Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

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

The prophet Joel is one of the twelve minor prophets in the Hebrew scriptures from whom we don’t hear much in our usual rotation of scripture readings. Now, a minor prophet is not an unimportant one, just one that wrote a short entry into the canon of scripture. The twelve minor prophets all fit together on one scroll, unlike the major prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

            Joel is interesting also because we don’t know much about him. We don’t know when he lived and wrote or what era he wrote about. Usually we can pick up clues to situate the prophets, but not Joel (and not Malachi, either, for that matter). What we do know is that his prophetic writings were prompted by an ecological disaster in the form of a plague of locusts. We don’t have much experience with plagues of locusts these days, but in the ancient near east, they could prove devastating to a people who lived off the land. A locust plague destroyed crops which led to famine and starvation, livestock died off, and populations were forced to pick up and move elsewhere. 

            It would be understandable to think that a plague was a judgment from God or whatever deity one happened to serve. 

            But that’s not actually what Joel says. Things were so bad, so devastating, and the disaster continued to come in such waves that it seemed that the end of the world might be near. You can hear this in the apocalyptic refrain “For the day of the Lord is near” (1:15). So it isn’t assumed that this is divine retribution for anything the people might have done. Maybe the end really is near?

            But what if? What if we repent and return to God? This is not some cheap bargaining tactic. It isn’t an expectation that God will cause an end to the plague. Joel calls the people to a fast, to prayer, to turn to God in their time of need. And the imagery he uses for a God of love and compassion is feminine. When Joel writes,

Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful,slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. (2:13)

the word for merciful – rahum – is the same root for the word womb.[1]Joel is calling the people to turn, to return, not for fear of punishment or to appease a vengeful God, but to do so because God loves them as a mother loves. God’s mercy and love are as a mother for her children. Let us turn because God our Mother loves us and desires nothing else than that we come home when we have strayed. When life has gotten in the way of our devotion to the One who gave us life.

            It is not an accident that this reading is assigned for Ash Wednesday, that day we are called to keep a “Holy Lent.” 

            You see, Lent is not a punishment. It is an opportunity.

            The giving up or the taking on, the confession and penitence – none of this should be construed as God’s judgement on us or some effort on our part to win God’s favor.

            Everything that we do in this season of Lent is intended to help us reset, refocus, reorient ourselves toward the God who loves us as a mother loves her children. When we spend some time in prayer and fasting, in giving to charity and serving others, we are preparing ourselves to receive the great gift that comes to us in the passion, death, and resurrection of our Savior.

            Bear in mind as we join together in receiving ashes and saying the litany of penitence in just a little while that one meaning of the word “repent” is metanoia, to turn around. Turn toward the One who came into the world in human flesh, the One who knows that we are incapable on our own of saving ourselves, the One who longs for us to return as a mother longs for her children.

            Accept this Lenten fast as a gift. An opportunity to draw near to the God who draws near to us.

[1]With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney for this insight.

ASEPSermon for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas