Monday Scripture - Joel 2: 3
Fire devours in front of them,
and behind them a flame burns.
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden,
but after them a desolate wilderness,
and nothing escapes them.
The biblical prophets more often offer prognosis instead of prognostication. I wish I'd coined that phrase explaining the work of the prophets, but I didn't. The writer who did, Dan Clendenin, is correcting a typical error that people make when thinking about biblical prophecy. The prophet wasn't so much telling the future as looking carefully and critically at current events. The prophet was called not to foretell a future so much as to reveal the truth in the present. This truth referred most often to how the covenant with God was being broken and the negative impact this covenant-breaking was having on society at large. Which is why prophets were rarely popular figures. When they did their job faithfully, they exposed painful truths about the personal and social behavior of the people that the people did not want to acknowledge or amend.
Our prophet for Sunday was Joel. He is a particularly puzzling prophet because he is very difficult to place in historical context. Scholars aren't quite sure when he prophesied and so they are not quite sure what it was that he prophesied about. For instance, the book of Joel begins with the description of a hoard of locusts overtaking Israel. But as the book goes on, these locusts take on the description of an army. So scholars wonder whether Joel is inspired to ponder the message of God because of an actual plague of locusts or if the locusts are a metaphor for actual armies because he lived in a time when invading armies were a constant threat to Israel.
Advent began as a season much like Lent. It was a time of fasting, prayer, and penitence. Which is what Joel calls the people of Judah to as a result of the inspiration of the locusts/armies. But we recall from Sunday's scripture and sermon that the end result of this fasting, prayer and penitence is not shame or guilt, but a new vision and new dreams. When we have allowed the Spirit to reveal to us the truth, no matter how unsettling that truth is, we then trust that the Spirit can empower us to imagine and pursue something new, something better, more faithful to God and more wholesome for humanity.
As we saw on Sunday, Joel's prophecy about the gift of the Spirit inspired the early church. This same passage is quoted by Peter in Acts 2. The early church, inspired by both the life of Jesus and these ancient words from Joel, saw the social division in the culture around them; divisions based on ethnicity, on wealth and social status, and on gender. And the early church based its mission on offering dignity and purpose to all, healing the social divisions and creating a new kind of community, based on the value of each person as a bearer of the Holy Spirit. Which is perhaps how today's verses shape us. They encourage us not to ignore or deny the locusts of our day. Instead, we can look deeply at that which plagues us with the blessed hope that visions of the new, dreams of healing and wholeness will inspire us.