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January 29 Lesson: God Promises His Presence

January 19, 2023
Click here for a downloadable version of the January 29 lesson

Winter Quarter 2022-2023: From Darkness to Light
Unit 2: God’s Promises
Sunday School Lesson for the week of January 29, 2023
By Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: Joel 2:21-27
Key Verse
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (Joel 2:27)
Lesson Aims
  • To focus on how we experience God’s presence in our lives
  • To become acquainted with the scriptural context for the scripture passage we are studying
  • To explore the seriousness of locust swarms and how that could get translated into judgment
  • To hear God’s call to action to return to the Lord
  • To learn the meaning of rending one’s heart
  • To contemplate God’s nature which is to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love
  • To understand how God relents and the implications of this
  • To look at the return to life that unfolds and seeing how God was present from the beginning
  • To review all the ways we can look for God’s presence and connect this with the ministry of the Holy Spirit
God Promises His Presence
This lesson brings the January Unit to a fitting conclusion. We have been exploring God’s promises throughout this unit. We have looked at God’s promises to hear and forgive, to restore, to guide, and to give light. It is fitting to culminate this unit with a focus on God’s abiding presence. We can and should talk about all that God does for us, for sure. God’s abiding presence, however, goes beyond God’s gracious actions. God just being with us is a part of God’s ministry to us. In this lesson, through the prophecy of Joel, we are going to lean into God’s promise to be in the midst of his people. 
What are your initial reflections about God’s presence? How have you felt God’s promise to be with us? What was going on in your life at the time? 
The Concern that Forms the Context for Our Scripture Passage
Scholars are divided on whether Joel’s ministry occurred before, during, or after the exile. The very fact that the exile is not mentioned in any kind of detail, suggests that Joel addressed God’s people when the exile and the return had already occurred. 
The concern at the outset of Joel’s message is a series of locust swarms. Joel described the devastation caused by the locusts, saying: “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten; and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” (Joel 1:4) In other words, there were successive waves of locusts, swarming together and eating everything in sight. Joel was vividly describing a natural agricultural disaster. (Be sure to read the first chapter of Joel and the verses in chapter two leading up to the scripture lesson in Joel 2:21-27.) One locust doesn’t seem very threatening, but when you’re talking about billions of locusts, then you’re looking at an economic and humanitarian catastrophe. When you see the swaths of destruction left by locust plagues that have been captured in photographs, it defies belief. Imagine every cultivated and wild plant being torn to the ground and the bark on trees being ripped off. Imagine starving cattle, flocks, and even wild animals. 
Joel not only described the destruction and resulting famine, he also described the mourning of the people that accompanied it: “surely joy withers away among the people.” (Joel 1:12) Everyone and everything seemed to mourn, from the land to the priests, from the farmers and the vinedressers to the ministers of the altar, from the herds of cattle and flocks of sheep to the animals out in the wild. Joel did not try to quell the mourning. In fact he seems intent on stirring up more mourning. It is as if Joel is calling people to let out their mourning—to let their tears and moaning flow so that everyone’s show of emotion might mingle together in a great expression of lamentation.
To Joel, the locusts comprised an invading army from God, pronouncing judgment upon God’s people: “The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great, terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11) The phrase, “the day of the Lord” is code for God’s judgment.
God wanted to bring everyone into the act of mourning not just their physical condition, but their moral and spiritual condition. Joel does not seem to list the sins of God’s people to the degree that other prophets do. Naming the sins of God’s people does not seem to be on Joel’s agenda. Humans sin—period. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, according to Romans 3:23. Our failures, mistakes, compromises, betrayals, hates, aggressions, arrogant and overbearing actions, our apathy, complacency, and lack of compassion are a part of our human condition. Perhaps Joel was using this time to allow and encourage God’s people to do their own searching moral inventory.
I have to admit that I am reluctant to pronounce after every natural disaster that God was punishing people for their sin. In the case of destructive and deadly weather events, could it not be the collision of air pressure, winds, temperatures, and moisture levels? Just as car collisions can occur where no one is really at fault, collisions occur on the cellular, bacteriological, and viral level occur in human bodies that cause people to suffer. When it comes to insects, such as locusts, something has most likely happened to the ecological balance. Whether human beings are responsible for that balance being disturbed, it would be hard to pinpoint just how. As I said, I am hesitant to say that every disaster is caused directly by God to punish people.
Having said this, I believe that Joel was on point to call people to look inward and take a moral inventory. When disaster strikes it often exposes how far we may have moved away from God. When tragedies occur, we pray reflexively. This is a good thing. Just crying out to God is a prayer that God hears. At the same time, people who find themselves praying in response to hard times may realize how strange prayer feels when it has been a long time since they prayed. Haven’t we all come to times in our lives when we have felt this way. “Sorry, God, for taking so long to get back with you.” When we have neglected our spiritual lives for a while (perhaps because times were relatively good), returning to God out of our desperation make us realize that it took this kind of desperation to get back to God. Entering again into prayer and other means of communing with God may seem like using muscles that we haven’t used in a long time. We realize we are out of shape spiritually. This may have caused us to slip into sinful patterns in our life. This is why it is common to feel judgment when disaster strikes. For Joel to encourage this is entirely on point. 
Think about when a tragedy occurs that grabs the attention of the nation. The news services that carry the reports of the events will also report on prayer vigils being held. It feels as if people treat one another better for a while. Unfortunately, when the emotion of the event passes, we often return to normal life and forget what was said about praying more or improving our collective life. 
There is saying that we should never waste a good crisis. In other words, when a crisis comes upon us, we are going to experience a lot of negative emotions and repercussions. It is does not have to all be bad however. We can use the moment to bring good out of it. What can we learn? What can we improve? How can we call people back to what is important? Perhaps Joel is reminding us that God does not want to waste a good crisis either.
All of this makes us want to lean into the words of Joel to see what he leads us to do next. We also want to lean in to continue learning more about the presence of God and God’s promise to be with us. It is not as if God has checked out before this tragedy occurred or while this tragedy was in progress. 
Although God never moves away from us, can you think of times when you moved away from God? How did it feel to lose touch with God? 
The Call to Action
Joel issued a call to action: “put on sackcloth and lament,” “consecrate a fast, call a solemn assembly,” and “cry out to the Lord.” (Joel 1:13, 14) He believed that if God’s people return to the Lord with all their heart, “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning,” if they rend their hearts and not their clothing, then God, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing,” may indeed turn and relent, and leave a blessing. (Joel 2:12-14) 
In last week’s lesson, we learned about calling solemn assemblies and fasts and putting on sackcloth (Isaiah 58:6-10). We learned how important it is not to just go through the motions. These means of grace are designed to lead us in truly humbling ourselves before God, and that means rooting out the tendency to be arrogant or dominating in our daily interactions with our fellow human beings. 
Joel emphasizes the same thing when he talks about rending our hearts and not our clothing. Tearing one’s clothing was an action people performed in biblical times to symbolize both mourning and contrition. Joel was making the point that a person should not go through the motions of tearing one’s clothing without being willing to rend one’s heart. To rend one’s heart means to enter into contrition. It means feeling true remorse and regret. There is a resolve to tear from one’s self the harmful and sinful patterns that have become a part of life. There is a resolve to replace these sinful patterns with new behavior that honors and pleases God.
Joel affirms that the Lord God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment.” (Joel 2:13) Unpacking these words, we are being made to understand that God has the ability to relent or change his course of action. Imagine that. We do not live in a universe where everything is already predetermined. God is unchanging in terms of God’s nature. God’s unchanging nature however is that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Since these attributes are a part of God’s immutable nature, God can and does change his course. God is able to change his course because something changed in the context in which God works. God’s people repented and returned to him. God changes his course in accordance with his unchangeable nature which is to be gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love.
Knowing this is a part of God’s nature, Joel held out an audacious hope that he expressed in the form of a question. I am paraphrasing: “Who knows whether the Lord will not turn (if God’s people return to him), and the Lord relent and leave a blessing in the Lord’s wake in the form of fertile lands, new grain for a grain offering, and new grapes for a drink offering that God’s people can return to the Lord?” (Joel 2:14) In other words, a sign of God changing the course of events, from famine to fertile lands, will be God’s people being able to offer grain offerings and drink offerings again to God.
When is a time in your life when you underwent a rending of the heart? How have you experienced the grace and mercy of God in a way that presented a definite change in the direction of your life and your relationship with God? If “prevenient grace” is the grace that comes before our salvation, how do you think you experienced prevenient grace before you said “yes” to God? In other words, how was God present in your life before you were even aware of God?
The Return to Life Begins
God’s people must have begun to show repentance, because Joel reports that “then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.” (Joel 2:18) Is this not amazing? God was seen as the one who allowed the locusts to tear up the land and render it unfertile. It was God’s presence in the midst of that situation that caused God’s people to take in God’s judgment of their poor spiritual conditional. Then, it was this same God who became jealous for the land belonging to God’s people. God did not want his people to be disparaged and made a mockery among the nations because of the torn and barren land they inhabited. God also had pity on his people, and that pity had been moving the heart of God all the while.
This is not unlike the way it is for parents. Our children can act out, and make us angry, disappointed, and even disgusted. Almost immediately it seems, the guilt and the shame that registers on their faces, in their tears, and in their body language begin to move us to pity. The remorse they express is met at once with our grace and mercy. Of course, our love for them never went away. It even grew through the experience. What is true about us is even more so with God.
Can you relate your own love for your children with God’s love for you?
Out of God’s pity, grace and mercy, and heart that is jealous for his people, God was already acting. The first thing God did was bring an end to the locust swarms: “I will remove the northern army far from you and drive it into a parched and desolate land, its front into the eastern sea and its rear into the western sea; its stench and foul smell will rise up.” (Joel 2:20) With the locusts removed, then we start to see the land being restored. 
21 Do not fear, O soil;
    be glad and rejoice,
    for the Lord has done great things!
22 Do not fear, you animals of the field,
    for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit;
    the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

Joel’s first word is to remove fear. How does the soil sense fear? How do the animals of the field register fear? Perhaps the fear Joel was speaking to was the fear God’s people felt as they contemplated the condition of the soil and the animals, which painted for them a picture of famine, starvation, hopelessness, despair, and fear. When Joel commands the soil and the animals not to fear, it is because the Lord had been doing great things below the surface before the effects could be seen. Then, it was just a matter of time before the flocks, the cattle, and wild animals were eating again from green pastures. Fig trees, fruit trees, and vines were once again producing a full yield.     
23 O children of Zion, be glad,
    and rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given the early rain for your vindication;
    he has poured down for you abundant rain,
    the early and the later rain, as before.

24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
A sure sign that life was returning to normal would be the coming of the early rains and the later rains. Both rainy seasons were crucial to planting and harvest, both the spring and fall harvests. We often overlook the ways that God sustains life—that is, until there happens to be a momentary break in that ongoing activity of God. God is both the Creator and the Sustainer of life and his creation. 
The result of the sustaining activity of God is that the threshing floors shall be full of grain. The threshing floors are where the good grain and the shell casings are separated so that the good grain can gathered and made into bread. The wine and oil vats, or presses, are overflowing with wine and olive oil. These represents the staples of life. There are many places in scripture that praise God the Sustainer and for good reason. Take a moment and read Psalm 104 which provides a great example. Here is a sampling:
“You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst. By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the cattle and plants for people to cultivate, to bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine and bread to strengthen the human heart. The trees of the field are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens. People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.”
(Psalm 104:10-23)
In our daily worship of God, it is always appropriate to imagine the ongoing work of God to sustain life, and to praise God the Creator and Sustainer. Along with the physical ways that God creates and sustains life, we also praise God for the ways God is creating relationship and sustaining relationship. In John 10:10, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” We understand that abundant life to be physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual. 
Sometimes Christians substitute Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While we can make a case for these connections, it is also important that we see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit sharing in the work of creating, redeeming, and sustaining. I find that doing this in my reading of scripture opens my understanding of the amazing interdependence living within the divine mystery of our Triune God. The point for this lesson is to emphasize and celebrate the sustaining activity of God and the beautiful and manifold ways that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are involved.
How do you know God as your Sustainer? How is that different from the way you have experienced God as your Creator and Redeemer? How might you grow in your appreciation of the sustaining work of God as God sustains you physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually?
25 I will repay you for the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army that I sent against you.

26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

I will never forget when a dear friend texted to our friend group a picture of where he and his wife had recently moved. It was an absolutely beautiful scene. He included the caption, “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust as eaten.” I knew that line came from scripture and recalled the background of the scripture. That scripture came alive for me at that moment, because I knew the back story of my friend and why he would claim that verse. He had just come from a work situation that was difficult because of the way his former boss treated him and other people. He could not freely utilize his gifts with joy because of the daily discord in the exercise of his work. I met his former boss in a meeting with him and a few other people, and I sensed right away what my friend had to endure. Eventually, my friend was able to leave that difficult situation and start a new job. His new residence was in a gorgeous setting, and I knew his new work situation was just as ideal. He felt he was being repaid for the years he felt he had lost in his former job. I will never forget receiving his text with the photograph and the scripture verse.
The only thing better than being repaid for lost years due to hardship, and eating in plenty, and being satisfied, is the ability to recognize it and acknowledge the Lord’s role in it. To praise the Lord for dealing wondrously with you adds to and completes the blessing. Just as we should never waste a good crisis, we should never waste a good blessing and the opportunity to give witness to it. When we have lost something, getting it back makes us appreciate it all the more.
Can you point to a time in your life when something you felt you had lost was completely restored to you? How did you appreciate it more?
The part about God’s people never again being put to shame makes us think about the importance of our self-esteem. God thinks our self-esteem is vital. A term I discovered some years ago is the term grace-esteem. The idea is that our self-esteem can be grounded in the way God esteems us. God the Creator esteems us in that we were created in God’s image. God the Redeemer esteems us in that Christ died for us. God the Sustainer esteems us in that the Holy Spirit is pleased to dwell in us. 

27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel
    and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

In this whole saga, beginning with the coming of the locust swarms, God never left his people. In all of it, the Lord was in the midst of Israel. God was there to observe the trouble his people were in. God was present in the call to return to God. God was present in the people’s recognition that they had fallen short. God was present in the fasting and the rending of people’s hearts. God was present when the locusts were removed and the land was restored. God was present in the time of plenty.
To understand the promise of God’s presence, it is important to understand all the ways God is present. We know God’s presence through his gracious actions. When we recall these actions, and we read what how others have come to know God, we are also led to dwell on God’s attributes—who God is. Knowing that God is present with us every moment coupled together with who we know God to be makes us look with great anticipation for ways God will show up. We should make it our aim to grow in our understanding and appreciation of God’s presence and what God reveals about himself in these moments. This is why prayer, reflection, meditation, and contemplation are so important if we seek to grow in the life of faith.
Do you feel that you take the time to contemplate the presence of God in your life? Do you have anyone you can share “glory sightings” with?
We cannot end this lesson without looking at the next two verses:
28 Then afterward
    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.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days I will pour out my spirit.

Christians believe that this scripture was fulfilled most fully and decisively on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in the second chapter of Acts. Jesus had promised that after he ascended into heaven that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with his disciples. We see a noticeable difference in the disciples after the outpouring of the Spirit on that day. Their boldness from that point forward gave proof that the living Christ, who reigned in heaven, was also dwelling in them through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was not “born” on that Pentecost Day. The Holy Spirit has reigned with the Father and the Son from eternity past. After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, however, the Holy Spirit bears witness to the presence of God in Christ in a powerful way.
Next time you have the opportunity to share in the Lord’s Supper, recall that one of the reasons we take part in this sacrament is to recognize and celebrate the presence of Christ beneath, above, around, in, and through the bread and the cup and in our hearts. Pay attention to the liturgy, the physical movements, the breaking of the bread, and the smell of the bread and grape juice or wine. Reflect on the words being spoken. Reflect on the name many give this moment—Holy Communion. 
What about this sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, is Holy Communion for you? If the Lord’s Supper has not been a time of holy communion with God for you, how might you make a change in order for that to happen?
As we conclude this January unit, we have explored God’s promises to hear and forgive, to restore, to guide, and to give light. To cap it off, we have explored God’s promise of his presence. We can say that in our journey from darkness to light, God is our ever-present companion—hearing, forgiving, restoring, guiding, and giving us light.
What are your main take-aways from this lesson? How have you grown in your understanding of the presence of God?
Gracious Father, you have been with us all of our lives. Help us count the ways you have been present, that we may have a greater understanding that we are never alone, through Christ, our Lord, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever, Amen.
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at jharris@sgaumc.com. Find his plot-driven guide to reading the Bible, the “Layered Bible Journey,” at www.layeredbiblejourney.com.


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