The Book of Joel begins with a pandemic: there have been successive invasions of locusts which have destroyed the Agrarian economy of ancient Israel. Joel regards this ‘natural’ disaster as a judgement on the nation. He doesn’t list, as some other prophets do, the wrongdoings of the nation but we can imagine what they might have been. They will have included a lack of preparedness for sudden disaster, neglect of cultivable land and storage of food to see a nation through such an emergency.
I am sure that some features of this pandemic will remind people of what we have been passing through this last year: our own abuse of the natural world and, in particular, the animal kingdom may well have led to this dangerous virus crossing the species barrier and running riot through human societies quite unprepared for it. There have been other recent instances of viruses crossing the species barrier and we should have been warned. In this sense, at least, what has happened is judgement which we have called down on ourselves.
Joel calls for a solemn act of corporate repentance to ward off the worst effects of the calamity and to prepare for a better future. It is a pity that many calls for the nation to repent and to pray for an end to the present pandemic have gone unheard in our present situation. All hope has been invested in Science, which is also God given, but can only address part of the damage that has been caused and does not have the resources to bring healing and wholeness of mind, body and spirit.
Joel does not stop at asking for repentance, fasting and prayer only regarding the pandemic. He sees the disaster as presaging the coming Day of the Lord when there will be a final reckoning for which the nation needs to prepare even more than for a natural disaster like an invasion of locusts. He emphasises the corporate nature of such prayer and fasting: everyone is to gather, no one is excused and some have a special function in the intercession.
When this happens the Lord promises deliverance from natural or human danger and promises the blessing which became the Church’s way of understanding what had happened at Pentecost, even as it preached the imminence and the inevitability of the coming Day of the Lord and the way of salvation: whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-21).
In Joel the emphasis on the corporate, contains within it, a reference also to the need for personal response: even the bride and the bridegroom are not excused because they are on honeymoon!
Jesus too, in his teaching on Prayer, fasting and giving has both dimensions in mind: general teaching for his followers corporately is immediately followed by personal challenge: when you (singular) give don’t do it to earn recognition in society. Give secretly and you will be rewarded by your Father. When you pray (singular) don’t do it for sake of a public show. Pray inwardly and you will be heard. When you fast ( singular again) don’t look miserable so everyone knows you are fasting. Be cheerful and well turned out and God will heed the intention of your fast.
As in the Old, so in the New Testament, the importance of corporate repentance is held together with need for a personal response( Acts2:38-40). Let us then keep Lent together, in any way that is possible in these circumstances, but let us also respond personally with prayer, fasting and giving.
- This reflection has been written specially for Gafcon UK by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali