Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17+Psalm 103:8-14+2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10+Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The book of the Prophet Joel is timeless. There is nothing in it to suggest when it was written or even what the principal theme, or themes, might be. Scholars put it somewhere in the Persian period after the Babylonian exile. Joel is one of the twelve minor prophets (and minor does not mean unimportant, just short in comparison with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and most of them begin with the name of some king or recount an event that might situate it historically. Not Joel. All we know is that it begins with a destructive locust invasion in chapter one, and that happened with some frequency in the Ancient Near East.

I think Joel is a prophet for our time for just this very reason. There has been a calamity, and now what are we going to do about that? The calamity in our time is not a plague of locusts. It is, in part, a global pandemic that has not quite subsided. It is environmental destruction that leads to devastating weather patterns. It is economic uncertainty and the rise of hate-based violence. I mean, choose your disaster.

One of the things we learn from this prophet, though, is that God is not punishing us with these unfortunate events. This isn’t a blame game, even though many of us have only to look in the mirror to recognize our part in creating the conditions that have fueled them. No, this is about recognizing how far we have strayed from God, not to keep God from punishing or bringing on further disaster. No, the call to return to God is because without God, who are we? What are we?

If the Day of the Lord is here, what are we going to do about that?

As Paul wrote in his 2nd letter to the church in Corinth, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). This entreaty comes immediately after Paul’s pronouncement that God has reconciled us to God’s very self through Christ, giving us, in turn a ministry of reconciliation.

As we launch yet again on our Lenten fast, a season of prayer and introspection, of self-examination and repentance, what exactly are we supposed to be doing? How do we embrace this ministry of reconciliation in the midst of these forty days?

Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love… (Joel 2:12:13)

Rend your hearts and not your clothing. “Create and make is us new and contrite hearts” is how the collect for Ash Wednesday with which we began this service puts it. This is not something we can do for ourselves, any more than the people in the time of Joel could. It’s an inside job, and it requires God’s abundant love and mercy towards us. Our psalm this evening tells us that God “redeems (y)our life from the grave and crowns (us) with mercy and loving-kindness” (103:4), and all we can do is receive that.

So, what is all this talk about fasting and prayer and self-denial if God is gonna do what God is gonna do?

There is something to be said about being ready for that. Being able to recognize it when it comes. To rending our hearts and opening them to such love and mercy.

Part of the book of Joel is read on the Sabbath immediately preceding Yom Kippur in many Jewish traditions, in the “days of awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It calls people to examine themselves so that on that Day of Atonement, they are ready for the restoration they are to receive.

Our restoration lies ahead of us, as well, in the death and resurrection of Christ. Lent is our time to prepare ourselves to receive our salvation. So, whatever it is you do with these next six weeks or so, do those things that open space for you to receive this gift. You may find that Lent doesn’t feel like a time of self-denial at all, because the joy of it all is to know just how close God is to each of us.

allsaintsadminSermon for Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas