Joel 2.21-27 | 1Tim 2.1-7 | Mt 6.25-33
‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ Mt 6.33
The writings of the prophet Joel are apocalyptic in nature; that is to say they offer a criticism of the present time by simultaneously offering a vision of the future, a future in which God’s sovereignty is recognised by all and stands unchallenged. Typically, we think of these apocalyptic visions as warning us of some looming disaster: the end times are near! The day of judgement! The Apocalypse! Fire and brimstone!
It’s the stuff of those fiery American preachers from Louisiana or some such backwater, isn’t it!? Not the sort of material we like to dabble with in the measured and genteel Church of England.
But, in truth, in their apocalyptic writings the prophets rarely proclaim unremitting doom. Alongside the warning of God’s judgement comes the promise of God’s blessing too. Our reading from Joel this morning is just that: the blessing after the judgement. But first, the judgement:
Joel tells us that the people of the world have all too often ignored the sovereignty of God; believing instead that it is their own will and their own strength and ingenuity that assures their prosperity. Joel warns us where such ill-placed self-confidence leads; it leads to judgement; it leads to destruction.
Destruction that poetically comes in the form of a great plague of locusts – God’s mighty army – consuming every scrap of vegetation, leaving the soil itself barren; threatening to sweep all life from the face of the earth; human and beast, the unrighteous and righteous alike. It is ecological annihilation.
This apocalyptic destruction is where our own human striving is leading us. As is echoed in our Gospel reading, it is the people of the world – the Gentiles – who strive for the things they need, believing it is they who are sovereign, not God.
But we, the people of God, should ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’. Thus, we are assured that by trusting in God and his rule (rather than our own) we will receive from creation, from the soil, all that is necessary for our needs.
Now, in objection, we might well respond to Joel and Matthew by highlighting what great feats human striving has achieved. With every passing decade, mass starvation looks more and more like a thing of the past. Under our human rule, new and industrialised farming techniques have exponentially increased what the soil can produce. Crops have been engineered to resist drought. Chemicals have the potential to limit blights. Pesticides with power to eliminate ravenous insects. And land-management has felled the hedgerow for vast efficient fields that incorporate countless previously unfarmed acres.
And yet… and yet, brothers and sisters, we know where these practices are leading us: lifeless rivers; inland seas shrinking to dustbowls; a perilous reduction in biodiversity; a terrifying fall in the populations of essential pollenating insects; food chains on the edge of collapse; and soil so worked to exhaustion and exposed, so drained of its nutrients, as to soon be barren.
As Joel prophesies, in this respect we human beings have put ourselves to shame.
But, ‘do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice for the Lord has done great things.’ After the judgement comes blessing. And that blessing falls not upon us – not principally and certainly not first. It is creation, first the soil is blessed, and then; ‘Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures are green; the tree bears its fruit.’ Life is returned to the land that once was made barren.
The ecological annihilation is halted and reversed. Once Joel warned that gladness and joy were to be no more; now the soil and pastures and beasts of the field are told to ‘be glad and rejoice’. God is sovereign once again.
So, what of us, brothers and sisters? What for us who would lay aside the pretence of our sovereignty over creation and instead fulfil our role as dutiful stewards of the soil that God has entrusted to us?
For such a people Joel has a message; likewise, ‘Children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God’. No longer will the locust army of judgement be our portion. Instead, we will be blessed with rain; abundant rain from the heavens; falling like a sacrament; to cleanse, renew and confirm (‘vindicate’) those among God’s people who return to honour the covenant we have with the Lord our God, and the soil he entrusted to us.
Brothers and sisters, I refuse to preach doom to you today. Because, for all the warnings of judgement and ecological annihilation the prophets did not preach nihilism and defeat.
In this country we are doing much to halt and reverse the damage we are inflicting. Of course, we must do more and we must encourage others to do likewise, and we must, as St Paul wrote to Timothy, pray for HM Queen and all those in high office, that wisdom and righteousness would be their guide.
But above all, each and every one of us must hold fast to the knowledge that the Lord our God is in the midst of us; that he is our God and we are his people; and, as such, we are the stewards of his creation, the guardians and beneficiaries of his blessed soil. We are not sovereign over this earth, God is.
So let’s drop the pretence of sovereignty, and the ill-placed self-confidence that leads only to self-destruction. Instead, let’s ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’, trusting that we will receive from his creation, from his soil, all that is necessary for our needs. That living as stewards and not would-be-lords of the soil, ‘we shall never again be put to shame’.