This may surprise you, but according to a Public Religion Research Institute opinion poll, 38 percent of Americans believe God uses nature to bring divine judgment upon humankind. And since that kind of judgment is normally understood as a punishment for human wrongdoing, what do you suppose those 38 percent of Americans might conclude about the residents of Massachusetts, who last year, suffered through a massive caterpillar invasion?
Just saying “massive caterpillar invasion” sounds funny, but it’s no joke. Here’s how a Boston Globe article from last June opened its report on the plague: “They are hungry, hairy and covered in warts. They hang from the trees like joke-shop moustaches, drop onto picnic tables and infiltrate tents and open shirt collars. Walk into the woods these days and the sound of raindrops hitting a tarp turns out to be their little black droppings showering the forest floor. A biblical outbreak of voracious, finger-long gypsy moth caterpillars, the biggest in more than three decades, is devouring trees across Massachusetts this month, stripping bare more than 100,000 acres from the Quabbin Reservoir to Cape Cod and testing the mettle of even the most intrepid camper.”
The article goes on to tell that in the woods you can hear these insects chewing, but worse, the caterpillars are a serious threat to forests because they completely strip trees of foliage, which make them vulnerable to other pests and disease. There are sprays that can be used, but large-scale use of insecticides is not environmentally desirable, so there is no magic bullet to fight these sorts of insect incursions. Fortunately, the caterpillars’ ravenous feeding season is of limited duration, and is now over, hopefully for at least a decade or so.
Keeping last summer’s caterpillar problem in mind is a good way to approach the book of Joel, which is set against the backdrop of an even worse insect invasion in Judah. During the time of Joel a swarm of locusts devoured every scrap of greenery across the landscape, including all of the crops.
Joel describes the devastation in chapter one of his book, saying, “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” As a result, the people of Judah faced a broken and fragmented future—not just because of locust, but because of their sin that has led them away from God. They were in need of healing and wholeness. And Joel knew how they could find it. Return to God.
Let’s go back to that poll I mentioned. According to the poll, 38 percent of Americans believe that God uses nature to bring divine judgment upon humankind, which I think is a theological slippery slope. But this poll also shows that 62 percent of Americans don’t believe that God uses nature as punishment.
Now reading Joel isn’t a demand to declare yourself one way or the other on that question, because the primary message of Joel is not about whether God employs nature in that fashion, but rather it’s that God is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” and because God is, God calls off and calls back rightful consequences that we deserve.
Now true, saying God experiences a change of mind or heart is an anthropomorphic expression— the assigning of human feelings or passions to something not human, especially to a deity. However there’s no theological slippery slope with doing so. Since we cannot see things as God does, sometimes ascribing to God a human emotion is the only way we can get at least a partial understanding of how God relates to us.
It is as 20th-century Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel said, “No word is God’s final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in a mortal’s conduct brings about a change in judgment.” Meaning, God will do what God does. And according to Joel, God is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Now, of course, God’s slowness to anger is not only a comfort, but also beneficial for us, for often it takes us some time to be convinced of the error of our ways, does it not? If we were immediately punished every time we sinned, who among us could function or have any hope?
Thankfully, God is slow to anger because God knows life comes at us pretty fast—sometimes so fast we don’t have time for deep reflection on how to respond in a God-pleasing way. Our world can be turned upside-down in a moment by a report from our physician, a confluence of temptation and opportunity, the sudden rise of financial demands, a call from the police about one of our children, a pink slip from our employer, or a relationship breakdown. Day in and day out we come face to face with life situations that try and test our Godly aim and goals.
Residents of earthquake-prone California sometimes say, “Shift happens!” That’s not only true for residents of California because seismic moves are not limited to geography. The expression “Shift happens!” applies to more than a physical phenomenon—its mental and spiritual as well. And God knows. And because God knows, God is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
What’s more, despite what we’ve noted about God changing God’s mind being an anthropomorphic expression, it’s part of the testimony of the Bible that’s been passed on to us for our spiritual good. The fact that God may change God’s mind about how God deals with us is a bedrock element of the gospel Jesus came to proclaim. Indeed, that’s part of the reason that “gospel” translates as good news! All of it means that in spite of our brokenness because of sin, there is always hope for healing and wholeness.
Although Joel never says what particular sins of the Judahites caused God to send this great locust catastrophe, he believes that only a heartfelt repentance on the part of the people had any hope of bringing the invasion to an end. Thus, in the Scripture reading for today, the prophet calls his fellow citizens to assemble and to “rend [their] hearts” and “return to the Lord.”
Joel issues this call based on his understanding that God, seeing the people’s repentance, may “turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him.” And this is all possible because the prophet knows God to be “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Hear again Joel’s words, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
Joel sees a linkage between the people’s returning and God’s relenting. He is showing people the way through their brokenness to the place of healing and wholeness—which is found when we return to God. But it is not just a flippant, simple “Ok God, I’m back. I’m sorry. Now please make everything good again.” Rather Joel, in his elaborate and peculiar discourse, speaks of just how the people are to return to God. We return with intentionality. With purpose. With penitent hearts. With a willingness to let go of everything. Joel is saying that to truly return to God, we have to mean it, we have to show it.
So what does all this mean for us, particularly in light of this season of Lent we have now begun?
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has had as our focus, “Being a movement for healing and wholeness in a broken and fragmented world.” We are a church denomination that seeks to not simply exist for ourselves, but for the betterment of others and the world. We want all to be healed and whole—but it too requires intentionality, purpose, open hearts, and a willingness to let go.
The season of Lent is a time specially to think about repentance for our sins and missteps. It’s important we examine our behavior, our ethics, our speech, our use of money and time, and our willingness to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
It would be faithful then to challenge ourselves with questions like:
How are my actions and decisions contributing to my brokenness?
How are my actions and decisions contributing to the brokenness of others?
What do I need to do differently?
How can I be more open minded, compassionate, and comforting?
When we challenge ourselves with these questions, and others like them, then we are taking good and right and faithful steps back to God, where we and others can find the healing we need.
Lent is a good time to embrace the truth of Joel’s statement about God being “gracious … and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing”— and we can do it without the sense of condemnation, but rather with a sense of gratitude because even though we probably aren’t facing a locust or caterpillar plague, we are dealing with the difficult things life brings at us, and God is aware of them and wants better for us. Thus this is a good moment to hear afresh Joel’s call to rend our hearts and “return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
What this means then, like the people of Judah, we are given the chance to find healing and wholeness from our brokenness because of our sin. God is extending to us this chance, if we would just return to God. And that is the chance we find in the season of Lent—the chance to return to God, repent, and know the abounding steadfast love of God.
So may we, in this season of Lent seek to return to God with intentionality, purpose, penitent hearts, and a willingness to let go of everything. May we seek to do so through challenging and introspective questions that force us to take a long hard look at our lives. For in doing so we will be returning to God, where we will find the healing and wholeness we need. Amen.