Ash Wednesday Reflection on Joel 2

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

never met. 

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.


What Moves You?

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.  After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

There are a lot of places to jump in to this story.  We could talk about the Leper’s lack of protocol, how he approaches Jesus, against the law, failing to give proper warning of his condition. 

We could talk about how the Leper fails to follow the one direction that Jesus gives him, even after receiving the requested healing, and the consequence for Jesus of his blabber-mouthing.

But what I really want to focus on today is a phrase that is used to describe the reason for Jesus’ actions toward the Leper, because getting our heads around this word, gives us clues about what motivates Jesus, and what motivates us for action.

In the reading today the phrase is translated, as “moved to pity”, and that’s not a bad translation.  Jesus was “moved to pity”, and so chooses to cleanse this leper.

But if you do a little comparing of bible translation you might find a few other interpretations.  Some bibles read here that Jesus was “moved to compassion.  Still others say, Jesus was “moved to anger,” which seems like a quite different feeling than compassion or pity!

The word phrase literally means, “to be moved in the bowels”, and while it is clear that we’re not talking about the after effects of a bowl of chili, we’re not entirely sure just how to translate this word in this context.  Is it compassion?  Is Jesus deeply moved at the plight of this poor leper?

Is it pity?  Does he just feel sorry for the poor guy, and act in a way to get him out of the picture?

Is it anger?   That too, is a possibility.  Jesus might be angered at the society that keeps such people as outcasts.   Or he may be angry about the broken state of God’s good creation, where demons and diseases seem to be everywhere and oppressing everyone.

Or, it is just as possible that Jesus may be ticked off that this leper has broken so many rules!  Here he is, in a crowd of people, disregarding everyone else’s need for ritual purity to just get his own needs met!  What are you doing here?   What choice do I have, really, be made clean, now go do what you’re supposed to do for crying out loud, show yourself to the priest, and don’t make a big scene about this!

How will we determine what moves Jesus here, and does it make a difference?  

The 2006 Winter Olympics Torino Italy chose for its slogan and theme the phrase “Passion Lives Here.”   It seemed an appropriate choice.

You don’t have to be a big fan of sports to have seen a few highlights of Olympic events, and to look upon highlights from an Olympic competition is to have a glimpse into the complexity of human emotions.

Watch the faces.  Watch the faces of the victors, and of those disappointed, and notice how similar they can be!  

You cross the finish line as a winner and there is a first trace of elation, and then the pounding pain, and the exhaustion, and the welling of emotion, that become almost indistinguishable from the pain and exhaustion and emotion that comes across the face of the loser. 

Passion shows itself in the face, but it is felt in the gut, and caring deeply is always a complex thing!    Maybe that gives us an insight into how to understand this Gospel story.  Think of all the things packed into the moment, on the part of either winners or losers.  There is elation, regret, hope, frustration, exhilaration, relief, sadness, joy, — all at the same time.   

Passion lives in that athlete, whether winner or loser, he or she has put their whole being into the service of just one thing, the quest for the Gold!

Passion lives in Jesus!

He has put his whole life into the service of just one thing, the quest for proclaiming the Kingdom!

What we have in Mark’s Gospel is the record of a look on the face of Jesus!   He is “moved in the gut”, by the Leper, and depending upon how you read his face at this moment you might get compassion or you might get pity or you might get anger, but what you do get to be sure to get  is the fact that he is moved!  

And because he is moved, he makes a choice to take action.

This is where the text leaps across the centuries for us.  

When was the last time you were moved to action?  When was the last time you had something move you in the bowels, and not like a bowl of bad chili, but like a feeling that you had to get up and do something about it!

When people walk into this congregation, do they get a sense that passion lives here?

Do you get a sense that we care deeply about some things, and that those are the things that move us to action?   Move us to make a difference in this world.    Move us to proclaim the Kingdom of Godl.  We do this, to make the world look like this because it is a reflection of God’s good and gracious vision for how the world should be under God’s dominion?

What would you identify as the things that we do with passion?

I think that we as human beings have a need for passion.  We need to be moved in the gut, and if we aren’t moved in the gut by a common mission, a common direction that furthers God’s Kingdom, then we will seek something to be passionate about.  We will seek something that moves us.

Sometimes, what we seek to be passionate about can become self serving, and can lead us into places where we end up eating ourselves up, and doing no good for the Kingdom.  We get passionate about policy, or the color of the carpet, or a change in service.  We get all “torn up in the gut” over a conflict, or an event, or a decision made.   You don’t have to be in a church for very long to find out what will move some people, and what will not.

In Mark’s Gospel, the action, the choice that Jesus takes leading to healing because he’s “moved in the gut” ends up complicating things for Jesus, even though and maybe precisely because the Kingdom is proclaimed.

There are some things it appears, that even Jesus can’t control.  

He can’t make the Leper comply with his directions.

He can’t move about freely as he once did after this Leper blabs all over what Jesus has done for him.

Such is the case when passion takes hold, when things begin to move deep within.  You may not be able to control them all.  You may find things happening that are complex, unpredictable, and difficult to interpret.   Those are all signs, you know, of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Does passion live here?  

We will know if it does by what we choose to do, what we choose to have move us deeply and by what happens in the wake of our choices.   May out choices made proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom, and life and health for those who desperately long for it.