For a quick review of the book of Joel see the Bible Project:
The reading focuses on two very short passages from Joel 2. You might have read these scriptures and wondered what they have to do with Advent or Christmas. You might wonder what any of this has to do with Jesus. There are actually several connections.
But first I want to give you some context. We know almost nothing about the prophet Joel and there is no certainty about when the book was written. It is a short book—only 4 chapters. The book bounces between judgement and hope. It begins with Joel describing a locust plague (like the one found in the Exodus story) which leads to a famine that destroys the countryside. That plague of locusts morphs into an image of an encroaching army which behaves like locusts and eventually destroys the community. It is a very dark and disturbing image. Interspersed with these images are the verses like the ones we just heard.
In ancient times, it was believed that bad things—like locusts and armies—were sent as punishment from God. The prophet picks up on this belief and reminds the people that they need to be faithful. They need to look after the most vulnerable in their society—widows, orphans, foreigners. They need to turn their attention back to God. The need to feel remorse for their neglect of vulnerable people. It isn’t enough just to say “sorry” and move on. They need to show their remorse and changed hearts through their actions. The prophet Joel tells the people that if they return to following in God’s path, God’s punishment will be lifted.
The Inclusive Bible translates these verses this way:
“Return to me with all your heart,
With fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Tear open your heart,
Not your clothes!”
Return to YHWH you God,
Who is gracious and deeply loving as a mother,
Quick to forgive, abundantly tender-hearted—
And relents from inflicting disaster.
Here we find our first connection to Advent and Christmas. A footnote in the Inclusive Bible gives detail to these verses.”“Deeply loving” translates from the Hebrew word for “womb”—God is showing a mother’s love. This is echoed by the word tender-hearted usually translated as merciful. It is also the word for “stork”, for the tender care she shows her young. “Relent” can mean “to be deeply moved,” and has the same root as the word for womb.” Advent is all about expectant waiting…like waiting through a pregnancy—and knowing that whatever the outcome of birth, life will change. And the passage reflects that. It reflects an image of a God who waits for the people to re-turn to find their way back to God. As the change occurs in the people, a change also occurs in the God who waits.
The second part of the passage describes what will happen in the future. After God has waited, after the people have returned, God’s spirit will be poured out. The story of Pentecost in Acts, where the Holy Spirit touches the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection, quotes these verses:
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
The writer of Acts had a sense the events of Jesus’ life, his work, his mission tied back to the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. What the prophet Joel, other prophets and Jesus all knew was that in the darkest moments of life, in the moments where it seems everything is falling apart, we need hope.
We need hope that the world we live in can be re-created. The world as we know it is not the only possibility. When we look around and see terrible things happening it is easy to despair and become hopeless. The prophets fought against hopelessness and the apathy that can creep in so easily. We might wonder when the spirit will come and change the world but the world is always being recreated.
In recent years, there have been several movements that we might identify with these verses. We can identify groups of marginalized people who have come together speaking for and working for change. These movements include: Idle no More, Black Lives Matter and the Occupy campaign. If Jesus were around today, his ministry might be focused with these groups and others who continue to neglected by their communities.
The hope that the prophet offers and that these movements offer is that the world can be changed. We don’t have to live with violence, hatred and injustice but when the Holy Spirit is truly at work these things will be no more and there will be a return to God…A return to love, to compassion, to inclusion…Hope for the future.