Grasshoppers and Grace — Ash Wednesday 2017

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

(Joel enters, holding a dry, bare branch).

Do you see this? A day ago, this branch was covered with leaves. Then they came. It only took a few minutes. Now this is all that is left. It’s not even good for firewood.

You can call me Joel. My name means “The LORD is God.” My folks gave me that name as a joyous testimony to their faith. But right now it seems like a dark sign of judgment.

You see, we have a bug problem. Locusts have invaded our land. You might call them grasshoppers. And you might wonder why this is such a big deal. Well, let me tell you. One locust is just a bug. A hundred million locusts is a disaster.

They are so thick that sometimes they blot out the sun. Those hoppers strip our grapevines. They split fig trees right down the middle. They chew the bark off the trees and leave them to die. Just look at this branch!

Now imagine hills and valleys covered with nothing but bare stems and dead branches. That’s how our land looks right now. The locusts eat everything in sight. What cutting locusts leave, the swarming locusts eat. What the swarming locust leaves, the hopping locust eats. What the hopping locust leaves, the destroying locust eats.

They march through fields like six-legged soldiers. Ahead of them is green grass. Behind them is a wasteland. Sometimes the chewing and chirping are so loud we can’t hear each other even when we shout.

They cover everything. They eat our clothing. They chew on our ropes. They clog our wells and foul our wine jars. We find them in our beds, on our tables, crawling in our hair. It is maddening, terrifying. Sometimes it seems like the world is coming to an end. It seems like this is God’s great judgment on us.

We have no feed for the cattle. We have no seed for the next year. People are starving. Some are leaving their farms and heading for other lands. It is a dry year and even the water fails us. The dead stems are like tinder. Heat lightning strikes. So when the locusts leave, the fire takes over. Our land is covered in darkness and despair.

I am no farmer. I am a Jerusalem priest. The people come to the Temple in a panic. The farmers stand in the vestibule and wring their hands. The vinedressers wail in the wings and plead for answers. 

Little children come with their mothers looking for food. Old people wander in and say that they have never seen anything like this. We hear cattle bawling for fodder. We see sheep wandering in dazed confusion.

The people demand answers. Is this the end of all things? Is God angry with us? What shall we do? Tell us! So we do what priests do. We take off our nice robes and dress in sack cloth. We sit in ashes and pray. We fast all day and chant all night.

Our leaders call a solemn assembly of all the people. They urge everyone to come to the House of the Lord. They ask us all to cry out to God for help. No one is exempt.

The aged come with their canes and crutches. The children toddle into the Temple square. Mothers come with infants nursing at their breasts. Newlyweds are called from their celebrations.

All the people gather. The announcement is terrifying.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming, it is near… Truly the day of the Lord is great; Terrible indeed—who can endure it?”

We priests lead the people in panicked petitions. “Spare us, your people, O Lord!” we cry out. “Do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations!”

We appeal to God’s glory. “Why should it be said among the peoples,” we ask, “’Where is their God?’”

As we pray, the weeping wanes a bit. The panic gives way to peace. There is some safety in the sanctuary. There is some comfort in the crowd.

Now…now…I am having a vision—a vision like none I have experienced before. I see clouds fat with rain coming over the hills to the east. It is the rain we need for our crops. As the clouds rush toward us, the great locust army is scattered. The drenching storm drowns the great hordes and washes them to the sea. The land is rescued and the people are saved. 

The vision comes to me as a song. It is a song we have known since we were children. I chant the words as they come to me.

“Yet even now, says the LORD, Return to me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, with mourning;” As I sing, the crowd becomes quiet. All the eyes turn to me. “Rend your hearts, and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger and abounding steadfast love, And relents from punishing.”

Now the crowd is swaying as I sing. I see faces stained with the tears of repentance. I see heads bowed in prayers of confession. I see former enemies embracing each other with forgiveness. I see the wealthy linking arms with the poor. 

“Who knows….who knows…whether he will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind him, A grain offering and a drink offering For the LORD, your God?”

Yes, who knows? Who knows? This is not the cry of despair. It is rather the heartbeat of hope. Only the safe and secure have the luxury of certainty. Only the smug and self-satisfied desire the stability of an unchanging God.

Our prayer is different. Like the Hebrew slaves we cry out and pray that God will hear. Turn back to us, O Lord! Turn away from the punishment we deserve. Turn to us with the grace we need! Foreswear your judgment and embrace your love! 

We know your heart, Lord God! The foolish Hebrew children abandoned you in the wilderness. They made a golden calf and worshipped that mute piece of metal. Moses pleaded for their lives, and you listened. You changed your mind and started again.

You sang to Moses the song I hear in my vision. “The Lord, the Lord, A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, And abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, Keeping steadfast love for thousands of generations,

Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Who knows whether the Lord will not turn and relent? Who knows? We know! We know your heart, Lord God! We know that you do not desire the death of sinners. Instead, you long that we will turn from our sin and have life.

You long that we will trust you and rely on you as our God. The locusts will soon leave. We know this from centuries of experience. Yet what they represent remains.

There is a dark power that seeks to consume us. There are forces in this life that wish us nothing but death. There are realities in this universe that thrive on our terror and feast on our fear. The little monsters are only previews of the great evil afoot in the cosmos.

This is not the last battle between the forces of light and darkness. But it is a glimpse of the glorious ending. There will come a time when all is set right. 

Isaiah once talked about a branch—a righteous branch that springs from the stump of Jesse. That branch is a descendant of great King David. That descendant will set all things right. 

I look at this dry branch now, and I have another vision. The branch is broken into two pieces (breaks the branch in two). I see them crossed and covered with the form of a man. It is a wondrous and terrible vision.

As I see that dry branch now made wet with blood, I hear strange words. “For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” a voice says, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Who knows? Who knows? The dry branch may yet bear fruit. There will come a time when the grain, the wine and the oil will spill out abundantly. There will come a time when the forces of darkness will rot on the shores of God’s kingdom. There will come a time when the threshing floors shall be full and the vats shall overflow. There will come a time when the Lord’s people will never be put to shame.

As we sing together there in the Temple, something wonderful is happening. The vision I received is becoming the vision of the whole congregation. Young people are speaking words of hope and joy. Old people are seeing the vision. Even our slaves are dancing and singing and speaking good news. The spirit of prophecy is poured out on us all!

The question on our lips is the question of hope. Who knows? Who knows? And the answer on our lips is the answer of faith. God knows! God knows! And God knows us in mercy and love!

(Joel exits in silence).

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