Ash Wednesday -2023

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

1Blow the trumpet in Zion;
  sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
 Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
  for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
2a day of darkness and gloom,
  a day of clouds and thick darkness!
 Like blackness spread upon the mountains
  a great and powerful army comes;
 their like has never been from of old,
  nor will be again after them
  in ages to come.

12Yet even now, says the Lord,
  return to me with all your heart,
 with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
  13rend your hearts and not your clothing.
 Return to the Lord, your God,
  for he is gracious and merciful,
 slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
  and relents from punishing.
14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
  and leave a blessing behind him,
 a grain offering and a drink offering
  for the Lord, your God?

15Blow the trumpet in Zion;
  sanctify a fast;
 call a solemn assembly;
  16gather the people.
 Sanctify the congregation;
  assemble the aged;
 gather the children,
  even infants at the breast.
 Let the bridegroom leave his room,
  and the bride her canopy.

17Between the vestibule and the altar
  let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
 Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
  and do not make your heritage a mockery,
  a byword among the nations.
 Why should it be said among the peoples,
  ‘Where is their God?’ ”

Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove

Today’s Old Testament lesson comes from one of the shortest books of the Bible. Taken from the second of its three chapters, the prophet Joel speaks of the blessing that is possible for Israel, if only they would repent. Considering the blessings that come with repentance, we might think that the people would eagerly, without hesitation, run to God’s open invitation for penitence. But despite its potential for blessing, the Israelites of old resist repentance with every ounce of their being.

Why? Why are people so reluctant to repent when they know that blessings are waiting? Well, repentance necessitates recognition and admission of guilt, of having done wrong, of being sorry for the hurt one caused another. Individually or collectively, people would rather live in denial than have a contrite spirit, admit they are mistaken, and say “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” And if sin is about being separated from God, who wants to admit that? 

Joel is among the biblical prophets who repeatedly, to no avail, encouraged Israel to turn to God and leave its faults and failures, its sins, behind. We are not confident about the context that this particular prophet lived during. What we can be sure of is that he writes to warn Israel that communal sin has consequences.

I confess that I am coming to Ash Wednesday this year informed by a discussion series I led on Brian McLaren’s book, Do I Stay Christian? Although in the second half of the book McLaren gives compelling reasons for being Christian, the first half is disheartening to say the least. It is a blunt retelling of systemic sins in the name of Christianity. Readers are reminded of them all: Christians killing non-Christians in the name of religion, Christians killing Christians in the name of religion, slavery, colonization, the destruction of indigenous cultures in the name of relgions, upholding patriarchy leading to the harm of countless women, and anti-Semitism.

These sins are not limited to one geography or centuries past. I will never forget the way my heart broke when I watched the news about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. The participants claimed to follow the same Jesus we do. How is that possible and, more importantly, what is our responsibility and what can actually be done?

First, we belong to a long tradition of repenting for the collective sins of our ancestors. The Lutheran Church has made specific public apologies for Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism. More recently, we have apologized for being complacent in the doctrine of discovery, a belief system which displaced thousands of Native Americans across the United States. 

There is justifiable criticism for apologies that are not followed by concrete actions. However, when action follows, then formal and public repentance can be a powerful step towards reconciliation with our neighbors and with God. It is always a good time to repent, but I am thankful for a liturgical season that calls us to take the practice of repentance particularly seriously for a period of time.

So let us return to our Old Testament text. Joel uses the image of an invading army of locusts to get the attention of a nation, whose short-term perspective made it oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead. To get the full impact of this imagery, one needs to hear Joel’s words in Chapter 1, “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” (Joel 1:4). The image is clear—all is lost and there is no hope for restoration. The situation is so hopeless that even the animals groan and cry out to God. 

In our reading today, Joel returns to the call to repentance issued earlier. This time the sense of hopelessness is replaced by a glimmer of hope in God, who is, according to Joel, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13b). There is, however, a catch. Reprieve is a contingent blessing. It depends on how Israel responds to God’s call to return. Joel makes it plain that a change of heart and a commitment to follow God are the requirements for the reprieve. With a cry of desperation that one more appeal could make a difference, God pleads, “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

With a strong sense of urgency, Joel calls on Israel, even though there is no guarantee, but “Who knows whether God will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind” (2:14a, b).

Joel calls for the entire community to gather, suckling infants, children, and aged alike, to fast, weep, and plead for God’s mercy. This appeal to God is accompanied by a reminder to God that Israel is God’s heritage. The reminder seems foolish since Israel has not followed God’s commandments and can only hope that God will respond with an undeserved kindness—a kindness based on God’s grace and character.

In this season of Lent, is not Israel’s plea our plea as well? Should we not also fast and cry out to God? Should we not recognize that any reprieve God gives is neither earned entitlement nor priceless privilege? Instead, God’s forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s grace, of God’s love and care for humanity.

In an online clergy group, another pastor said someone from a different tradition now at his congregation did not want to receive ashes. The pastor inquired, what else can mark the start of Lent besides Ashes? Now, I love and appreciate that our service tonight includes the Imposition of Ashes, and that ashes remind us of both our mortality and of our sin and brokenness. And yet Joel reminds us that the long confession and the invitation to the discipline of Lent are also crucial to this day and this entire season. 

On Ash Wednesday it is more than enough to return to God and know God’s presence: in our worship, in our long prayers, and in the meal. Our brokenness and our community’s brokenness are never the final word. God loves the world too much to let our sin be the final word. We trust a God who makes all things new.

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