April 8

By Jim Bangusnd
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Joel 2:13
A few days ago, my personal devotions led me through the prophet Joel — not a familiar book of the Bible for many, though it contains a surprising number of very familiar passages (for instance, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears,” reversing what Isaiah and Micah had said, and “Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision!”).
But it is the passage above that so resonates this time of year since, at least in the traditional service, it is normally sung during the Sundays of Lent.  “Return to the LORD your God.”  And why?  Because we do tend to wander and sometimes flat out turn our backs and, like Jonah, head west when God has said “Go east.”  And so, especially in Holy Week as we are now, it is fitting that we hear Joel’s call for a return … not a “return or else” but rather a “return because God is gracious and merciful.”
In a time of national crisis, it can be hard to hang on to the fact that, in spite of it all, God is yet gracious and merciful and that his desire for us is to be whole.  Yet Joel, you see, wrote during a time of national crisis — not an epidemic but an invasion.  In Joel’s time, it was a massive invasion, either of locusts or else of a foreign army — or perhaps both.  Whatever the case, the people found themselves, their lives and the lives of their loved ones every bit as much under threat as some of us may feel today.
Joel thought the crisis could be a sign that the “day of the LORD” was near — that great day which would be a dark day for the unjust.
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! 
Joel 2:1-2
Yet Joel also knew that God is “gracious and merciful,” and so Joel calls upon the priests to cry out to God on behalf of his people.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare thy people, O LORD, and make not thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”
Joel 2:17
And there is more.  The national crisis will one day pass; God’s people will one day be restored.  Indeed, Joel is given a vision, in words that are also very familiar to us, of  grand day when God would empower his people:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 
Joel 2:28-29
All this in the second chapter of the small prophetic book of Joel.
One of the reasons we read scripture is to be encouraged and uplifted by the witness of those who have gone before us, who have gone through times just as stressful as any we experience, and emerged whole on the other side.  We are being told that this week and the next may be the most stressful yet for us as a nation in terms of loss of life.  That may be the case.  Comparisons are being made to Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
Now, I have no insight into the faith, if any, of those who, in times of crisis, look back like this to compare our situation to earlier times of tragedy.  But do let us keep our wits about us as Christians.  In times of crisis, whether personal or national, God’s people focus not upon earlier tragedies but earlier deliverances.  Both in scripture as well as in history, they do two things: first, they look back to and base their hope upon those times when God was there to rescue and sustain them in the past; and, second, they come before God in prayer as Joel encouraged the priests to do.
As a modern follower of Jesus, in this, our present time of national crisis, this is what you and I do, as well — in boldness and in confidence.  First, remember and reflect upon those times when God was there with you and for you through heavy weather in the past.  What was the challenge?  How did God bring you through?  Then, second, pray for a spirit of calmness and confidence not only for yourself but also one that you can impart to others … because Joel has it right: God is indeed gracious and merciful, and, as Holy Week testifies, has been so in ways far beyond what Joel could have imagined.
We now have some major days of reminder ahead: Maundy Thursday tomorrow, and then Good Friday.  Follow this link to be there with others when the time comes — and then again on Easter Sunday — to hear once again what this God of graciousness and mercy has done for you because of his steadfast love.

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