WOUNDED BY GOD
A sermon by Garry Deverell, 28 October 2001
Texts: Joel 2. 23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4. 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18. 9-14
The book of Joel is amongst the most enigmatic works of the Hebrew bible, enigmatic because it reflects on an event so disturbing that the authors seem hardly able to speak its name. From the start of the book to its end, one may read about the dark and terrible effects which that event had in the minds and hearts of the people. You can read, also, about the prophets attempts to heal that darkness, the way in which he tried to soothe the wounded and comfort the despairing. But you will not discover, with any real certainty, what the event was that actually caused it all. Some interpreters say that the land was overtaken by a horde of locusts, a veritable army of insects, so large that every living thing, plant or animal, was destroyed in its wake. Others say that the book reflects upon one of the climatic invasions of Hebrew territories by the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Greeks, after the manner of so many of the other writings in the Hebrew canon. But how is one to decide between the two? For if the authors are writing about locusts, they describe them with the aid of an elaborate and chilling military metaphor. And if they are writing about an invading army, the image of swarming locusts is invoked to describe its horrible effects on the population of Israel. But, in the end, the honest reader is left with a sense of radical undecidability. Something happened. Something truly awful. But we cant really know what that something was. All we are left with are startling images and the emotions they evoke, traces of a trauma which cuts so deeply that the authors seem unwilling to name it directly, even to themselves. It is too painful.
This is often the way with a trauma, which I understand to be an unexpected event, a wounding which is visited upon us from somewhere beyond our usual frame of reference, a happening which so interrupts the normal flow of our lives that we can scarcely believe it has happened. One day we are healthy and happy, the next day we have cancer. One moment we are happily married. The next we are inexplicably alone. We are engaged in the one of the normal tasks at work, sending a fax, say, when suddenly an aeroplane crashes into the building and explodes. How does one integrate such experiences? How does one find a language to explain what has happened, even to oneself? It is difficult. Very, very difficult. Because what has happened seems impossible. It could not have happened, and certainly does not happen in that persons world. And because the impossible is also impossible to name, the only means by which a traumatised person may begin to integrate their trauma, to make it somehow real, is to draw an analogy with something else they know. To paint a picture with colours they have already seen. To tell a story with characters theyre already familiar with. To make a song with a tune theyve been humming all their lives. Thats why the writers of Joel spoke about their own trauma in terms of locusts and armies. These were things they already knew about. Devastating things. And they provided the images by which the new trauma might be approached but not approached. Described but certainly not tamed or domesticated. Acknowledged as real, but never finally mastered or integrated into their known world.
But now I want to note something even more enigmatic. The principle name in Joel for the unnameable trauma which had befallen the people is not, in fact, either locusts or invading armies but "THE DAY OF THE LORD". Listen as I locate the places where this intriguing phrase is found:
Alas for the day! The day of the Lord is near: as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of God (1. 15-16).
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it in near - a day of darkness and gloom (2. 1-2).
The earth quakes, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army . . . Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed - who can endure it? (2. 10-11).
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape . . . and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls (2. 31-32).
Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near . . . The Lord roars from Zion . . . the heavens and the earth shake. But the Lord is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel (3. 14, 16).
In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall stream with water; a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord . . . Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations (3. 18-20).