March 26 lesson: God’s Love Restores
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God’s Love Restores
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 1: God’s Eternal, Preserving, Renewing Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 26, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Joel 2:12-13, 18-19, 28-32
In seeking to understand the context of today’s lesson, a brief visit to Joel 1:1-11 seems in order. Every generation tends to think that its troubles are the worst the world has ever seen. Therefore, the prophet Joel paints the calamity of his day in the worst possible light. As scholars suggest, he begins by implying that the present visitation of locusts has no precedent and is unlikely to be paralleled in the future. The devastation is such that it cannot be surpassed.
The point here, however, is not whether the plague in Joel’s time was the worst his country had ever suffered. Calamities cannot be compared, except in superficial ways. Wherever suffering and evil exist, it is that situation which has to be faced in all its ramifications.
Without doubt, the scriptures recognize with utmost seriousness the reality of evil. And we are told that the gulf between despair and faith is crossed only when the troubles of humanity are first seen as the consequences of humankind’s fall. Therefore, the sufferings of the world must be recognized as acts of divine judgment. For it’s at that point that the way of repentance may be opened up and healing becomes a possibility. As far as the prophet Joel is concerned, our cure must come from the hand that has smitten us.
Now, the trumpet served several different functions in ancient Israel’s national life. It can be seen playing two different roles even in this second chapter of Joel. It is suggested that we might think of it as Israel’s Evil Defense siren, and we know something of the anxiety or even fright evoked by that sound. So it was that the Lord wanted “all the inhabitants of the land to hear the prophet sound the alarm.”
In the larger context of scripture, we recognize that the prospect of the “day of the Lord” was a mixed bag. As scholars attest, that “day” was not so much a date on the calendar as the moment when God would intervene in history to make things right. And whether that promise is a good thing or bad thing, however, depends upon who you are. For Joel’s audience, it is not a happy prospect, for evidently, they are among the things that are wrong and need to be made right.
The blowing of the trumpet signaled the coming of the day of the Lord. And the judgment of the Lord on that day would be realized by a devastating army. That army is generally interpreted as a plague of locusts, based upon on earlier reference (Joel 1:4), a later reference (2:25), and several of the descriptions of the army. The point is, that utter devastation will occur.
And Joel 2:11 makes it quite clear that the Lord is deliberately associated with this scary army. While Israel’s history is full of stories of God fighting enemy armies on their behalf, this opposing army is under God’s own direct command. Such is the nature of Joel’s prophetic message, and other judgment prophet’s messages as well.
“Yet even now” there is grace! With all this fast moving destruction, there is still hope for these people. An option is before them. God says, “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). Even in the midst of a judgment message, God gives his people hope.
God continues, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:13). In other words, the people are urged to repent where it counts – in the heart. And it’s not surprising that the people’s hearts should be the key to their repentance, since God’s heart is the key to their forgiveness. Then it is that Joel reminds the people about the nature of God’s heart. Joel states, “For he (God) is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” (Joel 2:13). As we are informed, the people’s encouragement to repent is more tied to God’s love than God’s power. It is the divine invitation rather than the divine warning that should compel us to a change of heart.
In Joel 2:15, again, there is the call to “blow the trumpet in Zion.” Earlier in the second chapter, the trumpet functions as a national siren. At this point, however, it serves a different purpose. Here, the trumpet is used to announce certain holidays and convocations. The first trumpet sent the people running for cover. This trumpet calls them specifically to come together for worship.
The trumpet here, according to scholars, signals a kind of invitation, and that invitation is comprehensive and inclusive. The image of the bride and groom suggest the importance of the convocation, for it should interrupt every human activity.
In Joel 2:17, the people’s repentance turns to the priests’ intercession. They cry out to God to spare the people.
Scholars inform us that “Land” and “People” are knit together in verses 18-27. The Lord is said to be “jealous for his land” and to have “pity on his people.” The promised rescue for the people is manifested in blessings upon the land.
Without question, the early part of this second chapter of Joel is clearly intended to frighten. The trumpet sounds and the terrifying descriptions of the army and its destruction are vivid. But now, in contrast, God encourages nature and the animals not to be afraid and the children of Zion to be “glad and rejoice.” The Lord promises restoration and vindication. And in the end, the real culmination of this beautiful picture is knowledge of God and God’s presence in the midst of the people.
And as the earlier verses promised material blessings, so now the promises of God turn to spiritual blessings (Joel 2:28, 29). At this point, the Lord promises to “pour out my spirit,” which as scholars make clear, is a whole other realm of grace and kindness.
Underline it! Because of God’s unmerited love and grace, salvation is promised and available to “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” (2:32).
If the Lord wanted you dead
The Old Testament judgment prophets, which includes Joel, are known for their words of warning. These words of warning include frightening details about the destruction that God intends to bring upon certain nations. The actual message from the judgment prophet is very much like the earlier part of Joel, chapter two. It is a heavy, sober message. Yet, as we are reminded, the very existence of a judgment prophet is a testimony to the kindness of God. How so? If the Lord really wanted the people to be destroyed, then no warning would have been given. The criminal does not notify the victim ahead of time. The thief does not generally knock on the door. Therefore, the warning of God is a mercy of God.
This truth of God’s love becomes even clearer when the Lord implores the people saying, “Even now, return to me with all your heart” (2:12). There, it is redemption, not judgment, that is the actual will of God. Scholars note that if the Lord were eager to judge, then there would be no warning, and there would certainly be no invitation to repent.
Now, the frightening message of warning that Joel’s audience first heard might have made them think that God wanted them dead. Absolutely not! If the Lord had really wanted them dead, they would be dead. What the Lord wanted for them was salvation, and the first step toward that salvation is repentance.
Imagine a woman who has lost all sense of passion and purpose for her job. She still gets up and goes in everyday, but she feels no energy for it. Her lack of enthusiasm has stunted her creativity. Thus, with no eagerness to take on anything new, she’s just punching the clock.
Imagine a husband who has grown distant from his wife. He’s not rude or mean to her; he’s just not as attentive and thoughtful, as interested as he once was. They are still living together, but that’s about all that can be said.
As we observe these two people, we conclude that their hearts are just not in it. They are both just going through the motions.
According to scholars, with that observation we are acknowledging the two-part composition of a human being. We have both an inside and an outside. And what we are visibly doing on the outside is not the real issue.
Now, with this recognition, we are better able to understand Jesus’ point about the superficial Pharisees of his day. Read Matthew 23:23-28, for example. In contrast to their fixation on “the outside of the cup” (Matthew 23:25), Jesus turns the focus again and again to the human heart (Matthew 5:27, 28). And this is the same lesson learned by Samuel in the Old Testament so many years earlier that “the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).
Therefore, sin is always a condition of the heart. It may reveal itself in countless other ways – in our tongues, our eyes, our hands and more – but at its core, sin is a heart condition. Consequently, the Lord urged the people of Joel’s day, “Return to me with all your heart,” and “rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12, 13). The real cure for our chief ailment (heart condition) is found in God’s loving invitation to repent – to turn or return to the Lord.
The beauty of jealousy
In our time, the word “jealousy” for the most part is negative. On the other hand, the Old Testament is unapologetic about applying the term to God (for example, Exodus 20:5, 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; Joshua 24:19). The Lord is jealous, and the prophet Joel cites that jealousy as part of his good news for the land and its people.
When we think of a jealous person, we think of someone who is selfish, insecure and controlling. At its best, however, jealousy reflects a very natural instinct, namely, an unwillingness to share a person’s affection. It indicates a desire that the beloved belong entirely and exclusively to the lover. In all honesty, that’s what we all want and expect when we marry. And so at its best, jealousy is a natural part of love.
We are told in scripture that “God is love” (I John 4:8), and so it should be no surprise that God is jealous. And, as scholars affirm, in that jealousy, the Lord pays a great compliment to us. Would we prefer for God to be indifferent about our affections and allegiances? Would it seem more loving if God were more permissive and less protective?
Joel states that God “became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people” (Joel 2:18). What follows is God’s blessing. And that blessing is both material and spiritual. We are also told that the land, for which God is jealous, reveals God’s perfect plan going forward, we see its global – even cosmic – reach.
In summary, the prophet Joel helps us to see more of the beauty of God’s love than we might have recognized apart from his help. Even in judgment, we see how redemptive God’s love really is. The Lord does not discard what is broken, but rather endeavors to make it whole and new again. And lastly, we see that God’s love is not lukewarm toward us. God is jealous, and his love is always wanting the very best for us.
- What are some of the things Joel teaches us about God’s love?
- What motivates people to repent and seek restoration?