September 6
“Rend Your Heart”

About 45 miles from my hometown is the city of Enterprise, Alabama. Downtown on the city square, there is a monument to an insect, the boll weevil.
The monument credits the boll weevil with bringing economic diversification to the Southern United States.

The boll weevil came out of Mexico and reached Alabama in 1909. By the mid-1920s, it had infested all the cotton regions of the United States.
This tiny insect destroyed the cotton industry and the economic lives of thousands of people.

Cotton had long been associated with slavery, as whites owned the land and used slaves to work it.

After emancipation, whites still controlled the land.
Blacks and poor whites remained at the mercy of those who owned the land, but it was mostly blacks that worked cotton, many as sharecroppers, to earn a measly wage. The boll weevil changed all of that.

This year, a Journal of Economic History study found that the boll weevil contributed to fewer lynchings, less Confederate monument construction, less KKK activity, and higher non-white voter registration.

I’ve never heard anyone say that God sent the boll weevil as a judgment on the South for how it treated blacks and even poor whites, but if Joel had been around during the 1920s and ’30s, it’s something he might have said.

Joel was a prophet that lived around 800 B.C. during a time when Judah was experiencing prosperity and security.

Then the prosperity and security came to a halt.

The country was hit by an invasion of locusts that Joel said was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. He said it was something you would tell your grandchildren about, and they would tell their children about it.

The locust covered every living thing and ate every edible plant. They ate their grapevines, ruined their fig trees, and destroyed their wheat crop. Their figs, pomegranates, and apple trees were all stripped bare.

Joel, the first of the writing prophets, had a flair for wordsmithing. For example, he said in verse six of chapter one of the locusts: “A nation has invaded my land, powerful and without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness.”

He says at the end of verse twelve that it was so bad that the insects had taken away their joy.

If Joel were living today, what do you think he’d say about COVID-19?

He might say that it’s an enemy that cannot be seen, but once it attacks, it can wipe out an entire family, close down airports, shut down cities, cripple economies, sideline entire sports leagues, and alter the comings and goings of a whole nation.

The locusts took away their food and created a famine. These people were facing much more than economic depression. They were going to face starvation unless they could find another food source.

People of Joel’s day believed in a cursed/reward view of God. God blessed those that lived right and cursed those that did not.

While there is some truth in this theology, it runs into trouble when you see wicked people prospering and good people suffering.
The book of Job was written to poke holes in this theology.

The cursed/reward view of God developed from the preaching of people like Joel.

Joel tied the locust infestation to the nation of Israel’s failure to keep their covenant with God.

While Joel does not lay out just one grave sin against Israel, it can be summed up in these words: “Israel turned away from God.”

While this is true, you can assume that some people in Israel were serving God faithfully.

Joel isn’t alone as he called Israel out for their sins. He was influenced by the
prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Zephaniah, and Malachi.

What all these prophets have in common is that they called Israel to repent.
Joel starts with the priests, with those who led the people.

“Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar. Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God; for the grain offerings and drink offerings are withheld from God’s house.
Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. Alas for that day! For the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.” (1:13-15)

He told the priests to spend time mourning before the altar.

The closest thing to sackcloth we have is black clothing. It symbolizes grief. He told the priest to sleep in their mourning clothes.
He told the priests to proclaim a holy fast.

Usually, such a fast lasted one day. People abstained from all the normal activities of life to concentrate on attending a public assembly. There they were asked to wail, pray, and repent of their sins before God.

These ceremonies would not look like any of our expressions of worship before God. You and I would get to the door of a service like this service and we would turn around and leave.

The people would be crying out to God with loud wailing and weeping. They would be tearing their clothes, sprinkling themselves with dust and ashes, pouring out water to symbolize their weeping, stretching out their hands toward heaven, and praying to God to forgive them and take away the terrible things that were happening to them.

It wasn’t just the terrible locust infestation that they were asking God to take away.
Joel gave them something else to think about.

He said, “That day—the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty” (Joel 1:15 NIV).

Joel was saying to the people, “If you think the locusts are bad, you better be prayed up and living for God when God decides to bring this world to a conclusion.”

In Joel, the Day of the Lord becomes a prominent theme.

The phrase “The Day of the Lord,” or “That Day” is mentioned 75 times in the Bible. In three chapters, Joel mentions it six times.

This phrase refers to a day of final judgment when God will establish divine rule over the earth.

Joel joins prophets like Amos, Zephaniah, and others who tell us “That Day,” or The Day of the Lord is a day of judgment. It is a day when God will do away with sin forever.

It is a day when all of us will stand before the judgment seat of God and be held accountable to God.

The New Testament tells us that we will be held accountable to the Lord Jesus for our love, trust, obedience, or lack of it.

Listen to Paul’s words to the church at Rome:
…Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. (Romans 14:9-10)

Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” (Matthew 12:20)

Every careless word.

We might do well to start holding our tongues more.
This judgment stuff is heavy.

When the people showed their grief and despair in worship, they would sometimes cry out to God and tear their clothing. But Joel says, “God wants you to rend your hearts.”

Open up your hearts to God. Let God in because he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love.

Is your heart open to God this morning? If so, God does not want you to stay the same, do everything in the same way, or go to the same places doing the same things.

When our hearts are open to God, He becomes real enough that we should want to make changes and become more like Jesus.

Joel told the people if they would open their hearts, God would relent in sending calamity.

So, from this, can we infer that sometimes calamity is sent by God, or at the least that God allows it to come?

That is at least what Joel believed.

However you answer that, we must be cautious not to jump to a cause/effect, black/white theology that says every calamity is sent by God because other writers in the Bible did not believe that.  Again, the book of Job is clear that this is not true.

Disasters happen as a part of the natural world in which we live. There is no reason to spiritualize every one.

Once a tower fell on a group of people in Jerusalem killing many of them, people were saying that these people must have died because they were bad people and Jesus said: ”Of those 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4) NIV

People were saying that those people died because they were being judged by God.  But Jesus said, “These people were no more guilty than any of the others living in Jerusalem.”

Innocent people die. Good people die.  Jesus said these people did not die because God was judging them for something they had done wrong.

Even so, Joel uses dark language about the locusts as a metaphor to tell Israel and us what it will be like on the Day of the Lord.

He said, “The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command.
The day of the Lord great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11 NIV)

Joel speaks of a judgment that will come at the end of time.

The Bible teaches us that God will bring the world to a concluding end, and all of us will have to give an account to God for our actions.

Joel says that this will be a dreadful day. “Who will be able to endure this day?” he asks.
Amid this dark, foreboding tone, Joel gave the people a glimmer of hope.

In chapter 2:13, he writes:
“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. Who knows? He may turn and have pity.
And leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.”

Even though Joel is preaching judgment, judgment is not what dominates the character of God.

God does not relish in retribution any more than a parent relishes in having to punish a child.

God had much rather provide us with joyful gifts.

For this reason, Joel says, God is known to be
“gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and he is abounding in love” (2:13).

These are the attributes of God that we see in Jesus.

While none of us can endure the Day of the Lord, we will not have to if we have placed our faith in Jesus.

The Day of Judgment will not be a day that we have to fear.

In writing to the church of Thessalonica, Paul wrote: “Whether we have died or whether we are still living, the Lord will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so, we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17a)

This is a happy ending for those that rend their hearts and return to God.

You might be saying, “Well, I never left God,” but all of us are initially separated from God because we willfully live life according to our own standards and not God’s.

To be in a relationship with God, Joel said, “Rend your hearts. Return to God.”

The Psalmist said, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17 NIV)

God is looking for humility in us and for us to confess that we need Him in our lives.

Jesus told the story of “Two men (that) went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

13 “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'”

14 Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” (Luke 18:10-14)

Joel’s words were encouraging to Israel. He told them if they would repent, God would bless them.

He said their threshing floors would be filled with grain. God would send abundant rain. Their vats would overflow with wine and oil. They would have plenty to eat.

More than the physical blessings, Joel said that there would be spiritual blessings because God would pour out his Spirit on them.

He said, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (2:29)

If you want to have a Spirit-filled life, and a Spirit-filled church, then Joel has given us the answer.

Joel says to rend your hearts. Joel says, “Don’t play church. Be real with God.”

Have you ever heard the expression, “Dance like nobody’s watching?” Well, we need to worship God like nobody’s watching.

I’m not suggesting that we must show emotion to prove that we are having some inward experience with God.

I am saying that we should not be ashamed to respond to the moving of God’s Spirit, whatever that looks like for you.

When the Spirit of God moves, we should respond.

Joel says in 2:32a: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Everyone? Everyone.

Even the thief on the cross.

For Joel, the evidence that God had saved people was a return of crops, and rain, and disappearance of the locusts.

What is the evidence that you have been saved?

After Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, the disciples gathered in Jerusalem with God-fearing Jews from many surrounding nations.

And while they were there, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting…All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…”

The people were heard speaking to each other in their own languages.

Attempting to explain what was happening, Peter quoted the prophet, Joel:

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy (which is another word for preach).
Your young men will see visions,
Your old men will dream dreams.

“Even on my servants, both men, and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

Has God’s Spirit been poured out on you?

When his Spirit is poured out on us, it leads us to repentance. We are empowered for ministry. We are excited to share with others what Jesus is doing in our lives.

If that’s not you, then you need to rend your heart.

You need to bend your knees and confess your sins and pray for God to touch you with his love and grace.  God will do the rest.

How can you expect God to fill you with His Spirit if you do not open up your heart to receive what He has for you?

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