In Disaster

By Ed Little

A Reading from Joel 1:1-13

1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel:

2 Hear this, O elders,
   give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
   or in the days of your ancestors?
3 Tell your children of it,
   and let your children tell their children,
   and their children another generation.

4 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.

5 Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
   and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
   for it is cut off from your mouth.
6 For a nation has invaded my land,
   powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
   and it has the fangs of a lioness.
7 It has laid waste my vines,
   and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
   their branches have turned white.

8 Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth
   for the husband of her youth.
9 The grain-offering and the drink-offering are cut off
   from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
   the ministers of the Lord.
10 The fields are devastated,
   the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
   the wine dries up,
   the oil fails.

11 Be dismayed, you farmers,
   wail, you vine-dressers,
over the wheat and the barley;
   for the crops of the field are ruined.
12 The vine withers,
   the fig tree droops.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
   all the trees of the field are dried up;
surely, joy withers away
   among the people.
13 Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests;
   wail, you ministers of the altar.
Come, pass the night in sackcloth,
   you ministers of my God!
Grain-offering and drink-offering
   are withheld from the house of your God.


Natural disasters, of course, come in many shapes and sizes: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, pandemics — or, in Joel’s time, a plague of locusts. Whatever the form, the result is the same. Life comes unglued. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” as Yeats puts it. And disasters force us to ask hard and painful questions. Why am I here? Is God somehow present in the midst of the chaos? What is he saying to us?

Bugs have cut a huge swath of destruction across this biblical landscape. The phenomenon is ongoing: as recently as this past summer, locusts wreaked havoc in the Horn of Africa. Then and now, nature seems to rise up against us with irresistible force.

What are we to make of this disaster? Of any disaster? Joel doesn’t answer that question directly. The book of Joel makes no attempt to explain human suffering or to grasp God’s purposes in the midst of them. Instead, Joel turns the question inward. “Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests; wail, you ministers of the altar. Come, pass the night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God!” In other words, use this time of suffering — deserved or not — to look at your own lives. Just as nature has fallen apart, so have our lives. There is something about us that is inherently disordered. Joel’s call echoes St. Paul’s words, written centuries later. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). As this brief book progresses, we will meet good news. But as he begins his prophecy, Joel first must confront us with painful truth — and with our need to look inward and ask hard questions.

The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II was bishop of Northern Indiana for 16 years after serving parishes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin. He is the author of three books; most recently: The Heart of a Leader: St. Paul as Mentor, Model, and Encourager (2020).

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Today we pray for:

The Free State (Southern Africa), the Rt. Rev. Dintoe Letloenyane
Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee


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