September 6, 2020
Individually and in community we cry out to God .
I. Individually (Joel 1:13)
II. In Community (Joel 1:14-15)
III. We cry out to the Lord (Joel 1:16-20)
One of my favorite books of the last ten years was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s the truly astounding story of Louis Zamperini. Born to an immigrant Italian family, Zamperini started life as a juvenile delinquent and was widely expected to end up in catastrophic trouble. Instead he ended up on the track team, and became the best high school miler in the state. After only four college races he was selected for the 1936 Olympic Team. He didn’t medal, but he had a last lap in the 5000 meter race that shattered every last-lap record in the books. He met Hitler, who called him “the boy with the fast finish.”
Zamperini’s triumph was supposed to come in the 1940 Olympics, but they never happened. Instead, with his generation, Zamperini joined the war. He became a bombardier, trained at Ellington Field, and flew in B-24’s in the Pacific. He participated in the first bombing of Wake Island, and after another flight over the little island of Nauru, Zamparini’s plane returned with three dead and 594 holes. Then on a simple search for a downed plane. Zamperini’s aircraft lost two engines and spiraled into the ocean. All but three crewmen died. They crawled into two ill-equipped life rafts and began an epic 47 day journey, pursued by sharks, starvation and thirst. One of the three didn’t survive, but Zamperini and Phil Phillips floated more than two thousands miles before encountering an island – which turned out to be in the hands of the Japanese.
After their capture, the Americans were taken to one of the horrid POW camps that the Japanese had established. For two full years Zamperini endured criminal torture, singled out because of his celebrity and especially hated by a Japanese captor nicknamed ‘the Bird.’ The tortures, too numerous and cruel to describe here, were accompanied by starvation rations, infested living conditions and mental abuse. But Zamperini survived to the end of the war. He was so physically wasted he could not run competitively again. He was so mentally wasted that he could not adjust. Though he married, he descended into alcohol and violence, consumed by hatred for his captors, for the Bird.
Zamperini’s life, based on this brief description, could be seen as overrun by what last week we saw as the locust plague. Wave after wave of terrorizing and debilitating events rolled over him, the details too numerous and horrid to mention. But we’ll hear in a few minutes that Zamperini cried out for help and at key moments he received unexplainable saving help from God.
This week, as we continue to study Joel, we find that the first thing we do in response to the locusts of life is cry out. This shouldn’t surprise us. We remember from Psalm 143 that the first stage of lament is to cry out. In Joel 1:13-20 we find this truth again, and I want to emphasize it again. I believe crying out to God is the essential first step in response to any life situation, whether difficulty or opportunity. Too often we go numbly into sin or despair, unresponsive in this key thing. Individually and in community we are called to cry out to God.
Let’s read the text and then we’ll see who is to cry out, and how. Joel 1:13-20 Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. 15Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. 16Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? 17The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up. 18How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer. 19To you, O Lord, I call. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. 20Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.
Verse 13 is directed at the priests and ministers of the people and calls them to mourn and lament. “Sackcloth” was the traditional garment of mourning in Israel, not wildly different from the burlap I used in children’s corner this morning. By its intentional discomfort and visible poverty, it was an outward sign of the inward reality of grief, accompanied by lament and wailing.
The English language, like all languages, is rich in many ways but deficient in others. The Hebrew Old Testament, for example, has more than a dozen words with meanings like lament, mourn and grieve for the inward reality of loss, and like wail and cry out for the outward manifestation of loss. But it’s hard to match the few English words to the more varied Hebrew words. The word translated “lament” is an example. It’s translated by the English Standard Version as “lament” about 15 times and “mourn” about 15 times. But last week, as we started Joel we saw the English word “lament” in verse 8, but that wasn’t this word. It was another Hebrew word that has also been translated “lament.” In today’s verse there is another word the ESV translates “wail,” and that word is somewhat more closely associated with a verbal expression of grief and loss. Joel uses this word three times in chapter 1.
There is a major overlap in English between these distinct Hebrew words. Their nuances may be lost in our English translations. Yet the meaning is clear. The leaders of God’s people are to mourn, grieve and lament inwardly, to cry out and wail outwardly. These leaders are the priests and ministers of the altar, probably one group of people named twice for emphasis. Priests were those set apart to bring sacrifices and offerings to God in the tabernacle and the temple. They were to be holy, set apart in ways more demanding than the people, but they had the incredible privilege of entering the holy place and serving in God’s presence. They had no secular profession but, along with the Levites, were dedicated to the service of the Lord. They were ministers of the altar, offering not only animal sacrifices but also the grain offerings and the offerings of incense and fragrant oil. The word minister means one who serves. The overwhelming use of it is of the service of the priests and Levites.
But here they are called to spend whole nights in lament, wailing, mourning and grieving. What were they to lament? Judgment or calamity, the plagues of locust and drought. They were to wail because the grain offering and drink offering they were commanded to give had been withheld. As I looked at the word ‘wail’ in all its Old Testament references, it was always the response to judgment or calamity. It was not a response to awareness of sin. Repentance, turning, prayer and other things do show the response of God’s people to sin, but once calamity shows up or God’s judgment begins, it is then that they wail and lament, grieve and cry out. In fact the book of Joel never talks about the specific sins that have brought judgment or calamity. The book is universal. It doesn’t condemn specific sin. It simply says that when the locusts of life come we cry out to God. We also, symbolically, put on sackcloth. We do examine ourselves for sin. We mourn the losses of the nation, the calamities of a fallen world. This was to be led by the priests and elders of the people.
So too, in the present day, the leaders of God’s people, the ministers and elders of God’s churches should feel the first responsibility to mourn, to grieve, to cry out to God in the face of calamity or judgment. This must include recognizing and repenting of our own sin, but it also includes lamenting the pain brought by the locusts. So is COVID-19 a judgment? We don’t know that it is. We do know that our country, our culture and even many of our church practices are ripe for judgment. Without drawing a straight line of cause and effect, I believe Joel calls the leaders of this church and of the universal church to mourn, to cry out, to lament COVID-19. Not just the disease itself, but all the impacts it is having socially, economically and politically. The same could be said for racial injustice and the violence rampant in so many cities. Leaders get grieve what they see, and the judgment that may lie behind it. We grieve abortion. We grieve sexual sin. We grieve oppression. We cry out.
But leaders are also responsible to call the people to this crying out. The second point Joel makes is that we cry out in community. Verse 14: “Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God and cry out to the Lord.” I have no doubt that the priests and other leaders are to take the responsibility for calling the people to fasting and prayer. Fasting, of course, has been a response to calamity and sin throughout the history of God’s people. When Nehemiah learned of the state of Jerusalem, that calamity, he says “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” Daniel does the same thing. So does David. And the prophet Samuel calls the whole nation to this solemn fasting and prayer.
In the history of the church, there have been many solemn calls to fasting and prayer, and some of the great revivals in history have been given by God as the church has done this. I urge you to read or listen J. Edwin Orr’s famous speech, “The Role of Prayer in Spiritual Awakening” if you want compelling examples. We do know that the Old Testament is critical of fasting done wrong, merely external or as manipulation. Jesus warns against fasting for public recognition. But those warnings do not negate the value of fasting, which is to focus our prayers on the needs before us, often with mourning and grieving. with corporate crying out: Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land and cry out to the Lord. The words “cry out” translate yet another Hebrew term, “zaak.” The Theological Wordbook says “The basic meaning of this root is ‘to cry for help in time of distress.’”
Here at Trinity we have not done corporate fasting, though many of us do fast, and we have suggested it to the body. More often, however, we call for corporate prayer and petition. This has been the purpose of the Tuesday night prayer time that we started after we began to reopen. We have been simply gathering to pray that this COVID mess and the other messes in our culture will be met by God with revival and with mercy. You ought to come and pray with your brothers and sisters if you are able. It’s our version of a solemn assembly.
Verses 15-18 record the actual cry of the community. Like the lamenting and wailing of the last section, the cry is not one of repentance, but grieving over judgment or calamity. Verse 15: Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. “Alas” is a guttural cry “hah,” sometimes translated “Woe.” This cry is focused on the day of the Lord, which is near. That Day is a major theme in Joel, and we will focus on it next week. For now all we need to know is that most of the prophets looked forward to a final day of judgment and rescue at God’s hand. Some emphasized the beauty of God’s rescue, some emphasize the horror of that final judgment.
Many, like Joel here, saw their current circumstances as possibly leading directly to, or at least foreshadowing that ultimate judgment. Thinking together about this locust plague and drought the people of God can only conclude that that day is near, and that destruction from the Almighty, judgment, “it comes.” They point to the evidence, verse 16: “Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God?” We mentioned last week that the drought had dried up the gladness of men. In the same way any of the locusts of life can dry up joy and gladness. I’m not saying they necessarily have to or even should, but they can and do. The locusts we’re experiencing, COVID-19 and the others have threatened to cut off joy and gladness for many.
Verse 17 “The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up.” “The seed shrivels under the clods” is painfully visual. “We plant seeds and instead of sprouting with the spring rain, we look under the dirt that covered them and find them shriveled.” It’s a drought. It’s been so bad for so long that the storehouses are desolate, useless. They’re taking them down to use for other things. Verse 18: “How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer.” I love the personification of the beasts. This is so bad the cattle are perplexed and groaning. Cattle don’t get perplexed, as far as I can see, but it sure does bring across the desperation.
Notice how detailed and feeling this cry is. When God’s people come together to cry out in distress, they don’t sugarcoat the pain. They give voice to their fears. They detail their calamity. They lament, which means that their cry includes an implied “why?” and an implied “how long?”
So leaders should cry out on behalf of the people. They should call the community together to cry out. Finally, each of us individually should cry out. Verses 19 and 20: To you, O Lord, I call. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. 20Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.
The main difference between these verses and the preceding few is that the author switches from “we” to “I” “To you, O Lord, I call.” When the leaders and the community cry out it is our responsibility to call out to God as well. Just as the leaders lament and grieve, just as the community cries out, so we as individuals call on God and cry out to him for rescue. Just as the community lament is specific, so this individual call is specific. “Fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness. Flame has burned all the trees of the field.”
It’s very possible that the locusts and the drought have led to a third plague, fire. The dead and dried husks of once green vegetation would make for abundant fuel. In California it is the drought which has continued more or less unabated for many years that has made the wildfires so uncontainable again this year. Fire is often a metaphor in Scripture for judgment. In Amos chapter 1 God says “I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, and it shall devour her strongholds.” Then he says the same thing to Hazael, Tyre, Rabbah, Moab, and Judah. Those fires are probably judgments, rather than literal fire. But here it may be literal. Verse 20: “Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.” A drought would dry up the water brooks, but since that’s a literal reality, it’s also likely that fire had devoured the pastures. Again Joel personifies nature, saying that the beasts of the field pant for you. Remember Psalm 42: As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”
So what have we seen? In response to the locusts of life, the leaders of God’s people cry out to him. The community of God’s people cry out to him. Individuals who are God’s people cry out to him. This is simple, repetitive, and important. Crying out to God in every difficulty – and every opportunity for that matter – should be the reflexive response of God’s people. Just as a baby or a toddler reflexively cries out “mama” when danger or distress or pain comes into his or her life, so also so God’s people should reflexively turn to him. I don’t know how easy it is for most people to forget this, but I know in my own life there have been many times when I’ve forgotten or disregarded this truth. I have walked into and even through difficult situations without the “Oh, Lord help”! that should be reflexive. I’ve looked at countless situations around me in the world, countless calamities and even judgments and said “Oh, that’s a shame,” or “they got what they deserved,” or “that could have been avoided,” when I should’ve been on my knees crying to God. Actually, true confession, my knees hurt too much to pray that way, though I admire those who can. For me it’s a metaphor for focusing my cry on God. That I can do, if I remember.
We can learn to do this. If you read my book, We Never Stood Alone you find a key theme is the reality of crying out to God, individually and in community. The turning points in character’s lives come as they see this. That fiction reflects the reality I’ve seen in ministry for nearly thirty years now. I see it too in the biography of Louis Zamperini. In the early successful part of his life there is no prayer or crying out. But once Zamperini is on that raft floating across the endless Pacific ocean, he does begin to cry out. Hillenbrand writes “Their water was gone. After the B-24 had passed over, no more planes had come, and the current was carrying them far from the paths trafficked by friendly aircraft. If the search for them hadn’t been called off it soon would be.
“That night, before he tried to sleep, Louie prayed. He had prayed only once in his life, in childhood, when his mother was sick and he had been filled with fear that he would lose her. That night on the raft, in words composed in his head, never passing his lips, he pleaded for help.” Again “The two-week mark was a different kind of turning point for Louie. He began to pray aloud. He had no idea how to speak to God, so he recited snippets of prayers that he’d heard in movies. Phil bowed his head as Louie spoke, offering “Amen” at the end.”
Weeks later they went through a long spell without rainwater “On the sixth day the men recognized that they weren’t going to last much longer. Mac was failing especially quickly. They bowed their heads as Louie prayed. If God would quench their thirst, he vowed, he’d dedicate his life to him. The next day, by divine intervention or the fickle humors of the tropics, the sky broke open and rain poured down. Twice more the water ran out, twice more they prayed, and twice more the rain came.” Don’t you love that? I’m the first to admit that at times when we cry out we don’t seem to see answers. But other times God just pours them out to meet our need, to drive back calamity that threatens.
Later God gave Zamperini a different refreshment “On the fortieth day, Louie was lying beside Phil under the canopy when he abruptly sat up. He could hear singing; it sounded like a choir. He nudged Phil and asked him if he heard anything. Phil said no. Louie slid the canopy off and squinted into the daylight. The ocean was a featureless flatness. He looked up. Above him, floating in a bright cloud, he saw human figures, silhouetted against the sky. He counted twenty-one of them. They were singing the sweetest song he had ever heard. Louie stared up, astonished, listening to the singing. What he was seeing and hearing was impossible, yet he felt absolutely lucid. This was, he felt certain, no hallucination, no vision. He sat under the singers, listening to their voices, memorizing the melody, until they faded away. Phil had heard and seen nothing. Whatever this had been, Louie concluded, it belonged to him alone.”
But once Zamperini was a Japanese prisoner the sheer brutality of his captors quenched all evidence of God’s care and he stopped crying out, stopped praying, let go of everything except the strength of his hatred. When he returned home that hatred fueled his PTSD, his descent into self-abuse and broken relationships. It is likely that’s where Louie Zamperini’s story would have ended, one more drunk whose life and marriage were destroyed by the war, except for a man named Billy Graham. His Los Angeles crusade was a great work of God, and Louie Zamperini’s wife Cynthia, desperate, went to the meeting, in a 600 foot tent in a dusty Los Angeles field. She came home alight and began to cry out to God for her husband. Finally, after weeks of praying and the intervention of a neighbor, Louie agreed to go.
That first night Billy Graham said that every man had the capability for death and hatred. From his time in the prison camp Louie knew it was true. Then Graham said, quote, “Here tonight, there’s a drowning man, a drowning woman, a drowning man, a drowning boy, a drowning girl that is out lost in the sea of life.” Louie knew that was true too. But when Graham gave the invitation, Louie walked out, back to his nightly nightmare of being tortured and beaten by the Bird. The next day Cynthia argued him into going to the crusade again. That night Graham talked about the suffering of the world, and the suffering of God to save the world. What God asks of men, said Graham, is faith. Again, Louie wanted to flee. When the invitation came he pushed toward the exit.
As Hillenbrand tells it, “His mind was tumbling. He felt enraged, violent, on the edge of explosion. He wanted to hit someone. As he reached the aisle, he stopped. Cynthia, the rows of bowed heads, the sawdust underfoot, the tent around him, all disappeared. A memory long beaten back, the memory from which he had run the evening before, was upon him. Louie was on the raft. There was gentle Phil crumpled up before him, Mac’s breathing skeleton, endless ocean stretching away in every direction, the sun lying over them, the cunning bodies of the sharks, waiting, circling. He was a body on a raft, dying of thirst. He felt words whisper from his swollen lips. It was a promise thrown at heaven, a promise he had not kept, a promise he had allowed himself to forget until just this instant: If you will save me, I will serve you forever. And then, standing under a circus tent on a clear night in downtown Los Angeles, Louie felt rain falling. It was the last flashback he would ever have. Louie let go of Cynthia and turned toward Graham. He felt supremely alive. He began walking. “This is it,” said Graham. “God has spoken to you. You come on.”
Hillenbrand calls Zamperini’s prayer a promise, but I call it a cry. Individually and corporately we cry out to God. And God is not deaf to our prayers. He sends the rain, but he hears more in our cry than we intended. “If you will save me, I will serve you.” Years later God was still answering that prayer in a tent in Los Angeles. And he hears our cries as well. We’ll see the depths of his provision as we move forward in Joel these next few weeks.