Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Joel 2:1-2,12-17
Ash Wednesday 2015
“Blow the trumpet”
I did an unscientific survey of Episcopal Ash Wednesday sermons on the Web in recent weeks. I wanted to see on which of our Ash Wednesday readings (which, by the way, are the same every year), to see on which of our Ash Wednesday readings most preachers base their sermons. To my surprise, I found that the answer is, “None of them.” If my sampling is valid, Episcopal preachers use the occasion of Ash Wednesday to preach about what we should do during Lent.
I did just that last year, when I urged myself to be “wholly, holey, holy,” and I let you listen in. (This is what a sermon essentially is, you know: a talk we preachers have with ourselves that we speak aloud and in public.) The Rev. Dr. Anne Gavin Ritchie did this, also. In 2011, for example, she preached on the nature of sin and the need, in Lent, to examine our lives. In 2010 she preached on Lent as a time to examine our mortality. Dr. Ritchie’s sermons were very good sermons, too. But they just prove my point: I’m supposed to tell you tonight how to spend the next 40 days, less Sundays.
You get the idea. No one, it seems, preaches on the actual lessons. Until tonight.
I was drawn to our Old Testament lesson from the Book of Joel, at first because we don’t get to sample Joel very often in our lectionary. Then I realized this lesson is breathtakingly beautiful, if ominous, poetry.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
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.
Isn’t this a very pretty way of God saying, “Beware if you stray from me!”?
One of the things that intrigued me about this passage is that I wondered who that “great and powerful army” was that was about to overrun God’s people. So I looked Joel up. I found that no one knows who Joel is or when he lived. No one knows what the army was.
- Maybe, some speculate, this was an actual army poised to invade.
- Maybe, others think, this was a calamity like an army of locusts about to devour all he food in sight.
Either way, the people are on the edge of calamity.
I read these speculations the very day one of our Bible study groups struggled together about “theodicy.” This is the technical name for what we discussed. The question was, and is, whether God’s hand is involved in making the bad things that happen to us, as punishment for our sins? Or is this a passé idea, from either a much earlier world view or a much more theologically conservative perspective today? Don’t we modern, progressive Christians know better? Yet, God must at least ALLOW bad things to happen, because God exists, and bad things DO happen.
The conclusion we reached—if there even IS an answer to this question—is that we would be better off asking ANOTHER question rather than trying to answer this one. The better question would be, “I don’t know why this calamity is ready to befall me, any more than I know why good things happen to me, but what in my life needs to change in relation to God?”
Fortunately, our God is one who is, above all, merciful. The second paragraph of our reading from Joel says, more or less:
Yet even now. (on the brink of disaster)
(Or maybe even from the bottom of the abyss)
We can repent and return to the Lord.
Through Joel, God tells us how to repent and return to him: “with fasting and with weeping, and with mourning.” “Who knows,” Joel says, “whether [God] will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him?”
- Isn’t this what happened to Nineveh, that great city? If only for a while?
- Isn’t this what has happened in each of our lives?
- Isn’t this what has happened to Church of the Resurrection? Weren’t we poised, a few years ago, for serious calamity?
“Wait just a minute, preacher!” you might exclaim. How has Resurrection repented? Why should we repent? We didn’t do anything wrong, did we?
I don’t know.
- But isn’t this what we do when, as they say, the wolves are at the gate?
- Isn’t this what we do when we see the armies (warriors or locusts, either one) ready to invade?
- Isn’t this what we should do, every year in Lent? Shouldn’t we ask ourselves, when faced with calamity,
- Just what is our situation, and what needs to change?
- Are we in right-relationship with God, and with all?
- If not, how can we amend our lives?
And then, Joel suggests, we need to blow that trumpet AGAIN:
Blow the trumpet at Resurrection;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations
Why should it be said among the peoples,
`Where is their God?'”
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 Ash Wednesday every year, Thanksgiving Day in Year B, and Proper 25 in Year C