A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on October 3, 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Joel 2: 21-27
Imagine a plague that no one saw coming, affected the entire population, caused hardship and grief in every household, felt like the judgement of God, and left people shellshocked and impoverished, picking their way through wreckage like survivors in a bomb crater, shrouded by damage and loss. There are tears, moans, and wails, but most of all, a numb silence – a silence that goes on for a long, long time: a silence of exhaustion and despair and defeat.
That’s the situation portrayed in the book of the prophet Joel. He’s describing the aftermath of a plague of locusts – what the story calls the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, or what an advert might call a locust that cuts as it destroys as it hops. Israel is left hungry, desolate, without grain to make food. But into this apocalyptic situation God speaks a word of astonishing transformation. ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ Listen to those words a moment at the bottom of your heart. ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ What do those words mean? That’s what I want to explore with you this morning.
Rose Tremain’s 1989 novel Restoration, also a 1995 film, describes the fortunes and misfortunes of Robert Merivel, a medical student in the early years of Charles II’s reign. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Puritan austerity of Oliver Cromwell has been displaced by the gaudy revelry of Charles’ lavish court. Robert Merivel succeeds in curing the king’s sick puppy, and is installed as the royal doctor. He lives a wild, carousing life, culminating in a royal commission: looking for a veil of respectability to hide his kingly desires, Charles commands Robert to marry Celia, one of the royal mistresses. In return, Robert receives from the king a magnificent estate in Norfolk and a pension for life. Robert is riding high.
But then Robert, in a parody of the fall, does the one thing he must not do: he falls in love with his wife. Charles ruthlessly strips him of his estate and income. Like Icarus plummeting from the sky, Robert descends from the highest echelons of society to the lowest. He reconnects with his friend John Pearce, whom he’d left behind in his days of fortune and favour, and resumes his medical career at a Quaker hospital for the mentally ill. Here he becomes a sober, serious and sympathetic character, and grows to love one of his patients, Katherine. John perishes of the Great Plague and Katherine dies in childbirth, but Robert demonstrates his new-found character by entering a burning building during the Great Fire of London to rescue an elderly woman. News of his heroism reaches the king. Moved by Robert’s change of character, Charles sends Robert and his daughter back to the same estate in Norfolk, saying, ‘What was taken from you is restored, in return for the man you have become. It is your house, Robert, and I shall never take it from you.’
‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ The novel is about restoration on several levels. Robert gains, loses, and then receives again prosperity, the king’s favour and his grand Norfolk estate. Sending Robert to Norfolk, Charles says, ‘The plague is coming. Some will be spared, and some will die; but all of us will awake.’ Thus the story is about restoration after a pandemic. Meanwhile we observe the restoration of the monarchy, and how an exuberant England displaced the curmudgeonly Puritan era. We also see royalty restored from a purveyor of excess into a rewarder of virtue. Rose Tremain later said she wrote Restoration in the late eighties as a critique of the late Thatcher era, saturated in self-centred superficiality, riding for a fall.
The story shows us what restoration is and is not. Restoration is almost never the reinstatement of a situation identical to that which came before loss. Restoration incorporates wisdom gained during loss. Restored reality is transformed from desolation. It’s also wiser, truer and more abiding than the original state of affairs. Picture a beloved pottery teapot that sits above the kitchen sink. Someone comes to stay and clumsily hits it against the fridge door, knocking the spout off it. They may say, ‘I’ll get you a new one,’ but the truth is, you don’t want a new one – you want the old one restored, even if it means the spout’s a bit wonky and dribbles a bit – because that teapot’s warmed the heart of many a friend and stranger, and epitomises the wisdom of those conversations in a way a new teapot never could. You can’t have the old teapot back, but you don’t want a replacement – you’d rather have a restoration that makes the breakage a chapter in a bigger story of craftsmanship and hospitality.
When Robert goes back to that Norfolk estate it’s not the same as it was before. It’s not just that he no longer owns it himself. It’s that he’s an older and wiser man. He’s not captivated by his lust for the beautiful Celia; he’s shadowed by his grief for the tender Katherine. He’s not footloose; he’s the father of a young girl. He’s not a hedonist; he’s laid down his life in mental hospital and burning building. The swarming locust
has taught him something about the value of people, kindness, medicine, parenthood. Restoration won’t obliterate those things; it’ll incorporate them into a richer story.
Why is the tiny three-chapter book of the prophet Joel in the Old Testament? Because the locust plague it describes is a metaphor for a larger story. The book was written around 400 BC. A hundred years before, the people of Judah had begun to return from 50 years in exile in Babylon, 500 miles to the east. The years the swarming locust had eaten represent those 50 years of exile. It’s no exaggeration to say the Old Testament was written as Israel came to terms with the catastrophe of exile. The whole Old Testament is one long exploration of what it means for God to say, ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ But when Israel came back from exile things were not the same as before. To use the teapot analogy, Israel didn’t get a replacement teapot. It got the old teapot with a decidedly dodgy reattached spout. More importantly, Israel wasn’t the same as the Israel that was taken into captivity. Like Robert Merivel in seventeenth-century England, restoration didn’t mean simple return to the status quo before the disaster: it was something new, combining what was good in the previous era with what was true about the challenging one.
‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ I’m thinking of a woman who finally found the courage to put her child in the back seat of a car and drive away from a marriage that had diminished and humiliated her for 15 years. How was she to look back on that time? ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ I’m thinking of a young man who, in a student prank, set light to a building, and the fire got out of control, and he spent 13 years in prison, shrouded in grief and shame. How was he to face life when he’d spent his whole adulthood behind bars? ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ I’m thinking of a boy with a debilitating illness that meant he hardly went to school. Once new drugs had been found he was in his twenties and his whole education had been scuppered.
None of these three people could turn the clock back. None of them could simply buy a new teapot to replace the broken one. But all of them found a future that was bigger than the past, made out of the broken spouts and ravaged crops that littered their personal histories. I wonder if your story resonates in some way with their stories. I wonder whether, when you hear the words, ‘the years the swarming locust has eaten,’ you know exactly which years those are. Maybe you’re in the middle of those years right now. If so, hear those words spoken to the prophet Joel in your heart today: ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ I will restore them. They are not wasted. They are not forgotten. They do not have the last word. I will restore those years. Maybe you can look back and see how God has done exactly that, redeeming your exile, your devastated fields, and restoring you to life and love.
We read the words of Joel at harvest festival not simply to recall that some harvests are not happy ones. We read them to realise what harvest is. Harvest is the moment all the good growth of the season is gathered in, together with the damage and failed vegetation. The good crops are separated out for food, while the rest is turned into feed for pigs or returned to the ground to enrich the soil. In other words, harvest is restoration: everything that is harvested either finds its fulfilment or is turned into something useful for the future. Harvest is terrifying if we think of it as the moment of judgement that separates the worthy in us from the bad; but the good farmer throws nothing away, and is able to turn even the foolish, fragile and fallible parts of our lives into fodder for another year. That’s how restoration works.
At the start of the book of Joel we read these words: ‘Hear this, all inhabitants of the land! Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children.’ Today we gather around a precious child, Philippa Rosenwyn, as we celebrate her baptism. We gather to tell her the story. It’s the same story Joel is telling us in his prophetic book. Israel knew the years the swarming locust had eaten. It had known slavery in Egypt. It had wandered 40 years in the wilderness. It had dwelt 50 years in exile. The early church knew these stories and in them saw Jesus’ story, saw his cross as the years the swarming locust had eaten, saw its own persecution as another exile or slavery. And in baptism ever since, Christians have gathered round a child just as Joel instructed us, and told the story of how the world is but a shadow of what God created it to be, but God in Christ restores the years the swarming locust has eaten. And we tell stories of how we too have heard God saying, ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ And today we realise as we look back on 19 months of the pandemic with its death and despair, that God is speaking those same words to us, ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’
Hear those words in your heart right now. Hear those words cover the tears of your lost years. Hear those words echo around our whole world in the grief and desolation of the pandemic. Hear those words as we inscribe precious Philippa into the story that gives us life. ‘I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten.’ Hear those words and realise what it is you are experiencing. You are realising what happens when restoration and harvest and Jesus and baptism all come together. You are discovering resurrection.