ASH WEDNESDAY, 2023
THROUGH A DIFFERENT DOOR
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Blow 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— a 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.
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend 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. Who 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?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather 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.
Between 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?” ’
For some reason, most of the houses I’ve lived in have had more than one equally good doors: a front door and a side door; or a back door and a front door. Sometimes, folks weren’t sure which door to use. Friends tended to use the side door. Guests, deliveries, service calls, and problems came to the front.
Tonight, I want to invite you into the Lenten season through a different door.
The doorway through which we usually enter into Lent is the door marked “repentance.” Lent is a season of penitential preparation in the church year. We dig deep in the soil of our hearts, tilling the ground for new life, inward reflecting and repenting of sin. Ashes are a sign of repentance, and on Ash Wednesday we usually confess a litany of penitence that expresses the breadth and depth of the ways we fall short of God’s dream and of our neighbor’s need.
Tonight, however, I want to invite you to come in through a different door. This door is marked “uncertainty.” The prophet Joel is holding this door open for us. The timing of the book of Joel is hard to pin down; it could have been written at any time, and in that way is timeless. Joel is sounding an alarm for his people against the backdrop of an ecological and economic disaster. An unprecedented locust plague that was destroying crops and livestock. The prophet interprets this as the day of the Lord, and calls the people to turn back to God with fasting, weeping, and mourning, and tearing open their hearts instead of their garments.
It’s significant here that there is no indication that their sin has provoked this calamity. They are not blamed for their suffering. The scholar Wil Gaffney writes that in this sense the call to “return to God” here is better read as a call to rededication rather than repentance.(1) In the face of uncertainty, of personal and national tragedy, the prophet calls the people – all the people – to draw close to God with the very same spiritual disciplines we use in Lent: prayer and fasting. Old and young, infants in the nursery, lovers on honeymoon, everyone is called to draw close to God, while the priests pray for the people with all their hearts to the point of tears.
The prophet offers no guarantee that this will end the plague or clean up the catastrophe. There are no promises here, only a hope; and the hope is rooted in the character of God. The prophet says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” That’s as close to a core statement of faith as you will find in the Old Testament. Moses, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, the Prophets, they all say the same in different ways: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. The word “mercy” has, at its root, the Hebrew word for womb. This is the tender love of a mother who embraces a frightened child.
So what does it look like for us to enter into Lent through this door that Joel is holding open? This door marked “uncertainty?”
We begin, I think, by getting in touch with uncertainty in our own world and lives. Most of us don’t like uncertainty, so we push it away or try to plan over it.
There is no plague of locusts devouring our crops, but there are ecological disasters and economic and social tragedies. There are receding glaciers and rising seas, warming temperatures, and disappearing rainforests and biodiversity. There are bombed out cities in Ukraine and collapsed neighborhoods in Turkey and Syria. There are the rumblings of global power competition. Where is all this going, we wonder?
In our own lives, we not in danger of losing our livestock, but we may be losing our health, or our confidence, or our friends. Some of us may be facing a financial cliff, and unsure how we’ll fit the pieces together. Some of us may be losing someone we love, or the ability to care for someone we love. There may be a broken place within us that has not healed, and we do not know how long it will take. Where is all this going, we wonder?
Joel is standing at the door marked “uncertainty,” and inviting us to walk through it, saying, “Return to the Lord, your God.” With prayer and fasting, with soul-searching and tears, with study and discipline, whoever you are, wherever you are on the journey of life, with whatever practice you need to take up or let go, return to the Lord. For the Lord your God is like a mother whose love for you springs from her womb.
There are no guarantees about what will happen, except this: she will embrace you with open arms. For the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, of that we can be certain.
We cross the threshold of Lent with the sign of ashes, this ancient sign that speaks of the frailty and uncertainty of human life and marks the penitence of this community.
I invite you in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by works of love, and by meditating on God’s word. Now let us bow before God, our creator and redeemer.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina