Think Big: Even When You Are Small
Sunday, June 5, 2016
It was called Albert’s Swarm because of the intense study done on the phenomenon by a Nebraska physician and amateur meteorologist named Albert Child. Albert’s Swarm occurred in 1875 in the American West. The swarm was, in fact, a massive concentration of Rocky Mountain locusts – a variety of the insect which is thankfully now extinct.
Again, the swarm of locusts was massive. For his part, Child calculated the size of the swarm using simple math as he determined the speed at which the insects traveled and the time it took the mass to pass through his neck of the woods of Southern Nebraska.
According to Child’s calculations, that particular locust swarm, one of the largest ever recorded in the history of humankind, was 198,000 square miles in size or bigger than the state of California. Albert’s swarm was estimated to contain over 3 trillion insects – you heard that right 3 trillion. Or to say it another way, that is 600 locusts for every 1 person alive on earth right now. According to eyewitness reports, this giant mass of locusts all flying together literally made the sky go dark and it devoured every single living and green plant in its path. (listverse.com, 10 Animals Known for Gigantic Swarms, October 24, 2013)
In the same way, Joel chapter 1, our text for today, documents the effects of another swarm of locusts. This swarm didn’t affect the American West but rather the Israelite people. But, like what happened in 1875, the effects were powerful. One might even say catastrophic.
According to Joel, the Israelites experienced the devastation that the locusts brought on almost every front. Everything was destroyed and for a season life was completely altered. Food of all kinds could no longer be enjoyed. Farmers lost their income and thus their source of well-being. The land lost its grandeur. And, even the worship of God was affected as the basic gifts of the field that were regularly brought into the temple as a way of making an offering unto God were no longer available. In essence, normal daily life that was so easily taken for granted ground to a halt.
I want to invite you to do something this morning. On each of your Orders of Worship, we attached a paper clip. If you still have your Order of Worship and thus your paper clip, I want to ask you to take it and hold it in your hand. A single locust, on average, is the size of the paper clip you are holding which is to say roughly 3 centimeters give or take.
I think we would all agree that 3 centimeters represents something very, very small. And, yet, who would argue that the tiny creatures documented by Albert Child in 1875 or by Joel in the Old Testament had a small affect on their lives? Individually, they may have only been 3 centimeter long locusts, but collectively, they were a powerful force at work.
Now, there are lots of lessons to be learned here from our text for today. First and foremost, this is a story about God’s judgement. The Israelites were failing to live up to their covenant relationship with God and thus God brought judgement on them – this time in the form of a severe plague of insects. Second, this is also a story about the people’s need to wake up. No large, specific sin or particular issue is mentioned in Joel as the reason for God’s swift judgement. Instead, it is suggested that step by step, drip by drip, day by day the people had moved further away from God until a giant chasm existed between the two. The locusts become God’s way of getting their attention.
I want to run with this idea for a moment for I think this is an important, critical life and spiritual lesson for us to learn. To a certain degree, one could easily argue that the real life locusts in the story were a symbol of what was happening in the Israelites’ interior lives. One locust here, one locust there – no big deal. But over time, and in abundance, a massive, cataclysmic unstoppable force.
So too for the Israelites – a small misstep over here, a little misdeed over there – what’s the big deal? But, pooled together over time all these little things became a massive/collective separation from God.
I think about this in light of the trips that lots of us will make to the beach this summer. At the beach, most of us have had, or will have a rather common experience. We have gotten out in the water on our float, in a raft, on our boogie board or on some other device and began to simply enjoy the sun, the water and the waves by floating. What we like about this is that unless the waves are moving really fast or are really big it can be such a nice, restful, gentle experience. Floating out in the water is such an easy and simply thing in which to lay your head back, embrace the waves, and relax. Yet, 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes later, it is also common for us to open our eyes and find ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly a long, long way from the beach. Inch by inch, wave by wave, we have drifted to the point that we can hardly see the shore.
This is the danger of the big affects of small things and I bump up against it regularly in the lives of people. A Sunday or two missed here or there, a little indiscretion made once or twice that no one will know about, a decision not to take a stand on one little issue or another, a slip of our priorities, a one time then two time decision that suddenly has become a habit and before we know it, three inches has become a mile which has created a cavern between us and God.
Small things almost always have the potential to become big deals and we must never, ever forget this.
But, the positive side is that small things in the Bible are also big deals when it comes to good decisions too. Yes, Joel 1 is about the negative effects of thousands of three centimeter pests. But, 1 Samuel tells the story of a little boy who used a stone and a sling to kill a giant and Luke tells the story of a little boy with five loaves of bread and two fish who fed thousands. A rock, a piece of bread or two, a few fish – powerful, profound items in the hands of God.
You see, small things almost always have the potential to be big deals in positive ways too.
In 2014, Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini collaborated on the book The Small Big. The book offers over 50 examples of small changes or decisions that led to major results. One of the more interesting ones revolves around a letter sent by the British Government to citizens there who were delinquent in paying their taxes. At the time, the best rate of response to that particular letter achieved by the government in Britain had been 57%. After review, the decision was made to literally add one sentence to the letter. One sentence. That one sentence simply reminded the recipients that “most people in Britain” payed their taxes on time. Would you believe that the addition of that one sentence drove the response rate up from 57% to 86%. That 29% positive change in respondents was worth an extra $300 million in the British coffers. (The Small Big, Martin, Goldstein and Cialdini, Grand Central Publishing, 2014)
A small thing made a huge difference.
So, what will we do with this? I would invite us to three possible action steps. First, what small thing are you doing that if continued can become a major issue in your life? If you can name something, will you stop doing it? Second, what small thing could you do over the next few days that would be a big deal in a positive way? If you can name something, will you do it?
Finally, here’s a small step for all of us. This summer – we are going to spend time with the shortest books in the Old Testament – we call them minor prophets because the books are small. But, they all offer big lessons that if followed can make major differences in our lives. If you are not out of town or traveling, be here in June & July, so that we can learn these big lessons from small packages together.
This morning, I have little doubt that many of the big moments in our lives seemed insignificant in the beginning… Amen.