This is so good—and one of several reasons I’ve been trying to expunge from my cluttered box of idioms, “If I ever get hit by a bus.” In the space of one year I personally knew of three people who were so struck. There’s got to be a better offhanded way to refer to the worst, without actually having to contemplate it. And anyway, that book looks well worth reading.
Of course the body and soul flinch reflexively, without the conscious mind being able to interfere, in the face of those unexpected and therefore unavoidable traumas that make life so precarious and appalling. The anniversary of something looms over the horizon and there’s no way to avoid the traces of sadness and dread—even when you know it probably won’t happen again the same way.
Time, which one counts on to be a gentle stream that bears all bad things away, which is supposed to heal, instead is a cyclical reminder of bad things. Like the full body shudder I have on my own birthday because that’s when I was always having to go away to school, even though no one is trying to make me go there now. Or the anniversary of a death. Or the horror and dread of reading again through On the Banks of Plum Creek and Laura’s description the locusts flying steadily and unrelentingly onto their new sown wheat field and watching it all being eaten up, being even able to hear the jaws of so many millions of creatures chewing, even through the closed doors and windows. Ma’s refrain, “All’s well that ends well,” seems unendurable and trite in the face of such a loss.
Joel, poor prophet that he was, had to explain to his kith and kin that everything in their whole lives was going to be destroyed. The worst was going to happen. Armies, devouring like locusts, were going to take everything that the people of Israel needed, and liked, wanted, depended on. And adding shame to an insurmountable sorrow, it was going to be their fault, the direct consequence of their rejecting God and being unwilling to do what he commanded. A little obedience, or barring that, repentance, and it wouldn’t have happened.
Of course doing what the Lord requires would make the world the gentle and kind place that I long for. But I can’t, and moreover, a lot of the time I don’t want to. And God, who made everything, who owns everything, who organizes the weather and the wind and the creatures of his cosmos and the hearts of kings with their conquering armies, promises to bring about the due penalty for my, and everybody else’s, rebellion.
So it is kind of strange, in the middle of chapter two, after all the admonition to weep and wail and repent and fear, to find this bit that will be read out in some churches some places this morning,
Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield. Be glad, O children of Zion, 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 latter rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. – Joel 2:21-27
I always like to return to the disciples and women, on that long interminable sabbath rest, when their bodies had to remain still, there could be no occupation to relieve the horror and sorrow, and imagine what it would be like to look backward at the three years spent with Jesus. In some sense, in those three hours on the cross, those years were swallowed up—destroyed. They might have been happy years, following Jesus up and down those well worn roads, jostled by crowds, watching people transformed from sick to well, broken to whole. They probably would have been stressful. They had to have been exhilarating. But three years is rather a long time—not 40 certainly, but not nothing—and if at the end of them the person you had poured all your hopes into dies, brutally, that seems like kind of a waste.
But how were you to know? None of us can know how its going to turn out. You pledge yourself to a person or a course of action and hope that it will be ok.
‘Fear not,’ says Joel, and every prophet and angel. It is an unreasonable command because there are plenty of reasons to fear. Suffering produces fear, rational fear, and there is no way to avoid suffering.
‘Be glad,’ says Joel, as if such a thing were possible. Well, not on your own time, not by the sweat of your brow, not in the helplessness by which you watch time slipping away from you and being able to do nothing about it. But certainly by the strange occurrence of Jesus, vindicated and victorious, stepping out of his own grave after a mere—though longest in human history—day. Resurrected, alive, and still in control of all the weather and, indeed, of time itself, he can promise to restore all things and you can trust that he will make it so.
It’s not just that you won’t have to suffer any more. The promise is that you will get back what was lost. Of course that’s not humanly possible. And of course your own body, lurching from one loss to another, can’t contemplate it, even if your mind explains to your hands and feet and hormones that in some long distant hour all the stress will be unraveled and it’ll be fine, it will ‘end well.’ It isn’t comprehensible on this side of the valley of the shadow of death. But Jesus passed on through. And knowing that he is the Lord, your God, and there is no one else, is a more certain and sure source of life than any number of days could ever amount to. What was taken away, he has the power to give back, in full measure.
Glimpses of it will be there if you stagger into church and thrust all your sorrow and loss at his feet. After all, he gathered it all up on the day of darkness, swallowed it in the same suffering that threatens to swallow you. And in swallowing it, turned it into joy.