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Sermon for Ash Wednesday - Feb 14 2018

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Year B
February 14, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

I think this evening I’d like us to focus primarily on the reading from the Prophet Joel.  But to do that, there are some things you need to know.  Fortunately, Joel is a short book – only three chapters, as our translators have seen fit to divide it, so I hope this won’t take long.

For the sake of providing context, here is what we didn’t hear read: in Chapter 1, Joel describes a vast and powerful army … of locusts.  His description is both rich and glorious, which brings out the horror that people who live off the land must have felt:

“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? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. 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. Wake up, you drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine-drinkers, over the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. For a nation has invaded my land, powerful and innumerable; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 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.”[1]

The devastation is complete – all creation is affected:  The fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails. Be dismayed, you farmers, wail, you vinedressers, over the wheat and the barley; for the crops of the field are ruined. 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.[2]

“The seed shrivels under the clods, the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are ruined because the grain has failed. How the animals groan! The herds of cattle wander about because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep are dazed. To you, O Lord, I cry. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.”[3]

He then calls for the people to turn to God and seek aid.

What’s interesting about Joel, and rare among the prophets, is that he does not blame the people for any particular failure or sin.  Over and over again, in Jeremiah, in Isaiah, in Amos, in Elijah, there are lists and warnings of failures and sins: injustice, unkindness, idolatry, arrogance, failure to care for the poor, and so on.  Joel has none of this. 

So what is going on?  How does he explain the locusts – or, in chapter 2, the “powerful army”?  Oh, right, you didn’t get that description either.  Let me fill in some of the blanks.

“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. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them peoples are in anguish, all faces grow pale. Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course, they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another, each keeps to its own track; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief. The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.”[4]

He’s drawing a strong parallel between the locusts in chapter 1, and the powerful army in chapter 2.  In both cases, the catastrophe is unheard of and to be remembered, and told to the children.

But the passages are not about the same thing – chapter one is about the locusts, and therefore will be familiar to those who hear the tale – locusts erupt, seemingly from everywhere, and devour everything in their path, until every living thing is stripped bare, right down to the root.  Nothing stops them; there is no possible defense.

But in chapter two, which I concluded at verse 10, and just before where the lectionary text began in verse 12, we get this: “The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?”

So, suddenly, from a locust army, we are now assailed by the army of the Lord.  And it is even more destructive than the locusts!

But again, there is no mention of sin.  This army is not sent to punish people who have failed to live up to their covenant duties, or who have done wrong.

Yes, it does say “return to the Lord.”  But nowhere does it say they had turned away.

Furthermore, while the time frame of chapter 1 is the past; the time frame of chapter 2 is the future: it is near, that “day of darkness and gloom,” but it’s not quite here yet.[5]

The rest of chapter 2, after the reading in the lectionary is filled with promise that the Lord will restore, rescue, renew, and regenerate the land; there will be rich harvest and rejoicing, the grain will fill the threshing floor, the vats of oil and wine will overflow; everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 

Furthermore, Joel has written: “I will remove the northern army far from you, and drive it into a parched and desolate land, its front into the eastern sea, and its rear into the western sea; its stench and foul smell will rise up. Surely he has done great things! Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals 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.”[6]

After desolation will come relief, abundance, and mercy.  And, the nations will come for judgment – that’s in chapter 3, and those who have harmed God’s people will not come out at all well.

It’s powerful stuff.  It’s intended to move the hearts of the people, that they should come together to cry out their grief and their woe to God, even as does creation itself.  It is a plea to remember who they are.

It’s a good reminder.  When bad things happen, “who knows whether [God] will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?”[7]  The Lord “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”[8]

Yes, Lent is a time of repentance – a time when we are reminded of our need to turn back to God, to remember who we are.  And there are those who will tell you that the terrible things that happen in the world – earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, even locusts – are brought upon us by God as punishment for societal sins of one shade or another.  There is a strong streak in the Bible that explains such things as retribution. 

It's certainly not a thought that we are comfortable with, and to the extent we see disaster as a response to human sin or error, we see it as a natural consequence of interfering with the balance of nature: building in a flood plain or on an earthquake fault line or simply some natural process explained by Earth Science.  We’ve largely taken God out of the equation of evil.

We also doubt that God will “relent” and turn back the flood or stop the earthquake or slay all the locusts, so in some ways we’ve taken God out of the equation of rescue, as well.

If the disaster isn’t God’s doing, and the relief isn’t God’s doing, then that could just leave us wondering, what is the point of repentance at all?

No wonder we have made Christianity “other-worldly” as Howard Thurman charged in his book Jesus and the Disinherited.  God doesn’t seem to affect our daily lives anymore; God doesn’t stop evil; God doesn’t rescue; so what’s the point?

The point is: love.  However long it will be until the sun darkens and life on earth ends, the one thing we can count on for good, is love.  Love binds us together, love is the only thing that can cross all the boundaries we use to protect ourselves from whatever we’ve defined as the outside.  And God is love. 

We may not think about the world, or God, in the same ways as our ancient forebears did, but we can share with them the knowledge that God is love, that God desires the good, and that a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit will help us live that truth … in our daily lives, in the face of sorrow, loss, disaster, threat, or fear.

We’ve received the ashes, marked in the same place where we were sealed in baptism so many years ago.  We were marked as Christ’s own forever, and we are now marked with a sign of our humanity and death, but the truth is those ashes cannot remove the seal; nothing can remove the seal.  The seal is forever, as God the creator is forever, as Christ is forever, as the Holy Spirit is forever, and as our lives, lived in the sight and love of God, is eternal with them.



[1] Joel 1:1-7, NRSV.

[2] Joel 1:10-12. NRSV.

[3] Joel 1:17-20. NRSV.

[4] Joel 2:2b-10. NRSV.

[5] Joel 2:2A.  NRSV.

[6] Joel 2:20-22. NRSV.

[7] Joel 2:14.  NRSV.

[8] Joel 2:13. NRSV.