The ancient prophet Joel begins his book with a lament, chronicling the happenings of God’s people, reciting the press releases while also mourning the losses. In short, the end of the year has come and the harvest is not in. (The likely time frame is the Feast of Booths or Succoth for the Bible scholars among us.) The land has betrayed the people as land has often done and they are searching for divine explanations.
Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil;
Wail, O vinedressers,
For the wheat and the barley,
Because the harvest of the field has perished.
The vine dries up;
The fig tree languishes.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple,
All the trees of the field are dried up
And gladness dries up
From the children of man.
We live separated from the land, something poet, professor Wendell Berry continues to chide us about. Our modern industry and urban contexts have removed us from the reality that we are the distant beneficiaries of forgotten organic processes. And the forgetting can damage both souls and bodies.
Joel recites the list of limited resources and draws a conclusion that reverses the popular explanations of his day (and possibly ours as well). He parallels together categories rarely associated:
The priests mourn, the ministers of the LORD.
The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns,
Because the grain is destroyed,
The wine dries up, the oil languishes.
The land, ill-used, is mourning alongside the priests. The connection between economy and ecclesiology, between providence and worship, is one we often fail to make. Joel, sitting on a host of promises made hundreds of years before him, cannot miss this point. The priests mourn because the daily office of worship is impossible without appropriate resources. The land mourns in an almost mystical fulfillment to its Creator’s promise.
Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. (Malachi 3:10)
It is dangerous to expect response from God merely because we give. But prophets such as Malachi and Joel understood deeper truth than mere divine quid pro quo’s that trivialize the nature of our world and its Creator. It is worship, simple, ebullient, joy-filled, and sacrificial… not a percentage cut from the top but a heart deep and responsive that land responds to. For possibly, hidden in the folds of time our immense forgetfulness has damaged us. Inklings and reminders of a relationship still remind us that land, the same as people, can be consecrated. There is potential holiness in our callings and the life of worship sets us apart and it sets apart are land as well. The ground responds in ways too deep to understand. St Paul writes of the creation groaning waiting still for the sons of God to be revealed. Somehow, says Joel, the relationship between us and our world is healed in worship of the Creator and correspondingly broken in absent neglect.
Succoth was to be a time of worship:
And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. (Leviticus 23:40)
This picture is riveting when artfully imagined (and not glossed over as Leviticus often is). The people of God so impressed with his provision and beauty that they cut down the fruits from their orchards, the fronds from their trees and wave them walking into Jerusalem to worship as a culminating act of thanks at the end of the year. (Palm Sunday in Jerusalem came at Passover time not Succoth but the imagery is certainly connected—Jesus receiving the praise of the people with palm fronds waving their hands.) The intended spontaneity and beauty of each person’s expression mark this as a moment, one that was prescribed but easily not enacted.
Joel ties the drying up of fields to the drying up of worship and he uses a word far-removed from our range of churchy terms—rejoice or gladness. Simply put, the thankful unifying of exultant praise with a God who is present and deeply committed to relationship births life and fulfillment to a long list of promises. The Psalmist would one-day write that God inhabits the praises of his people—the mystical connection between thanks and God’s presence continues unabated through the different genres of Scripture.
An un-joyful people, broken by lack, has gathered to seek what is to be done. Their priests are mourning, the daily sacrifices missing (daily sacrifices are what the libations of wine, oil and grain are referring to), the end of the year celebration has become un-celebratory. Starkly missing is any moralizing—Joel never ties brokenness to a lack of love or compassion, feeding the poor, adultery, murder, or theft as will come in other prophets. It comes down to worship, joyful and thankful—or not at all.
His answer for the failure—call a solemn assembly. Admit failure, confess missing the mark, and cry out to the LORD. Leaders hate moments like this. We love to motivate our people with inspiring hope. But hope offered in a moment of failure without confession is always hope in ourselves rather than hope beyond us. Joel calls us to deep spiritual introspection in the presence of God—a cultural remembering that what is broken in our world is broken in us first.
It may be that in our uncertainty of finance, our isolated focus on self, we would do well to hear again the prophet speak. When our priests again lack and our churches are no longer places of beauty… When our life with God has dried up causing life around us and within us to grow less verdant and beautiful. Now is the time to set aside time again—to focus upward. To seek our God.