26 Jun Joel: Overcoming Spiritual Dryness
Majoring on the Minors
Joel: Overcoming Spiritual Dryness
June 23, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Did you know that grasshoppers possess five eyes, six legs, and two antennae? They eat their body weight in vegetation every day. Their hind legs function like springs enabling them to jump twenty times their body length. When grasshoppers get together and swarm in high density, they are called locusts, and an infestation can spell ruin for farmers.
In 1874 a swarm of locusts descended on the Great Plains. Nearly 13 trillion locusts devoured the landscape from Texas to the Dakotas. It was a plague of biblical proportions. They ate everything in sight, even the clothes off people’s backs. And lest you think locust infestations are a thing of the past, in just the past three years locust invasions have been reported in Southern Russia and Trinidad, Iran and Saudi Arabia, including in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
As fascinating as this may be, why does any of it matter, you might be wondering. This morning we look at the second of the twelve Minor Prophets, the prophet Joel, and this prophetic message opens with an invasion of locusts. The book is only three chapters long, 73 verses from start to finish, so let me give you an overview, because it is astounding what is packed into this short book and how it speaks to our lives today.
“What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten. What the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” This is how Joel introduces us in chapter 1 (1:4) to the plague that has overtaken Israel. These cutting, swarming, hopping, destroying locusts represent the four life cycles of the insect. Their devastation is so complete that Joel says that the drunks in the street will weep when these invaders devour every last grape on the vine, depriving them of their drink (1:5).
The second chapter is more of the same. The prophet says the locusts will advance like a mighty army. They will stampede like thundering horses, resulting in noise that is deafening. They will scale the city walls like seasoned soldiers and rush the city’s inhabitants.
The effect on the people is devastating. Their food and way of life are destroyed. Crops are gone, and soon the herds that depend on those crops will die. The people’s gladness and joy withers; their worship is cut off with the destruction of their cereal and wine offerings. Joel treats the locust invasion as a wakeup call to God’s people. Put on sackcloth and cover yourself in ashes. Declare a holy fast. Summon the elders and cry to the Lord.
Joel paints a picture of a community reeling from loss, groaning in despair, and in desperate need of hope. Catastrophe has shattered their lives, their confidence in the future, and their faith. They will have to try to pick themselves up so they can begin to pick up the pieces.
Into the people’s pain God speaks. “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” God goes on to promise renewal: “I will drive away this army of locusts” (2:20). “I will pour down abundant rain, spring and autumn showers” (2:23). “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten” (2:25). “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (2:28).
God promises that the divine Spirit will be poured out upon God’s people like a torrential rain. Specifically named are three groups of people who will be soaked with this spiritual downpour: sons and daughters, old and young, male and female slaves. In other words, this coming Spirit will not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, or social standing. God’s Spirit will be poured out on everybody, a truth that Peter reiterates in the New Testament by quoting this very passage on the day of Pentecost.
Like the Israelites in Joel’s day, we know what it feels like to be laid low by loss, suffering, and grief. Disappointment, disillusionment, despair or depression run roughshod over our hopes and dreams, leaving behind fields of devastation. We experience times of spiritual dryness when our questions go unanswered and tragedies confound us, times when it seems that our prayers don’t get beyond the ceiling, scripture lays lifeless on the page, and the Spirit’s flow has slowed to a trickle. It’s a season we all encounter sooner or later, and yes, that even applies to preachers.
Charles Spurgeon was regarded as the “Prince of Preachers” in 19th century England, and his sermons are still studied as models of homiletical excellence. One Sunday, Spurgeon was so despondent he couldn’t bear the thought of hauling himself into the pulpit for another sermon, so he asked his associate to preach for him. He escaped London and wandered into a country church, slipping into a back pew, trying to be as discreet as possible. The country pastor began his sermon. Spurgeon sat stunned; the guy was preaching one of Spurgeon’s own messages. Midway through his sermon, the country preacher recognized Spurgeon in the last row and was mortified. Afterward, he was effusive in apologizing to his famous guest, but Spurgeon would have none of it. He waved off the preacher saying, “Think nothing of it. Your sermon was just what I needed to hear.”
Because we all face spiritual dryness at some point, this morning I want to share six suggestions for what to do when the locusts come swarming through your life. I’m not offering these as a quick-fix or even as a solution, but rather as ways we can stay connected and faithful during those times when life feels particularly hard and relentless and our spiritual energy is lagging. First, be honest with God. Tell God the truth. As we saw last week in Hosea, all God feels towards you is compassion and mercy. And God already knows the truth anyway. So, if you’re not sensing God’s presence, tell it like it is: “God, I’m not feeling you. I’m not feeling your nearness or your power or your peace. My soul is parched, and I need your help.” Then, be as open as you can to seeing how God is present, although maybe in unexpected ways and places.
Second, pray the Psalms. Half the psalms are what we might call melancholy in disposition. They express lament for crises, struggles with enemies, or puzzlement over why God doesn’t seem to answer prayer. Some psalms express anger. One of the gifts of the psalms is that they give voice to some of our deepest emotions. They articulate our discouragement or confusion even and especially when we don’t have the words to adequately say what we feel. We’ve included a list in your bulletin today of some specific psalms that might resonate with you in times of spiritual dryness.
Third, confide in a friend. It is not a sign of strength to suffer through dry periods alone and in silence. In fact, when we’re already feeling disconnected from God, we compound the problem by becoming isolated from our community of faith and those trusted, mature friends who can offer us encouragement and wisdom. We all need people in our lives to remind us that what we’re going through is normal and that it won’t last forever. One of the most important gifts we can give one another is to carry the hope for someone who can’t see it or feel it for themselves at a given moment.
Fourth, take an inventory of your soul. It’s ironic, but times of spiritual dryness can become a catalyst to a deeper life of faith. A practice of self-reflection is a valuable spiritual practice at any time, but it is particularly important during dry spells. Certainly, you will want to use this time to identify any attitudes that could be blocking the Spirit’s flow in your life. Hanging on to resentments, unmet expectations, or past failures, trying to control things that are beyond our control, or persisting in worry or fear rather than trusting in God—these can be barriers that we erect between ourselves and God’s Spirit. The idea is not to beat ourselves up, wallowing in what we’re doing wrong. Rather, we make our confession, thereby placing ourselves in God’s merciful and compassionate hands where there is real freedom and grace.
Fifth, if your relationship with God seems to be parched, examine your human relationships. It may seem like a curious way to address spiritual dryness by working on your human relationships, but if we have unresolved issues with others, especially if we have refused to forgive someone, that is one of the quickest ways I know to land us in a place marked by desolation and destruction. Not everything is up to us, of course, but this is an opportunity to take responsibility for our part of any disharmony.
Sixth, practice generosity. There are times when the best antidote for a locust-ravaged soul is to shift the focus away from ourselves and onto someone else. When you’re going through a rough patch, look around and do something for someone you see. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Send a note of thanks or speak a word of appreciation. Let someone go ahead of you in the grocery line. Take care of a chore that your spouse or roommate usually does. Turn off your phone and give someone your undivided attention, like one of your children or grandchildren. Be generous with your time, with a skill or talent you have, with your listening, with your money. It can prompt a surprising shower of spiritual renewal.
Be honest with God. Pray the Psalms. Confide in a trusted friend. Take inventory of your soul. Restore your relationships. Practice generosity. These steps will not prevent or solve times when locusts swarm through our lives, leaving us depleted and dry. But when those times come, these practices will help us get through them with trust rather than anxiety, peace rather than fear. Then, afterward, as Joel says, we will experience the flooding joy and power of God’s love let loose in us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.