What is the state of the nation? If you listen to the Republican presidential candidates, it can be a pretty sobering evaluation. Whether it is Santorum railing about Satan, or Gingrich decrying the direction, or Ron Paul talking about liberty, the assessment is about the same. The country is going to heck in a handbasket. Each candidate tauting how they alone have the formula for returning the nation to its former glory.
We have a similar evaluation in the readings for Ash Wednesday. The prophet Joel looks around him to take a look at the state of his nation, at Israel.
He has witnessed a series of disasters, terrible events.
His country has been ravaged by natural disaster and political upheaval.
He has watched as first a plague of locust comes and cuts down their crops.
He has witnessed the drought that has followed, drying up everything that the locusts overlooked and the new growth that was beginning.
Now he watches as the leaders of the people bicker and argue as to what to do and who to blame.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Joel has to endure the taunts of the neighboring countries as they ask, “Where is their God?”
That is a significant question. Perhaps more so in Joel’s day than we realize, for then it was understood that each country, each people and place had its own particular god of the locality who controlled that particular area and all that happened there. To make sense of disasters, they would refer to the anger of the gods, or the absence of the gods.
Joel’s neighbors therefore see all this happening to Israel, and they ask, “Where is their God? Where is this Yahweh, who was supposed to be the One God, the great God? Why does he let such things take place? Why does he let his people suffer so?”
“Where is their God?” That is a good question, and one that we are sometimes tempted to ask as well. If for no other reason than that we have to endure another campaign year! But seriously, the question is one that tempts us as we look around at the state of the nation, of the church, of society. Just where is God?
Joel however, never questions where God is. He knows that God is present with and among his people.
The prophet Joel knows that because God has promised to be with God’s people. God has made an everlasting covenant never to forsake his people, and Joel’s God is one who, above all else, keeps promises.
So in the face of the national disaster, the famine, the plague and the destruction, Joel never joins in the taunting of the other nations asking “Where is our God?”
Instead, he calls upon his people to ask another equally important question.
“Where are we?”
Joel asks his people to take a good look at their lives, their actions, and where they find themselves in these uncertain days. He then calls upon the people to drop their lives and their activities in order to come to worship.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; 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 no one make any excuses for not coming. Even the newlyweds are to forsake their honeymoon and gather for worship, that all might come into the presence of God for the sake of the nation, of the people, and of the land.
Everything is at stake for Joel.
The Prophet knows that what is needed in the nation is not God sweeping in to save the day, but rather what is needed is a change of heart of God’s people. God has not moved, but perhaps we have.
Look again at what Joel calls for.
He calls his people to worship.
He calls his people to prayer.
He calls his people to come into the presence of God in the Temple.
He does not call them there to find out where God has gone. No, he calls a fast knowing full well that God has been here all along, and if the people are feeling God’s absence, it is not because their God has strayed away from them, but rather it is the people who have strayed away from their God.
Let there be no illusions. The events that happen to us and around us are not signs of God’s absence, but rather indicators of our own wandering hearts.
We begin this night the season of Lent. It is a season unlike any other, for in this season we are challenged to change.
We gather tonight in the solemn assembly to pray and renew our relationship with a God who demands change of us, but does so because of his great promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Our God demands change, for he sent his only Son to model for us the life that he desires. Jesus did not come simply to walk and talk and give us advice. No, in Christ Jesus the new life is modeled, lived for us to see.
It is a life of self-sacrifice.
It is a life where the stranger is welcomed.
It is a life where the labels are dismissed.
It is a life, where reconciliation and restoration are the orders of the day, as he gathers all people to him.
It is a life where there is neither Jew nor Greek, Male nor Female, Slave nor Free, for we all are one in Jesus Christ.
Tonight we mark our foreheads with ashes. The ashes remind us that we are human. They remind you that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
You are one with the ones whose dirty faces show up in the reports from the war zones.
You are one with the dirty faces that peer back from prison cells and from the streets.
You are one with those you call enemy, and with those whom you have
You are one with them, because God has sent his Son for them, for all of them, and also for you.
Where is their God?
Tonight we remember and begin the journey that reminds us that our God is with us, and with them, whoever “they” may be.
We will see our God hanging on a cross to prove that.
He will be willing to die for us, and then calls us to do the same for others.
May we be willing to let our sinful selves die to him, that he may bring us to newness and life, and to the joy of the Kingdom.