Plague!

Plague!

TEXT: Joel 1:1-12; Matthew 4:1-4

Listen up! Has such a thing happened in your days or in the days of your parents? Will you one day tell your children and their children about it?

That could be talking about the past several years of our lives, but it was actually God’s Word to His people through the prophet Joel. The people had just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime plague of locusts, and that was just the beginning of their problems that ranged from natural disaster to human conflicts.

During this period of Lent, when we think about suffering and repentance, we are going to spend several weeks with the prophet Joel as well as with Jesus in the wilderness. I am encouraged that we seem to be coming out of the two years of COVID and all it entailed. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to reflect on what we might learn, particularly when it comes to our faith and relationship with God. I think Joel will point us in the right direction.

I’ve called this series “Hope through Repentance” and I believe that’s just what we can find in these words from the Lord.

Bugs!

The scenario in Joel’s time was that there had been a plague… of locusts. A relative of grasshoppers and cicadas, locusts will swarm and destroy almost any vegetation in their path, including crops. And apparently this was the locust plague to end all locust plagues. In verse 4 Joel recounts the extent of the damage caused by the different types of locust:

“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.”

He goes on to tell those who love wine to wake up, for the grapes that become their wine have also been destroyed. He likes the locusts to an invading army (a little prophetic foreshadowing!) and uses vivid imagery: “teeth like lions… and the fangs of a lioness.” (v.6) He offers specific and vivid description of the damage in verse 7:

“It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white.”

And then verse 7 instructs those who have lost so much in the plague to lament or grieve, again using a vivid image of a young woman whose betrothed died before the wedding. The next several verses detail some of that grief: even the offerings in God’s house are affected because the source of grain and wine offerings has been destroyed. Fields are destroyed; wheat and barley have perished; the vine dries up; the fig tree languishes; pomegranate, palm, and apple trees are all dried up. And finally, “gladness dries up from the children of man.” (vv.9-12)

This theme of grieving what is lost becomes a recurring theme in Joel’s message and it’s one we will return to again.

A Modern Bug: COVID

I want to follow a similar track with the modern plague that we have all dealt with in the past two years: COVID-19. Joel seems to indicate value in naming the damage and effects of the plague. Perhaps it is because it then allows us to grieve or lament more effectively.

The damage might seem obvious. The direct effect is that many people have become sick and died. Others have persistent and lasting effects. These include people I know. But like the locust, COVID had other resultant effects. Work was disrupted by illness as well as by protective protocols. School was disrupted, affecting children in ways we are still realizing. It was staggering to hear descriptions of second graders who still didn’t know how to get in line or read or do basic things because the second half of kindergarten and all of first grade was done by remote learning. Other children missed out on sports or arts or job interviews or graduation and teachers were asked to carry an incredible load. Medical care was affected in multiple ways because responding to COVID took precedence over many other medical situations. And I experienced first hand the grief of families not being able to visit or be with loved ones who were dying. Many older adults experienced a decline in physical and emotional health because of the extended period of isolation. The list goes on and on and you can probably add to it out of your own personal experiences. And like the worship in the days of Joel, church worship, ministry, and fellowship were profoundly affected. We’ve had to start many ministries like those to youth and children over nearly from scratch. Even now some folks are just contemplating coming back to in-person worship and we are one week shy of two full years of this! The things that ordinarily bind us together, like eating and gathering and hugging all got put on hold. And yes, we found some ways to adapt and connect, but like the locust plague in Joel we have experienced physical, emotional, communal, and spiritual damage.

Joel first takes time to name the plague and what it has done. And then he takes time to allow for and encourage grief. Have you taken any time to do this? I’m not sure I have. I’ve carried around this dull sense of loss and hurt, but I don’t think I have stopped to name what has happened or to grieve it properly. Any decent psychologist will tell you it’s important to grieve. And scripture says it as well, with many Psalms given to lament, to expressing grief.

So I’d like to take a moment to pray, then to have some silent prayer, to make space for us to grieve just a little. I’d encourage you to continue this with a journal or quiet time away from TV or computer or phone. Think through what you have dealt with in the past two years. Name it before God; include the consequences as well… things that happened indirectly because of the direct effects of COVID. And then take some time in prayer to grieve. Let’s do that now and then I have a short ending thought from our other scripture reading.

Heavenly Father, reading about a plague of locusts once may have seemed distant and unrelatable, but we have a better idea now of what it means for so much of our lives to be disrupted and displaced by events out of our control. Would you hear our silent prayers or simply guide us as we think for a bit about the impact of these past two years and grieve in your holy presence.

[time for silent reflection and prayer] Amen.

Spiritual Food (Matthew 4:1-4)

At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus went into the Judean wilderness to fast and pray. He was going to seek God’s direction and spend time with his Heavenly Father. After forty days of fasting he was extremely depleted and hungry. And in that vulnerable situation the Devil came to tempt him three times.

The first temptation was to solve his own problem (as defined by the Devil). But Jesus is fixed on his Heavenly Father. He responds by quoting Deuteronomy and the story of when the people of Israel were also in the wilderness and desperately hungry, and God provided manna for them to eat: “One shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

Jesus reminds us that seeking God’s will, attending to God’s Word, is not just for when things are going great, but especially when we are hard-pressed on every side. That’s when it is most important to feed ourselves on God’s Word and to ask for God’s guidance, direction, and help. There is no better time than right now to turn back to the Lord for that guidance and help. (And sneak preview, that’s where Joel is headed next… turning again to God!)

That’s easy to say and harder to do. But I believe Joel offers us some tools to do that. The first of those tools is to grieve properly, to recognize hurt or loss and bring it to the Lord. The Bible in no way teaches us to only bring happy thoughts to the Lord. Rather, it is full of prayers and songs of deep yearning, loss, anger, and a full range of human emotions. Be truthful about your own experience; minimizing it or not acknowledging it misses the opportunity to experience God’s presence and healing. But lament or grieving is not just “woe is me” – it is bringing it to the Lord, who sees you and knows you and hurts with you. God has been with you these past two years and is with you even now. Amen!

Some Music Used

  • Preludes
    • Days of Elijah
    • Praise to the Lord/Halleluia
    • Is He Worthy
  • Creation Sings the Father’s Song (Gettys)
  • We Will Feast in the House of Zion (McCracken)
  • It is Well With My Soul

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