Grace Presbyterian Church
March 6, 2019, Ash Wednesday C
In the ongoing struggle over the urgent issue of human-affected climate change and what to do about it, a rather startling new development has become more noticeable in recent months. Beyond the legion of climate scientists with huge, sometimes mind-numbing amounts of research and data and the deniers with no data but huge, also mind-numbing amounts of oil industry money, a third position is starting to be heard with some more frequency.
You might call this the “climate doom” faction. The position espoused here is that, if anything, the climate scientists are understating the problem, and in fact we’ve passed the tipping point that heralds catastrophic change sometime soon (in the large geophysical scheme of things). What is odd about this position is that, having decided it’s too late to stop bad things from happening, these doomsayers argue that we should … do nothing. It is at best a strange, and at worst a damning position. We can’t stop major damaging change from happening, so we might as well keep going the way we are and make it as bad as possible …? Is that really a logical take?
That’s not a recommended position to take now, and it wasn’t a recommended position to take in Joel’s time. The prophet speaks in his brief volume to a catastrophe that has overtaken the land. We aren’t quite certain what kind of catastrophe – Joel’s language is so metaphorical that it’s hard to know for sure – but he does invoke, in 1:4, a plague of locusts, perhaps evoking the plague visited upon Egypt in Moses’ time. While it’s not necessarily certain that’s what happened (the locusts could have been a metaphor for an invading army), neither is it impossible or implausible.
Joel prophecies, or more accurately observes, devastation all around him from this possibly ecological disaster, but his prophecy is not doom and despair. Instead, Joel’s call (or more rightly God’s call given through Joel) is one of repentance. Not surprisingly, Joel, like so many other prophets, calls upon the people to forswear their sinful ways and return to the Lord.
But on this Ash Wednesday, a day given to a visible and public act of showing repentance, it’s interesting to note a few key things about this repentance. For one thing, Joel’s prophecy is decidedly lacking in blame. God is in this case not interested, apparently, in naming and calling out those whose sin brought calamity on the people. You might find such talk in other prophetic utterances captured in scripture, but not here. The time for blame, it seems, is past; repentance and return to faithful service of God is the call now.
The call for repentance here is also a corporate call, extremely so, including even infants and others who would normally have been excused from such assemblies. Penitent individuals are called to act in community, not alone. Furthermore, the penitence extends not only to the people themselves, but to the very land and its creatures that have equally been ravaged by the calamity. These people have been reminded of the Ash Wednesday truism that we are dust and shall return to dust, and further that we share this fate with all of creation. This repentance and reconciliation is not merely anthropocentric; all of creation is deeply involved.
It is also needful to note that this repentance is not, in this case, specifically directed towards some particular cleansing of guilt. As noted before, this prophecy is not so interested in blame, and neither is it interested in naming and shaming of any particular guilt. Here our repentance is one of realizing and admitting our utter dependence on God and the mercy of God.
God is called “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” in verse 13, and it is this quality of mercy and love that is the sole basis for the people’s repentance. Our fallen human tendencies inevitably lead us to downfall in some way or another, absent the working of the Spirit and the grace of God, and it is only in that grace that our reconciliation and redemption can be hoped at all. To quote biblical scholar Loyd Allen, “by virtue of who we are, we will sow in tears; by virtue of who God is, we may reap in joy.”
This, even more than any particular sin we might bear, is our Ash Wednesday and Lenten call; to know ourselves as utterly dependent on “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,” as that Pauline benediction I often use goes. We rely on no other, if we truly follow Christ. Whatever your Lenten discipline, let it be towards this end: to know your dependence on God, and to lay aside anything that would lead you astray from that dependence.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days; #427, Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart; #422, Create in Me a Clean Heart