Very few of us have lived through a devastating plague of any sorts, let alone swarms of locusts capable of destroying everything in sight in a matter of hour - trees, crops, bushes, and all manner of growth. Leaving nothing in their wake other than stubs and dry earth, they move on, multiplying as they go, until their numbers are so many their sheer movement brings darkness to the skies above. This is nothing most of us will experience in our lifetimes, but we do face some pretty devastating plagues of sorts, for the meaning of plague is anything which brings widespread affliction, calamity, or evil. Think about this closest to home and you might recount the devastation of cancer in your immediate family, or the awfulness of losing a child to the afflicting power of drugs. It doesn't have to be insects or bacterial infection of mass proportions, does it? The stuff we deal with on a daily basis can leave us kind of "sheered off", "exposed", and "struggling to survive". What we do in the midst of devastation of this sort will make the difference between merely surviving or coming out on top when it is all over! There is a 'plague' common to all of us - that of losing focus - turning away from our "first love" and pursuing anything less than total commitment to his plan and purpose for our lives. For some of us, the plague we deal with is outright sin. Others merely have "drifted" into some form of religious pursuit without the intimate connection with their Savior. To all of us the call is the same, "It isn't too late!"
The Lord said: It isn’t too late. You can still return to me with all your heart. Start crying and mourning! Go without eating. Don’t rip your clothes to show your sorrow. Instead, turn back to me with broken hearts. I am merciful, kind, and caring. I don’t easily lose my temper, and I don’t like to punish. (Joel 2:12-13 CEV)
Joel is a prophet to the Kingdom of Judah, during the time when Assyria was in control of the nation and the people of Judah were subservient to his rule, but enjoyed his expansive control nonetheless. The advancement of Assyria's control gave way to a great times of partying and less than holy displays of drunken pursuits. The king of Assyria was Uzziah, amassing great fortune and tremendous amounts of properties. To this end, the land was filled with "plenty" of all sorts, and the people had both material possessions and enjoyed their "fill" of good things. One thing I have observed over time is this tendency to drift away from God when there are other "things" which can occupy our attention - such as the material possessions or the enjoyment of good things at every turn. There is this drift into "spiritual apathy" which occurs - religion becomes perfunctory rather than a pursuit of close relationship. In this pursuit, separation occurs - unintended at first, but nonetheless, there is a drift from close relationship which takes us further and further away from where we find our "true center".
Our "true center" is designed to be Christ and him ALONE. Anything other than this focus will deter us from really being in the "right place" we are designed to live deeply within. Although our lives "appear" religious, there is a lack of closeness to Jesus which comes through in the "phoniness" of our convictions, evidenced in our dispassionate love for others. The one command said to fulfill the entirety of the Law of Moses is to love one another as Christ first loved us - by this, all men will know we are children of God, right? When we drift into the "appearance" of being religious, but lack the closeness of relationship which comes when we maintain Christ at the center of our lives, we soon find a lack of true love revealed in our actions and intentions.
Judah was attacked by a physical swarm of menacing locusts, described by Joel as swarms and swarms of them with teeth and jaws as powerful as lions. Lest we imagine locusts with heads of lions, I don't think that is what he was describing! He merely points out their capacity to destroy, ripping to shreds what once was thriving and promising, until the nation is left in absolute ruin. Sin has a way of doing that in our lives - stripping us of all which was once thriving and with great promise. I don't know what you might "label" your plague today, but if you have lost your "true center", you are dealing with something which has a potential to be like the most damaging of plagues in your life! All we once held hope in will soon disappear if we cannot shut down the "influx" of the "locust-like" devastation which comes when the center of our lives is filled with anything other than Christ and him ALONE.
The instruction given to Joel, and recorded for all of humanity to reference down through the ages, is this idea of true repentance. Looking at what he says, here is the crux:
- It is not too late to repent. God's arms remain wide open. We must never give into the thought process which lies to us of the impossibility of returning again to a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus. God's words right back to us whenever we might think that - it ISN'T too late!
- It is a return of heart, not head, which God is after. We try to come to repentance so many times by using the power of our heads - thinking our way back to holiness. Think again! No amount of "thinking" produces the right behavior with consistency. Don't believe me? Just think about the last "resolution" you made and see how easy it was to think you could do something and how absolutely difficult it was to actually see it accomplished in your own power or strength!
- It isn't religious pursuit God is after, it is an admittance into our hearts he desires. We can fast, mourn, say all kinds of prayers, and even get ourselves to church meetings more often, but the truth of the matter is that all manner of "religious pursuit" is not going to bring us back to deep, intimate relationship with Jesus. The only thing which does is the admittance of him into our hearts. How is this accomplished? According to our passage, it is through a brokenness of heart - in other words, we lay down our "self-deprecating" behaviors and put our hearts squarely into his hands. Mind, will, and emotions - no longer subject to whatever whim or fancy comes our way - but squarely placed into his control so he can help us sort out the stuff which caused our drift in the first place and draw us safely into his care.
The good news - all who repent are restored. God doesn't like to punish - he isn't out to get us! Indeed, he desires more that we come to repentance, giving him right placement in our focus again, than that we get it all right! Pretty strong words, I know, but some we need to hear. If we wait until we get it all right, we will never return to God! In our own power, we will never get it all right - we need him at the true center of our lives in order to have balance and full restoration. Just sayin!