Ash Wednesday

Phyllis Anderson—March 1, 2006

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

These are strong words from the prophet Joel. The occasion is a national calamity. We know something about national calamity. We live with the threat of terror at home and daily reports of a war far away that is draining lives and resources and going from bad to worse. Mardi Gras happened again last night in New Orleans. But the calamity is far from over. We are still recovering from Katrina and will be for many years to come. Here in California we live with the threat of tectonic plates shifting and crunching—and wait for the big one.

In the time of the prophet Joel’s, around 400 B.C., it was a locust plague and a drought that devastated Israel. The prophet describes a locust plague as a fire that destroys everything in its way. The locusts will attack Jerusalem like an army. For the prophet Joel, however, the plague was more than a natural calamity: it was a sign of the coming Day of the Lord and a time of divine judgment. So our text begins with a trumpet sounding the alarm: “Let all that live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is near.”

We are not surprised to see God portrayed as judge—even though it’s not a theme we dwell on—or hear preached often in this chapel. We know we stand condemned under the law. We know that our God is a holy God, who hates every form of injustice and wickedness.

What makes this text from Joel so unsettling to modern ears is that it seems to make God the cause of suffering. The issue of God’s goodness has been under attack in a very pointed way since the horrors of the Holocaust. Theodicy was the theological preoccupation of my seminary years. The prophet interprets the natural calamity that struck the nation of Israel as a sign of God’s judgment because the people have lost their way. Does our God devastate whole nations to teach them a lesson or bring them to repentance? We want to cry out, “No!”

Disasters are real for us and they fill us with terror. Suffering happens and begs to be understood. We want to know what causes it. Who is to blame? It is not easy to say that calamities happen because creation is fragile and we are vulnerable creatures and let it go at that. Making a direct connection between suffering and God’s judgment helps to diminish the randomness of human suffering. But at what cost, if it makes our God into a monster?

As we try to make sense of a national calamity. We look for someone to blame. If it is not God, then it must be our enemies, however we define them: the Evil Empire, Saddam Hussein, Al Qaida, FEMA, the people who refused to evacuate, the administration, the critics of the administration. If our enemies are to blame, then revenge or retaliation or rearming for attack would seem to be the appropriate response.

But if our calamities are from God, we have to stop and think. Is God to blame? Is God the cause of all that is wrong in our land or out of joint in the natural order? or is it us? Is it me? If the shoe fits, wear it. Joel puts the blame where it belongs: not on God, not on the enemies of Israel, but on the nation itself. Israel had lost its way. And so have we.

These words from the Prophet Joel have powerful meaning for our time. We are increasingly aware that as a nation something is deeply wrong. We need to change. We need to repent. We have assumed it is our privilege to dominate at will and punish anyone who challenges our right to power. It is time to acknowledge our vulnerabilities as individuals and as a nation. It is time to let go of the need to be the superpower, the only superpower. That might be a first step toward learning how to use our power more responsibly. That might incline us toward rightful dependence on God and interdependence with all the other people who share this fragile planet.

If we have brought judgment down upon ourselves, then repentance is the right response. The calamities that we are suffering as a nation are signs to us to repent and turn toward God. Our Lenten journey is an exercise of turning around to encounter God, to see God revealed to us on the Cross, to confess that we have not followed the way of the cross, and to allow our lives to be shaped more and more in the form of the Cross.

This brings us to the imposition of ashes and the beginning of Lent. This is a season for repentance. Repentance is a more effective response than revenge or retaliation. Repentance is a more honest and authentic response than blame. Repentance is the right response—the only response that brings hope of redemption and reconciliation and new life.

This difficult text from the prophet Joel adds three dimensions to our Lenten journey: urgency, authenticity, and hope.

1. First of all, if we take seriously image of the coming Day of the Lord as a call to repent, there is an urgency to our Lenten journey. Nothing can stay the same. In the prophet Joel’s call, all people need to gather for prayer. Even the elders and the infants who are breastfeeding are to come. The urgency is so great that those who are newly married must set aside the joy of their wedding night to join in the gathering. The priests of the church will be there as well. When we come together, the prophet Joel urges us to plead with God to spare God’s people—even though we don’t deserve it. The invitation to repent is for today. That is our urgency for this Lenten journey

2. Secondly, our repentance must be from the heart and heart-rending. Rend your hearts and not your clothing, the prophet Joel declares. Superficial abstinence will not do. What is called for is a renunciation of the self before others. As we hear in the Gospel from Matthew, “We should not practice our piety just so others can see it.” Our repentance must be from the heart and for God alone. We do not take lightly the imposition of ashes. As we contemplate the day of the lord, we have much to answer for. The palms from which these ashes come are linked to all the fires that have destroyed innocent lives in Auschwitz and Hiroshima and and New York City and Viet Nam and the Sudan and Afghanistan and Iraq and all the other places of shame or sorrow down to our own day.

Our sin is personal as well as corporate. When you discover in yourself during this Lenten journey the temptation to dominate or abuse power, rend your heart. When you are tempted to mistrust or disregard anyone because they are different, rend your heart. When you feel the impulse is to retaliate or seek revenge for wrong you think has been done to you, rend your heart.

3. There is also a word of promise from the prophet Joel that makes it possible for us to begin our Lenten journey with repentance. For the prophet, the day of the Lord was full of dread and darkness—a time of terrible judgment. But it was also a time of hope. For God is gracious and compassionate. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God’s love is long-suffering and ever constant. God waits to forgive. The ashes we wear carry that hope in the sign of death. That is promise that invites us to repent and holds us as we begin this Lenten journey in the shadow of a calamity.