Ash Wednesday

The book of Joel tells the story of an otherwise unknown locust plague (1:1-5) that devastated Jerusalem and its environs sometime during the Persian period.

February 13, 2013

First Reading
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Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

The book of Joel tells the story of an otherwise unknown locust plague (1:1-5) that devastated Jerusalem and its environs sometime during the Persian period.

The memory of this local crisis, interpreted in terms of divine judgment and deliverance, is passed on to future generations as a resource for surviving similar catastrophes. Congregations today can take inspiration from Joel’s community, which gathered together for worship, prayer, and reorientation towards God, our stronghold and refuge when trouble overwhelms us.

By the second chapter of Joel, descriptions of invading locusts become interwoven with terrifying images of battle and cataclysmic changes in nature. The first of two urgent alarms in this passage, “Blow the trumpet in Zion!” (2:1, 15), warns of the dreaded “day of the LORD” (2:1, 11), interpreting the current crisis in terms of an ancient prophetic motif. We, as Christian preachers, might identify a threat to the congregation or larger community today (such as unemployment, natural disaster, environmental degradation, or gun violence, to give a few examples), for which the book of Joel offers theological and liturgical resources.

The nations’ mockery, “Where is their God?” quoted at the end of this passage (2:17) raises a hard question. The book of Joel wrestles to locate God in the midst of disaster, exploring a number of provocative answers. “The LORD who dwells in Zion” (3:17, 21) suffers alongside the people of Jerusalem when locusts invade “my land,” destroying “my vines” and “my fig trees” (1:6-7). A landscape like God’s own “garden of Eden” (Genesis 2:8-9) becomes a wilderness (2:3). Even God’s house is desolate, since grain and wine offerings are cut off from the temple (1:9, 13), as are joy and gladness (1:16), to be replaced by mourning and lamentation (1:9, 13).

A different answer to the question of divine presence stems from the tradition of “the day of the LORD” as God’s intervention to set things right on earth (Amos 5:18-20; Isaiah 13; Ezekiel 30; Zephaniah 1:14-18; etc.). Joel identifies the punishing conditions “as destruction from the Almighty” (1:15; cf., Isa 13:6). On “the day of the LORD” God suddenly appears at the head of an army approaching with cosmic signs and horrific violence (2:1-11). “Who can endure it?” (2:11; cf. Malachi 3:2).

But God’s manifestation on “the day of the LORD” becomes the opportunity for an urgent appeal. “’Yet even now,’ says the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart!” (2:12). The prophetic formula marking divine speech, “says the LORD,” appears only here in the book of Joel, emphasizing that this pivotal message of hope is God’s word in the midst of turmoil. The call to “return” is repeated in the next verse (2:13) for emphasis.

To “return” in Hebrew means literally to “turn” around, to change one’s direction by halting the walk away from God and beginning the walk toward God. The “heart” in Hebrew anthropology is the site of deliberation and commitment. Turning to God with one’s whole heart therefore involves changing one’s mind, reconsidering one’s actions, and orienting oneself entirely toward God. The command, “tear your hearts, not your clothing” (2:12), suggests a sudden shift of priorities in response to dire circumstances. We might reflect upon what turning to God would mean for individual lives and the whole congregation in the present context.

Human turning is itself a witness to divine presence, since it is grounded in the community’s faith that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13; cf., Jonah 4:2; Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Jeremiah 32:18; Nahum 1:3). Joel portrays the possibility of God making a parallel “turn,” once again to impart blessing in keeping with this divine character (2:14; cf., 2:18-19, 21-24, 26).

While the First Lesson ends with a question, God’s protective presence in the midst of Israel is affirmed in the latter part of the book. Covenantal language, heard in the divine promise to Israel that the LORD will be “your God” and that they will be “my people” (2:27), signals an enduring relationship. “The day of the LORD” becomes a time of salvation for those who call on God’s name (2:30-32). God dwells in Zion (3:17, 21), as “a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel” (3:16). During Lent we remain alert for God’s presence, sometimes in ways that challenge and change us as well as in ways that comfort and support us.

A second trumpet blast echoes the opening battle alarm (2:15; cf., 2:1). This time the purpose is to assemble the congregation at the temple for fasting, worship, and prayer. Behaviors and rituals associated with terror and grief, including weeping, mourning, ripping one’s clothing, and wearing sackcloth, would have accompanied the fast (2:12-13; 1:13).

While the priests play a special role in prayer (2:17), an inclusive community is sanctified. Everyone is summoned, from elders to newborns. Even newly married couples participate, although grooms would have been exempt from military service. This radical inclusivity parallels the promise later in Joel that the outpouring of the divine spirit will be on all flesh, so that all prophesy, dream dreams, and have visions, as signs of God’s presence within the entire community (2:28).

The book of Joel models a faithful response to uncertainty, fear, and chaos all around, of gathering as a community for worship, prayer, fasting, and turning with our whole heart to the LORD. God has been a stronghold and a fortress in the past. Who knows? God may again turn, relent, and deliver!

On Ash Wednesday, we might lift up Lenten practices giving expression to the torn heart that seeks reorientation of the individual person and entire congregation to God, such as the imposition of ashes, fasting, Bible study, special projects, and more frequent meeting as a congregation for worship.