I plan on saying something similar to this during Ash Wednesday tonight. Hope those of you who are not there will still enjoy it.
I love Joel. I love that it is one of a few books in the Bible that has its own holiday in Ash Wednesday. Sure we Joel shares the ashes with Genesis 3 and Is. 58 but don’t be fooled. This holy day is all about Joel.
There are a few things I love about Joel.
For one, I love how short and vague the book is. It is only 3 chapters, snuggled there towards the end of your Old Testaments between Hosea and Amos. It’s about an army or an army of locusts or maybe just locusts. Who knows? Regardless it is quite apparent that Israel’s got a problem. This army is destroying everything. I love the line in 2:3 that says everything in front of them is the garden of Eden and everything behind them is wasteland. I know some people like that (just kidding).
There aren’t any easy answers to the problem. There doesn’t seem to be some Wal-Mart pesticide they can spray around the crops. They don’t seem to have enough soldiers in the army to actually go to war. It’s bad. It is a bitter day, a dark day. They didn’t know the way out. Our garden is about to become wasteland and there is nothing we can do about it.
Another thing I love about Joel is that Joel is one of few of the prophets to not play a blame game. There is no announcement of judgment or criticism. Joel doesn’t point the finger at any particular group and say, “this is your fault.” It might be implied that some sinfulness is to blame. The others certainly go that way. But Joel doesn’t go that way, at least explicitly. Joel seems to be more concerned about the future than the past.
And Joel’s forward looking solution (if it can be called that) is this, “let’s return to God because God is gracious and compassionate.” (2:13) I don’t know how to solve the problem but I know the problem solver. Let’s give him a call. Let’s get him in here and see if he might help us. Let’s return to God. Let’s get the whole assembly together from the young to the old. Let’s postpone the weddings and get the pregnant moms out of their hospital beds and let us fast and let us pray and see what God might do.
The next thing I love about Joel is the open ended question right there in the heart of chapter 2:14, “who knows? The Lord might have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind.” Contrast that with the army that leaves a wasteland behind. If we go to God and if we plead and pray and beg and fast then God just might relent and bless our socks off.
This is the movement of Lent. The other 310 days out of the year we seem to collect horrible problems without easy solutions.
I think of the movie Lethal Weapon 4. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover begin the movie by going out fishing. As 90s action movies go, they end up getting in a shootout with the Chinese mafia. Mel Gibson goes home to his wife and he is all banged up and she says, “You were just going fishing! Do you go looking for trouble?”
And Mel Gibson says, “No, trouble knows right where to find me.”
I can relate. Trouble’s got my number. I have problems. My problems got problems. Most of them are my fault. A few aren’t. But none of them, not one of them are easy to solve. Like all of you I am a victim of my own personality which brings it with bad attitudes and bad choices but we also have to deal with each other’s bad attitudes and bad choices. And most days the weight of my own helplessness is too heavy to bear. I bring this up because I think you all might be able to relate as well. We are victims of our own dumbness and we can’t help ourselves and we can’t save ourselves. There is no bootstrap tough enough to pull ourselves up by.
So 310 days out of the year I have problems without solutions. I tear my hair out trying to find a way that I can just look at myself in the mirror with some dignity. I try solutions and they fail miserably. I brainstorm new ideas and people laugh at them. I try to reconcile and end up sounding more bitter. . .and being more bitter too. I have problems and I don’t know the answers.
But I know the great problem solver. I know the great redeemer. I know the great forgiver. On Ash Wednesday, this special day, as we look back at 310 days of sinfulness and the trouble and problems it causes, maybe we need to hear Joel again, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive. Who knows whether he will have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”
Who knows? Maybe the army will turn back or even be overcome? Who knows? Maybe those locusts will all die?
Who knows? Maybe one day your problems won’t have problems. They will have solutions!
Who knows? Maybe one day there will be reconciliation and forgiveness between you and those you hurt?
Who knows? Maybe one day about six and a half weeks from now there will a glorious and new morning where Jesus rises from the dead to proclaim forgiveness, to be our God and to leave a blessing of eternal life behind?
Who knows? Maybe there will be a better day, a newer day, a glorious day we call salvation where we will be God’s people again!
I would welcome you tonight to wait for that new day by receiving the ashes and eating the Eucharist meal. The ashes are a reminder that without Christ we are dust and will return to dust. We wear them boldly but not proudly. We are not proud of our own sin and our helplessness but we boldly proclaim that our sinfulness is not the end of the story.