by Rev. Mark Winter
Read Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
My dad grew up in a Texas sharecropper’s shack during the Great Depression. He was barely a teenager when the “Grasshopper Wars” began. The winged insects darkened the sky like storm clouds, swooping down on crops and stripping them to stubble. Driving turned dangerous as the roads became slick with grasshoppers. Women grumbled because the pests chewed holes in their fresh-hung laundry.
Some 2700 years before this Dust Bowl plague, a battalion of grasshoppers invaded a country far from Texas. These “locusts,” as the prophet Joel called them, were any number of insects that resembled grasshoppers, but were usually larger and even more destructive: “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 1:4, NRSV).
Joel interprets this invasion, and the famine that followed, as divine punishment for the sins of Judah. He warns that an even more fearsome army is coming that will leave unprecedented destruction in its wake. The prophet sounds the alarm, urging the people to repent and possibly stave off this future catastrophe.
For many people, repentance is something to do during a grueling trial, a Hail Mary pass that might help them to win a desperate game, after all. Most of us have been there, haven’t we? A breakup, health challenge or financial setback pushes our backs to the wall and we sink to our knees, crying out, “Lord, get me out of this! If you do, I’ll change. I promise!”
But we don’t have to wait for the “grasshoppers of life” to eat us up before we repent. Repentance is a lifestyle, not an event we save for worst-case scenarios. The first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses boldly states, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
This doesn’t mean we have to turn our daily quiet time into a session of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Repentance isn’t so much an external display of emotion, but a regular turning to God. The New Testament word for “repent” means “to change.” Our hearts are naturally bent to fall in step with the world, to take the broad path of destruction that Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:13). Repentance is a calibration tool, helping us to make necessary course corrections by turning us away from fruitless endeavors and redirecting our steps to the Lord.
No, God isn’t a divine ogre who delights in torturing people with floods, famines and plagues. As Joel reveals, God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13). Repentance is a gift that helps us stop focusing on grasshoppers and turn our attention to the One whose grace will see us through every season and hardship of life.
Rev. Mark Winter, a General Evangelist of the United Methodist Church who lives in Texas, blogs regularly at www.onemanshow.org.