Joel 1:2-4 Hear this, O elders,
And listen, all inhabitants of the land.
Has anything like this happened in your days
Or in your fathers’ days?
Tell your sons about it,
And let your sons tell their sons,
And their sons the next generation.
What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten;
And what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten;
And what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.
This past week, we have looked on as the city of Houston and surrounding area has been devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The New York Times reports that "the storm made landfall late Friday as a Category 4 hurricane and has dropped record levels of rain on the city." Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes and ABCNews estimates that 30-40 thousand homes have been destroyed. When natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes come, many people begin to ask where is God. Is God responsible for these storms and what should we learn from them.
In the book of Joel, the people of Israel too had encountered an event like nothing they had previously experienced in their lifetimes. This event would live in their minds for many years. Joel writes of a natural disaster that had wiped out their crops and ruined their pastures and farmlands causing their livestock to perish and would lead to famine and loss of life. A plague of locusts had come like an invading army taking over a lush Eden and leaving behind a vast desert in its wake. Joel takes up the prophet’s pen to show to Israel that God in his sovereignty had sent the plague and that they should respond to it with true repentance. Joel uses this natural disaster to foreshadow the day of God’s judgment upon all people. He warns the people to repent and turn to God who controls all things and who will send the ultimate atonement for sins. So we see in the book of Joel how God acted and what the response of Israel was supposed to be.
The Elders and People were called to observe how God had moved in judgment against them. They should have known from God’s word that he controls everything and that the present calamity sent upon them was the hand of God calling them to repentance. We too need to see that God still uses terrible events to call us to repentance.
Joel begins by telling the elders and all of the people of the land to listen and give ear. He is calling them to listen because he want them to hear the word of God that he is going to proclaim to them but he is also calling them to observe already what God had done. He asks them almost sarcastically, have they ever seen such a thing. In all their lives had they seen something like this plague. A modern account of a Locust swarm in Syria helps show the magnitude of this type of thing. One eye witness account reads:
"The roads were covered with them, all marching and in regular lines, like armies of soldiers, with their leaders in front; and all the opposition of man to resist their progress was in vain." Having consumed the plantations in the country, they entered the towns and villages. "When they approached our garden all the farm servants were employed to keep them off, but to no avail; though our men broke their ranks for a moment, no sooner had they passed the men than they closed again, and marched forward through hedges and ditches as before. Our garden finished, they continued their march toward the town, devastating one garden after another. They have also penetrated into most of our rooms: whatever one is doing one hears their noise from without, like the noise of armed hosts, or the running of many waters… (A)t a little distance (they look) like … a well-armed horseman."
Joel asks them if they had seen like anything like this before. He is enticing them to awaken and see what God has done. Calvin says that Joel’s objective here was to make them ashamed for not having been attentive to God’s punishments though his workings in the world. They should have known that this was God’s working.
First of all, they had the example of God working against their enemies. They would have remembered God’s punishment of Sodom. Of course there are the stories of how God had led them out of Egypt and how he had sent a plague of Locusts upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians as judgment upon them. The Israelites were commanded not less than twice to pass down the story of God’s judgment upon Egypt. In Exodus 10:2 God says to Moses “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.” Joshua too commanded the people to pass down from generation to generation the accounts of God giving the wicked people of Canaan over to destruction. The Israelites would have had countless stories from their past to draw upon to see that God promises judgment upon wicked nations. These should have been enough for the people of Israel to see that God had sent these locusts upon them.
Perhaps they thought God’s judgment was only reserved for their enemies and the nations around them. Well, they also should have been able to read in Deuteronomy that God promised them cursing when they broke the covenant he had made with them.
Specifically Deuteronomy 28: 38-41 warns:
You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it. 39 You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. 40 You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off. 41 You shall father sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity. 42 The cricket shall possess all your trees and the fruit of your ground.
They should have already begun to repent just by observing what God had done. I mean any idiot should have been able to seen the damage caused by that plague and been moved to repentance right away. I’m sure that if you and I were there we would have known it right away that the plague was the work of God. Right? How about wrong? How many times has God moved and worked in our lives to call us to repentance and we have dismissed it? How many times has God sent calamity, natural disasters, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks to our land and yet we have dismissed it? We live in the age of science. We know why locusts swarm and why earthquakes happen. We know how atmospheric pressures cause tornadoes and thus we don’t have time for this God-did-it business.
Stephen Prothero a scholar at Boston University has written this about natural disasters and God:
When it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, however, our authorities are geologists and meteorologists. Most of us interpret these events not through the rumblings of the biblical prophet Jeremiah or the poetry of the Book of Revelation but through the scientific truths of air pressure and tectonic plates. . . The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God. But their God no longer acts out his fury as in Bible days. Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has.
Yet here in Joel, we see that God sent a plague and that people were called to recognize this as a God-sent and they were called to repent. Just as they were called to be able to see how God was working in the world, we too need be able to see how God works in the world around us. We need to have eyes attuned to a biblical worldview. Nothing happens by chance. All of life’s tragedies are ultimately meant to call us to repentance and faith in Christ.
A mild earthquake shook parts of New England on Sunday night, Oct. 29, 1727. Some historians date America's "First Great Awakening" from the responses to the earthquake. You can find sermon after sermon during this period of Puritan pastors preaching on how God sent the earthquake to call people to repentance. Here is a sample from Rev James Allen : “BUT let the natural Causes be what they will, this is the most certain that they are all in the Hand and entirely subject to the Will of GOD…He guides and directs, restrains and limits them, or gives them a Liberty according to the Design He is to accomplish by them; and from hence it is that we are to attribute all to Him; both the good we enjoy, and the Evils we suffer….”
We in the church have allowed natural materialism to creep in. We need to remember that nothing happens in this world that God is not sovereign over. Thus we need to be people who can see where God is working.
I do want to warn however of a few pitfalls that we can fall into that we must be careful to avoid.
The first is we must be careful of looking at the world and using that to interpret the bible. This first pitfall is really a distortion of the principle that I am wanting us to grasp. The correct principle is to read and exegete God’s word soundly and to allow that to create in you a biblical worldview so that you will know that God uses both catastrophe and celebration to bring us to repentance. The incorrect principle is to open up your newspaper and to then head to your bible looking where you might find the days event in some obscure passage. We call this newspaper exegesis. Dispensationalists and the kind of rapture ready left behind groups are pros at this newspaper exegesis. They read Apache helicopters into the text of Revelation. Charles Spurgeon warned of this type of faulty thinking in his day: “The beast of the Revelation was reported to be Napoleon I, and then the creature suddenly reappeared in his nephew, Napoleon III. By-and-by, the deadly wound was healed, and the Prince Imperial wore the dreadful honours of the prophetic book; but the prince is now dead, and it will be needful for the seers to invent a new theory.” And while these examples are egregious, we still have to be careful. I’ve heard countless people who rightfully see that the culture is headed into a destructive sinfulness and have then used that to drive their view of eschatology.
The second pitfall is what that we most naturally default to. That is when we see God’s judgment our default position is to focus on the sins of others. We are quick to point to the sins of others while covering up our own. Jesus dealt specifically with this pitfall in Luke 13:1-5
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Notice that Jesus when asked about these events did not say “Wait a second guys, God had nothing to do with this and neither did sin.” But Jesus knew that their emphasis was wrongly placed when they asked these questions. They wanted to focus on the sins of those in the tragedies instead of seeing the tragedy as a warning for themselves. But Jesus will have none of that and instead he tells them that unless they repent they too will perish. These tragedies, all tragedies are ultimately the result of the fall. And because of that we should be reminded that our own sinfulness is to blame. Natural disasters happen because we are sinners and sin has drastic consequences for even nature. Thus, when we read of tragedies in the news they should teach us that since death and judgment are imminent, we need to be ready through true repentance.
John Piper put it this way when writing about a tornado: “If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command. Every deadly wind in any town is a divine warning to every town.”
We must be a people willing to see that God works in our world and uses events like natural disasters to call us to repentance and we miss these signs to our peril.
A third pitfall is an unwillingness to see that God does judge the sin of nations and cities. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His judgements are sure and his purposes will come to pass. Those purposes may also be a form of judgement.
Psalm 148:8 informs us that "Fire, and hail; snow, and vapours; stormy wind fulfill his word". Job 37:13 informs that God sometimes uses weather as a punishment: "He brings the clouds to punish people, or to water his earth and show his love." The bible also warns us about those who say "peace, peace" where there is no peace. We cannot be blind to the sins that our nation and cities are responsible for. So while we don't focus exclusively on the sins of others (Our second pitfall), we also cannot be blind guides who refuse to see what is in front of us.
In the case of a city like Houston, it has a long record of sinful rebellion against God.
Adina Hoshour on facebook explains just some of the charges against Houston:
1) Houston had a lesbian mayor for 7 years. She resigned last year, but not before she attempted to subpoena the sermons of those pastors who are opposed to equal rights ordinance.
2) Houston opened an abortion supercenter: a 78,000-square-foot building just south of Houston that’s shaped like a cash register and has a surgical wing on the third floor for second-trimester abortions... the new six-story headquarters for Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas
3) Houston was at the center of same-sex marriage benefits ruling.
4) Houston ISD Superintendent Richard Carranza proposed adding LGBTQ studies to the district's existing U.S. history curriculum.
5) Last year, a Houston jury indicted Daleiden and fellow pro-life activist Sandra Merritt for their undercover videos. Later, a judge dismissed all the charges.
6) "Houston city leaders have voted to join a lawsuit trying to halt a Texas law that would crack down on "sanctuary cities."
7) "Texas ranks as the nation's number-two sex trafficking state, on the website. Once they're kidnapped, these women are no longer viewed as people in the eyes of their handlers. They've been reduced to a commodity that can be bought and sold repeatedly in an open market. In the United States, Houston has become one of those markets."
8) Houston is #13 on the list of cities where porn flicks are shot and #3 for most porn searches on Google.
9) Houston will be home to first LGBT senior housing project in southwest.
These things are abominations to the Lord. God punished the Cananites and vomited them out of the land for similar things. We must be willing to see what we see even when it is uncomfortable.
The last pitfall is this: We have to be able to see that God may have different purposes for different people and use the same events to bring them about. While we cannot refuse to see God's judgment, we also must be careful not to paint with too large a brush. God makes the rain fall on the good and the bad. God's purpose in the flooding against wicked people is their judgment. But it may also be to bring them to repentance and faith in Christ. Furthermore, God may use the same rain that brings judgment to also strengthen his people. The very same means that God uses to harden hearts are the same means that God uses to soften hearts. God may use the storms to wipe out wickedness and at the same time preserve his people. Pain and suffering that will absolutely crush those who do not rely upon Christ, is often the very same tool that God uses to draw his people into closer communion with Him and bring them lasting joy. Even in the midst of judgment, God's love is seen. The storm may be God's kindness to draw unto himself broken sinners. We must then be willing to see that God has a complex design in tragedies. If we are able to see this, then we will guard ourselves from becoming like the companions of Job who unjustly accused him of wrongdoing. We must not lose our compassion and write off everyone who is going through a disaster. Instead in times like this God calls Christians to rise to the occasion and bring love, peace, help, and good news in the midst of pain, loss, and sorrow.
In conclusion, we must guard ourselves from becoming natural materialists. God is in storms. He is in hurricanes. Nothing happens on this earth outside of his providential decree. We need to have our eyes open to where and how God is working. We need to see that God still brings judgement and he still brings comfort in the storm. May they both lead us to repentance for our sins and a deeper trust in the holiness and goodness of God.