Joel 1.1-20, Colossians 1.15-19
The book of Joel doesn't seem the obvious place to look for a passage positively crackling with contemporary relevance. At first sight it's a prophecy from long ago and far away, about locusts, drought and wildfires. But just a minute, drought and wildfires certainly sound relevant to modern 21st Century living, and wasn't there something on the news recently about locusts - and I don't just mean about people eating them on ‘I'm a Celebrity…’?
Well, yes and no. A few years ago a large locust swarm devastated sub-saharan Africa. It was a disaster of truly Biblical proportions. But hang on a minute. Is Joel really thinking about locusts?
Some commentators think he is. After all, he gives a very comprehensive description of locust behaviour - or so I'm told, not having been up close and personal with very many locusts. ‘What the cutting locust left,’ says Joel, 'The swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.’ That sounds like a pretty devastating level of destruction, but it’s also a pretty forensic description of locust behaviour - cutting, swarming, hopping and chomping.
But then Joel goes on to say, 'A nation has invaded my land, powerful and innumerable; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vines, and splintered my fig trees; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches have turned white.’
Is this just another way of describing a locust invasion, or are the locusts a figurative way of describing a real army? Much depends on when Joel was prophesying, and experts can't agree.
If Joel lived before the Exile in Babylon this could be an invasion by an occupying force living off the land; but if he lived at a time when Israel belonged to the Persian Empire he's either talking about actual locusts or about an invasion by stealth, where people from outside are gradually taking over the country and, in his opinion, are stripping it bare.
If, then, we're talking about a figurative army, devouring the land by stealth but with the efficiency of locusts, the prophecy could easily feed into two very powerful and contemporary myths.
At one pole there is the Brexiter story of a country laid waste by rapacious foreign companies and swarming with migrant workers and their families. In fact David Cameron, hardly a leading Brexiteer, courted controversy when he talked about swarms of people coming across the Channel.
At the other pole lies a Remain myth of greedy speculators plotting to roll back the welfare state and strip away our environmental protections, workers’ rights and the tariff walls that protect our industries and farmers, in order to create a European Singapore, where a few people grow rich at everyone else's expense.
We live in a time, like the time of Joel. The whole country, and our main political parties, are divided by very different but equally disturbing narratives of locust-like destruction.
And equally contentious, and just as contemporary for us, is Joel's description of drought and devastating wildfires. ‘Be dismayed, you farmers, wail, you vine-dressers, over the wheat and the barley,’ says Joel, 'For the crops of the field are ruined. The vine withers, the fig tree droops. Pomegranate, palm, and apple — all the trees of the field are dried up; surely, joy withers away among the people.’
Does this sound familiar? We have only to cast our minds back to the devastating drought last Summer which, following equally harmful heavy rain in the Spring, decimated many crops.
Ever since Channel 4 alerted us to the fact that they were being wastefully ploughed back into the ground, Helen and I have been in the habit of buying ‘Not Quite Perfect’ potatoes and other vegetables and fruit. Normally that means putting up with slightly misshapen potatoes, or ones that have a rough skin or are a little bit smaller than average. This year it means getting a bag full of potatoes the size of marbles! There was enough water in the soil to keep most of the plants alive, but not enough to encourage the tubers to grow.
But the resonance with our contemporary situation continues. Joel concludes this section of his prophecy like this, ‘Fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.’
It's only a few months since wilderness places around Manchester were ablaze, including Winter Hill which we used to look out upon from our manse windows in Standish near Wigan. Everyone in Greater Manchester had, apparently, breathed in the soot particles from the fires, even when they lived too far away to see the smoke. And those fires were nothing compared to the wildfires which flare up with increasing regularity in places as far apart as California, Australia, Greece, Spain and Portugal.
What is causing this? Global warming? Management of the land for commercial gain rather than for conservation? Human encroachment on nature so that we live too close now to dangerous places? Or a mixture of all of the above?
And is global warming, caused by human activity, also to blame for the ‘streams of water drying up,’ just as they did in Joel’s day? We’ve all seen, on TV or with our own eyes, empty reservoirs and - during the Summer - streams reduced to trickles of water. At the Ladybower Dam tourists were able to wade out to the supposedly submerged villages of Ashopton and Derwent and take away souvenirs from the ruins.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Cape Town in South Africa, a city region of nearly 4 million people almost ran out of water last year and rationed its residents to 70 litres each per day. That sounds a lot, it's about 12 gallons, but it means taking a shower in just 90 seconds if you want to be sure your daily allowance won't be used up.
Apparently English cities will soon find themselves in the same predicament, but experts daren't ask people not to take as many showers, because younger people are so accustomed to showering at least once a day that anything less would make them feel dirty. All they can be asked to do is to race against the clock and have a quicker shower.
'Hear this!’ Joel prophesied. ‘Has such a thing happened [before] in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?’
So much for the description of what was going wrong then and might be said to be going wrong now. But what was Joel's prescription for putting it right?
He wants people to wake up, repent and pray to the Lord for guidance, and to acknowledge the seriousness of our predicament by going into mourning and lamenting how bad things have got. He also expresses profound concern for nature and the environment.
He pictures the earth mourning for the loss of rainfall and the crops. He imagines the wild animals groaning in dismay about the wildfires and the drought. Clearly he wants us to think hard about the stresses we are putting on the earth and all its creatures, and do something to alleviate them. But above all ‘he spells out the human consequences of the disaster.’
As one commentator puts it, Joel ‘expresses a real sense of the solidarity between different parts of creation, which perhaps we need to’ rediscover. I'm not sure 'perhaps’ is a strong enough way of putting it. Like Joel, I think we need to recognise the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything and the need to show solidarity with one another and with the whole of nature.
As St Paul reminds us, 'in [Jesus Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ This means that when we show solidarity with nature and with one another we will find that we are working with the grain, or the warp and weft if you prefer, that runs through creation; we will be in tune with God the creator and his living Word, Jesus Christ.
 Maggie Guitte in Guidelines, The Bible Reading Fellowship, May 2017