It's Already to Late - Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
March 2, 2022
It's Already Too Late
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It's too late to save the people. You can't right this ship. We have taken on too much water. The damage is done. There is no turning back. We are going down. You’re going to die. The word of God according to the prophet Joel.
We are not told when this particular calamity that Joel is writing about took place. Joel does not give us any kind of clues as to who might have been king or what other world events might have been happening to help us date this calamity. In some ways, not telling us makes this book timeless—how many of you thought that I was describing our current world situation? I think a truth that Joel proclaims is that there are always going to be disaster that threatens to destroy the world as we know it. How is a faithful person is suppose to live even as the world crumbles around him or her. We are told in the first chapter of Joel that "an ecological--and therefore economic--catastrophe [is about to take place] in the form of an unparalleled locust plague which will lead to the devastation of crops and to the decimation of livestock." The prophet sees this as “the day of the Lord,” "a day of ultimate judgment that many associate with the end of the time."
We, being the modern reader, hear this story and wonder how locust could signal the end of the world. Because of modern-day farming techniques, we no longer fear the locust. We have genetically engineered our crops to grow stronger, with less water, in closer proximity, higher yield, and many are resistant to pests such as locust. The end of the world? Maybe the end of one season but certainly not the end of the world as we know it.
But let me remind each of us that these words are not directed at us, the modern reader. Theses words were meant for a select group of people who rely on land for food and economic stability. Who live in a time when locust could bring the end of the world as they know it. Who believe that this kind of devastation could only be done because the Lord must hate them—that the Lord must be punishing them for their sin. I know Joel is not saying this but many have used his words and other biblical figures’ words to preach hopelessness and thereby lead many to death rather than eternal life.
So, where is the good news? Let’s start at the beginning. The prophet says in the first chapter,
"What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten."
These destructive insect have destroyed everything. The devastation is vast and it is already too late to stop it. And where are the people?
5 Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
for it is cut off from your mouth.
6 For a nation has invaded my land...
Apparently the people are not in the synagogues and temple praying. They are in a state of apathy and ignorance. The prophet calls them a bunch of drunkards who are oblivious to the fact that an outsider has invaded their land and will destroy them. By the time we get to 2:1ff, our lesson appointed for tonight, there is nothing more that they can do but to blow the trumpet, tremble in fear, and wait for what is to come. The prophet says, "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." With all the images from Ukraine this past week, this is something we can all vividly picture in our minds. This is certainly bad news and it would be bad news if we stopped reading at verse 2.
But Joel doesn't stop here and neither should we. He doesn't let the people stay in this hopeless place. He goes on to say that in the most hopeless of all situations, the answer for facing a catastrophe is for God’s people to return to the Lord with all our hearts through fasting, weeping, mourning and "change our lives, not just our clothes," because our God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
Oh how we need to hear this good news for I have been in many hopeless situations with families over my 10 years in ministry. I have been with families at very joyful times and I have been with families when the world is crashing in around them—when the locust come and destroy all that have and own. So often, we feel the need to try to fix things; to do whatever it takes to pull people out the pit of despair and sometimes that is the right thing to do. When someone is hungry, you give them food, but sometimes locust-like catastrophes are not that easy to fix. How many of us, when faced with something as destructive as locust, start by returning back to the Lord, back to the one who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? How many of us believe in a God who can make all things new, who can make something out of nothing? And if we do, why are so afraid to turn to our God for salvation and relief from affliction when the locust devour all that we have? Why do we so often face these moments alone?
Lent is a time when we self-impose a time locust-like destruction. We know what is coming so we give up what we do not need. We turn to our God, who we know is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We turn to this God and we prepare to remember and recall the time when all seemed lost. The time when the savior of the world was handed over for crimes he did not commit, was crucified and died. We remember this story each year and prepare ourselves for it because we have come to know and realize that God is not absent in these moments of locust-like-destruction, but that God is in the midst of things we cannot control, in the midst of hopeless situations where the locust destroy all that we hold dear. God is with us as we watch our beloved friend die on our behalf and yet God did not seek vengeance for our crime, but rather loves us and promises us that we will live as Christ lives.
We turn to God this Lent, this day, by tracing ashes on our foreheads not to show the world that we are Christian, but that we make a commitment to our Lord that we will be as faithful as we can to pondering the amazing sacrifice of our God. What you start here today, does not end when you leave this place. And I don't want only those who have a plan in place for how you are going to turn to God this night to come forward and receive ashes. Part of the good news of this day is that it is already too late for you but the good news is that Jesus Christ has saved you from the locust we call sin. I want you to come forward this day with no plan in place, with no idea how you can ever live up to the standards our Lord sets out for us in his sermon in Matthew 6. I want you to come up here with no clue, praying the entire way up for the Holy Spirit to lead you where you need to go and knowing full well that Jesus Christ has saved you. I want you to come forward like a child who doesn’t know the difference between their right or left hand, who doesn’t understand why we are doing this silly thing of wiping dirt on our foreheads that you can’t even see, but the only reason you are coming forward is because your mom and dad have taken you by the hand, and you trust your mom and dad enough that they will not do anything to harm you but love you and want to do everything that is good and holy for you. If our God truly is abounding in steadfast love, who died on a cross for you, then you don't need to have it all together. The Holy Spirit has brought you here today for a reason. (End) May you have strength and the courage to go where you might not want to go and may the locust have mercy on you.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.