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Tag: Lenten Devotions 2021

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).


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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).


https://read.amazon.ca/kp/embed?asin=B08PQ13BMW&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_Y0M3MQDGAWEXSQ1HFNPD
For a paperback, please contact vinod@vinodjohn.com

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