“For then, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations. They have divided my land [and cast lots for my people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine, and drunk it down.
"What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, removing them far from their own border. But now I will rouse them to leave the places to which you have sold them, and I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads. I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away; for the LORD has spoken.]
“Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare war, stir up the warriors. Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.” Come quickly, all you nations all around, gather yourselves there. Bring down your warriors, O LORD. Let the nations rouse themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the neighboring nations.
“Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great. Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake. But the LORD is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.
“So you shall know that I, the LORD your God, dwell in Zion, my holy mountain. And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.
– Joel 3:1-17
At Trinity School for Ministry we like to talk about dichotomies: ‘both/and’, ‘either/or’, ‘ancient-futures’, ‘now and not yet’. Our scripture readings for today could be classified as a dichotomy too: “good news/bad news”. In particular the reading from Joel describes a scene in which God judges the nations and restores His people Israel. The good news is: God wins, and so do His people! The bad news: there is a terrible human cost. But what does this scene from ancient times have to do with our lives today?
Joel’s prophecy describes warfare between God and the nations of the world in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, which means ‘God’s Judgement’. And the scene he describes looks an awful lot like Armageddon in the book of Revelation. While the nations named in Joel’s prophecy are specific to his time, there is a ‘now-and-not-yet’-ness to his words. This isn’t going to be the last time God calls the nations into judgement!
And so we enter into God’s courtroom. God is the injured party – the plaintiff, in legal terms. His two major complaints against the nations are that they have scattered his people and have divided his land. In other words, they have abused human beings and the rest of God’s creation.
In this courtroom God lays claim to both the people AND the land. You would think God’s claim would be obvious: if He created everything of course He owns it. But in everyday reality people often lose sight of this. How often do we act as if friends belong to us… or our parents, or our children? And everything we claim as “ours” is just on loan from God. I don’t know about you but on just these two counts alone my heart cries “Lord have mercy” because I miss the mark so often.
But what the prophet Joel is talking about here is not so much individual sin as corporate sin. Yes, God is concerned with the sin of individuals, but that’s not the focus here. The focus is on systemic evil. Sin that is perpetrated in such a way that you can’t really point to one individual person as the source. Systemic evil is better described in terms of power and money and seduction. Its victims are individuals (from all walks of life), and its ultimate goal is to take the place of God in the lives of human beings.
Let me come at this from a slightly different angle. I’m taking Mentored Ministry this semester and I’m assigned to the Uncommon Grounds Café in Aliquippa. As many students before me have discovered, Mentored Ministry has a way of bringing God’s truth home in new and unexpected ways. For me, one of the things I have been dealing with is the depth and persistence of systemic evil. I’ve always been one of those people who thinks outside the box, and can find third alternatives in either/or situations. I’m pretty good at working outside the system, stepping ‘off the grid’.
But there are circumstances in life that really are beyond our control. Some evils are just too big to confront and impossible to get around. That’s the kind of systemic evil places like Uncommon Grounds deals with on a regular basis.
For those of you who haven’t visited our sister city across the river, Aliquippa is one of many old mill towns in western Pennsylvania. It was once a thriving city, but it has fallen on such hard times people often wonder if it has a future, let alone having any vision of what that future might look like.
I’m not saying the steel industry was all bad – there were good people who worked the mills in both labor and management – but the industry’s impact on Aliquippa was devastating. There were miles and miles of riverfront woodlands – prime real estate – cut down to build the factories. Streams and creeks were literally forced underground, and to this day whenever there’s a heavy rain they back up and cause flooding in the town. Lives of men were sacrificed in the mills. And when the steel industry finally collapsed, the mill owners took the profits – and the workers’ pension money – and basically pulled an Enron. They took off and left Aliquippa to crumble. The impact on the workers and their families is still being felt today, 35 years later.
Systemic evil is something God’s people have always been up against, and something we as future pastors will come up against in the lives of the people we minister to. Whether it be political, governmental, corporate or even ecclesiastical, any time a group of people starts playing god with other peoples’ lives, evil happens.
In the passage from Joel today God confronts these evils that destroy His people, and takes action to set things right. His list of grievances continues:
- Joel 3:3 – “They have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.”
- Joel 3:5-6- “You have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks…”
God’s complaint against the nations is that they have been selling human beings – even children – for their own self-gratification. And not much has changed in over 2000 years. Look at the resurgence in human trafficking, where men, women, and even children are for sale.
Again our hearts cry — “Lord have mercy.”
In chapter three verse 13 God says: “Put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe.” Theologian and pastor Charles Simeon points out that this ‘ripeness’ can be either evil ripening to destruction, or holiness ripening to glory – and that habits that persist eventually leave people unable to change. After a while evil persists because it no longer has a choice.
“The wine press is full” says God – “the wickedness is great”. A similar picture is painted in Revelation 19, when heaven is opened and a rider on a white horse appears (verse 13): “he is called The Word of God. (verse 15) He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”
Here’s an interesting thing. In Joel’s prophecy, when all the armies of the earth gather together to do battle, they are bristling with weapons (which BTW is typical of systemic evil). Look at the arsenal: Swords. Spears. Warriors. Consecration ceremonies. Mighty men. And what weapons does God have? Joel 3:16 – “The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake.” The One who spoke the universe into being by the power of his Word also cleanses and redeems it by the power of His word.
And what weapons do the people of God have? Joel doesn’t mention any weapons for us in chapter three but in chapter two he writes: (Joel 2:28-29) “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 servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” God’s people follow in His footsteps and overcome by the power of His Word.
Martin Luther nails it in the hymn A Mighty Fortress:
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth…
God is not content with the status quo. And he does not turn a blind eye to systemic evil. He calls all of us to join Him in speaking the Word to the principalities and powers of this world.
To those who do evil God says “judgement is coming” (3:12). To His own people God promises to be “a refuge” and “a stronghold” (3:16). And He promises a new Jerusalem, where He will live with His people, a Jerusalem that is “holy, and strangers will not pass through it.”
And our hearts long to be there. “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” AMEN.
~ preached at Trinity Chapel, 11/25/13, 8:30AM Morning Prayer ~