Mondays in Lent: February 24

During the Lenten season from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, you are called into a time of deep spiritual seeking. This is a time when we make spiritual preparation for Easter and the meaning of Easter in our lives. While on this journey we are repentant, vigilant and generous. The traditional practices during Lent are fasting, prayer and good works.   This year, you are once again invited to include the Lent Tithing Challenge in your good works.

Our Lent Calendar. We are providing a lent calendar again this year with a scripture for each day and a suggested practice of prayer, fasting or good works (service) each day as well. Much like an advent calendar, the lent calendar can be a center of daily family devotional time, placed on the refrigerator or another prominent place in your home and provide a wonderful start to each day as you pray the Mission Prayer, Read the Daily Bread and practice the Daily Prayer for Peace.

Fasting. Most Christians are aware that Lent is a season of fasting. “What are you giving up for Lent this year?” is a common question. Fasting makes us aware of the season and draws our focus to God. Fasting helps us to focus on the life, ministry and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Fasting also makes room for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.

Prayer. Prayer is an essential part of Lenten preparation. During Lent we recommit our life in prayer and to a life of prayer. Just as fasting makes room for good works, it also makes room for prayer and the experience of the numinous (the holy, divine presence). Gratitude expressed in prayer is also a foundation of generosity. Prayer helps us recommit in our covenant relationship with God.

Good Works. Good works are emphasized throughout the season of Lent. Through good works we experience the incarnation of Jesus, becoming the hands and feet of Jesus in ministry to a world in need. The special spiritual attention that we experience during Lent allows us to see and understand our good works as a response to the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.

Ash Wednesday. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of the Lenten season which runs this year from March 2, 2022 until Holy Week with the events of Holy Week culminating on Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022. Readings from Joel are traditional on Ash Wednesday. Why Joel? Lent in Context: Joel 2:12-14

One of the lectionary texts for Ash Wednesday is Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. Joel is a difficult writing to place in context. Unlike many of the prophetic writings, it contains no clue in its opening lines as to its historical setting. The framers of the canon placed it between Hosea and Amos as it is in the Tanakh, suggesting a traditional view of an earlier date. Scholarly consensus seems to place it in the post-exilic period (after the Babylonian exile).

This specific passage as well as the larger pericope cited above is often quoted at Lent:

12 Yet even now, says the LORD,

   return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the LORD, your God,

   for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

   and relents from punishing.

14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,

   and leave a blessing behind him,

a grain-offering and a drink-offering

   for the LORD, your God? (Joel 2:12-14)

It is easy to see why the framers of the lectionary would see this passage as consistent with the themes of fasting and repentance in Lent. So it is snatched from context to provide scriptural support for the liturgical value of fasting.

I ascribe to the view that Joel has two main parts, although I see them differently from the traditional viewpoint. For me, the two parts are Joel of the Locusts (1:4 – 2:30), which I suppose as a source material with an earlier unknown date in the post-exilic period and Joel of the Warriors  (2:31 – 3:21), which seems to come at an even later date in the post-exilic period perhaps as late as 400 B.C.E. Joel’s mention of the Hebrew chuppah or canopy (Joel 2:16) is indicative of the post-exilic period. The only other scriptural use of the term in this way is Psalm 19 which is also supposed by scholars as post-exilic. The reference to “scale the walls” (Joel 2:7) is also indicative of the post-exilic period.

My viewpoint is essentially consistent in this regard with that of James Crenshaw. (See: Crenshaw, James L. “Joel: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary.” The Anchor Bible Volume 24c. Toronto: Doubleday, 1994.)

The literary styles, tone, and thematic emphasis of the two major sections are quite different. The focus of the first part is the scourge of locusts, the repentance and worship of the congregation, and ultimately God’s promise of restoration of natural ecosystems and even spiritual blessings. But in the second part, the tone and subject shifts from the more ancient hymn relating to eco-disaster and relationship with God to the man-made problems of war and politics.

And the shift from Joel of the Locusts to Joel of the Warriors occurs without even an effective transition or link. The break in the text is awkward and without reason. Up to this point, one idea has flown lucidly from the next. Suddenly, we have a new author on the scene. None of the former material is cited as relevant to the second part and none of the latter material is foreshadowed in the first part. Then why were these two parts placed together? My theory is that while the texts were written by different authors at different times, the author of the prologue (Joel 1:1-3) most likely placed them together because he found Joel of the Locusts to be a suitable metaphorical prelude to Joel of the Warriors. It is possible, however, that the prologue was written by a third author and redactor of the text.

The prologue is quite revealing. First, the author of the prologue seems to be admitting his own uncertainty as to when Joel of the Locusts was written: “Has such a thing happened in your days or the days of your ancestors?” (Joel 1:2b) Second, the name Joel is suspiciously descriptive. The name Joel is formed by bringing together the covenant name of God, YHWH (or Yahweh), and El (god). Joel has been translated as “one to whom YHWH is God,” in other words, a worshiper of YHWH. If you don’t know the name of the author of the verses you are reading, then give him a name descriptive of his belief system, the author of Joel is a Yahwist. So Joel. And since no one has heard of this Joel, the writer of the prologue thought, we should probably provide the name of his father, that’s what other earlier writings do. So the prologue writer ascribes the name of Joel’s father as Pethuel. Again, equally suspicious for Pethuel means “God’s opening.” Third, while the verb tenses in Joel of the Locusts suggest the proximity of the author in time to the material being written, the author of the prologue seems to be writing with a sense of the legacy value of the story:

“Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.” (Joel 1:3).

Joel of the Locusts

Joel of the Locusts strikes me as a single writing in six parts. I will borrow the NRSV headings where they seem apt:

1. Lament over the Ruin of the Country (Joel 1:4 – 12).

2. A Call to Repentance and Prayer (Joel 1:13 – 20).

3. Warning of A Parallel Apocalypse (Joel 2:1 – 11).

4. A Call to Repentant Worship (Joel 2:12 – 17).

5. God’s Response and Promise (Joel 2:18 – 27).

6. God’s Spirit Poured Out (Joel 2:28 – 30).

Joel of the Locusts takes place in the context of a scourge of locusts. No passage of scripture describes the devastation and tactics of locusts with more detail than Joel:

What the cutting locust left,

   the swarming locust has eaten.

What the swarming locust left,

   the hopping locust has eaten,

and what the hopping locust left,

   the destroying locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4)

This fits with the stages of development that actual locusts undergo. For example, in the nymph stage of development the locusts have no wings and so they hop. This detailed description is also echoed in a later passage.

I will repay you for the years

   that the swarming locust has eaten,

the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,

   my great army, which I sent against you. (Joel 2:25)

Once again, Joel references the swarming, cutting, hopping and destroying locusts.

Other writers in the Old Testament who reference locusts do so almost exclusively without detail. Jeremiah for example, simply fits them into similes “troops like a swarm of locusts” (Jeremiah 51:14); “horses like bristling locusts” (Jeremiah 51:27); and metaphorically “They shall cut down her forest, says the Lord, though it is impenetrable, because they are more numerous than locusts; they are without number.” (Jeremiah 46:23). Jeremiah has no more apparent personal experience than I do with locusts (which is none). But Joel’s description of the different types most likely places him in proximity to an actual calamitous locust infestation.

Indeed, Joel’s description of the destruction caused by the locust infestation is as detailed as his description of types. More than a mere allusion, it catalogs the devastation to vines, figs, oil (olives), wheat, barley, pomegranate, palm (dates), apples and trees of the field. It is perhaps not insignificant to Joel that all of the “seven species” of Israel mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 have been devastated. It would seem that Joel may be writing in the season or two following the devastation because he bemoans even the effect that the devastation has on livestock, wild animals, storehouses, granaries (Joel 1:17-18, 20) and even the effect on watercourses that dried up (Joel 1:20, presumably due to the disruption in the hydrological cycle of local ecosystems) and a reference to pasture fires and forest fires (Joel 1:19-20).

Some have suggested that Joel’s references in these passages to locusts are metaphorical or poetic and that his subject is actual armies or foreign invaders. But the language and the details suggest the opposite. For example, “they have the appearance of horses, and like warhorses they charge” (Joel 2:4), but warriors look like people who walk upright whereas locusts do look a little bit like horses. But then later, in attempting to describe the locusts behavior he writes: “Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall” (Joel 2:7). Horses can’t climb walls, but insects can. So if you are trying to describe locusts, the simile or comparison here is to soldiers scaling the wall. And then in another simile: “they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief.” In order to describe the behavior of locusts and how they get into the house through its windows, they make yet another simile to a thief. If the whole point of the passage was to warn against an invading army, isn’t it true that soldiers break down doors not enter through windows? Yes, this is why the similitude to thieves is employed. The consistent thing being described here is the locusts and comparisons are made to whatever best helps describe their behavior (horses, warriors, or thieves).

So Joel seems to have lived through an actual ecological plague brought on by locusts and witnessed its after effects.

But his lament, seems to reason that the plight of the locusts has had an impact on the worship of the LORD (YHWH):

Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth

   for the husband of her youth.

The grain-offering and the drink-offering are cut off

   from the house of the Lord.

The priests mourn,

   the ministers of the Lord.

The fields are devastated,

   the ground mourns;

for the grain is destroyed,

   the wine dries up,

   the oil fails.  (Joel 1:9-10)

Is Joel simply further describing the effects of the locusts, or does this begin to reveal the point of the writing? He is known as Joel the prophet, not Joel the agronomist after all. To be sure, the impact of these events has been extremely devastating to the land, to Israel.

Joel seems to have been writing at a time when the rains have returned (Joel 2:23, “for he has given the early rain* for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before”). So it is well into the season, but before the crops have returned based on the future tense of the verbs in this prophetic promise: “The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.” (Joel 2:24).

So Joel is writing after a time of great devastation, his agrarian society has collapsed. It is so deep into failure, that even the most sacred of rituals cannot be observed in the temple for there is no grain offering, no drink offering, no oil. “Truly the day of the LORD is great; terrible indeed – who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11).

It is in answer to this rhetorical question, ‘who can endure it?’ that Joel issues the call to fasting and repentance in v. 12-14 so oft quoted on Ash Wednesday and in reference to the season of lent.

Joel calls everyone to “return to the LORD, your God” to receive grace and mercy. Everyone: priests, the people, all people: the aged, the children including infants, newlyweds: everyone!

Joel describes a repentance (return to the Lord) that is heavily equated with worship (a solemn assembly):

Blow the trumpet in Zion;

   sanctify a fast;

call a solemn assembly;

16   gather the people.

Sanctify the congregation. (Joel 2:15-16)

With the congregation repentant in full assembly, Joel wants to make it clear that priests must call out the LORD to regain the LORD’s favor:

17 Between the vestibule and the altar

   let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep.

Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O LORD,

   and do not make your heritage a mockery,

   a byword among the nations.

Why should it be said among the peoples,

   “Where is their God?” ’ (Joel 2:17)

Only when able to see genuine repentance and reminded of holy obligations to the people does the LORD respond. The LORD’s motivations may not even have been entirely benevolent in Joel’s view (“the LORD became jealous for his land” Joel 2:18) but ultimately took pity on the people (Joel 2:18).

The promised blessing from the LORD is detailed in Joel 2:19-27. Restoration of grain, wine, oil, soil, reputation, animals, pastures, fruit, figs, and vines are promised (Joel 2:19, 21-22). The former and latter rain are mentioned as a  fait accompli (Joel 2:23). The promised restoration is on the way. Joel is calling on everyone to rally together in repentance and worship, as if to say, let’s not mess this up, the LORD’s favor is returning to us.

Joel was writing near the end of the ecological disaster and discussed yet another dimension of the damage: the reputational and political loss. It seems likely that the temporary collapse of Israel’s agrarian economy in the aftermath of the scourge of locusts made Israel vulnerable to foreign enemies. The author of Joel of the Warriors must have found this parallel particularly appealing to his intended detailed political narrative to follow. In Joel 2:17, the plea of the priests is:

‘Spare your people, O LORD,

   and do not make your heritage a mockery,

   a byword among the nations.

Why should it be said among the peoples,

   “Where is their God?” ’

The response comes in Joel 2:25 when the LORD covenants “my people shall never again be put to shame.” Had the devastation of crop failures, drought and fire made Israel subject to an actual foreign invasion in Joel of the Locusts time? Perhaps. Joel 2:20 may in fact be referring to an actual army when it states:

I will remove the northern army far from you,

   and drive it into a parched and desolate land,

its front into the eastern sea,

   and its rear into the western sea;

its stench and foul smell will rise up.

   Surely he has done great things!

But this could just as likely be a metaphorical reference back to the actual locusts again. Regardless, there were reputational and political and religious consequences to Israel’s collapse under the locust plague. Joel of the Locusts wanted nothing to do with a return of the eco-disaster ever again. In his voice, he covenants against any such return. (Joel 2:25).

To Joel of the Locusts, the locust disaster must have felt like a precursory apocalyptic event. How else can such calamity be explained other than by an association with the “great and terrible day of the LORD” as it is in Joel 2:30? The promised outpouring of the spirit (Joel 2:28-29) is not intended as some far-off promise, but as an immediate benefit of this called for return to the Lord. Just as persons engaged in spiritual formation activities today see benefits in the present, so too was Joel’s anticipation for a repentant and worshipful people advocated for by priesthood who stood in the gap. Even in the wake of terrible disaster, Joel’s vision anticipated return to the LORD and solemn worship as a way forward to a radical spiritual rebirthing of society that crossed all lines of division: young and old, male and female, privileged and oppressed.

Centuries later Peter reclaimed that vision for the community rebirth and radical egalitarianism present on the day of Pentecost. We too have experienced seemingly apocalyptic events in our times with the great pandemic, We in our own age can recast this vision of restoration and recovery as a way forward from the disasters of our times. Lenten renewal is freely given and available to all. Return to the LORD in fasting, prayer, generosity and worship!

No Easy Fixes During Lent. We cannot rush the season of Lent. The synoptic  gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) tell us that Jesus was led into the wilderness for forty days, was tempted, was with wild beasts and waited on by angels. Metaphorically speaking, the wilderness was a liminal space, representing a boundary or transitional area where transformation occurred. Jesus was tempted with easy fixes while in the desert. The Lenten season calls us to profound transformation, one where all of our life is lived out in response to the divine mystery in Jesus Christ. Fully responding to the ministry of Jesus means immersing ourselves in the challenge to fast, pray and do good works, to be fully repentant, fully awake, and fully responsive. May you continue to be blessed in all that you do to discover and live the mission of Jesus Christ.   

Peace,

Glenn Johnson

Lamoni Heartland Mission Center President and Financial Officer