It was the year 1875 that will long be remembered by the people of at least four states, as the grasshopper year. The scourge struck Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Western Missouri April, 1875, and commenced devastating some of the fairest portions of our noble commonwealth. The locusts came in immense clouds and literally covered the territory. Their appearance was that of a snow storm. They came in swarms, they came by the millions, they came in legions, they came by the mile, and they darkened the heavens in their flight, or blackened the earth’s surface, where in myriads they sought their daily meal. Their voracity soon made itself apparent; whole fields of green corn were destroyed in a single day; every spear of wheat, oats, flax and corn were eaten close to the ground. Potatoes and all vegetables received the same treatment, and on the line of their march, ruin stared the farmer in the face, and starvation knocked loudly at his door. Nothing escaped them; there appeared to be nothing they would not eat; and in their progress they left the country nearly as bare of vegetation as if it had been scorched by fire.Excerpts from “When the Skies Turned to Black: The Locust Plague of 1875” compiled by Hearthstone Legacy Publications
“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 is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1-2)
Our first reading, from the second chapter of Joel, begins with these words – words of fear and trembling, of darkness and devastation. If you read back to the first chapter of Joel, you can get the context for why this is. The event that provoked all this alarm among the people was: a plague of locusts. Joel describes it in a way that kind of evokes that passage I read just now about the locusts that descended on Nebraska back in 1875:
Hear this, O elders,Joel 1:2-4, 7, 17-18
give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation.
What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
It has laid waste my vines,
and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
their branches have turned white.
The seed shrivels under the clods,
the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are ruined
because the grain has failed.
How the animals groan!
The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
even the flocks of sheep are dazed.
This plague of locusts has an absolutely devastating impact on the lives of Joel’s people. It kills their crops and their livestock, destroying the livelihoods of many people, and leaving the nation weakened and vulnerable. It’s a natural catastrophe they could not have prevented. In light of this, it strikes me as kind of odd that the first thing that the prophet, Joel, does is to call his people to repentance.
This text comes up as an option for Ash Wednesday every single year, and I have read it dozens of times. But I’ve always read it with the assumption that the people must have done something to anger God – which is usually the case with a lot of these Old Testament stories. I assumed the people had been worshiping other gods or neglecting the poor or in some other way wandering away from God, and that this was the prophet saying, “Okay, folks, it’s time to get our poop in a group and turn back to God – and God promises not to be too mad at us for all the terrible stuff we’ve done (or the stuff we’ve failed to do).”
But that’s not the case in this story! It may be that the people assumed they had done something wrong to provoke God’s anger, but that’s not the way Joel presents it. Joel’s account doesn’t begin with wrongdoing by the people; it starts with the plague of locusts. What that suggests to me is that this was simply a natural disaster that was in no way their fault. Yet, even so, they are called to repentance.
Understandably, the people’s immediate first thought doesn’t seem to be, “Shoot, locusts; I’d better repent!” Instead, the people react – as you or I might – with despair, as this plague strikes their land and everything that they had labored for is literally eaten up before their eyes.
The fields are devastated,Joel 1:10-12
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.
Be dismayed, you farmers,
wail, you vinedressers,
over the wheat and the barley;
for the crops of the field are ruined.
The vine withers,
the fig tree droops.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
all the trees of the field are dried up;
surely, joy withers away
among the people.
All this pain and despair and grief among the people makes me hear that call to repentance in a new way. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Even now, in the midst of hardship, return to me with all your tears and your troubles, with your broken and grieving hearts. Turn to me, God says to the people, and I will bring you through this. God even says:
I will repay you for the yearsJoel 2:21-27
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter…
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
God is tenderly calling the people to come home. The material things they had put their faith in have failed them – their harvest, their livestock and their possessions – and now God calls the people to turn back. God calls the people to turn back to the one true source of their life and their strength and their joy.
This call to repentance also gets at the heart of what Jesus is teaching in our gospel reading for today. Jesus cautions the disciples: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” He warns them not to take up practices of prayer and fasting and almsgiving just so that they can try to impress other people. And it’s not just because no one likes a show-off. It’s because they are setting their sights on human rewards when what God is offering is so much greater. They are looking for a sense of satisfaction and self-worth and life-giving affirmation from earthly sources – from other people – and Jesus is trying to tell them that they are inevitably going to be disappointed.
I mean, why settle for showing up your neighbor down the road when the God of all creation is trying to connect with you and give you life?? Why allow yourself to be defined by the fleeting things of this life – by the opinions of others – when God is calling you by name and offering you peace and strength?
It’s an important lesson for us to remember especially as we live now, in these times of trouble. It’s important that we set our hearts and our treasures on God, as we continue to deal with a natural disaster, like Joel and his people did. And it’s especially important as we begin to journey into whatever it is that comes next. I know many of us – myself included! – have our hearts set on the world returning to something like “normal”: on returning to worship in person, on getting to go back to all the places and do all the things that we’ve been missing all this while.
But we need to pay attention to the lesson from this gospel passage – and from Joel and his people – that these things aren’t going to be the be-all, end-all that we hope they will be. Even when we return to worship together in this space – and even when it looks again more like it did before – it isn’t going to give us the sense of wholeness and satisfaction that we are craving. It isn’t going to give us back our joy. We have all been touched this year by grief and devastation and death. The only one who can truly bring us back to life is God.
And that’s the good news for us today. Because, “Even now,” God says – even now, in the midst of disaster and sickness and despair – return to me with all your heart. Return to me with all your grief and brokenness and despair. Return to me with all your longing and your frustration and your disappointed hopes. Come home. Do not fear, O my people; I will repay you for the years that the spreading virus has eaten; you shall live in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.
This is the invitation of Lent – an invitation into life and joy in God. It’s an invitation to return to the Lord your God – for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.