There was a fascinating story in this week’s New York Times about the threat of swarms of locusts in Africa and the attempts to limit the damage: As Locusts Swarmed East Africa, This Tech Helped Squash Them – The New York Times (nytimes.com).
The desert locust, known to scientists as “Schistocerca Americana, subspecies gregaria,” is a distant cousin of the American grasshopper. It lives and breeds in the great desert stretching from the Sahara in Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, including the Sinai and Judean deserts.
Plagues of these desert locusts have been reported since the Pharaoh’s times in ancient Egypt. During the last century, desert locust plagues occurred in the 1920s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 80s.
In plague conditions, this locust multiplies rapidly, crowds into dense swarms, and sweeps into nearby fertile areas, where it eats its own weight in green plants every day.
Locust swarms can vary from less than one square mile to several hundred square miles. There can be at least 40 million and sometimes as many as 80 million locust adults in each square mile of swarm. A very small part of an average swarm (or about one ton of locusts) eats the same amount of food in one day as about
10 elephants or
25 camels or
The desert locust’s threat to Middle Eastern societies is recorded in the earliest human records and continues even to the present day.
The prophet Joel talks about the years of the locusts. In the years of the locusts, billions of these insects six or seven inches long swarm in and settle on the crops. In flight they block out the sun and descend in piles of living insects that destroy everything in sight.
The years the locusts come they get everything. There is not a blade of grass; there is not a green leaf left in the country where the locusts come.
The people round up horses and cattle in the country and drive them, screaming and yelling and pounding, they drive them across acres of locusts trying to pound their bodies into the soil before they have a chance to leave their eggs.
At the end of their short life span, these locusts pile up and die by the millions.
But on the years that locusts come, nothing is left for the farmer, nothing is left for a grower, nothing is left. In the years of the locusts nothing remains that is edible. These are, as Joel says, the years that the locust has eaten.
[Carlyle Marney, Beggars In Velvet, 119-20]
The work of the prophet Joel, recorded in the book of Joel in the Old Testament, is a response to one of these devastating invasions of locusts, who swarmed the crops in the field and even the people in their houses.
1:4: 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.
The philosopher Herodotus says that the bitterest sorrow that a man can know is to wish very much to do something and not to be able to do it. Carlyle Marney says that there is a sorrow more bitter than that: to wish very much to do something and to do it, and then to find that it was not worth the doing.
Those are the years of the locust—the years that you worked for nothing, the years when everything you worked so hard to build was torn down, the years when your work turned out to be waste.
My first full-time pastorate right out of seminary was the First Baptist Church, Eagle Lake, Texas. Eagle Lake is rice country. Pretty much all of the rice that is grown in Texas is grown around Eagle Lake.
I was a member of the Rotary Club there, and they would often call on me to pray at the beginning of the meetings. One time in my prayer I thanked God for the rain we had had that day. After the prayer, one big-time rice farmer, Arthur Anderson, grabbed me by the arm and said, Next time you think you want to thank God for the rain, you check with me first.
Because one bad thunderstorm during rice harvest time can completely ruin a year’s worth of hard work for the rice farmer. Everything can be undone in an hour of wind and rain at the wrong time of the year. When that happens, that is the year of the locust for them.
It’s not just natural disasters that bring us down. We do this to ourselves. We ruin our own efforts. We self-destruct. We mess up. We sabotage ourselves. We blow it. Waste and catastrophe come to us from natural disaster and human failing.
The years of the locust—when hard work is wasted, when disaster strikes.
The years of the locust are the times that you worked and some locust got everything. On the years that locusts come,
nothing is left for the farmer,
nothing is left for a grower,
nothing is left.
In the years of the locust nothing remains that is edible. These are, as Joel says, the years that the locust has eaten.
These are the years, that many of us have known, when it seems like you’ve lost everything.
And this is what the Hebrew people were faced with—a widespread, destructive catastrophe.
For Joel, this terrible visitation of locusts represents the judgment of God. Joel lives in a time of great difficulty and loss for the Hebrew people, and he is led by God to give the people the tough word that this destruction that has come upon them represents the judgment of God.
And so Joel spells out for the people their need to repent and to cast themselves on the mercy of God. 2:12: Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
There is waste. There is catastrophe. There is judgment. There is repentance and returning from the far country. And the hope—the thing we hope for in the years of the locusts is redemption. Redemption is what happens when something or somebody is transformed in a way that somehow makes use of all that went before—even the bad.
I once heard John Claypool tell a story about William Muehl of Yale Divinity School and something that happened in his family years ago when Dr. Muehl’s son was young.
His five year old son made a clay ashtray for his dad one year in Vacation Bible School. Open House night finally rolled around. The little boy was so excited he couldn’t take the excitement anymore. When he saw his parents walking toward his room he grabbed the pottery and ran down the hall toward them. Look dad! Look what I made just for you!
But, just before he reached them he
tripped and fell,
dropped the ash tray and
watched as it smashed into dozens of pieces all
over the floor.
As the little boy began to sob his dad tried to comfort him. That’s OK, it doesn’t matter; it’s OK, he said.
Mom knew better. This was her son’s gift to his father. He’d poured himself into making it with his own hands, just for him. He’d lived the entire week on the energy of the anticipation that always accompanies giving something special to someone you love. Now, what he had put his hopes in lay broken all over the floor. It did matter, very much.
So, getting on her knees and scooping up the broken pieces, she took her son by the hand and said, Come on son, let’s see what we can make out of what’s left.
Dad meant well, of course. But, what the son needed more than comfort was help. He didn’t need reassurance; he needed someone to redeem what was left of the mess he’d made of his dreams.
John Claypool, in telling this story, pointed out that in the three principal actors of that drama, you have the three alternatives in dealing with failure and catastrophe. The crying of the child is a symbol of the despair that occurs
when what we have done cannot be undone,
when what we have broken can never be mended
when what we worked so hard for is gone.
There is nothing as hopeless as the sense that the past is an ultimate that we cannot change.
Then there is the father’s attempt to minimize the pain by trivializing what has happened. That will never bring any significant change either, because it doesn’t acknowledge
the significance and
the reality and
of life’s failures and tragedies.
Then there is the figure of that mother
who knew how to weep appropriately for that which
ought to have been wept over,
who knew how to take the past seriously, but
then saying, Come, let’s pick up the pieces and see what we can make of what is left.
Ah. That is the way of redemption; that is the way of seeing that there is always something that God can do even with our most broken lives and our most broken experiences. Transformation comes in making use of all that’s gone before, even the broken parts.
That’s redemption, and redemption is God’s final stamp on the story of life. There are few better examples of the enduring nature of God’s grace and promise of redemption than what we find here in the prophet Joel.
First there is the word of waste—all the hard work of farming wasted by the locust.
There is the word of catastrophe—the locust got everything.
Then there is the word of judgment—Joel spells out for the people their need
to repent and
to cast themselves on the mercy of God.
But then there is the word of redemption. In this little book of Joel an unheard of thing is promised (v. 25-27): I will restore to you—this is really amazing—I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 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.
On the year the locusts come nothing is left. Every
of green is gone. And God says through the prophet Joel, I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten.
I will restore to you the time that catastrophe has come upon you—
from natural disaster,
from church conflict and loss,
from personal failure and sin.
I will restore to you the years of the locust. These are the years when everything is gone.
Is there any place on the earth where those lost years can be restored? I don’t think so. Everything was gone.
Not a leaf,
not a blade,
not a stalk of green,
and the bodies of those locusts pile up and die by the millions in the fields.
That time of my life that was wasted can never be restored.
That catastrophe that we experienced can never be redeemed.
That judgment that I brought upon myself by that thing I did or the way I lived my life can never be redeemed.
These are the years of the locusts. Everything is gone.
God says, I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten.
Even the years of the locust can be redeemed.
Redemption is what happens when something or somebody is transformed in a way that somehow makes use of all that went before—even the bad. I am leaning heavily on the truth that God’s power to redeem is greater than our power to mess up.
One of the main points that we see Jesus making again and again throughout his ministry—with people who have leprosy, paralysis, sinners, hemorrhaging women, dead little girls, tax-collectors and prostitutes is the message of abundant hope: there is no human condition so bad—so alienating— that hope is absent.
There is no human condition, even death, that is outside the reach of God’s love. It is a vision of human wholeness, of peace, of abundant life. It is a compelling vision to which Jesus is still inviting his followers. It is called the Kingdom of God.
[Thanks to Rev. Bill Zeiche for this point in an unpublished sermon preached at Heritage Presbyterian Church, Muskego, Wisconsin]
There is no human condition so bad, so alienating, that hope is absent. No human condition, not even death, that is outside the reach of God’s love and redemption.
When we took a group from Broadway a few years ago to Israel, we went to the Dead Sea. The lowest place on earth. A lifeless place. Maybe you have heard as a sermon illustration the Dead Sea compared unfavorably to the Sea of Galilee, which is fresh and sparkling and full of fish, while the Dead Sea is so terribly salty and no fish can live in it.
The Dead Sea is so full of salt and minerals that you can float on it. You can literally walk into the water till it is about mid-calf high and sit down and float. You can sit in the water and put your feet and hands up in the air and float—almost sit on the water. And if even a little of that water gets in your mouth you will gag—it is so thick with salt and minerals. You should have seen our group of senior adults out there frolicking in the water. It looked like a scene from the movie “Cocoon.”
You’ve heard about the Dead Sea in a sermon illustration. The usual point is that the Jordan River flows through the Sea of Galilee, which is full of life, but only flows into the Dead Sea because there is no outlet. The point being that life comes through giving, death from keeping for yourself.
I will concede that point, but there is another truth. George Buttrick claims the Dead Sea does have an outlet—the upward one, toward the sky. Across the centuries as it has surrendered itself to the sun, a residue of potash has built up and remains along its shores.
Potash, a different form of life than the water in which fish can live, is a main ingredient of fertilizer. Engineers have estimated that if the potash around the Dead Sea could be mixed and distributed, there would be enough there to fertilize the whole surface of the earth for at least five years.
The point is life never comes to a complete dead end. Even when no outlet is open except surrender to death in helplessness, even that response is not without its positive residue, for out of it can come the miracle of new life.
There is no human condition so bad, so alienating, that hope is absent. No human condition, not even death, that is outside the reach of God’s love and redemption. Even the years the locusts come and get everything.
According to G. J. Rousseau who grew up on a farm in Africa, the greatest crops that the African farmer ever reaps are those crops that grow up through the land that has been fertilized by the corpses of last year’s locusts.
[Carlyle Marney, Beggars in Velvet, 120]
So the lost years are not lost years at all but
become a fertilizing influence
to make the fruit of your life what it could never
without the years you thought you had lost.
What I’m coming to see is that God’s abundant provisions, possibilities, peace, and power are present even—and especially, really— in the pestilence.