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Month: February 2021

Lenten Reflections 2021: The Focus of the Day of the Lord is Hope and Salvation Rather than Desolation!

By @johnvinod  | February 27, 2021

Let us begin today by reading from Joel 2: 30 to chapter 3 because they are interconnected. This is a rather difficult section in Joel’s prophecy as he repeats a popular theme among the Old Testament prophets—”the day of the Lord.” Joel tone takes a dramatic turn as he begins predicting God’s judgement upon the nations. Remember, like all the prophecies Joel’s words are both literal as well as figurative. He has been addressing the devastation the locust plague had caused, which I believe was a physical reality in Israel/Judah. However, the plague is also a symbol of the northern nations who invaded and ravaged Israel. Of course, the Israelites had a role in this because of their disobedience and idolatry. And Joel made it clear that the plague was a judgement of God upon his people.

From 2: 30 to 3: 21, however, Joel turns his focus to the judgement of rebellious nations. God’s people are forgiven, restored, and saved because they had repented and called on the name of Yahweh (see, vs 1: 19-20 & 2: 17). God showed mercy and they are being saved. But what about the nations?

Joel announces that the Lord will deal with the nations in a catastrophic way through the events of the day of the Lord. He goes on to provide the signs of this event which will be visible on earth as well as in the sky in 2: 30-32 and then again in 3: 15. The “blood,” “fire,” and “smoke” clearly symbolize the destruction that invasions and wars create. They were a reminder of the ruin caused by the locust plague. The extent of damage the people of Israel experienced is equated metaphorically with the dreadfulness of “the day of the Lord” (see 2: 10-11). Now in the final days, Joel says, the tables will be turned, and the same judgement will be poured on the rebelling nations. He zooms on the details of the character of this judgement in 3: 1-14.

Nowadays, I understand that many people, perhaps you, too, are curious to know the specifics and interpretations of the passages regarding the end times, as the New Testament writers also displayed an intense interest in Joel’s prophecy. They link it to the return of Christ and the end times. However, my concern is with the prophet’s interest here as well as with the other writers of the New Testament who wrote about the end times. They were writing in the context of persecution and sufferings of God’s people. Therefore, their purpose was not to provide every minute information to satisfy our curiosity for the chronology of events or their interpretation. The writers’ language is mostly metaphorical, and their message is two-fold:

  1. Provide meaning, comfort, and assurance of God’s favor to those who believe in the grace of God and call on his name.
  2. Make it plain that Yahweh is a just God. He will certainly judge the rebellious and their punishment will fit their crimes.

That is why, Joel envisages a day when God will save his people while he carries out judgement of the nations. While judging other nations, God wanted to assure his people that he cares for his covenant and will deal with those who intermeddle with it or its people (see 3:1-2). Just as Yahweh could save his people from the plague, he can and will do it again in the future, even if that involved as apocalyptic an event as the day of the Lord. As in the past, so in the future, too, the means of his grace and his salvation will be for “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” (2:32). This declaration became the pivotal text for the Apostle Peter, when he invited the people gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost representing not only the Jewish people but all nations:

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2: 38-39 ESV).

This, friends, should also be our prayer and focus for us, as we go through our pandemic today. God is in the business of restoring and saving. It is possible only in and through the name of Jesus Christ. And those who receive his grace and salvation, cannot but share with others. Will you share this good news during this Lent season?


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Lenten Reflections 2021: The Spiritual Sign of Restoration is the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit and His Gifts

Greg on Unsplash.com

By @johnvinod  | February 26, 2021

Please begin today by reading from Joel 2: 28-32, which is the closing section of Joel chapter two. We saw in yesterday’s post that after their repentance, God blesses and satisfies his restored people. Having established this outward visible blessing, Joel now prophesized the oncoming spiritual blessing and renewal, which constitutes the true restoration.

This spiritual renewal will come in the form of something unprecedented and powerful: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh”! This is unlike what is described in the previous sections of this chapter. Those events came to pass in Israel during Joel’s time. This promise of the Spirit, on the other hand, is a prophecy in the more distant future and Joel links it with an apocalyptic event, “the day of Lord” (vs. 30-32). Notice that the prophecy is preceded by “Then afterwards” (v. 28) and “in those days” (v. 29). This is a common parallelism that Hebrew prophets and poets often employed for rhetorical effect and to emphasize the point they were making. And the point in Joel’s case is that it will come to pass sometime in the future.

The Spirit is understood as God’s Spirit, the Holy Sprit in the New Testament. The primary meaning of the outpouring of the Spirit on his people is a divinely inspired spiritual ecstasy which enables them to find a transient prophetic fervor and make prophetic utterances. We can also find examples of this in 1 Samuel 10:10 and 19:24 in the time of Judges in Israel. God had used this phenomenon earlier also with seventy elders of Israel under Moses’ leadership for the purpose of endorsing their calling and leadership:

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. (Numbers 11: 25 NRSV).

However, quite unlike the previous occurrences, in Joel’s prophecy of 2: 28-29, notice here the promise is for “all flesh” irrespective of their age, leadership, social status, or gender. Primarily, it was meant for the people to whom Joel prophesied and their descendants. However, in God’s economy of salvation the promise has been extended to the whole humankind irrespective of our race, class, gender, or status in society.

The outpouring or pour out means to cause to flow freely and implies that God will give the Spirit in abundance, as he always does, without reservation.

The Apostle Peter unmistakably applied the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy to the events of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Before his ascension, Jesus Christ had promised the Holy Spirit to his disciples in Luke 24:49 and Acts 1: 8. So, in Acts 2 when the disciples along with the Twelve Apostles received the promised Holy Spirit, they were ecstatic and filled with a divine prophetic passion. Peter, one of the Twelve, addressed the astonished crowd of thousands who had gathered in Jerusalem saying:

But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2: 15- 21 ESV).

However, this was just the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy of a spiritual renewal that Joel prophesied. It did not cease with the Day of Pentecost. In the book of Acts and in the rest of the New Testament, the outpouring continued throughout Israel and then in the rest of the world until this day.

This Spirit, the Spirit of Pentecost, is the Spirit of missions. He is the Spirit of transformation of lives, institutions, and cultures. The renewal the Spirit of missions creates is evident throughout the world which has experienced the outpouring of the Spirit down the centuries. And God’s Spirit is still moving around the globe in the most unanticipated ways and in the most unexpected places and among the most amazing people groups, just as it was prophesied. The threefold signs of the spiritual renewal are evident wherever the Spirit is outpoured.

People are prophesying, that is, bringing God’s word to those unreached people groups who have never had the opportunity to hear it until now. Praise God that this noble calling is no longer restricted to a privileged few from a certain social class or people of certain color, but God’s Spirit is using ordinary people for the proclamation of the Word.  

People are dreaming, that is, dreaming of being and becoming what they have never been before. Dreaming and finding an identity as God’s own people, loved, lifted, and dignified. Dreaming of breaking off slavery, colonialism, and the fetters of oppression of all sorts throughout all cultures. And this is made possible today by the Spirit of God.

People are visioning, that is, seeing the possibilities and hoping for a liberated future that they have never envisioned before. They are reassured by the presence of the Spirit that it is now possible for their dreams and visions to become a reality by the power of the Almighty God who delights to abide with them. Praise be to the Holy Spirit! Despite the constant bad news of the pandemic and devastation, there is an extensive outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our day and age. Are you aware of it? Are you part of it? Does this excite you to participate in it?

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Lenten Reflections 2021: The Sign of True Restoration is the Recognition of God’s Unique Sovereignty and His Presence

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

By  @johnvinod  | February 25, 2021

Let us read once again chapter two of the book of Joel and focus on verse 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 (Joel 2: 27 ESV).

This verse 27 concludes the section 2: 18-27 that brings the message of restoration and salvation for God’s people who have been through the ravages of the locust plague and prepares for the next section. The tiny book of Joel is a theocentric book meaning its focus is not on the plague itself or its devastation; rather its purpose is to draw attention to the biblical God, his restoration, and the salvation of his people.

Therefore, after repentance and renewal, Joel wants to make sure that the Israelites knew who is this God, Yahweh, who brings them out of a plague and restores their soul, bodies, and their land (see verse 18). This was necessary to remind and underscore because people are prone to forget once they receive what they have been praying for. The book of Psalms is also replete with such reminders at different periods.

Joel switches to the first person as he writes what God said: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,…” They were to recognize the presence of the Almighty God in their midst. This reminder is the same that the prophet Ezekiel had used numerous times in his book. They also needed this important retelling because during the calamity, most people assumed that God had abandoned his covenant people. The cessation of continual offerings (see 1:9-10) and other Temple rituals had heightened this belief. Therefore, Joel reminds that in reality it is the people who had violated God’s covenant through a disobedient life. But because God is merciful, in his graciousness, he has accepted their petitions and brought about their deliverance.

So, as they move forward in their new life, they need to recognize that the Almighty God is indeed in their midst. This recognition and practice of the continual presence of God would also help them live a holy life yielding to the demands of his law. It will help them resume the continual worship and offerings at his holy Temple.

Second, verse 27 emphasized “that I, the Lord [Yahweh] am your God and there is none other.” They needed this notice because they should never entertain the thought that their salvation was possible without Yahweh. The tone and words are very emphatic: I, the Lord, am your God! The verse continues to stress that Yahweh God is the only God and “there is none other.” His sovereignty is unrivaled and cannot be shared with any other deity. Such a strong reminder was considered necessary because the Israelites had slipped into idolatry and fertility cults of all sorts and even their priests had become corrupt defiling the holy Temple.

Third, verse 27 concludes saying, “And my people shall never again be put to shame.” The combining of “I, the Lord, am your God” with the phrase “my people” brings back the significant covenant relationship of Yahweh God with the people of Israel. People should acknowledge they had broken the covenant. Joel joyfully declares that the covenant relationship has been restored. And they should now recognize that through his salvation, Yahweh has restored the covenant. Therefore, they must make sure now that their lives align with the covenant requirements and its laws. The uniqueness of Yahweh God, his absolute sovereignty, and his enduring presence among his people are the most important privileges of the covenant relationship. Everyone who knows this God should recognize and delight in them.

Friends, today, for us who are in the middle of a pandemic, Joel has a clear message of hope of restoration and salvation. However, there are conditions for this to become a reality, which we have discussed earlier (please see my previous posts in this category of devotions). Once these conditions are met, we, too, can rejoice in the new relationship and new life that God promises. We too can enjoy the privileges of being in a covenant relationship with the unique and sovereign God. And those of us who do recognize and live in the sovereignty of God, continually practicing the presence of this Triune God in our lives must also share this good news with others who live in fear today. Are you sharing? Will you share?


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Lenten Reflections 2021: “Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people”

From Geralt @ Pixaby
From Geralt @ Pixabay

By @johnvinod | February 24, 2021

We have been reflecting on the book of the prophet Joel for the past one week. Today, I want you to read the second chapter again and then focus on 2:18: “Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people” (NRSV/ESV). This is a turning point in this prophecy. From the chapter first through chapter two and verse 11, Joel detailed the terrifying locust plagues and the judgement of the Lord. We are to assume here that the prophet’s call to penitence in 2: 12-17 was obeyed and people indeed returned to the Lord. We are also to assume a time-lag between these verses and verse 18. Therefore, now the prophet moves from talking about judgement to the restoration of Israel with verse 18 clearly marking that transition.

Verse 18 presents to us how a compassionate God responds to people with salvation when they truly repent and return to Him. He is eager to act with zeal to restoring both “his land” and “his people”! However, some translations show this verse as a promise with the future tense— “Lord will be jealous” (e.g. NASB/KJV). I believe, the past tense “Then the Lord became/was jealous” is a better rendering because the prophet describes a favorable action of the Lord in Joel’s time as God’s response to people who sincerely engaged in the penitence enjoined in 2: 12-17. This also fits well in Joel’s purpose of showing the actual purpose of the plague—not to destroy but to restore God’s people.

However, in verse 18, what does Joel mean when he says that God became “jealous”?

This term has been used several times in the Bible as an expression of God’s envy, zeal, passion, or ardent concern for his covenant people.

“because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14 NRSV).

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. (Isaiah 42:8 NRSV).

It has both positive and negative connotations—God is excited and worked up to defend his people when they are reviled, and he gets agitated with great wrath when they indulge in idol worship forsaking his uniqueness. God will not share his glory with another person or thing.  As their Creator and covenant God, He loves and cares for his people so much that he grows envious when they go after false gods or engage in rebellious behaviour. Jealousy of God represents that He is always faithful to his covenant and will be agitated to lash out if our actions tend to undermine the covenant and compromise with his uniqueness in entertaining anyone else other than Him.

In Joel 2: 18, God was not only jealous but also had pity or compassion on his people, which stems from his being passionately concerned.

In the New Covenant, the church is described as the bride of Christ, which aptly explains why God is envious/jealous when the church would show even a semblance of unfaithfulness to the Bridegroom.

I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ (2 Corinthians 11: 2 NRSV).

When we human bridegrooms are not ready to tolerate any unfaithfulness and will do anything to protect our brides and partners, how much more will God be passionate about keeping loyalty in our relationship with Him! Therefore, jealousy is an attribute of our God who has a passionate concern and deep love and compassion for us, His chosen people. The current pandemic has exposed areas in church where we have not been faithful to him. We have callously erected our own golden calves in the form of political ideologies/parties/politicians. We are guilty of engaging in cultish behaviour with regard to the Christian leaders/speakers/pastors. Often, our reasons for gathering are determined by the popularity of the celebrity pastor/speaker rather than the Word or worship! We do not come so that the eternal Word would minister to us rather to listen to modish “great” presenters who can entertain us with their skills, oratory, or a flowery style of public speaking. We are found guilty of placing personalities and heroes or defenders of our faith on a pedestal where only God belongs. This Lenten season, may we sincerely heed to Joel’s call to repentance. And if we did, our gracious God will be jealous for our land and pity us in order to restore and save us. Amen!

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Lenten Reflections 2021: A plague followed by the day of the Lord!

Courtesy Pixabay

By Vinod John @johnvinod | February 23, 2021

Let us begin today by reading chapter 2 of the book of Joel. Having described in graphic details, employing poetic personification, the terrible nature of the locust plague and its vast devastation in Israel Joel now declares that the “day of the Lord” is imminent:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!

Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—

a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!

Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes;

their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come (Joel 2: 1-2 NRSV).

Joel proclaimed “the day of the Lord” representing God’s judgement, not upon others, not upon the invading armies or natural disasters, but upon His people (2:1). Notice that in the previous chapter, Joel referred to the beasts and wild animals panting and wailing because of the lack of food and water. Now, as he announces the day of the Lord as a day of judgement upon his people, he is obviously suggesting to the readers: how much more than the beasts, you, as God’s people, should cry out to the Lord in repentance through fasting and prayers (2: 13-15).  Also notice that in 1:15 Joel had already alluded to the coming of the “day of the Lord.”

So, what was the day of the Lord for Joel?

First, it was both a day of shock, surprise, as well as hope.

Second, he saw the day of the Lord as God’s tribulation and judgement upon his people as he exclaimed, “Alas for the day!” (1:15 and 2:1). People of his day assumed that despite their disobedience, rebellion and unfaithfulness, God would be merciful, gracious and protect them. However, Joel proclaimed that God would come on His day to punish them to teach obedience.

Third, Joel believed that the purpose of the day of the Lord was to drive the rebellious people to true repentance and provide them an opportunity to reorient to God and align their lives to his covenant.

Fourth, Joel assures that it is a day of hope, because God will indeed turn His face toward them and shower his mercy upon them if they be remorseful. He will even restore the damage caused by the plague, if people lament and return to Him:

 Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people. In response to his people the Lord said:

I am sending you  grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations.……

I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. (2: 18-19; 25)

Fifth, Joel revives the hope that through the day of the Lord, God would indeed bring about a spiritual revitalization, leading people to realize that there is only one living God—Yahweh. And he loves to abide with them (2: 27).

Sixth, Joel reassures that the day of the Lord is additionally a day of hope for God’s people because it has the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirt:

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.
Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit (2:28-29).

Lastly, even though the ominous signs and wonders will precede the day of the Lord, it will ultimately turn out to be a magnificent day of salvation and renewal (2: 30-32).

Like so, for us this day, I consider these days of death and destruction everywhere caused by the current pandemic would turn out to be the days of opportunity, if we carry out what the prophet Joel demanded of the people of his time. And if we shall also obey what Joel summons us to do in 2: 12-17, we, too, shall be revived, and God will even restore to us what the pandemic has devoured in this past year or so:

The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,…..(2:24-25 ESV).

Amen.

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Lenten Reflections 2021: How to be the Church in a Covid World?

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

By Vinod John @johnvinod | February 22, 2021

Please begin today’s devotion by reading the book of Joel again. I am sure you must be asking why there was a plague of locusts and what purpose did it serve for the people of God in Joel’s time? These are relevant questions to contemplate because of our own situation today, particularly when the worship, liturgy, gatherings, and in-person fellowship of the believers is adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Most churches, pastors, and worshippers are struggling. Some are completely denying that we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic even though they cannot deny the apparent disruption of life, death, and devastation it has caused. Some Christians are furious over the restrictions, have grown weary, and some have become so skeptical of their governments, authorities, and even medical professionals/scientists that they are easily falling prey to believing and spreading harmful conspiracy theories.

In Joel’s theology, one of the primary causes of the locust plague was the corruption that has set in the Old Testament Church—their liturgy, worship, and the ministry of Yahweh God in the Temple. The nerve center of Judaism was the Temple and what happened in and around the Temple influenced the life of the Jewish people. Joel preached that it was both the immoral life of believers whom he calls “drunkards” (Joel 1:5) and the corrupt attitude of the priests that was responsible for the plague. The priests become cavalier in their approach to their ministry and the dereliction of their God appointed duties has led to the dilution of the sanctity of life and liturgy at the Temple. Moreover, the drunkenness of the people, participation of farmers in the fertility cults, idol worship, and the lack of purity in sacrifices had not only perverted the worship, but it also led to syncretism and undermining the uniqueness of Yahweh as their only covenant God. Joel says that to grab their attention, God let the plague get so severe that it disrupted the continuous sacrifices and offerings at the Temple to the extent that the very existence of the temple liturgy and priesthood was at stake.

Nevertheless, the message of Joel is not that the Temple worship must be completely abandoned because it was corrupted and threatened by the plague. On the contrary, Joel preached that it must be revamped and transformed by restoring “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12: 14 ESV). And for Joel, this begins with the priests and worshippers alike repenting, becoming humble before the Lord, asking forgiveness from the Lord, forsaking their sinful ways, and renewing their covenant with their only God, Yahweh. For Joel, even though the prophets like himself have condemned the corporate worship and ungodly liturgy of the Temple, their purpose was to ultimately reform it rather than reject it entirely. How can we say this with confidence? Well, if you carefully read Joel, and some other prophets like Hosea and Amos, you would clearly note that their message is of hope rather than doom and destruction. They proclaimed the “Day of the Lord,” and the coming of the Holy Spirit on all flesh and thus God would return, restore, and abide with His people on his holy hill!

Today, the pandemic has afforded the church, the holy bride of Christ, its believers, and ministers alike to sit back, lighten up, and rethink what the church is! Instead of taking part in the protests against governments’ restrictions and policies to keep people healthy and prevent further spread of infections, let us go back to the drawing board. Instead of choosing to suffer from a persecution complex, let us apply this time to read and research:

How and where the early church gathered and worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ in the face of a hostile and brutal Roman Empire?

How large were their gatherings?

How many times and where did they come together?

How did they celebrate their liturgies?

Was there a building or a gathering place that was called and understood as the “church”?

How did they live their lives daily in the public square?

How did they do missions in the marketplace?

As we do this research, I believe the Holy Spirit will give us insights. These insights in turn must lead us all to repent and ask forgiveness for the institutional and religious paraphernalia we have built in and around the holy Bride of Christ, the church. I believe our God has not abandoned the church today as he will never abandon His Bride. He wants to purify His Bride for the cause of His kingdom in this world. Therefore, the answer to improper worship and wrong ecclesiology is not no gathering and no church, rather it is the right and biblical church that God wishes for us to become His community of transformation on this earth until His second coming. Therefore, let us revive, remodel, restore, and refresh ourselves to discover new and innovative ways of being the holy Bride of Christ. Maranatha!

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Lenten Reflections 2021: Return to the Lord! What do you mean?

By Vinod John @johnvinod | February 20, 2021

We often hear the phrase “return to the Lord” especially during the Lent season. Unfortunately, it has become one of the phrases of Christianese that many people find meaningless and irrelevant today. Despite it coming across as a cliché, I invite you to read the book of Joel again (all three chapters in one sitting). I would like to share what returning to the Lord meant for Joel and his people in the midst of a locust plague that we have talked about and what it could represent for us amidst the current pandemic.

As we saw in the past two posts, “Return to the Lord” and “Calling all ministers of the Lord to Repentance,” prophet Joel was issuing this call to primarily three categories of people:

  1. The ordinary folks whom he calls “drunkards” (1:5),
  2. The group that suffered the most in terms of losing their crops, i.e., the “farmers” (1:11),
  3. And the clergy that could not sustain the liturgical worship at the temple, i.e., the “priests” or “ministers of the Lord” (1: 13).

Enjoying the prosperity and blessing of Israel, the people had become callous and were enticed into drinking excessively to the extent that prophet Hosea had to declare: “Wine and new wine take away the understanding” (Hosea 4:11 NRSV). Joel thundered:

Wake up, you drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine-drinkers,

over the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth (Joel 1: 5 NRSV).

People did not limit their drinking just to the wine as the word “drunkards” does not refer to just ordinary wine drinkers; rather, in its original language, it refers to a strong or intoxicating drink. Drinking strong drinks and debauchery had become so widespread in those days that it constrained the prophet to call them “drunkards” even as he was calling them to return to the Lord. 

Joel calls “farmers” to return to the Lord mainly because they had slipped into practicing fertility cults prevalent around them.

Joel then calls the “priests” to return to the Lord, because they, too, had failed in their ministry of keeping the worship and liturgy holy to the Lord.

However, what does it entail to “return to the Lord?”

First of all, the call to return to the Lord indicates that the covenant is broken through people’s disobedience. It means the people of God have rebelled against Him and his law. For a detailed description of the sacrilegious rebellion, please see the book of Amos and Hosea.

Second, by inviting people to return to the Lord prophet Joel means turning away from their immoral and wayward life and walking back to their covenant God Jehovah! His call is precise. They must unambiguously make their way back to Jehovah, and not just to any god or any religious cult:

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,
    and relents from punishing. (Joel 1:12-13 NRSV)

Third, a genuine return to the Lord must be accompanied by distinguishable signs that everyone may be able to see.  Joel says, some of these signs are: fasting, weeping, and mourning over their sins and disobedience (Joel 2: 12).

Fourth, the result of returning to the Lord is a changed life. And it must be seen in one’s worship and service of God (2:14).

Fifth, a genuine return to the Lord implies abandoning not only our sinful ways, but also forsaking our idols, whatever they may be in either material or ideological form. It means acknowledging the covenant God as the only God to believe, worship, and serve. Joel stresses that the returning devotees must recognize what Jehovah says: “I am your God and there is none else” (2: 27 and 3:17). In fact, for this emphasis, in just three chapters of his book, Joel repeats the phrase “your God” seven times (indicating perfection in the Hebrew Bible)! In the aftermath of a locust plague this was a huge assurance that people needed that God has not abandoned them, despite their rebellion and sins; however, he is still their God if they would return to him in penitence.

Finally, a sincere return to the Lord would result in an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit of God upon His people (2: 28-29) to declare that God loves the contrite hearts and would dwell in their midst through His Spirit, if they truly repent and return to Him. The gift of the Holy Spirit would be the greatest blessing to people.

In the midst of our current pandemic, I believe God has provided a unique opportunity to us, especially during Lent, to sincerely return to the Lord as Joel proclaimed to the covenant people. And in doing so, may we too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to abide with us. I hear a great deal about revivals breaking out here and there all the time; however, let us be clear, there is no revival, no renewal, and no pouring out of the Holy Spirit without the genuine return to the Lord. Amen!

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Lenten Reflections 2021: Calling all ministers of the Lord to Repentance!

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

By Vinod John @johnvinod | February 19, 2021

Joel is an atypical prophet in a long line of Old Testament prophets. He does not identify himself, his background, or the period of his ministry except that he is the son of Pethuel (Joel 1: 1) in order to distinguish himself from other Joels. He is entirely focused on his calling and ministry to the One who called him to prophecy. Interestingly, his name “Jo-el” means Jehovah is God! Therefore, Joel wants to divert our attention away from him to the message and His God who has commissioned him. Quite a contrast to many who call themselves “prophets” these days!

In the first chapter of Joel, the prophet describes a plague of locusts that ravaged through Israel damaging everything on its way. Joel refers in 1: 4 and 2: 25 to four species or four different stages of the insects (depending upon the translation that you read) that landed upon Israel:

  1. the gnawing/cutting/devouring locust/palmerworm;
  2. the swarming/great locust;
  3. the licking/hopping/young locust/cankerworm;
  4. the consuming/destroying locust/caterpillar;

In Joel 2: 25, the locusts are mentioned in reverse order compared to the order in 1: 4. These locusts, I think, were literally insects and the devastation they had caused was real. What Joel described has contemporary parallels of the swarm of locusts wrecking havoc in Africa and many parts of Asia. However, this plague is not just about the literal locusts destroying Israel’s crops. Rather, it figuratively represents the various invading armies of Assyrians, Babylonians, Medo-Persians, Greeks, and Romans who caused Israel’s successive destruction over the years. It is conceivable that Joel meant locusts both in its physical and figurative sense, as the ensuing devastation was substantially calamitous (1:6-7). However, the terms that Joel employs in describing this scourge definitely points to something worse than literal insects.

The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off  from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,  the ministers of the Lord.
The fields are destroyed,  the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up, the oil languishes. (Joel 1: 9-10 ESV).

Besides the agricultural devastation, another major aftereffect of the plague was the cessation of continual offerings at the Temple.

The interruption of liturgical worship at the Temple was one of most tragic calamities for the worshippers of Jehovah God because it dramatically implied that their God has rejected his people, leading to a situation where “the priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord” (1:9). Alas! They were instead supposed to celebrate and delight in the presence and service of the Lord and bring encouragement to other worshippers.

Joel refers specifically to three staple crops of Israel that had failed—the (wheat/barley) grain, the (grape) wine, and the (olive) oil. They were not only staple on every dining table but were also crucial part of the failed grain and drink offerings at the Temple. Therefore, while Joel narrates how the farmers were dismayed and the vinedressers were ashamed and the tillers of the soil wailed; the prophet singles out the priests calling them to not just lament, rather he directs them to undertake a discipline of fasting, penitence with sack clothes, prayer, and consecration:

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. 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. (Joel 1: 13-14 ESV).

Therefore, I believe during the current pandemic, when our church finances have drastically suffered along with restrictions on our corporate in-person worship and fellowship, the priests, the pastors, “and ministers of the altar…[and] ministers of the Lord” have a specific need of repenting and sanctifying themselves. It is rather imperative today as scandals after scandals of the abuse of power and resources by pastors and Christian leaders are revealed almost everyday. Many pastors and Christian leaders have also been found spreading lies and conspiracy theories and unashamedly siding with the corrupt and immoral politicians during this pandemic. It is only after repentance that we would be qualified to assist our congregations and communities to return to the Lord in penitence this Lenten season. For prophet Joel, this is the only way to go through our current pandemic as we wait for the return and restoration of the Lord. May we be found faithful in obeying the Word. Amen!
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Lenten Reflections 2021: Return to the Lord!

Locust invasion

Rev. Dr. Vinod John @johnvinod | February 18, 2021

I would invite you today to read again the tiny book of Joel in one sitting as it has only three chapters. The message of the book of Joel is never passé. In fact, Joel’s message has relevance for the whole world today more than ever no matter where you live. It is expressly because Joel’s context and ours are quite similar today. In Joel’s time, Israel went through a devastating plague—an invasion of devouring locusts. They had eaten and destroyed everything in their way and turned the green pastures of Israel to desolate. The food supply was almost destroyed, and people were crying out for help.

 “The seed is rotten under their clods, the garners are laid desolate, the barns are broken down; for the corn is withered.
 How do the beasts groan!
 the herds of cattle are perplexed, because they have no pasture; yea, the flocks of sheep are made desolate” (Joel 1: 18 KJV). 

Moreover, the liturgical worship of God in the Temple was also adversely affected to the extent that its daily offerings had almost diminished:

 “The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord” …
 “Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests; wail, you ministers of the altar.
Come, pass the night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God!
Grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God” (Joel 1: 9; 13 NRSV) 

We are in the second year of an unprecedented and deadly pandemic since 2020 and there seems to be no end in site, despite the new vaccines that might help prevent Covid-19 infections. The world economies are faltering and will remain unstable in the aftermath of this pandemic. Therefore, I think we need to heed prophet Joel’s timely call to repentance. While prophesying in the context of a dreadful plague of locusts that affected all aspects of their life, including the religious worship, Joel pleads with Israel to return to the Lord. He preaches a message of hope. He reveals the nature and intent of God, that is not to destroy the people of Israel but to save them. If they repented of their disobedience and returned from their evil ways to the living God, Joel promises that God would pity them and restore them. Joel also reveals that in a post repentance and restoration era, God would bring about a new reality, that is, the Spirit of God abiding with them (see, Joel 2: 28-29). We shall ponder on this aspect in the coming days along with Joel’s apocalyptic predictions.

However, today, let us shift our focus from the death, loss, and destruction brought about by the pandemic that we find ourselves in and instead let us focus upon the areas in our lives that need amending. What specific areas in our personal and church life do we need to do penitence? What are the specific areas in which we need to turn back from disobedience to obedience? May the Lord help us locate these areas and let us return to the Lord seeking His grace and forgiveness for our Creator God is merciful and will restore us.

In our churches, what we loved the most—our in-person corporate worship and fellowship—have been curtailed by this evil pandemic. However, let us use this time to reflect upon our church life and its sins, disobedience, and complicity. How has our church been doing in the midst of racism, sexism, bigotry, sectarianism, favoritism, ethnocentricity, preferentialism, xenophobia, discrimination, immorality, dogmatism, celebrity worship, false saviors, and several other areas that this Lent season may reveal to us? Perhaps, you do not see this visibly in your church, but has your church been apathetic to these issues and their presence in and around the church? If so, may we heed the call of Joel who called the Temple priests, too, to repentance:

"Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests; wail, you ministers of the altar.
Come, pass the night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God!" (Joel 1:13 NRSV).
“Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, …” (Joel 2: 17 KJV).
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Lenten Reflections 2021: What is Lent and Why I like the Lenten Season?

By Rev. Dr. Vinod John @johnvinod
Ash Wednesday | February 17, 2021

The word “Lent” emerged as an abbreviation of an old English term, “Lencten” meaning lengthening of days and pointing to the onset of the much-awaited springtime or spring season after a long and cold winter in Europe. The Lent or the passion season is one of the most beautiful times of the year. I like it more than the Christmas season for several reasons.

First, though the birth of Jesus Christ was unique in several ways; however, his birth and the three decades that Jesus spent after his birth living almost in anonymity in Galilee of Israel would not have mattered much if he had not launched into the divine ministry for which he came.

Second, I like the Lenten season better than Christmas because Lent is yet uncommercialized and has not yet lost its spiritual meaning like Christmas.

Third, Lent has not become as popular as the Christmas season and only the spiritually inclined followers of Christ still show some interest in the disciplines associated with the Lenten Season such as prayer, fasting, sacrifice, and giving up certain things we love most to gain something higher and deeper.

Fourth, Lenten season commemorates literally the forty days of Jesus’ experiences and struggles in the wilderness, unlike Christmas and its traditions, which hardly have anything to do with the reality of what truly happened at the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, no one knows exactly when Jesus was born…certainly not on December 25th!

Fifth, I admire how the Lenten season is about looking within and deeper into ourselves and it is an opportunity for us to learn and draw from the deep spirituality of Jesus Christ rather than looking outside at the pompous celebrations, opulent festivities, and show-off of what money and power can buy during the Christmas season.

Sixth, I like how the Lenten season begins and how it concludes. It is the Lent—the forty days of physical and spiritual solitude in the wilderness—that ushered Jesus Christ into this divine calling and ministry. This sacred season in the church tradition today culminates in a requisite reminder of the glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, especially in the context we find ourselves in since 2020.

Seventh, I also love the Lenten season, because it follows an ancient tradition of the early Christianity in which the followers of Jesus were prepared and discipled before they were baptized on Easter Sunday. This Lenten season, therefore, is another opportunity for us to examine our lives and ask ourselves if it is really the biblical Jesus Christ we are following or the Jesus of own making as per our own culture or religion.

Eighth, and lastly, I appreciate the Lenten Season because it affords us the unique opportunity to take our eyes off everything else and focus on Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. This is particularly true in the current pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus which has claimed millions of lives around the world, crippling economies of all nations, siphoning off lives of most people and churches and leaving many of us literally and figuratively gasping for a fresh breath of hope. The lent/springtime is a time of hope. And what better hope can we think of than the fact of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ in time of death and destruction that we see around us today? What better hope than the hope of a bodily resurrection of our loved ones who we have lost in the past year or so? What better hope can there be than this that we, too, shall be resurrected to eternal life even if we departed from this earth during this pandemic in 2021?

Therefore, I invite you to journey with me in this current season of Lent 2021 with much expectation, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12: 2 NRSV). And as we focus on Him this Ash Wednesday, February 17th, the first day of the Lenten season of 2021, let us sincerely heed to the earnest plea of prophet Joel in the Old Testament and let us return to the Lord!

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2: 12-13 ESV).

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