Eastern Africa is currently experiencing the worst plague of desert locusts that has been seen there in twenty five years. The outbreak is believed to have originated in Yemen, from which it crossed the Red Sea into Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.
The sight of billions of locusts – that’s billions with a “B” – is hard to fathom. A swarm can spread over four hundred and sixty square miles, with forty to eighty million locusts per half-square mile. Desert locusts can travel up to ninety five miles a day and eat their body weight in green plants, meaning that a swarm one kilometer square can eat as much food as 35,000 people in a day. They devastate crops and there is fear about their impact on areas of East Africa already facing hunger due to civil war and poverty.
In our day locusts are not something that we experience in the United States. However it wasn’t always that way. In 1875 a locust plague turned skies over the Midwest black as a swarm with trillions of Rocky Mountain locusts flew over. This kind of locusts became extinct, but in the 1930’s there was another plague outbreak of High Plains locusts. However they are now very rare, and North America is the only continent, apart from Antarctica, without a major locus species.
Locusts plagues were a a great threat to life in ancient Israel. The prophet Joel describes a locust plague that had come upon the nation. He says, “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.”
Joel compares them to an army and uses language that sounds like the locusts eating when he writes, “As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.”
And the impact of the locusts had been devastating. The prophet says, “The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes. Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished.”
The prophet declared that this was not just some unexplainable natural disaster – a matter of “bad luck.” Instead it was the judgment of Yahweh against his people. It was the “day of the Lord.” At the beginning of this chapter he wrote: “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
We do not know what sin had prompted this judgment by Yahweh. But it clearly was sin that had caused Yahweh to send the devastating locus plague. The prophet says in our text, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
The prophet called upon all the people – from the youngest to the oldest to fast and gather. He wrote, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.” Even those getting married were to interrupt this activity in order to take part in this ritual of national repentance.
Joel chapter two is the Old Testament lesson for Ash Wednesday as today we begin Lent. We begin a season that prepares us for Holy Week. We are prepared to observe and remember again the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will see Jesus numbered with the transgressors in order to die for our sin and win forgiveness.
For there to be forgiveness, there first must be repentance. We must confess our sin before God and admit that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. The book of Joel is interesting because here we receive no details about how Israel had sinned. But it’s not hard to guess. Invariably Israel sinned by worshipping the false gods of the surrounding nations. And the life of the nation was regularly one in which the wealthy and powerful took advantage of the poor and weak.
It’s the same thing that describes our sin. We are to love God with all that we are. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet instead, we find no shortage of things that are more important to us. In the ways we use our time and energy, God must take second place because there are activities, hobbies and interests that are just more important. We put ourselves first and our neighbor second. Worse yet it’s not that we simply ignore our neighbor. Instead we hurt him or her by what we say and do. We take pleasure in sharing information that harms their reputation and puts them in the worst possible light.
Israel had sinned, and Joel called the nation to repentance. This would not be a matter of simply going through the motions. Instead Joel said, “Yet even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Why could the nation do this? What could provide the assurance that God would receive them? Joel pointed them to the very character of God. He wrote, “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
This statement about God – that he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love – is basically a creedal statement of the Old Testament. It is repeated again and again as the Scriptures emphasize the amazing character of God.
The reason that we can now approach God in repentance is because we have seen this character of God revealed in action. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, went to the cross because God is gracious and merciful, and abounds in steadfast love. God the Father gave his own Son as the sacrifice for our sins.
In the previous chapter Joel had said of the locust plague: “Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” In our text’s chapter he writes, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
The day of the Lord was a phrase that referred to a decisive act of judgment. And each “day of the Lord” – each action of judgment by Yahweh pointed forward the great day of the Lord. This occurred first on Good Friday. That was a day of darkness as darkness covered the land from noon until three in the afternoon while Jesus hung dying on a cross. God poured out his judgment against your sin onto Jesus. He did this in order redeem you from sin and give you forgiveness.
Jesus faithfully carried out the will of the Father. And then on the third day God vindicated Jesus as he raised him from the dead. Now as our ascended Lord we look for the last and final day of the Lord. We look for the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day. Joel’s words in chapter three point us towards this event. He writes, “Let the nations stir themselves up and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations.”
Yet for us who are in Christ, this day of the Lord will not be one of darkness. Instead it will be the revelation of God’s final salvation for us. As those who are justified through faith in Christ, we already know the verdict that the Lord Jesus will speak. He will declare us innocent and not guilty because of his own sacrifice for us.
We are those who have been baptized into his death. We have been buried with him. We know that the forgiveness he won is in fact ours. And because Jesus has risen from the dead, we know that we will too. Our risen Lord will raise us with bodies transformed so that they can never die again. And he will renew his creation to be the very good place he intended.
Joel begins his prophecy by speaking about God’s judgment of a locust plague that was devastating the land. He ends it by using Old Testament language to describe the new creation. He writes, “And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD and water the Valley of Shittim.”
We enter into Lent tonight and this season of repentance. Yet we confess our sins to the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Lent will bring us to Holy Week when we will again remember that God has given his Son as the sacrifice for our sins. And on Easter we will celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead. In his resurrection we have the firstfruits of our own resurrection, when Christ will renew creation to be very good once again and we will live with our Lord forever.