November 22, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE YEAR OF THE LOCUST
Late one July morning in 1874, a 12-year-old farm girl in Kansas saw something that spooked her. It started getting dark and it was a few minutes before noon. The bright blue sky had turned an ominous shade of gray. There was also a strange sound. She had never heard such a sound. It was an other-worldly, high-pitched rasping. Years later she recorded her recollection. There was “a moving gray screen between the sun and earth.” Then a sound like hail, bouncing off the roof, then something bouncing off her shoulder. But it wasn’t hail. She jumped. She ran for shelter.
A child in Jefferson County, Kansas went to the family well just before noon to draw some water. He yelled, “They’re here! The sky is full of ’em! The whole yard is crawling with the nasty things!”
A settler in Edwards County, Kansas reported, “I never saw such a sight before. This morning, as we looked up toward the sun, we could see millions in the air. They looked like snowflakes.”
What these three Kansans witnessed was witnessed also over a radius covering 11 states and Canadian territories. It was grasshoppers. Technically, Rocky Mountain Locusts. Millions, probably billions of them. 1874 in the American Great Plains was the year of the locust.
Farmers cinched their pant legs with string to keep the invaders out. They ran to cover their wells, trying to protect their water supply. If successful, that’s about the only thing they were successful in saving. As the swarms landed, the skies cleared, but that’s when the real devastation began. The insects ate everything they could sink their teeth into. Crops, grass, leaves off trees, wool off the backs of sheep, harnesses off horses, paint off wagons, handles off pitchforks. They washed in waves against the fences, piling up a foot or more deep. They feasted for days, even eating the blankets and quilts farmers threw over their gardens. Livestock feasted on them, bonfires got some of them, but there were just too many to control. As one farmer put it, “They ate everything but the mortgage.”
History is filled with accounts of devastation from locusts. One of the 10 plagues that came to Pharaoh in Egypt was locusts. Locusts are part of the history of the LDS church. In 1848, seagulls swooped down just in time to eat the pests before they could eat their crops. Pesticides do a pretty good job of keeping locusts under control today usually, but not always.
Like right now in East Africa and spreading into Asia. It’s the worst infestation in 70 years. This color coded map shows how hard these areas have been hit. Green is moderate. Yellow is stressed. Orange is crisis. Red is emergency.
This would be on the news every night if not for the coronavirus pandemic. We are distracted. But between five and twenty-five million people are facing acute food shortages. And it’s expected to get worse before it gets better.
It’s a powerful parable. A plague sweeps across the land, destroying everything in its path. A prophet named Joel used this parable in the passage we read today. His people had experienced locust plagues. They knew what he was talking about. So now he uses this terrible shared memory as a parable. A parable of God’s judgment. Also a parable of God’s love.
I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you (2:25).
Judgment is a tricky thing. Some people think God is all judgment. God is always angry with us. Bad things that happen are God’s judgment on us because of our sins. Other people think God is all love. God is never angry with us. God is kind of like the parent of a spoiled child. We are spoiled rotten. And God doesn’t care. God just says, “children will be children”, and looks the other way.
Both images of God are wrong. Because God’s judgment is tempered by love and God’s love is fortified by judgment.
Another tricky thing is that sometimes we bring judgment on ourselves. We make choices and those choices have consequences. Bad choices have bad consequences. It may feel like God is punishing us, but really we are bringing the punishment on ourselves. And other times, what feels like God’s judgment has nothing to do with our actions. It has nothing to do with God’s response to our actions. Bad things just happen. Indiscriminately. The innocent suffer as well as the guilty and innocence or guilt have nothing to do with it. Either way, whether we bring it on ourselves or whether it just happens, it feels the same. If feels like an invasion of locusts.
I think we’ve all seen what locusts can do to a person’s life. The locusts do their thing, they leave, and they leave behind devastation. Maybe the devastation of loneliness.
A man estranged from his family is all alone. He didn’t know what loneliness would feel like. Now he does. He wanted to be alone. But he didn’t expect it to be like this. He brought it on himself. If you want to assign blame, it’s probably his fault. But this loneliness is almost more than he can bear. He stands alone on a barren landscape. The locusts have taken it all.
Or a woman who cared so faithfully for the man she loved. Day after endless day, she was there for him. She took care of him, she loved him, she prayed for him. Now he’s gone. And now she feels like her life is over, too. Without him, it feels like there is nothing to live for. She sits in a house beautifully furnished, filled with furniture. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the house is empty. It’s as if the locusts have eaten everything that matters.
Or the parents of a child who has hurt them. Now that part of their lives that once gave them joy is barren. They don’t even want to talk about it. They just want to put it behind them. It hurts too much. The locusts have done their damage.
Or children whose parents have passed on to them the unresolved problems of their own lives. Locusts they didn’t ask for.
Or those who have lived a life of giving in to temptation. Exchanging short term pleasure for long term misery. They look back on their lives and all that they can see is a wasteland. Everything that was good and beautiful and precious in their lives has been destroyed.
We can never know for sure how much of it is our fault and how much is just the random fall-out that goes with being alive. But we do know for sure that this parable of the locusts is a parable that is true to life, whether we’ve experienced the darkened skies of a real locust attack or not. There are times in our lives, all of our lives, when it feels as if the locusts have eaten everything. There is nothing of value left. It feels that way. Joel is honest about that.
But Joel is honest about something else. Something that is just as true. God promises us that the year of the locust does not last forever. It feels like it will last forever. It won’t. That’s what this text is about. God says, “I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten.”
That’s the good news God wants us to see. Maybe that’s the reason you are watching this, so you can know this promise from God and hold onto it. When we believe in God it means we can look to the future with hope. With expectation. With anticipation. Even if you don’t understand why something bad has happened, you can expect something good to happen from it. To believe in God does not mean you understand God. To believe in God means you trust God.
Our God is a God who restores the years the locusts have eaten. Because God is not only a God of judgment. God is also a God of love.
There is a dangerous heresy that is common in our day. It is the belief in fate. Which basically is the belief that the locusts are really the ultimate power in this universe. No matter what we do or how we live or whether or not we trust God, it’s all going to be destroyed in the long run. We know the ending. We know our fate. The locusts win.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, fatalistic about the Christian faith! Christ calls us to reject this heresy that saps the life and the joy right out of people. Jesus makes all the difference. With Jesus we can be hopeful. We can be optimistic. We can be thankful. We can expect the best, not the worst.
Here’s a verse to memorize. I didn’t get this one from the Bible. I got this from listening to Christian people going through tough times. Here’s what they say: “It will be for the best. I’ll accept it and go on. I know something is going to work out because I trust that God is in control.” In other words, I take God at his word when he says, “I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten.”
This is Thanksgiving Sunday. Joel gives us the perfect Thanksgiving text for today. Because Thanksgiving reminds us that our Pilgrim ancestors were not exactly surrounded by blessings in abundance. The first Thanksgiving was hardly a giving of thanks for all the bountiful material blessings God had lavished upon these brave men and women. The only thing in abundance at the first Thanksgiving was deprivation and suffering.
There are two traditions behind Thanksgiving. There is the Pilgrim tradition. After a terrible year in which every family lost someone, half the people who climbed on board the Mayflower now were dead, the colony was near starvation, and the future looked bleak, they sat down and gave thanks to God. They trusted God. They didn’t understand God, but they trusted God. They trusted that somehow, in ways they could not yet see, God would work to bring about the promise of an abundant new land. The source of their thankfulness was not the blessings of today, but the promise of tomorrow. They gave thanks that behind this barren New England winter, God had plans to do something great.
There’s a second tradition behind Thanksgiving. We don’t talk about this one as much, but it is just as important. There was no Thanksgiving as a national holiday until 1863. Anybody know what was happening in 1863? We were in the middle of a terrible Civil War. If ever locusts swarmed in America, it was during the Civil War. We’ve fought some terrible wars. None has been more bloody, more costly, more tragic than the Civil War. 625,000 lives were lost. That 2% of the population. In today’s terms, 2% of our population would be 6.6 million dead. That’s more than the population of Idaho and Oregon combined. Unimaginably horrible. And right in the middle of it, with no assurance how the war would end or even if it ever would end, Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Lincoln trusted God that behind these ruins, behind these battlefields, behind this bloodshed, God would heal our land and bring forth “a new birth of freedom.”
That’s the tradition of Thanksgiving. It makes you wonder whether the grasshopper ought to be our national insect. Because out of those low and discouraging days when the locusts were ruling the roost and it seemed nothing would change until they had taken everything and had nothing left to take, that’s when people of faith said, “Thank you God. Thank you for your promise. Thank you that even in days that feel like pure judgment, we can trust your love.”
None of us crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower and ate the scant rations at the first Thanksgiving table. None of us fought in the Civil War, or lost family and friends in that terrible war. All of us have our own experiences of locust devastation. Some of us are in the middle of it right now.
I read an article about depression. Depression is nothing new. Depression, when it comes, can feel like an invasion of locusts. What was new in this article was evidence that depression has become almost an epidemic among young people. It used to be that the first onset of depression would typically hit sometime in the thirties. Before that, young people were so carefree and enjoying life so much that depression was rare. This has dramatically changed. The first onset of serious depression now is typically in the early twenties, and often much earlier.
The article went on to say that the values of our society have something to do with this. It said that young people today feel unprecedented pressure to succeed. And it’s almost impossible to live up to this expectation. Especially in an economy where so many entry level jobs went away this year with everything locked down. Even those who have done well in school are still looking for that first real job. And that can bring on depression. When you feel like a failure and you feel there is nothing you can do about it.
And of course, to state the obvious, it’s not only young people who are struggling in 2020, our year of the locust. It’s been a hard, hard year for us all.
Joel lived 400 years before Christ, but I believe God gave Joel an advance glimpse into the hope Christ would bring to people living in dark days. Jesus was realistic about the locusts. He was realistic about the troubles of life. But he gave us hope in the midst of those troubles. He said, “In the world you will have trouble, but I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). That means you can overcome, too. Not on your own strength and determination, but in Jesus, who is your strength, and who will give you a reason to be determined.
You have a choice on this Thanksgiving Sunday 2020. The year you can’t wait to end. The choice is this. You can decide that your life will be meaningful and good only when your life is what you want it to be. And until your life is what you want it to be, your life is going to suck.
Or you can decide, right here, right now, that even though your life is not what you want it to be, you are going to trust God anyway. You are going to thank God anyway. You are going to believe that even though the locusts may appear to be winning, they aren’t. They are going to fly away as quickly as they flew in. And God is going to restore what they have destroyed.
God, I pray that you might make yourself real to those who are struggling right now. Those who are barely holding on. Those who have given up. I pray that you will give them and all of us a faith that is deep and lasting. Not a faith that is strong when things are great and fades away when things get tough. But a faith than even in the most difficult and discouraging moments, is more real than the troubles. For you are real, God, and you love us and you will not give up on us, even in days when we are tempted to give up on ourselves. Especially in those days, we can trust you and we can trust Jesus, your Son. Amen.