For those of a certain generation, you may recall the hit song by the band R.E.M titled “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” For the rest of you, it starts with an earthquake and birds and snakes and airplanes and governments for hire and combats and fires and furies breathing down your neck, as the band describes the apocalypse in a stream of conscious way. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Things which had once been are no longer. It’s awful. And, the band wants you to know, in spite of all this, they feel fine.
A sermon based on Joel 2:23-32.
If you were to look it up an apocalypse on WordHippo it would be simply defined as a disaster or a cataclysmic event. Think plagues—which used to be something we could only speculate about, but then 2020 entered the chat. Think wars. Or once-in-a-lifetime weather events, which seem to be happening now every year. Perhaps we would include school shootings in the mix and events like George Floyd’s murder which set off a racial reckoning in our country. Or maybe think on a more micro level to the things that upend your own life, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, financial trouble, or the like. Calamitous events that turn everything upside down. Those events that leave us hopeless and forlorn, that cause fear to rise up within us.
What’s hard, of course, is that with our “Breaking News” social media culture, we see or hear about these catastrophes regularly. There have been 648 mass shootings in the US this year according to the MassShootingTracker Online, which defines a mass shooting as a single incident of violence when 4 or more people are shot. But for each one of the survivors impacted and for the loved ones of every victim, such an event is not just another statistic. Their lives are decimated, and they’re left trying to pick up the pieces.
Nearly every Fall we view the destruction of hurricanes with video take from drones, but what doesn’t get covered on the news is how long it takes to clean things up. I traveled to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi with a group of parishioners in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in early 2006, nearly 6 months after landfall. As we drove around, it looked as if the storm had happened just a couple of weeks earlier rather than months before. Of course we also regularly learn about difficult news like a friend who has received a hard diagnosis and whose life has now been completely altered. With so much coming at us so fast, we don’t know what to do with is all. We don’t know how to respond.
These events, of course, are not new. It seems that there have always been times when it seemed to be the end of the world as we know it. For the people of Israel described in the book of Joel it came in the form of swarming locusts. “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?” the prophet asks, and then implores them to tell their children and their children’s children. He describes what came on them in this way, “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.”
But in this case, there is someone who knows what to do. The prophet calls the people to lament, to offer their grief to the Lord. “Be dismayed, you farmers, wail, you vinedressers, over the wheat and the barley for the crops of the field are ruined… For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up and fire has devoured the pastures.” It’s bleak, and, I suspect, no one is feeling fine with this end of the world. We read about people putting on sackcloth and ashes in scripture, but we forget that it was more than just a metaphor. That they are dealing with grief. That they’re showing outwardly with their bodies what they’re feeling inwardly in their souls. That they are in pain.
Best selling author Kate DiCamillo begins her riveting children’s novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane with words from a poem called “The Testing Tree” by Stanley Kunitz. The epigraph reads, “The heart breaks and breaks/ and lives by breaking./ It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark/ and not to turn.” Edward Tulane, we discover in the first chapter, is a three foot tall rabbit doll made almost entirely of white porcelain, except for his ears and and tail which are as soft and fuzzy as a real bunny’s fur. He is very much loved by Abilene who had received Edward from her grandmother. Abilene speaks to Edward, but of course he cannot respond since his lips are merely painted on. But Edward thinks and ponders and questions and is a little full of himself, and he is the novel’s protagonist.
It is early in the story when the first mishap takes place—allow me to not share details, as the book is very much worth the read—but Edward is separated from Abilene. He realizes he has to watch all of it unfold because his eyes are painted on too. As he gets further and further away, Edward realizes that he is afraid. Many more things happen to Edward Tulane. His heart at times is filled with joy, and at times it is overcome with grief, and it breaks and breaks. But Edward must go through the dark and deeper dark. While he comes close to remaining there in the dark dripping with cynicism, he meets someone who helps him begin to hope.
For the people of Israel who have dealt with the locusts—and who have had to endure the resulting famine and loss—well, that’s when the word of the Lord comes. First God speaks to the plants and animals: “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things. Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wild are green, the tree bears its fruit.” And then God turns to the people, “O children of Zion be glad, and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.” It gets better: “The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter.” I will repay you, says the Lord. I will redress this loss, and make it right.
God will bring restoration.
Friends, it’s easy to become cynical as we enter into the darkness. It’s easy to say that things will never get better. That it is the end of the world as we know it, and we will never be fine. That we should give up on God and others and just entertain ourselves by mindlessly scrolling on our phones. But what if we went a different route? What if we took the time to lament, to grieve the loss and face the pain with our eyes open finding support from others? What if we intentionally prayed the Psalms of Lament—like Psalm 13 in which David writes, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart all the day?” These psalms express the grief that is so very real and offers them for prayer. They allow us to give voice to the hurt. And they also help us turn toward God. Just a couple of verses later David says, “But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.” Lament can lead us to hope.
And this community of ours is called to be a beacon of hope. To look at the darkness that we all travel through, and to not be overcome, but to believe the word of the Lord that says that the God who has dealt bountifully with us in the past, will once more restore us. That our broken hearts will be mended. That God will help us to become more than just being fine; God will offer us a life even better than before.
As we continue in our season of Stewardship, we know that St. Mark’s is a faith community that can help restore us. But that can only happen through your financial gifts. Your gifts allow others’ lives to be mended and transformed. When you give, you offer the opportunity for there to be healing and support and grace to someone else whose world is in upheaval, or to yourself when your’s is. As we share the message of Jesus’ love, we allow God’s grace and mercy to bring hope. May we always know that even in the darkest of times we do not face the darkness alone, that we are held by God and by this community of faith.