Two Catastrophes

Monday, November 12, 2012 — Week of Proper 27, Year 2

Charles Simeon, Priest, 1836

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 993)

Psalms 80 (morning) // 77, [79] (evening)

Joel 1:1-13

Revelation 18:15-24

Luke 14:12-24

Today we begin reading the prophet Joel. The focus of Joel’s poetry is a natural catastrophe of catastrophic proportions — a vast locust plague. Joel interprets the plague as a judgment from God. He leads the people in their mourning and asks the priests to declare a fast and solemn assembly for repentance. He then prophecies that God will restore the land to its former condition. (There are two later sections beginning at 2:28 which may come from Joel as visions of subsequent blessings or may have been added from a different source.) Most scholars believe Joel was written after the destruction and exile of Jerusalem, perhaps as late as the fourth or fifth centuries BCE.

In an agricultural society living from year to year by its harvests, the destruction described in this book is devastating. From the earliest human records in the Middle East to the present, the effects of the desert locust have been recorded. Under certain conditions, the locusts multiply in the desert and swarm into neighboring fertile areas. Today the United Nations maintains an emergency center for locust operations.

Joel looks at his devastated land and people and turns to the traditional religious practices that will call the people together into a community, give voice to their grief, reaffirm their promises to God, and receive a divine vision of hope for the future. That’s what we do in times of despair and tragedy.

In Revelation we read of similar destruction in a more urban setting. Merchants and sailors stand afar and mourn the destruction of Rome. But, in a most disturbing passage, John pictures jubilation and rejoicing in heaven and in the church. With glee they sing with the angel over the violence of Rome’s destruction. No more music, no more art, no more weddings. The city that oppressed through its greedy commerce and its oppressive power is destroyed. Hallelujah!

How do you interpret catastrophe? It certainly varies in the Bible. It varies in history as well, for no two tragedies are the same.

In some sense, the scriptural witness gives us the same freedom as life itself. Here we have two catastrophes. Both are interpreted as acts of judgment upon a sinful people. In one the prophet mourns; in the other, there is rejoicing.

There is a strain of Christianity that embraces the vision of God’s victory as a vengeful act of final violent destruction. They take comfort in their own safety, and seem to take delight in the coming misery of those who are not like them. Those sentiments are part of our scriptural inheritance. You can find them as surely in the Psalms as you can in Revelation.

But they seem far from the person and acts of Jesus. Jesus did not finish his work with apocalyptic fury. Rather than invoking violence, he absorbed it. He became victim rather than victimizing. He refused to add to the violence, revenge, and destruction that abounds on this earth. Instead he accepted it upon himself without striking back. As Dorothy Sayers puts it, “God did not abolish the fact of evil. He transformed it. He did not stop the crucifixion. He rose from the dead.”

After such a sacrifice, shall we fall again into the temptation to solve evil through violence and revenge? It seems that is an open question.

Past Posts