Ash Wednesday – Joel 2:12-19

12“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
 13and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the LORD your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster.
14 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?

 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
 16gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
   assemble the elders;
gather the children,
   even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
   and the bride her chamber.

 17 Between the vestibule and the altar
    let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep
and say, “Spare your people, O LORD,
   and make not your heritage a reproach,
   a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
   ‘Where is their God?'”

 18 Then the LORD became jealous for his land
    and had pity on his people.
19The LORD answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you
   grain, wine, and oil,
   and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
   a reproach among the nations.

I wonder what students in high school history courses will learn about 2020 when they study it a few years from now. It had so many of the signs of the end of days: plague, earthquakes, war, toilet paper shortages, even a locust plague in Africa. We are not exactly sure what was going on when Joel first called his readers to repent in this passage. If you have time, read the earlier parts of this chapter. He describes an invading army, likening the soldiers to a plague of locusts. Or does he describe a plague of locusts, likening them to an invading army? I have been reading this passage for many years and I continue to wonder which it is. The description is terrifying. If you have ever seen a locust plague, even on television, it is fearsome.

God inspired Joel to call his people to repent in the face of this unrelenting foe. He calls them to a genuine repentance, rending their hearts and not just their garments. This repentance is to take precedence even over the bride and bridegroom in their chambers, the congregation should leave no one out, even nursing mothers and infant children should come. This really is all-hands-on-deck. God does relent in Joel’s little book. At the end of this passage God leaves the grain, wine, and oil so the people can be satisfied.

Every year is a time of turmoil and unrest. We could assume this pandemics, wars, and natural disasters are merely natural events, disconnected from our faith, God, and what happens when we speak our confession on Sunday mornings. But that would be a mistake. The bible is clear, all human suffering, death, and woe is the result of humanity’s fall into sin. It was not supposed to be this way. There is only one proper response – repent. “I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed – and so I die!” This is the first day of Lent in a year when our repentance should take on a special urgency. We have been brutally reminded and will be for some time that I am not OK, you are not OK, this world is not OK. It needs to be made right with its creator. The avenue for that reconciliation is repentance. Put on some ashes. Beat your breast. Vow to do better. Join God’s people in lifting eyes to heaven and imploring God for mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

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