As I work on this assignment, I can’t escape the fact that I am writing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I acknowledge this because it is both difficult and necessary for us to imagine better days ahead. In the midst of incalculable suffering and grief, hope persists. Creative use of technology and social media are bringing art to masses of people stuck at home. Medical personnel on the front lines are being thanked with nightly cheers, the gift of meals, and homemade masks.
The role of the prophet was to help the people see beyond the current devastation to a better future, one that was more just and inclusive of all people. We see this type of dream in Paul’s writing in Galatians 3:28 as well: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Sometimes living through tragic circumstances brings a clarity that inspires people to grasp a radically different future for the wider world.
Joel’s vision of abundance is a stark contrast to the widespread destruction the ancient Israelites have endured. The same community Joel gathered to weep and fast will now experience God’s spirit pouring out on all of them: young and old, sons and daughters, even those enslaved will experience the freedom God gives.
The ability to dream dreams and see visions comes from the hope God provides even—or especially—in the midst of traumatic events.
What dreams and visions of abundance is God giving you for our world? How can you be a part of God’s work in the world to bring these about?
God, grant me a vision of abundance, inclusion, and freedom that challenges and inspires me to action. Amen.
This passage in Joel is one of the lectionary readings for Thanksgiving Day. You can imagine it being read aloud at a Thanksgiving Service, with its images of lush, green pastures, abundant rain, and vats overflowing with grain and oil. So tied to the land, the people of Israel viewed fruit trees and vines bursting with fruit as a tangible sign of God’s blessing. Looking back on the previous chapters reminds us that all this bounty comes after a period of intense suffering and scarcity in which harvests were ruined, animals starved, and the people’s joy completely withered away.
But now, things are dramatically different, and these images of restoration and plenty exceed their past painful memories. God’s presence is assured, as is their complete recovery:
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 (v. 25).
Would the Israelites in today’s passage have recognized their abundance if they had never known such scarcity? Would they have taken for granted the gifts God rained down upon them if they had never experienced a dry spell? Were there unseen gifts of community and grace even in the harshest of times? In between the experience of loss and the experience of riches, the Israelites find their way back to God. Maybe it was in being again brought near to God that they are able to see the sweep of their lives, and all its happenings, as infused with God’s abiding love.
What current struggle of yours may be a “seed” for a better tomorrow? How could you cultivate that idea by living in ways that bring you deeper hope?
God, give me a fresh perspective when I need it. Remind me that I see things only in part, and that there’s an abundance of grace when I return to you. Amen.
My husband John tells a story from elementary school when he and his siblings decided to run away. Although he no longer remembers what inspired the mutiny, he does remember his parents listening to the list of complaints, helping them pack a few snacks, then letting them leave.
They hadn’t gone very far when their father met them at the street corner and said he just wanted to see how things were going, and if they knew yet what their plans were. They admitted that they hadn’t really thought that far. At that point, their dad asked if they might want to come home, as it was getting late, and maybe they could put together a better plan after a good night’s sleep. It wasn’t viewed as an order but as a suggestion, given the late hour. And so they all walked home together.
John says that this image of his father waiting patiently for them at the street corner is as good an image of God as he can think of.
The prophet Joel instructs the people to return to God, but the emphasis is not on what the people do; it’s all about who God is. God can be counted upon because, as Joel shares, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (v. 13). Though the people will turn away, God will always show up for them.
In what experiences have you felt that God has patiently waited for you? When have you needed to return to God?
God, remind us that we can return to you, for you are faithful and steadfast in your love. Amen.
During a recent thunderstorm, the local weather station issued a “take cover” warning, as tornadoes were spotted in our area. My family and I retreated to the basement to wait out the storm. We didn’t know how long we would have to wait, but we passed the time recalling other storms we had experienced through the years. Thankfully, the storm passed without incident and the tornado warning was lifted.
Although we could have left the basement then, rushing back to whatever we were doing before, we didn’t. We lingered for a while instead. The drama of the threat pulled us together, and the comfort of being with one another kept us there.
Joel warns the people of a coming day of destruction, but instead of giving a timeframe for when to expect it, Joel gives them vivid imagery of how bad it’s going to be, saying, Sound the alarm… let all the inhabitants of the Lord tremble (v. 1).
Joel goes on to paint a frightening scene of people in anguish as they see their approaching doom. The call could have been for everyone to just save themselves, to hunker down in the nearest shelter as quickly as possible. Instead, Joel instructs the people to gather everyone together: the old, the children, the infants, the bride and bridegroom. This is not, in any way, a strategy to ward off the inevitable destruction, but to show them they will need each other to endure the coming crisis. At its best, the church offers a kind of togetherness that helps everyone—young and old and newlyweds—take comfort by drawing closer to one another and to God with us.
What experiences of church or community have helped you during hard times? Who has been a source of comfort to you?
God, you are with us in and through all our struggles. May we feel your presence in those who share the journey with us. Amen.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle chronicles the first year after her family’s move from Arizona to their farm in Appalachia and their vow to only eat what they can grow themselves or procure locally. They commit to this grow-your-own lifestyle out of environmental and health concerns, but they discover a much closer connection to the land than they expected and a deeper sense of gratitude. Although they feared being hungry during the winter months, they found that there was always plenty to eat. They also learned to anticipate the different seasons and each harvest, so much so that Kingsolver entitles one chapter, “Waiting for Asparagus.” Of course, they savored their asparagus all the more after having to wait months for it.
The book of Joel describes that same kind of interconnection between the people and the land. When the crops fail and the vineyards dry up, the suffering isn’t limited to the farmers and the grapes. The animals groan and wander without a pasture. The people suffer from not being able to bring their grain and fruit offerings to God. As the fruit trees dry up, Joel says, surely, joy withers away among the people (v. 12)
In Joel’s world, when the land suffers, everyone suffers. This reminds me of Frederick Buechner’s definition of compassion in his book Wishful Thinking, calling it “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
Even in our modern world God calls us to a deeper empathy and compassion for all living things, to consider what we eat and when we eat it, and to be mindful of who grows it. To be aware is to be grateful.
How is God calling me to be more mindful in my daily habits? Could considering the source of what I eat and drink lead me to be more compassionate?
God, show me the difference between things I want and things I need. Help me to be more conscious of my abundant life and give you thanks. Amen.
Years ago, one of our church members led a genealogy workshop. Although this was a passion of hers, she acknowledged that most people aren’t interested in doing this kind of research. Given that, she had one word of advice for us: “If you do nothing else, write down the story of your experience on September 11, 2001.” She gave us questions to guide that story: Where did you live? What were you doing when you heard the news? What were those days immediately afterward like? How did the event affect you and the way you lived? What did you learn from living through that experience? “Years from now,” she told us, “your first-person account will matter to someone.”
The beginning of the book of Joel references such a thing that happened, causing widespread devastation, ruin, and deep sorrow (v. 2). Although the writer gives us no background about the event, whatever happened was significant enough that they would tell their children about it, and their children would pass those stories on to future generations. Joel then encourages the people to wake up (v. 5) and see their world as it really is: vulnerable, stripped bare, and overwhelmed with grief.
If we live long enough, we’ll all face experiences and events of such a magnitude that they stop us in our tracks: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, devastating hurricanes, mass shootings, the COVID-19 pandemic. These wake us up, remind us of our own vulnerability, and momentarily paralyze us with fear or anxiety. They can also wake us up to opportunities we might otherwise have missed, opportunities to consider what really matters to us, what we may have taken for granted, and how interconnected we all are. These wake-up calls can lead to greater awareness. They can even re-order our lives and priorities.
What event(s) in my life have helped me wake up to the unseen gifts at hand?
Holy God, help me to see the events in my life, both big and small, as opportunities for deeper awareness, connection, and growth. Amen.
“Crowdsourcing” is a popular social media practice. Someone posts a question to the unseen mass of people out there and asks for responses. The questioner is usually hoping for interesting information, informed opinions, lively stories, trusted recommendations, or a firm consensus. Sometimes responses from crowdsourcing make it into a sermon or an article; sometimes the results determine which plumber to call.
Relying too heavily on crowd feedback, however, can be problematic. Seeking consensus among a flood of diverse opinions can make someone sorry they asked the question. Even large group that share similar views can be detrimental depending on the circumstance.
Luke reminds us how detrimental crowdsourcing can be. Jesus is brought to Pilate on charges of upsetting the status quo, shaking the norms of society, and offering people a new way of life. This crowd was told false statements about Christ by those who didn’t believe or understand him. The rumors spread rapidly, and now a large number have gathered to end Jesus’ life. Pilate frustrates them when he says, I find no basis for an accusation against this man (v. 4). The crowd keeps voicing their negative opinions, pressing their harmful agenda.
The large crowd appears powerful and poised to win the day. But the true power has yet to be seen. It lies in the humble sacrifice of Jesus, who has decided to die at the hands of a sinful humanity. The seeming power of the crowd is momentary. The true power of God’s undying love for creation changes the world. When you find yourself absorbed by the confusion of the day, weighed down by people, situations, or circumstances, remember that God has the final say. The power is not in the crowd, but in the One who saves us.
What voices make it difficult for you to hear God’s truth in a given situation?
God, help us to trust you even when the crowd tries to distract us from your truth. Remind us that true power comes solely from you. Amen.
Be sure to cite the source. Students, writers, and speakers learn this lesson early on. Claiming someone else’s thoughts or quotations as our own is plagiarism. While the practice may tempt those who’ve stayed up all night struggling to prepare their assignment, indulging in it will more likely lead to punishment than applause. We understand and honor this principle most of the time. But don’t we commit spiritual plagiarism whenever we revel in others’ praise and neglect to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that God is the source of whatever good we do?
In today’s passage, King Darius decides to be honest. After witnessing how the almighty King of Kings saved Daniel in the lion’s den, how God elevated, protected, sustained, and loved Daniel who was in the midst of a foreign land, Darius issues a formal decree for everyone to worship God. In a stunning reversal, this earthly king turns his people’s worship away from himself to the one true God. King Darius knows that he is no match for the sovereign King whose strength is everlasting, who ultimately delivers and rescues us from all harm. He chooses to cite the true Source of power.
Learn how to cite the Source of your life. Begin by naming what God has done for you as you pray, then as you talk with others. Stop taking personal credit for what God’s grace has done for you. We tend to cite our abilities, our sharp reason, or our steadfast common sense when success comes our way. We enjoy trusting in the wealth we accumulate and our capacity to earn. But our Sustainer is God alone, God who existed before all things. In God, all things are held together (Col 1:17). Cite the source, because God deserves it.
Name what God has done for you today.
God, forgive us for intercepting the glory and honor that belongs exclusively to you. Help us give credit to you each day for our lives and blessings. Amen.
My first car was a stick shift. If I was going to go anywhere, I had to learn how to manually shift gears. My mother was a natural at driving my car. She amazed me by moving the gears so smoothly that you barely noticed when she changed from first to second. When I was behind the wheel, everyone knew what position the stick was in. The car jerked so much when I changed gears that my friends frequently claimed, “Riding with Josh gives me a headache.”
Non-automatic vehicles aside, learning to shift gears is an essential life skill for all of us. Today especially, we give thanks for those who help us move forward, who teach us how to do so, and who willingly tolerate the bumps and grinding gears we cause along the way.
In today’s section of Daniel’s story, King Darius shifts gears dramatically, and the plot takes a bumpy turn. The king has spent a sleepless night worrying about how Daniel was faring in the lion’s den. When he discovers that the young man is alive and well, the king was exceedingly glad (v. 23). He realizes, of course, that the edict his advisors manipulated him into signing, was wrong. Clearly, he needs Daniel’s truth and the relationship with God that Daniel embraces.
May we too gratefully embrace those moments when the way forward becomes clear to us. May we seek God’s help as we learn to shift gears in our thoughts and actions.
Think about recent decisions you’ve made. Consider why you made those choices and ask yourself what good or bad influences affected them. How do you know when it’s time to start thinking and acting more effectively?
God, grant me the courage to change when you direct me to do so. Help me lean into a deeper relationship with you today and find exceeding gladness in it. Amen.
Augustine once described God’s love by saying, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” Luke tells us that God supervises our lives and pays attention to every detail, even noticing the number of strands of hair on our heads (Lk 12:7). We are each uniquely important to God, and God should be extraordinarily special to each of us.
God deserves to be our priority, the center of our being. True devotion is not a hobby that we engage in from time to time. Prioritizing our relationship with God communicates our faithfulness to God, and God always rewards our faithfulness with a deeper experience of God’s love.
Daniel remains faithful to God no matter what circumstances he faces. God is the constant presence in his life. When danger threatens, when fear tries to overcome faith, Daniel responds by drawing closer to God. In response to Daniel’s faithfulness, God provides a new experience of steadfast love. Daniel does not allow the obstacles he encounters to overcome his devotion, and God faithfully responds to Daniel.
God loves each of us in such unique, devoted ways. This doesn’t mean that we will not have to deal with challenges and difficulties. But this does assure us that our faithfulness to God will always be met with an unique experience of our Creator’s faithful love for us.
How will you seek a deeper experience of God’s love today?
God, help us live a life that communicates our faithfulness to you in all that we do. Amen.