions in the prophecy of Joel where the ravenous “army of locusts” that has “invaded the land” are said to be the Lord’s army. In Joel 2:11 we read;
The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are the ones who obey his command.
And in Joel 2:25, one of the most famous verses in the whole of Joel’s prophecy;
I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten – the great locusts and the young locusts, the other locusts and the locust swarm – my great army that I sent among you.
So, according to Joel, the army of locusts was headed by God and sent by God. It was in other words, a direct judgement from God upon his people. The question we quickly want answered is the question why? There is no direct or clear answer to that in Joel, but we can and must assume that Israel, at the time of the plague had been in very serious breach of their covenant with God. The nation must have fallen into serious sin and idolatry, and this must have been going on for some time – because God never judges his people without patiently warning them over a long period of time through his chosen prophetic voices. In Joel 2: 13 we read something precious and significant about the nature of God;
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.
But if the prophetic voice is continually ignored with contempt, and disobedience to God’s laws of love stubbornly and defiantly maintained – then God may well judge and has every right to judge and discipline according to the covenant made with Israel, and according to his holiness and justice. And according to Deuteronomy 28:42, God may choose to judge through a plague of locusts which would devastate the land, his land, but this should then act as a significant wake up call for his disobedient and complacent people. Not only would such a plague reveal God to be holy, righteous and just, but it would also reveal that he was Lord over all, and Lord and Sovereign over all nature. You will see, you will know, that I, the Lord am God is a truth echoed throughout the Old Testament! (Joel 2:27)
We will go on to see that as well as God bringing this devastating judgment, there was to be miraculous healing and restoration of the same land, achieved by the powerful and gracious hand of God. The restoration would be absolutely amazing. God would “work wonders for them”, (Joel 2:26-27) and remove all shame. However, this amazing restoration comes ONLY after sincere heartfelt repentance.
Just to show and confirm that Yahweh, the Lord God, is Lord over all – let me turn your attention to what is perhaps the greatest event in Israelite history – the exodus. We must never forget that the first time we hear about a significant plague of locusts in the bible is in the story of the exodus from Egypt and from the oppressive and merciless regime of Pharoah who was one of the most powerful and arrogant men in the world. Do you remember the story? Moses and Aaron were sent by God to demand the release of the Israelites from bondage. Pharoah continually resisted – despite the fact that the Lord God sent 10 plagues upon Egypt. Also, do not forget that these plagues “sent by God” included a plague of frogs (Ex 8 v 1f), gnats (8:16f), flies (8:20) and locusts (Ex 10:1f). God sent and controlled the comings and goings of all these terrible plagues. Let’s look at the locusts for a moment.
Read Exodus 10 v 1-19 (see how God brings and then disperses/drives out the locusts v 13 & 19)
Now back to our present situation and crisis with a virus, and it’s resultant damage and death. Having just read what we have read, and heard what we have heard from Joel, is our present crisis with this virus a judgement from God?
I have come across voices from within the Church in different parts of the world which think it is, and they claim to be prayerful prophetic voices. Some within the Church have been saying for many years that God will at some point judge godless western nations for their deliberate and overt rejection of God and his laws. God will judge in some way – and the judgement is likely to confront and challenge where it really hurts such nations – through their wealth and economies, and a new virus like Covid would certainly stop these nations in their tracks. Could God be using such a situation to call godless wealthy nations to repent and change direction? I think it was the evangelist Billy Graham who once said, “If God does not judge our western societies, he will have to apologise to Sodom and Gomorrah”. This is the point some people are making at the present time. One of my main reasons for not agreeing with this understanding of God’s relation to Covid is that many poorer and disadvantaged nations have also been adversely affected, and will suffer much more as a result of western lockdown policies.
I am not convinced by the argument, but I can understand why some may think along those lines. One day God will judge the nations with pure justice and in righteousness and truth. This is taught in many places in the bible, including Joel chapter 3, and in the parable of the sheep and the goats through which Jesus himself spoke to the world. (Matthew 25: 31-46). This will be the “great and dreadful” day of the Lord which Joel amongst other biblical writers foretold. (Joel 3: 12-16 esp v 14)
In the bible, according to the apostle Paul, present judgement of unrighteous and godless nations comes in another way. Paul in Romans 1 from verse 18 onwards, reveals that judgement upon godless nations (in the present right now) comes by means of God withdrawing his gracious providential restraining and protective influences, and handing such nations over to their sinful choices/desires with the subsequent moral and social chaos and collapse. As nations assert their deliberate and proud desire to ditch God and his revelation, God responds in judgment by leaving nations to their own preferences, which will prove to be disastrous for them. GOD judges people/nations by “handing them over” to their preferred choice of supressing the truth about God, a precious truth and knowledge they no longer want to retain in their society, and this in turn leads to a disastrous downward spiral – spiritual, moral and social. (Romans 1:18-20 and 28). I think there are now some in our own society beginning to regret the way this nation has rejected its Judeo/Christian heritage. The future suddenly looks very bleak without God. What was meant to be “better than God” is turning out to be the swallowing of a very bitter pill which is leading to moral and spiritual chaos and sickness.
So, if the virus is not a direct judgement from God to call nations to repentance, what is it? I think we are helped more by considering two bible passage from the New Testament – one from Matthew, with teaching from the Lord Jesus (Matthew 28: 6-8, also Luke 21:11) and the other from Romans, and the teaching of the apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. (Romans 8: 18-23).
The Lord Jesus, in his Mount of Olives discourse with his disciples teaches them about the signs of the end of this age – this present evil age. (Galatians 1:3). Before he, the Son of Man returns with power and glory to judge the world and usher in the age to come, the new heaven and the new earth, there will be many signs which reveal the brokenness and “out of joint” nature of this fallen world which alert us to his definite and decisive second advent. The disciples can expect to see wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences – and there will be harsh persecution. They must not be alarmed or surprised by these ongoing signs throughout history– they will happen, (but God still reigns) for they are what Jesus calls the beginning of the birth pains. (Matthew 24:8) Like the pains of childbirth (Genesis 3:16), they will increase in intensity as time goes on, as the time for Christ’s return draws ever nearer, and the birth of the fullness of God’s kingdom waits to happen with Christ’s victorious return. Later in his teaching Jesus says that, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my word will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35) The Covid-19 virus and other such things form part of these “birth pains” which this present fallen world will have to struggle and strive with. But glorious hope and a new and pain free peaceful order is on the horizon – with the return of the King, and the kingdom of God; the kingdom will have fully and finally come. (Matthew 6:10, 1 Corinthians 15:24-25)
Paul’s teaching in Romans 8 is also really helpful. Read Romans 8 v 18-23.
We are told here that the creation was subjected to frustration or cursed by God as a result of the fall of Adam and the entrance of sin and death into the world. The creation is now frustrated and in bondage to decay – until the liberation of the children of God at Christ’s second coming. The creation is groaning as in “the pains of child birth” right up to the present time. Christian’s groan too because of all their aches and pains, troubles and sorrows, persecutions and sufferings. And even the Spirit, so active in the original creation, groans through the earnest prayers of Christians who yearn for liberation from suffering. Liberation, “glorious freedom” thank God, is on its way, both for the child of God and also for this fallen creation with all its present suffering, groaning and pain. Part of this present suffering and “pains of childbirth” is experienced through virus’s like Covid-19. But there is a sure and certain glorious future hope in Jesus – through His return, with the arrival of new heavens and new earth, and the gift and glory of new redeemed bodies. In our new home, there will be no more sighing, weeping, mourning, pain or death. (Revelation 21:4). The old order of things, of which virus’s are a part, will have passed away, and no longer will there be a curse. (Revelation 22:3)
There still remains so much mystery around the reality of God’s present reign and the existence of human suffering and pain, and there will always be questions that simply cannot be answered, for in this present evil age we see through a glass dimly. (1 Corinthians 13:12) But, in this age of decay, with all its challenges, “pains of childbirth” and “signs of the end”, God’s good plans and purposes will succeed and triumph. The Lord is God! When there are so many dangers, toils and snares – better to travel in this broken and decaying world with the Lord God Almighty than to seek to go it alone, without God and without hope (Ephesians 2:12). Joel’s prophecy, more than anything else, as we will see, bids us to return to God and honour and glorify Him with our lives. God can be our present and eternal hope. As one hymn writer puts it;
“All my hope on God is founded, all my trust He shall renew; He, my guide through changing order, only good and only true. God unknown, He alone, calls my heart to be his own.”
As Paul asserts in that glorious 8th chapter of Romans – our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us on the day we receive our full adoption as the totally liberated children of God. (Romans 8: 21 & 23)
All thanks and praise be to our God who reigns with majesty and strength. (Psalm 93:1) Amen!
Revd Peter J Clarkson (May 9th 2021)