Ash Wednesday 1 March 2017
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 51 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
[Pew Bibles p.1036] I didn’t think I’d be talking about locusts for my Ash Wednesday sermon, but that is pretty much where I am this morning/evening, because whenever there are verses missing in a scripture text that is chosen to be read, the first thing I want to do is find out what is left out. Well, there’s a whole lot left out in this reading from the prophet Joel. Basically all of Chapter One is missing, and there are 10 verses left out from the middle of the verses we hear from Chapter Two.
In these missing verses, there’s an awful lot about locusts. I learned more about locusts in preparing this sermon than I ever learned in junior high earth science class.
The prophet makes us see, hear and feel locusts that are swarming, tearing up crops, and being devastating pests. Joel gives the whole movement from the palmerworm to caterpillar. We hear that what the palmerworm does not eat the locusts then eat. And what the cankerworm does not eat the caterpillars eat.
The four stages of a locust’s life are referred to as, [vs. 4] the cutting locusts, the swarming locusts, the hopping locusts, and the destroying locusts. Other translations use the words: gnawing locusts, swarming locusts, licking locusts, consuming locusts. Seriously, go look it up!
When locusts hatch and swarm, they strip all green foliage, destroying crops and trees. Joel tells us [vs. 7] that the wine is gone, the bark stripped from the vine, grain and drink offerings for the temple are gone, the fields are ruined, the vines are destroyed, the fig trees are withered, the pomegranate and the apple trees and all trees are dried up, the cattle begin to cry, herds have no pasture, sheep suffer and the streams are dried up [1:1-20]. This is all in Chapter One!
But Joel is not finished. Just as we pick up today’s reading, we are told that a mighty army is threatening Judah. The attack will be so great that the [vs. 10] “…earth will quake, heavens will tremble, sun and moon will darken, stars will withdraw their light.”
You bet the rumor mill is going full throttle as we wonder who is leading this army. With the relentless warriors outside the city walls, you can bet they are knocked off their feet when the prophet Joel announces that the one leading the invading army is no other than God, the Lord ‘who thunders at the head of the army” [vs.11].
That is all the ‘set up,” the “establishing scene” as we finally open the curtain on where we pick up the text from Joel where the Lord says, “Even now return to me with all your heart.”
On this Ash Wednesday, I think it is important to hear about the devastating locusts; and it is just as important to know that however these creatures reveal themselves in our lives, wherever the cutting and swarming and destroying parts of our lives become so real, that they are never the totality of our lives with God.
“Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning.” Turn to God in such a way that your entire being is focused on God; weep because you realize the magnitude of what life has become for us. In other words, with all your being return to God.
“Rend your hearts and not your clothing” [vs 13]. In Joel’s day it was customary for people to rip their garments as a sign of grief for sins committed. The display was intended to be public, graphic and demonstrative in order to indicate the level of sorrow felt by the one who had sinned. Another translation says, “you don’t need to change your clothes, but you do need to change your hearts.” In other words, nothing we do, even religious rituals, will ever take the place of humble repentance before God.
“Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” [vs. 14]. And if we repent, says Joel, ‘who knows’ but God might leave a blessing. What Joel believes comes from his description of God—gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and the one who relents from punishing. This is a God who loves at a depth and consistency that we cannot match. This is the God in whom Joel has a firm belief will deliver God’s people, and this same belief that it will rain [2:18-19]. Yes, rain. Judah has been crippled by an agricultural drought as well as locusts. So they literally need rain.
However, they and we need spiritual rain so much more. This is the greatest gift that we can receive in spite of all our other perceived needs. Joel believed that spiritual rain—drops of grace—would begin in Judah and then extend to all of God’s people [2:18-3:21]. God’s redeeming grace and promise comes in the very next line, “God had pity on God’s people!”
The reality on this Ash Wednesday is that in most cases, we have not totally left God, but only that our feet have strayed from the many places where we meet God. True return to God begins with those drops of God’s grace, with the moves we make, the journey we walk, the things we buy, the way we treat others–all of this part of the journey of Lent, but more importantly, the journey of Life.
This is Ash Wednesday, and out of our deepest hopes and our most earnest longings, we begin Lent together. Amen.