Ash Wednesday February 10, 2016 Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17
Rev. Catherine Purves
Alarms are loud and disruptive and, well, alarming for a reason. Who would get out of the way of a police car if the alarm wasn’t blaring? What family would get up in the middle of the night and flee their house if the fire alarm hadn’t gone off? Who would take shelter in a basement or seek higher ground if the weather alert didn’t make everyone stop and listen and act in order to be safe. Sound the alarm! That is what will get people’s attention. That is what will convince them that they must do something. That is what will warn them of an unexpected danger.
Our reading from the book of the prophet Joel begins with these words: “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.” The day of the Lord is a day of judgment, a day of reckoning, a day of punishment. That is not a day that we like to think about, any more than we like to contemplate the deadly act that would require a police car to rush to a crime scene, or the prospect of losing our homes and possessions to fire, or the potential destruction of an entire community in a natural disaster. We don’t like to think of those things and the possibility of them happening to us, and we don’t like to contemplate the day of the Lord. That’s why we sometimes need to sound the alarm.
In the days of Joel the prophet, the land had been devastated by a terrible plague of locusts. All of the crops were destroyed. The locusts came like an invading army and they ate everything in their path until there was nothing left. This total destruction of the land would result in starvation and death. It was interpreted as an act of divine judgment so terrible (because of the severity of Israel’s sin) that nothing would survive. This was it, the end, the day of the Lord. Finally the holiness of God could no longer tolerate the uncontrolled sinfulness of the people. No one had sounded the alarm. No one had forced them to stop and look at the way they were living. No one had warned them of the danger of their sin, or, if they had been warned, they hadn’t listened.
We do talk about sin. We recognize that it leaves us vulnerable to divine judgment. We confess our sin regularly. We repent. But then we go right on sinning. We rely on the abundant grace of God to overlook the sin that we don’t really want to deal with. We promise ourselves that we will try harder and that we will change some day…soon. We tell ourselves that we want to live more faithful lives. And if we want to stop sinning, isn’t that enough? “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm…for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near.”
We misrepresent the whole message of Scripture when we presume upon the abundant mercy of God and take that as a license to go on sinning. The righteous judgment and the holiness of God are complemented by the mercy and the love of God, but we must deal with a God who is equally righteous and merciful. And that places us in the position of being called to live holy lives even though we continue to rely upon the promise of forgiveness. There is a tension here that must be maintained. Sound the alarm! It does matter how we live. God has expectations of us, if we are going to claim to be followers of Christ. Sin matters! Blow the trumpet! Sound the alarm! “…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.”
Lent is a season in which we return to the Lord with genuine repentance and with a determination to amend our lives. Lent is a time when we break the endless cycle of sin and when we recognize that God’s forgiveness of us in Jesus Christ calls for a change of lifestyle. Lent is the season when we sound the alarm, so that the danger of perpetual sin is acknowledged and steps can be taken, in accordance with our faith, so that our repentance will be real.
This is not something that you can do on your own. It is to be part of the fabric of our life together which is lived in the presence of God. The alarm that is sounded is a public alarm, and it calls all to act together, to respond to the danger, to help one another, and to be a community of faith. So, our reading from Joel continues, “Blow the trumpet… sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children…”
This must be a corporate act for two reasons. The most obvious is that we do not have the strength or the willpower to refrain from sinning by ourselves without the support of the family of faith. But second, we also must repent together of the sins of our society, the sins that allow injustice to flourish, sins that punish the poor by refusing to protect the least of the brethren, sins that lead to violence on our streets, hate-speech, sanctioned greed, and an unbridled and aggressive national self-interest. These are sins that we corporately deny when we claim greatness for ourselves as a people and as a nation. Sound the alarm! We are all guilty, as individuals and as a society, and together we are called to repent and to work for change.
If you find yourself thinking, “We’re not really so bad,” or “At least we’re not as bad as everyone else,” watch out! If you are tempted to make excuses for yourself and for the sins of our society, then perhaps you have still not heard the alarm. Perhaps you have not yet been alerted to the danger of persistent and pervasive sin that has become so familiar that we almost don’t notice it anymore. Perhaps the sheer righteous holiness of God has still not overwhelmed you or driven you to remorse and shame. Perhaps you are assuming that you will have a long life in which you will eventually be able to put things right.
This Lent, we are sounding the alarm. It is time to stop. It is time to listen. It is time to take steps if you are going to avoid the peril of your sin and the threat of our shared sin. You have heard the call from Scripture. Return to the Lord your God. With all your hearts repent. Gather together for worship throughout this holy season so that we can pray and support one another, and so that, with God’s help, we can be changed. The alarm has been sounded, and Lent has begun.