Year A Ash Wednesday Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
The reading from the prophet Joel begins, “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 near—a day of darkness and gloom…” Welcome to Lent! This is what you expect from Lent, isn’t it? Darkness, gloom, and then guilt and shame. It’s your fault all these terrible things are happening. If you want things to turn things around, you must repent. That’s’ the way these readings from the prophets normally go. And if you read Joel with that expectation, that is what you will get. However, upon closer inspection, you might see that Joel is a bit different than the other prophets.
The first two chapters talk about the destruction of the land due to an enormous locust invasion. A locust infestation would have destroyed their crops, which was their source of food and money. It wasn’t just a nuisance; it was a disaster that affected every part of their lives. What is interesting is that Joel never blames this invasion of locusts on the sins of the people, which was a fairly typical tactic at this time.
He painted an alarming and disturbing picture, but given the fact that this was their unavoidable reality, it seems a reasonable thing to do. But he never blames anyone. In the midst of this disturbing picture, Joel shifts the tone and writes, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…” Typically when we see the word return in this context of Ash Wednesday, we think: repentance, confession. And Joel does suggest fasting, weeping and mourning—which we might also associate with repentance. But consider this, their crops have been decimated. They are already fasting out of necessity. If they aren’t weeping and mourning, it’s only because they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Maybe they are just holding it all together like so many of us do. In some ways, Joel is giving them permission to weep and mourn.
Then Joel says, “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Joes doesn’t want them to rip their clothing which is a traditional display of guilt and shame. He doesn’t ask them to roll in the dirt. He’s not asking them to repent of sins and he’s not accusing them of anything. He asks them to fast, to weep, to mourn and to rend their hearts.
` Rend your hearts. It literally means to tear your heart…which sounds a lot like a broken heart. Frankly I would rather tear my clothing. But we must remember that these people were already suffering. Their hearts were probably already broken. Joel was asking them to break them a little more…but not so they could punish themselves. He was asking them to rend their hearts so that they could renew their relationship with God. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
We don’t know why the people have distanced themselves from God. Maybe it was something they did, maybe it was totally out of their control. Perhaps, they didn’t even know it was happening. And then suddenly they realized, they no longer had a relationship with God. Maybe the stress of the famine had been too much for them. Or they lost too many people they loved. It could have been an intentional decision, but more likely, it was just a gradual distancing. That is what it usually is.
Joel wasn’t telling people to repent (and just so you know, there is nothing wrong with repentance, it’s a good and important thing), but that is not what this story was about. How do we know? Because he wasn’t telling them what to repent from. No, his very ardent desire was for them to reconnect with God, reorient their lives in a way that God would once again be at the center.
Joel wasn’t spending time asking why all these horrible things are happening and why God feels so far away—as we so often see in the psalms and even our own lives. No. He was calling for action. He believed that what we do as humans matter. It affects the world and it affects our relationship with God. In Hebrew thought, the heart isn’t the seat of the emotion as much as it’s a place of thought and reflection. When Joel told the people to rend their hearts, he wanted them to spend time considering how they can repair their relationship with God. Don’t obsess over why it’s happening or why it isn’t fair. None of that will help. Instead, Joel is saying, “Ok, this is the horrible stuff we are dealing with and this is how we are going to climb out of it.
First we will fast. Then we will weep and mourn. Then we will spend time reconnecting with the God of grace and mercy. Then…well Joel doesn’t actually predict what will happen after that. He doesn’t promise that the harvest will return and all will be well again. Joel doesn’t make any promises at all…it’s more like an appeal. He encourages them to join together—weep together, pray together, reconnect with God and with the people of God.
That is what we are asking during Lent as well. We haven’t had an invasion of locusts, but we’ve had about every other imaginable thing. Maybe you feel like you are 100% committed to God right now and there is absolutely no way you can improve upon that. If so, you can stop listening. Otherwise, it might be time to take the advice of Joel. Fast…if not from food, from the thing that distracts you most from your relationship with God. Weep and mourn…if not for yourself for someone else. There is no shortage of suffering people in our world today. Tear you heart, not with the intent to hurt, but to open it up a little more to God’s mercy and grace. Join the community of faith, because this is hard stuff and you might need some support. Come to our Lenten program Wednesday nights where people will be sharing parts of their faith journey. Attend every Sunday service you can attend. Make an appointment with Mark or me if you need to talk. Seriously, clergy live for those kinds of conversations. Return to God with all your heart.