LOVE IN THE TIME OF LOCUSTS
Joel 1: 15-20; 2:18, 27-32
15 Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.16 Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? 17 The seed shrivels under the clods, the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are ruined because the grain has failed. 18 How the animals groan! The herds of cattle wander about because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep are dazed. 19 To you, O Lord, I cry. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees of the field.20 Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness. 2:18 Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.19 In response to his people the Lord said: I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations. 2:27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32 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, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
How do we reconcile natural disasters with a good God? How do we explain Covid, hurricanes, aids, volcanoes, earthquakes—-or in the case of the prophet Joel, locusts? It is one thing to explain the ups and downs of the Hebrew people in terms of their fidelity to God and quite another to deal with natural disasters which have very little to do with human conduct. Joel, as most of the prophets, is dealing with hard times and imminent threats. A particularly extended infestation of locusts had destroyed the land—”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.” (1:4)….The fields are devastated, the ground mourns;….for the crops of the field are ruined….surely, joy withers away among the people.” The nation was starving. Even the wild animals were suffering.
Faced with a cataclysmic disaster, Joel calls the people to mourn and to repent. The assumption is that this devastation is at God’s hand. God must be appeased. We don’t really know what we did, but we must have done something to deserve the disasters that invade our lives. Katrina is blamed on the sinful city of New Orleans, Covid upon foreign conspiracies, aids is punishment for sexual orientation. We have a very strong need to reconcile our discomfort with a good God. If God loves us, we must deserve whatever befalls us. If we protest and claim innocence, What kind of God would let innocent children drown in a Tsunami? (These are the questions that generate books like “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”.)
Our human need to understand and explain can easily lead to two dangerous, even sinful, outcomes. Faced with hardship and suffering, we want to know why. The implicit belief is that if we can know why something happened, we might prevent it or at least mitigate it. If only we were good enough or smart enough, we could have forestalled the pain. We would rather blame ourselves than face our radical dependence in the world. I spent several years of my career working with sexual abuse survivors. A common theme among the survivors was “What did I do wrong?” and worse, “I know I led him on.” Faced with cruel intrusions on their childhood, survivors frequently blame themselves. Better to be at fault than to face the hard truth that some parents are incompetent and worse, some parents are exploitative and cruel. There is absolutely no explaining why that is true. There is absolutely no explaining why some of us have loving supportive parents and others have the opposite. There is no explaining why some of us are born to comfortable lives in the United States and others face cyclical drought in Eritrea. Their children need what our children need but their children are far more likely to go to bed hungry. Inequity is a fact of life that most of us question only when we are on the short end of the stick.
The other danger is failing to ask why when we are among the privileged. Few of us ask ‘Why am I so fortunate?’ Instead we ask, ‘Why does someone else have more?’ Our explanations tend to be self aggrandizing. “If I can do it, so can they…” “The poor will always be with us…” This kind of thinking is rife with denial and entitlement. Everyone deserves what they get. If I made it, it is because I worked hard. It takes a genuine humility to acknowledge the gifts of our position in life
In both cases, ‘explanations’ prevent us from facing our limitations and fundamental helplessness in the world. God is not here to fix human discomfort. God is here to sustain us through that discomfort. A disaster will remind you really quickly of how contingent our lives are. Listen to our complaints when we lose our internet for two days—or our power—or our heat or our air conditioning. What would happen if those losses extended into weeks or years. When we live as if we are entitled to what we have, we lose our sense of gratitude. We lose our connection to God. We must face the fact that we cannot explain life. We can work hard, we can use our intelligence, we can worship faithfully but tomorrow the locusts may come. The locusts do not care how hard you work or where you worship. That is the discomfiting news of Joel. As frightening as it is, we should never forget that we are creatures.
Fortunately, that disturbing news is not the end of Joel. In the second chapter, Joel promises God’s care: 2:18 Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.19 In response to his people the Lord said: I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations.” At first blush, God fixes the problem by providing what had been lost but I don’t think that helped the people who starved to death in the interim. Rather, I believe Joel is once again announcing ‘what is’. As inexplicable as the locusts’ destructiveness is the mystery of our prosperity. Even though it is all too human to call what is uncomfortable and hard “bad” and the reverse what is comfortable, “good”. That is not how God works.
The promise of God is quite different. “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.” God promises to be present in the times we call good and the times we call bad. There will be terrible times. There will be wonderful times. God is present in both.
I asked one of our FIRL participants how she had survived the death of her infant child. She said the prayers of the people and the communion of saints sustained her. It is hard enough to endure such pain without needing to explain it. That is above our pay grade. We give up the blame game (ourselves or God) when we yield to that truth. Our relationship with God changes. We spend less energy trying to manage life, have more energy to live it and are less likely to view the world through our personal lenses.
When I visited Africa, we witnessed the Great Migration—two million animals were on the move. Because of synchronized ovulation, the overwhelming majority of wildebeest and Zebra babies were born in the same month. Because so many babies were being born in a limited time and in a limited area and because so many placentas were on the Savannahs, very few of the babies were killed by predators. The odds were very good that these infants would survive. But that is no comfort if it is your wildebeest baby that is eaten by a lion. It is very difficult to see the larger picture when we are personally affected.
Likewise, one of the largest species extinctions in the history of the earth occurred with the introduction of oxygen into our atmosphere. That oxygen was critical to the evolution of our species. We tend to view ourselves as the center of the universe (personal and cosmic). It was quite the shock to discover the sun did not rotate around the earth. Who is to say what is our future or where we fit into cosmic history? Recognizing a larger sense of scale helps us escape our self centeredness. God is working her purposes out. Our job is to trust her—whether or not times are good or bad.
In Joel’s day a nation’s God was rated by the prosperity of the nation. Poor and/or defeated nations were mocked. Their god was weak—second rate. Joel’s prophecy says ‘No’ to that thinking. Joel calls us to faith especially when the locusts come. That is when we need God the most. Thinking it should not be so or that the locusts are a sign of disfavor leaves us isolated and spinning our wheels.
Love, whether from God, from our families, or from strangers is always a gift. It is always the choice of the giver. Our efforts to manage that gift by our rules, good behavior or obedience will always fail. Live life as it comes in the knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Let it be so.