Your God is Gracious and Merciful
If you have family that lived in Nebraska, Kansas, parts of Iowa, Missouri or Minnesota in the 1870’s you may have heard stories of the terrifying plague of locusts, swarms of invading creatures not even an inch and a half in length that turned the daytime sky black. The plague began in the summer of 1874. By the spring of 1875 an estimated trillion locusts crossed a nearly two million square miles of our continent.
Every shoot of wheat, barley and oat, every stalk of corn, all was devoured; next the swarm of locusts went for the potatoes and vegetables, the leaves and bark on the trees; finally the invading locusts ate curtains on the windows, clothes hanging on the line, shovel and pitch fork handles.
The front page of the New York Times on August 17, 1874, reported, “Nothing can describe the thorough and utter devastation of this grasshopper plague in Kansas. The insects seem to work together and swoop down into a town beating everything before them. The air is literally alive with them. They beat against the houses, swarm in at the windows, cover the passing trains. They work as if sent to destroy. The plague of locusts in Egypt as depicted in the Bible is the only account that can graphically describe the grasshopper plague in Kansas. “For they covered the whole face of the earth so that the land was darkened, and they did eat every herb of the land and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left and there remained not any green thing in the trees or the herbs of the field through all the land in Egypt” (Exodus 10:15).
On Ash Wednesday we heard these words read of a day coming from the book of Joel, “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 2:2).
Joel’s graphic depiction of a ravaging enemy, a plague of locusts destroying every edible thing, is what he calls the “day of the Lord,” a time of doom and terror with a purpose: to bring people to their senses. “Rend your hearts,” he tells the people, “don sackcloth’ and beg for God’s mercy through repentance, fasting and prayer, turn back because your God is gracious.
Some ask if Joel was writing metaphorically or was he describing a plague he experienced or about which he was told. Whatever the plague, it became for him a symbol of the judgment of God.
The Jewish Women’s Archive has listed contemporary plagues that could be considered judgements upon our time. Inequity they call a plague causing great disparity between the rich and the poor and limiting opportunity for upward mobility. Entitlement is a plague: too many of us consider ourselves entitled to material comfort, economic security and other privileges without considering consequences and the need of others. Fear is a plague: We fear “the other” and become xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, homophobic. Greed plagues us. Distraction plagues us and our reality is distorted, encouraging us to eat too much and worry too much about our appearance. Unawareness is a plague: we love bargains but don’t bother to wonder how clothes are made, where food is produced and the working conditions of workers or the impact of our demands upon the environment. Discrimination is a plague. Silence is a plague when we refuse to listen to victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Finally, we are plagued with the feeling of being overwhelmed and disempowered, doubting we can make a difference.
Joel’s point is this: Despite wreckage and chaos all about, some of our own making, God’s grace continues to flow. But, Joel believes, God’s judgment must drive us to divine mercy. So cling to hope. Turn from pessimism and bitterness to hope, believe as Joel did, “Your God …is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13). With hope we can work diligently; we can move past feelings of being overwhelmed and we can make necessary changes, repent and turn around, turn to what is good, kind, righteous, honorable, virtuous, ungrudging, generous, moral and ethical.
We’ve our work ahead, but sustained by hope and with the love known to us through Jesus who is at our side, a new day will dawn and we will again sing the joyful Easter song “The strife is o’er, the battle done, now is the victor’s triumph won! Now be the song of praise begun. Alleluia.”