As we near the end of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary begins to point toward Advent with prophecies that are more distinctly Messianic. After 9 hard weeks in Jeremiah which was addressed to a nation on the brink of Exile, we turn to the Minor Prophets, beginning with the one about bugs.
Joel rose out of an infestation of bugs, more properly a swarm of locusts that devastated the countryside of Israel so thoroughly that starvation was a real possibility. Joel says that this entomological disaster was God’s judgment upon his sinful people. In the midst of that message of judgment, or rather, after God responded to Israel’s repentance by delivering them from that plague, Joel is given a message of hope for God’s people not only back then, but far into the future. Indeed, this buggy prophecy includes one of the most important prophecies for the Christian church in the first and twenty first centuries. We find it in our text.
There are few if any clues in the book itself about its date of origin. Premodern scholars thought it was one of the earliest prophetic books, dating back as far as the ninth century BC. Modern scholars see it is one of the latest prophets, coming from perhaps the third century BC, long after the exile was over. Most postmodern scholars don’t think its dating is important, seeing it as a timeless message, or better as a message for all times. I lean toward the last interpretation though I see a hint of a post exilic audience in verse 32.
Interestingly, the very first word in our text is time oriented—“afterward.” The question is, after what? Well, the larger context is about the locust invasion, so “afterward” refers to the time after God sent that army of bugs against his people. The immediate context is about God’s promise to “repay you for the years the locusts have eaten (verse 25),” which suggests a post-exilic time. The following context in chapter 3 talks about the great and terrible day of the Lord when Yahweh will judge all the nations in the valley of Jehoshaphat, probably a reference to the Final Judgment in “the valley of decision (verse 14).”
So after God’s judgment upon Israel and after their deliverance and before the Final Judgment, God speaks the marvelous promise in our text. Nearly all scholars agree that it is a promise for the Messianic age, especially given the way both Peter (Acts 2) and Paul (Romans 10) apply it to the age of the church of Christ.
Just before this Messianic promise, Joel makes two other promises that were more specifically directed at Israel: the promise of abundant food after the devastation wrought by the locusts (verses 23-26b) and the promise that God’s humiliated people will never again be shamed before the nations because their God seemed to forsake his people (verses 26c-27). Both nature and nation will be restored.
But the coming Messianic age will mean more than material prosperity and national security. The coming Kingdom is not only earthly and local, it is also spiritual and universal. So, not only will God send abundant rain on Canaan and restore honor to his Jewish people, but he will also “pour out his Spirit on all people….”
Throughout the Old Testament Yahweh gave his Spirit to the occasional king, selected priests, and many prophets, but that gift was sporadic and sometimes temporary. In the Messianic age, says God, I will pour out my Spirit profusely on all people, regardless of sex, age, or social class. Both Peter and Paul (in the previously referenced passages) added all ethnicities. The Spirit will be given to “those who are far off (Acts 2:38),” meaning Gentiles who were formerly excluded from covenant blessings.
In the olden days, only a few people could know and speak the Word of God. In the new age of the Messiah, God will show his revelation to all his people. Joel speaks specifically of prophesy and dreams and visions, but the intent is that “all people will know God and his will (as we heard last week in Jeremiah 31).” All will be prophets (and priests and kings), because all will be anointed by the Spirit who is poured out by God.
As previously mentioned, Peter explained the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost by referring to this promise in Joel. “What you see and hear is the fulfillment of that ancient prophesy.” Here are men and woman, old and young, servants and masters, Jews and people from Gentile nations speaking the revelation of God. This Spirit has been sent by the Jesus whom you crucified, but whom God has declared both Lord and Christ. “I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” Those days have come.
But then in verses 30-31 God seems to speak of another day, “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” That’s an expression found in many other places in the Old Testament and elsewhere in Joel. It refers to the day when Yahweh will visit the earth in dramatic and often cataclysmic ways, as here. So, it seems as though Joel has moved from the beginning of the Messianic age at Pentecost to the end of the world at the Parousia, because signs and wonders in the heavens did not happen on Pentecost. It seems that we have moved to the end of time here.
Or, maybe God is saying that the outpouring of the Spirit is a sign of the beginning of the last times. Often I’ve been asked by anxious parishioners who have been watching the horrors of the evening news, “Do you think we are in the last days?” My answer always disappoints them, because they have been watching TV preachers with their charts and pictures about the End Times. I always say, “Yes, we’ve been in the last times since the shedding of Jesus’ blood and the outpouring of the Spirit.” Specific biblical texts say that explicitly (think of I John 2:18), but perhaps even more dramatic is this close linkage of Pentecost with Parousia in Joel 2:30-31.
Giving further credence to this interpretation is the universal promise in verse 32. “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter begins the Christ centered part of his Pentecost sermon right after he quotes those words and he ends his sermon with the promise that the salvation won by Christ is “for those who are far off, as many as the Lord shall call to him.” If that isn’t clear enough, Paul says in Romans 10:12, 13, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” And if anyone wonders which “Lord” Paul is referring to here, a quick glance at Romans 10:9 will confirm that he is talking about the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Yes, it is true that Joel 2:32 makes specific reference to Mt. Zion and Jerusalem. That, says Joel, is where “there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls.” That seems to be a reference to survivors of the Exile who return to Jerusalem, but the fact that Peter and Paul apply these words to both Jew and Gentile should be decisive in our interpretation. Besides, deliverance came to the world when Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. In a deeper sense, deliverance came from Mt. Zion/ Mt. Calvary.
The fulfillment of the promise of verse 32 over the next 2000 years is evidence that we are the last days. As Jesus promised, the Spirit was given and the church took the Gospel to the ends of the earth. When the Final Judgment comes there will be a church gathered from every nation, people, tribe and tongue, everyone who has called on the name of the Lord Jesus.
What seems at first glance to be a narrowly nationalistic little book based on the invasion of a bunch of bugs is, in fact, a gloriously universal message of hope to the nations, even those who will be judged (according to Joel 3). Your sermon on this text should focus on encouraging the “found” to speak the Word of God in the power of the Spirit and on inviting the “lost” to call on the name of the Lord Jesus and be saved.
Discerning the times is a tricky business. I remember a seminary prof illustrating that by referring to mountain ranges. That resonated with me because I grew up in Denver, Colorado, looking at the Rockies all the time. I knew that as I looked at those majestic mountains from my kitchen window, I was seeing many successive ranges, beginning with the foothills and the Front Range and culminating at the Continental Divide. Between the gentle foothills and the jagged peaks, there were many miles of ups and downs, but you couldn’t tell how far each range was from the other. What is true of distances in the mountains is true of years in God’s calendar. We can’t tell how long the last days will go on and how far we are from the peak.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 27, 2019
Joel 2:28-32 Commentary