Changing the Atmosphereby Ed de la Cour on July 28, 2014
Joel 2: 12 – 19 “CHANGING THE ATMOSPHERE” 7/27/2014
We saw it in the aftermath of 9/11: there was a spike in worship attendance, as we Americans were made aware of our vulnerability and of our need for God’s presence in our lives. That increase in attendance lasted just a few weeks, and since there were no more attacks, people quickly returned to their own lives, their own schedules, and their own priorities. The sense of urgency waned. The emergent nature of the situation faded. Too much stimulation and too much information cause people to lose interest; plus, the headlines moved on. Nowadays, Americans are so tired that we are hard pressed to have any desire to engage anywhere.
The prophet Joel began his word by describing a current situation that was terrible. People who understand motivational leadership teach us that you first begin by describing the current reality. In your description, you must make it crystal clear how bad our current reality really is. You must not be quick to offer a solution that can be ignored or argued against until you have been certain to say with conviction that the current reality, the way things are today, is impossible to maintain and is untenable. People have to understand that we cannot remain where we are, and we simply must make a conscious decision to move forward in obedience to God. I have often been guilty of trying to encourage our church to step forward without clearly describing how awful and untenable is our current situation. The awfulness of it all always seemed obvious to me, but sadly, it was never as obvious to others as I had thought.
Joel described an invasion of bugs, insects in fact, locusts to be specific. These creepy, crawly, jumping, flying, eating everything in their path kind of critters arrived in Judah and were marching across the nation, leaving nothing behind. Because Joel was spiritually sensitive, because he listened to God, he knew the locusts were not an ordinary plague. Joel knew that the locusts came to the nation of Judah by the command of God.
To anyone who might have thought this was just a normal event, in Joel 1: 2, he asked,“Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?” The question is rhetorical and the expected answer is No. Nothing like this had ever happened before. This was significant and it was important and it must not be ignored. Joel was saying, don’t go home and tell your family and friends this kind of a plague happens every once in a while and there’s nothing to worry about.
Because of the onslaught of locusts, the whole land lay in ruins. Crops were destroyed. Food for the coming year was lost. There was no wheat, no figs, no olives, no pomegranates, no grapes, and no barley. In Joel 1: 12, the prophet says, “The harvest of the field has perished.”
I suspect in response to that word, many, many people around Judah probably yawned. I suspect lots of people figured that with regard to the plague of locusts, this, too shall pass. They said, “We’ve had hard times before. We will figure it out.” Surely, the current reality was not that bad. Within the hearts of the vast majority of its citizens, there was no motivation to pray or to seek God. They were complacent. There was no sense of impending doom and there was no sense of coming judgment. Those days were just like the days of Noah. “They were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark.” (Matthew 24: 38) In a way, Joel was the Noah of his day, a preacher of righteousness, calling the people of the land to listen to God and to repent before the day of God’s judgment fell. In chapter 1, Joel issued his first call to the priests, the clergy class, to the ministers of the Gospel. The pastoral leaders were called to weep, to cry, to grieve from the heart because of the spiritual condition of the land. He called the spiritual leaders to call for a fast.
Obviously this call was issued to the leaders first, but it is not directed only at leaders. Joel 1: 14 says, “Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of your God, and cry out to the Lord.” Everyone: you, me, believers and those who are not yet committed; all were called, summoned to the house of God, and told to seek the Lord and to cry out to Him with all their might with all they have within them.
Where the people around him might have seen life as usual, Joel saw an emergency. Joel 1 is the description of how serious was the current situation they faced. In the first eleven verses of chapter 2 we see Joel’s declaration of emergency. You know how, when a natural disaster strikes, the governor of a state will declare a state of emergency. The declaration opens the door for the state to apply for federal funds to help in alleviating the disaster. In the first eleven verses of chapter two, Joel again described the awfulness of the locust invasion, how they marched in disciplined columns, how they devoured the land systematically, and how they could not be stopped. It is only at the very end of the chapter that we see this invading army belongs to the Lord God! This then is God’s doing and no one is able to evade or endure the execution of the Lord’s command. Joel declared a state of emergency.
The declaration ends in verse 11 with the further acknowledgement that this is the day of the Lord. This is the day of His judgment, the day of His wrath. This is not a day to be found asleep or bored or unconcerned. Why? Joel answered in verse 11: “For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?” Indeed, who can endure it? Who can outlast God? Who can outrun Him? Who can outwit God? Do you feel as though you are able to endure the day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment?
It is here when folks may well have nodded off or decided to change the channel. We might think it’s amazing they could do that, but just like them, we also have a very hard time responding to emergencies. As far as we are concerned, that’s the job for first responders, not us. We don’t need to respond; it’s someone else’s responsibility. But remember Joel 1: 14. Not some of the people, not just the leaders only, but everyone was called to come and seek the face of God.
Let’s think about this. There are so many areas crying out in urgency today. Think of your family and your community. Death, addiction and family breakdown are everywhere. Our nation is drowning in a sea of greed, debt, corruption, immorality and incompetence. Suicide, the fruit of desperate depression, is rampant. Substance abuse, sexual deviancy, both heterosexual and homosexual, are all the results of people choosing to live without concern for the consequences of their actions. Do we understand that all of those areas speak of serious emergencies in our community and nation? According to 2 Chronicles 7: 14, God has been calling out for His people to “humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways.” Friends, we live in a Joel 2 day!
Let’s turn our focus to the section under consideration today, verses 12 – 19, and use these verses to help us think about changing the atmosphere of Cape Cod.
People often wish they could change the circumstances of their lives. Christians also speak of the need for the spiritual atmosphere in an area to be changed. The circumstances of our lives are what they are, and they will change only at the express direction of the sovereign God. The spiritual atmosphere of an area is likewise established and it is not easily changed. Nevertheless, we long to see a difference made in the spiritual climate here on Cape Cod. We would agree that such a change is not humanly possible. As I was praying about this, I was also reading the prophet Joel. I saw the opening words of chapter 2: “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
“Yet even now” seems to indicate, even at this late hour, even though time is short, even though the situation seems hopeless and beyond repair, there is still hope. Our God is an amazing God. He has not left us without recourse. Joel says we can still return to God.
The strong point made by all the Biblical prophets is that people who think they are walking happily with Jesus need to discover they are much further away from Him than they ever thought. You may recall the prophet Amos spoke of being “at ease in Zion.” These are warning shots fired across the bow, given to self-satisfied, complacent, and religious people. God says, humble yourself. Find that deep place of humility where you are finally able to bend your knee, open your heart, confess your pride as sin, and receive from God.
Joel would say there is much more to returning to God than talking about it and singing songs. Actual deeds will accompany our confession. The deeds God seeks from us are the things we might hate, but which God will use mightily to work out His purpose and His perfect will in our hearts. For example, it is not people, or leaders, or TV preachers, but it is the Lord God who calls us to fasting. I’ve tried fasting and I don’t like it. Fasting is fiendishly hard to do. Yet, I cannot avoid the scriptural mandate nor am I able to evade it. There is a prescriptive quality to this twelfth verse. If you and I are serious, then fasting must find its way back into our lives once again.
Fasting shows me the depth of my own spiritual irresponsibility. Fasting highlights how weak I am, how distractible, how worldly, how fleshly are my ambitions and my priorities. When I have fasted, my sins are outlined in stark relief. Fasting reveals the real me. There’s no possible way I can attempt to make a good impression on God. The real me is clearly visible in all its ugly reality.
On the other hand, fasting wonderfully focuses the mind. Not only are my sins and needs revealed, but so is God’s utter sufficiency and faithfulness. Much more clearly I am able to hear His voice and understand His purpose.
Who knows? Joel says that God may just hear and respond before it is too late. Here is the nub of the problem of trying to change the atmosphere. We cannot just “make it so,” as Jean Luc Picard might say. We do not get to direct God’s response to our desires. God moves according to His sovereign purpose. Our job is to respond to Him. Our job is to return to Him as our first love. That is our first priority. If the atmosphere changes, if people suddenly become spiritually responsive and turn to God in great numbers, that is God’s sovereign act. I cannot make it happen, but I can and I must change me. I must change me. You must change you. If we were to take this invitation personally and seriously, our church will change. If our church changes, our community will be changed. If our community is changed, the spiritual atmosphere of this region will change and we will see God move as we have never seen Him move before.
There is a call here to each of us to take the lead in prayer, fasting, and crying out to God, but prayer, fasting and crying out to God are not the activity of individuals alone. RememberJoel 1: 14? It’s not just the leaders who are called, but all the inhabitants of the land. This is a call for a corporate response to God that we must not ignore. We’d like to make everything about my faith and my personal, individual relationship with God, but God says there is a corporate nature to His call. Here in the prophet Joel, God calls the whole nation to seek Him. In our case, God is calling upon the whole Church to seek Him.
Although verse 14 cautions us away from unbridled optimism by saying, “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,” the prophet is speaking a word of hope even though there is judgment afoot in the land.
We pray alone and then we have corporate times of prayer regionally and as a church. There is a tidal wave of evil storming the gates of Cape Cod. We take up the cry in Joel’s heart and beseech the Lord, “Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Why should the pagan world gain and the Kingdom of God lose?
Indeed, hope in God arises in the last two verses under our consideration today, verses 18 and 19. Here, God is stirred, and He rises up to defend His people. He declared, “I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.” No longer will the world laugh at God. No longer will the church be viewed as empty and impotent.
I say to you today that God is sounding the alarm. If we can hear the warnings and receive them as from the Lord, then we are being called not to forsake the ministry of prayer, and to engage even in the hard work of fasting. We are called to invest in the work of this church. We are called to cry out to God, as individuals and as a whole church.
People, it is time for us to lay aside our drowsiness and to become serious and persistent seekers of God.
Edmund C. de la Cour, Jr.
298 Barlows Landing Road
Post Office Box 1080
Pocasset, MA 02559