Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1 commands the blowing of the shofar.

February 17, 2010

First Reading
View Bible Text

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

Joel 2:1 commands the blowing of the shofar.

This is not a call to a festival or celebration, but a warning sent straight from God. In language reminiscent of Amos 5:18-24, this introduction proclaims that not only is the day of the LORD coming, it is near (verse 2). “The day of the LORD” appears only in the prophetic books, and each occurence refers to a time when God is angry with the people.

Here in Joel, the whole first chapter is a preparation for this announcement as the people are called on to wake up and lament, put on sackcloth, and prepare for a solemn assembly. The word “solemn assembly” appears at the end of the festival of booths in Leviticus 23:36, Numbers 29:35, and Deuteronomy 16:8 and is a day of no work when the people assemble to celebrate and offer sacrifices. Here, the announcement is a call to assemble, but to assemble as a community dressed in sackcloth to lament before God. The people are to gather to seek God’s face in a posture of sorrow.

God appears in many ways in the Old Testament, as savior in Exodus, as a rock or refuge in the psalms, and as a parent in Hosea. Here is one of the more fearsome images of YHWH: Sabboth, which literally means, “God of the armies.” That title is not explicitly used here, but verse 3 clearly indicates that the day of the LORD comes as a great and powerful army, and the verses between the lectionary sections describes this. The image of God’s army is no accident, for the issue that precipitates this call to assemble is a locust infestation that is destroying the land (1:4). This infestation is set in parallel to God’s army in 2:25.

Did the ancient people believe that God caused natural disasters? There is no doubt that they did. However, we now understand that natural disasters are complex phenomenon caused by a host of factors including human activity, and we no longer see them as punishment from God.

So what are we to do with this imagery? One point of this story is to stress God’s great power. Only the greatest of the gods in the ancient near East could control nature, and this example demonstrates that power of God. The creation responds only to its Creator. In other words, make no mistake about the power of our God.

Also, this metaphor and its question about God’s actions can also remind us of something else. Even in our modern world, God’s complete self is still a mystery to humans. We really do not know all of the answers either to natural disasters or the acts of God. At the beginning of Lent, this is a good place to tarry, for modern folks tend to think we have the world all figured out. Yet, there is a huge amount that is simply beyond our control or even understanding. We are made of dust and to dust we will return, as the liturgical imposition of ashes reminds us on this day. God is immortal and powerful, and we are, even with all of our modern knowledge, humans made from the dirt.

Yet this is not all God is. Verses 12-14 tell another truth about God and it uses the characteristics of God from Exodus 34:6. God is so powerful that God chooses to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” The use of this text can connect back to Sunday’s text since this comes right before the Old Testament lesson about Moses. There God is adjusting God’s actions to aid a frightened people. Here the prophet is telling the people to come before God and plead so that God will hear and forgive them once again.

Interestingly, the prophet is not confident that God will relent this time (verse 14), and this is another good place to tarry as Lent begins. We humans have become so confident that God will forgive us again and again, no matter what we do, that God’s forgiveness can seem like some celestial vending machine where we put our sins in and then poof, here comes our forgiveness!

The Old Testament lessons for the past two Sundays have all had messages concerning God’s forgiveness. The first text of Isaiah 6 shows in a real way the act of forgiveness at the throne of God. The second, Exodus 34, is the end of the Golden Calf that began in chapter 32 and tells of God’s remaining anger with the people who are refusing to go with them into the wilderness, not for God’s sake, but because God is still so angry with them.

God’s forgiveness should not be thought of as automatic, even if we know, trust, and confess God, as the people did in Exodus 34:6. Here is a good place to contemplate that our sins hurt. They cost God something. We often focus on the physical pain of Jesus’ death during Holy Week, but this text gives us the opportunity to focus on the pain of our actions, and then even to contemplate that each time we ask for forgiveness we should stand like Joel, wondering if this time we have gone too far. Understanding that each act of forgiveness costs God something, even if forgiveness is what God does, does not mean it is perfunctory.

Often Ash Wednesday services are more liturgical than homiletical, and even if that is the case, the Joel text could be structured with Psalm 51 as a liturgical experience. The Joel text could serve as the structuring unit with the call to confession as the preparation in Joel 1 and 2. Psalm 51 can serve as the confession of sin and Exodus 34:6 as the assurance, followed by the imposition of ashes. In this way, we can have the opportunity to focus on and contemplate God’s great act of forgiveness.