The Book of the Twelve for Lent 2016
The Day of the Lord - Joel (2)
One scholar calls Joel the “literary anchor” of the book of the Twelve. Another calls it a collection of texts about the “Day of the Lord,” which it introduces in to the book of the Twelve (eleven times) and emphasizes more than the others eleven books. So the “Day of the Lord” stands out as the center of the message of Joel, one that sets a horizon within which we read the books that come later.
Though the phrase “Day of the Lord” tends to make contemporary western readers think of Jesus’ “second coming” when he will return to finally, fully, and forever establish God’s kingdom. But the “Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament, though it can refer to that time of God’s final intervention, often refers to other historical events in which God intervenes to judge and/or restore Israel or other nations in the interests of his overall plans and purposes for his creation. This is the use of it we meet in the book of the Twelve.
All of these events before the great and final Day of Lord share its name because they signal God’s activity in the present life of his people and world pursuing his purposes. Our lives as God’s people are never meaningless or random, though they may certainly seem so at various times and seasons. An act of divine judgment may raise the sharpest questions possible about God’s presence with and purpose for us (as did the exile to Babylon in the 6th century). Yet God’s people live by promise and hope, the unseen conviction that come what may and all evidence to the contrary, God will see us through “the thickness of things” (Franz Kafka).
This ties back to yesterday’s reflection of the divine fatherhood or parenthood of God. Fathers sometimes do things that escape their children’s comprehension and awareness as well as their sense of the right and the fair. I call on C. S. Lewis again to help us understand. In his Narnian story The Horse and His Boy a young boy named Shasta finds himself lost on a mountain ruminating on the hardships and misfortunes of his life. He becomes aware of a presence near him. He could even feel its warm breath on his cheek. He strikes up a conversation with this presence and it questions him about his life. He complains about being adopted and in some measure mistreated by a poor Calormene fisherman, and about the desperate journey that led him from Calormene to the north with a haughty and arrogant Calormene girl who thinks he is far beneath her. Once Shasta has exhausted his litany of woes, the Presence speaks. It is, of course Aslan, the great lion and Christ figure in the Narnia stories.
“I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
The great onslaught of crop-destroying locusts Israel undergoes in Joel (ch.1) is identified as a “Day of the Lord” that has come near the people, “as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (1:15). This day of “darkness and gloom,” of grim judgment has come upon a faithless people. Not as retribution but as an agent of restoration. This siege of locusts is no ineluctable fate, random happening, or purely punitive action. No! It is for the restoration of the people to their calling and vocation as God’s subversive, counter-revolutionary movement, agents of divine blessing for the world and of God’s fulfillment of his purposes.
In Joel 3 this Day of the Lord visit foreign nations. God has returned his displaced people and turns to settle matters with the nations who have taken them away (3:1-3). “The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (3:15). This is standard imagery prophets used at that time to signal political and social and upheaval attendant on a massive change of fortunes. This upheaval is due to God’s judgment (3:16-17).
This judgment is in the interest of justice and a wake-up call to Israel’s neighbors of God’s long-settled policy of blessing those nations that aid and assist Israel and cursing those that do not (Gen.12:2). Ultimately, it is a call for them to join in helping Israel in its God-given mission as they are meant to do.
The great Day of the Lord is not, in fact, Jesus’ final return to establish God’s kingdom. Rather it was his death and resurrection on that first Easter weekend! We who live in the aftermath of that Day of the Lord look back to it more than we look ahead to his final return. For that was the great act of judgment and restoration that once-for-all broke the powers which bind us and restored us to our primal calling and vocation as God’s people. As long as we hang on to that identity and calling, we can survive and perhaps even thrive in those times when God seems absent and his purposes opaque to us. For in the light of Jesus’ cross and resurrection we are assured that he is for us and our well-being and has done everything necessary to secure those for us – even when we can’t see or feel it!