2Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes.
Some disasters give you no warning: the earth shakes and fear overwhelms you only in the moment you realize this is a big one. But other disasters you see on the horizon: the thick dark clouds that tell of an impending storm, the sickly green sky that warns you this one has the potential for terror, the strange stillness that fills you with dread as you watch and wonder and wait to hear if the tornado sirens will sound.
I wonder if all the people see what the prophet sees: the dark cloud of the massive swarms of locusts advancing like waves – or if the prophet has been given a vision of what is yet beyond the horizon.
So much of the prophetic literature arises from what the prophets see that others do not yet see. Isaiah sees the advancing storm of Assyria, Jeremiah the impending doom of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon. The city is filled with illusion. The elites do not see that their common life is corroded with injustice and near collapse. The prophets are attacked as unpatriotic; they wouldn’t join the chorus that “We are the greatest country on earth.” “God is on our side!” “God will never let Jerusalem fall.” The prophets saw instead the sufferings of the poor, the corruption, the greed, the end of compassion, the loss of justice. They saw that God was ready to withdraw his protective hand.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, received from the god Apollo the gift of prophetic sight, but because she spurned his sexual advances, he punished her with the curse that no one would believe her. So she could see that Paris would kidnap Helen and prompt the Trojan War. She could see the pending slaughter. And she could see that Greek warriors were hiding in the belly of the great horse left by the (apparently) departing Greeks. She cried out against the folly of tearing down the city gates to bring the horse into the city, but she was dismissed as crazy. Perhaps it is the curse of every prophet to see that the nation is on the path of folly and have no one hear.
But Joel seems to be the exception. The people responded to the sound of the shofar. They came in repentance. The poured out their prayers and turned their hope to God. And “the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.”
We read Joel on Ash Wednesday, hear his call to “return to the LORD” and sing that verse all through Lent. We have the option to read Isaiah – and the text from Isaiah is wonderful – but the first choice is Joel. And maybe the first choice is Joel because the people listened to Joel. They came. They prayed. They turned to the Lord. And God heard. This one time, the call for repentance was met with obedience.
It is good to begin Lent with hope and grace.