[A sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017 - Bethany Lutheran Church, Nevis, MN]
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come.
“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” – Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Sometimes it seems our God is not where we want Him to be. Where is their God? The question which haunts most pastors, most people. Where is God in this pain, this hurt? Where is God in the cancer, in the childhood illness, in the unemployment, in the foreclosure? We are taught at seminary to often say: I don’t know. This answer breeds safety.
An even worse answer can bring fear, beyond asking where He is, is actually finding Him where He shouldn’t be. Because if He happens to be there in the darkness, on that day we wish to forget, we are left wondering what He was doing there. We don’t like to remember those days. We would rather think on days of good, days of triumph, of prosperity. We don’t want to suppose that he was there to remind us that we are dust.
I have this picture collage of my best days in high school. It is meaningless to you because you were not there. You were not able to share in these times, but the pictures show me at my best. When I was my strongest. My greatest athletic achievements captured in a few still pictures. You would see me winning medals. Hoping for that scholarship to Arizona State.
Each of us, if we were honest have something like this. A yearbook, a home movie, a jersey or jacket. So like you, I keep this on the wall in my house to bring to mind those days.
But what you don’t see here is the young boy tormented by bullies for years. You don’t see the son of divorced parents moving from one home to another. You don’t see the lonely guy sitting by himself at lunch because he was at this new school with no friends. You don’t see the day a knee decided to bend the opposite direction for the second time and any hopes of an athletic future were lost. I don’t have pictures to remember those times, they’re already up here in memory, so a daily reminder might be too much.
For Israel this passage from Joel could serve the same purpose. A snapshot in time of both good and bad. Of a God who remained their God, the LORD, but forecasted darkness and tribulation. Academics differ on the date of these prophecies. Some say it is older, pre-exile to Babylon, where what follows the trumpet sound, what was not read in the lectionary tonight, was the foretelling of the coming armies who would subjugate the people, destroy the land, bringing ruin in their wake.
Others see a later date, and even some see not an actual army of humanity coming to kill, but an “army” of locusts, a plague of destruction, coming to devour everything it can find. They would come as a cloud, blotting out the light, drying up the vegetation, feasting themselves and all that was supposed to be good in the promised land given to the people by this God who now blows a trumpet. Either way the worry becomes one of loss, living in that darkness, having those who will destroy wag their fingers: “Where is your God?”
But then the trumpet calls. The day of the Lord is coming, a warning to the proud, those who find their God elsewhere, other than in a God of mercy. Those who sneer at ashes and repentance and grace and forgiveness.
This day of the Lord recalls Jesus and His opening salvo of the Gospel: Repent and believe the Gospel…for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. A drawing near. But first the darkness. Why the darkness? Why the things we may fear? Maybe it is to remove our other senses. Get rid of the seeing of other things, other gods that may entangle us, feeling around for something else to satisfy.
All that remains for you is the hearing. The trumpet calling. But not a special cry of battle, but a yelling: Return! For you see there was a leaving. There was one not where they were supposed to be. But was that God? No, it is God calling out to us: Return! Either you left me, or something has taken you from me, says God. Sin and its darkness covered you. Pain of life and the dread of the future has removed you from me or let you think I have not been here, but I say - Return! Mercy awaits. Compassion, grace, steadfast love. Even in the darkness, I am there saying Return!
But this isn’t a change in position. Not a change in address or clothing. Not something on the outside that we can say look at me. For the Jews, and even other cultures today, a rending of garments, a tearing of clothing was to signify great despair, mourning, outward repentance. Here? No. Hearts are to be broken. Broken of that shell.
Then you have your Jesus, God Himself, coming to you, taking your heart and rending it with His. There at Calvary His heart breaks, was broken, for you. It is said that the spear pierced His side and what came up was a flood of water. That water to become a light to our way, to give richness, righteousness and compassion to a people living in darkness. Washing and rebirth. Giving life where we assume none exists.
This return is your Jesus who gathers and brings all people to Himself. Call a solemn assembly it says. In the Greek version of the text, the Septuagint, it reads in verse 16 of Joel 2: Gather together a people, a holy ekklesia. Our word for church. A congregation of all: elders, children, brides, grooms, nursing infants, priests and the people, gathering as those who have been returned by God. No lack of darkness is offered though. The hope is that it leaves, that calamity is averted, but the desire to return is God Himself, your Jesus, there for you. Where even in the dark, good comes, along with love and hope
I will always have those pictures from high school. That remind me both of good and bad. Yet what the pictures don’t show is the chapters of my life that followed the good and bad. The fact that if I had not moved to my mom’s I would not have come to Minnesota, I would not have met my wife, I would have not stayed here, would not have found the life giving Gospel of Christ in the Lutheran church, would not have gone back to seminary, or become your pastor, or be preaching to you tonight. Out of the pain, comes a God who works amazing things.
As you sit here this Ash Wednesday, having burned up vegetation, that once had life, imposed upon you, you may feel as though you are in darkness. Reminded of death. We must remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. There is that word again. Return. But in this realm of life, we called our solemn assembly and that cross was placed upon you. A cross that symbolizes death. That shows us the path of humility and mercy. That each one is to come to the same end, for we all will die one day.
But don’t worry too much, for you already died you see. This return, the trumpet call of God, is not one in which you must come to make amends, make a new effort to be like Jesus, or be obedient, because you already live in a death. That day you were drowned at the font. Given the name of God. You were sealed with another cross. A cross empowered by the Holy Spirit. Giving you a new creation, drowning your old self, your sin. You died for who you are and now you are Christ’s. Your heart has been rend from inside out, where God has come to meet you, both in the ashes of mortality and the water of immortality.
As these 40 days begin remind yourselves of that. Yes, we are to repent and to return. Only the most prideful refuse. Being reminded of our sin, but so that when you come to the Paschal feast of Easter, the cross becomes sweeter still knowing of the weight of that forgiveness given to you. This lent is calling this assembly, in a God who is gathering His people here, now, in this place, that we may know where our God is. To see that our God lives even in the ashes, the darkness, the frailty of life itself. There to seal us in the cross.
In Joel the priests are gathered with the people, offering the laments, calling the assembly to the place between the porch and altar to return to the place of God’s dwelling to find peace and comfort in the knowledge of a Jesus who exists for you in ashes and water, but also with something else. In a moment you will come to this rail to find that your God has not left you but has gifted you an offering of grain and drink. An offering of Body and blood for you. Because even in death was a goodness coming out of what some mean for evil. Verse 14 of Joel: Maybe He will relent and leave behind a blessing: an offering of grain and drink. A sacrifice and a libation. Something eaten and something drunk. Bread and wine. The locusts came to take away that which was to be offered to God, yet God provides that which we offer. SO at this table tonight, amidst the ashes and maybe even tears, we come to receive from God what He offers “My Body given for you. My blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” There you at least for a moment know where your God is for you. Amen