My dad and I have a number stories from our youth, that my children never tire of hearing. Now admittedly my dad has more of them and better ones – I mean how can you top the time that the death of President Roosevelt saved him from a spanking? However, I do have a couple and there is one in particular that Matthew always enjoys.
After eight years as your pastor, you are well aware that I grew up in Indiana for most of the years before college. I may live in Illinois, but I still consider myself a Hoosier. In fact I think there are really two major shortcomings with Marion. The first is that it is not about forty five minutes closer to St. Louis. And the second is that it is not in Indiana. But alas, we all have our crosses to bear.
While I have strong ties to Indiana, until I was nine years old I lived in Pensacola, FL. There in Florida we had large, red fire ants. When I was about seven I discovered a large fire ant mound at the edge of our lawn. Now the fire ants were fascinating because I knew that you had to be careful around them. I knew they could bite you. And so, I decided to show the fire ants who was boss.
Somewhere I found this flexible piece of rubber, and I proceeded to use the piece of rubber to whip the fire ant mound. It was great fun as sand and ants went everywhere. I lashed away at the mound, feeling very proud of myself … until I felt the first bite. In my enthusiasm for attacking the fire ant mound, I hadn’t bothered to notice that swarms of fire ants were pouring out of the mound and were covering the ground all around it. Very soon, they were on me too. Now the bite from a good sized fire ant hurts but is not that big a deal. However, dozens of them crawling all over you and biting is another matter altogether. In terror I ran away from the mound, and I have never messed with fire ants since.
One insect is nothing. You can step on it and squash with hardly any thought. But get a large number of them together in one place and you can have serious problems. That’s been the story with locusts, ever since man started farming. Swarms of locusts have descended upon the land and devoured everything in sight. They have eaten crops. They have stripped pasture land bare. And they have left behind desolation and the slow death of starvation.
That is the situation in the Old Testament lesson for Ash Wednesday. A locust plague had descended upon Israel. Joel says in the previous chapter, “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.”
This was a terrible disaster. But Joel tells us that it was not random. It was not by chance. Instead, it had been sent by Yahweh. Joel writes, “Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.”
Joel describes this judgment as “the day of the Lord” – the day of Yahweh. He says at the beginning of this chapter, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
Now we aren’t specifically told what Israel had done in order to provoke Yahweh’s judgment and wrath. In fact the absence of details means that we don’t really know when Joel wrote – it could have been early in Israel’s history or late. But given what we know about Israel’s history, it’s really not that hard to figure out. God was judging the nation because of its unfaithfulness. That is the common denominator that runs through all of the Old Testament. Israel refused to trust in Yahweh. Instead, she was constantly being drawn away in the worship of false gods – the gods of the pagan neighbors.
It is easy to read Israel’s history in the books of Samuel and Kings and wonder, “How could they be so dumb?” How could they experience God’s great saving action of the Exodus and then turn around and worship other gods? How could they experience his might in the conquest of the promised land, and then turn their back on him? How could they look at all the blessings that Yahweh had given them, and then go after false gods?
They did it because they wanted to make their own choice. They looked around and they saw peoples who were more sophisticated, and they wanted to be like them. They saw gods that allowed them to act in ways they wanted to act – indeed which sanctioned such behavior. And so they chose those gods, and they rejected Yahweh.
But let’s be clear. You do that too. You turn your back on the Lord every time you do not fear, love and trust in God above all things. You look at the smorgasbord of possibilities presented by the world and you don’t want to be limited by God. You want to use your time to do what you want to do. You want to use your resources for what you want. You want to be free to believe what seems right to you.
This is the struggle in every one of your hearts. No matter how pious you are the reality is that time and again you put yourself first and God second. He gets the leftovers. He gets the time, attention and effort that you haven’t allocated to the really important things – to the things that are your true gods.
Now we certainly don’t like it when people treat us this way. If we experience such blatantly dismissive behavior, we may give a person a second chance. If we are especially generous, we might even give them a third chance. But very soon we arrive at the point when we decide that we are just done. We’ve had it. We aren’t going to mess that person any more.
On this Ash Wednesday, God declares to you through his word that he is not that way. Instead, he is the gracious, merciful and forgiving God who wants to welcome you back. He wants you to confess your sin; he wants you to repent and return to him. In our text God says, “Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Our text calls you to repent. It calls you to confess our sin – all the ways we put our desires first and God second. It calls you to return to the Lord. But take note of why you are urged to return. Joel says, “Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” Our text urges you to return to God in repentance because God is gracious and merciful; because he is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love.
The call to return to God is grounded in who God is. And as we enter into Lent tonight we are reminded that God has shown who he is by what he has done. Just before our text, Joel describes the locust plague as “the day of the Lord.” He writes, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
In the Old Testament God’s decisive acts of judgment were described as the “day of the Lord.” The prophets often describe these events - like a locust plague or the approach of a conquering army – with language that went beyond the mere event. They did this because each day of the Lord pointed forward to God’s decisive act of judgment. They pointed to the end-time Day of the Lord.
In Joel we hear the day of the Lord described as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” We are reminded that during Lent we are following our Lord Jesus as he makes his way to the cross. We are walking with our Lord during these forty days as he makes his way to Holy Week and his Passion. We are following him on the way that leads to Good Friday. On that day there will be darkness over the land from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. That darkness will signal God’s judgment. The day of the Lord will come upon Jesus Christ – the day of God’s judgment against your sin.
Jesus Christ will receive judgment on the cross because God the Father is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love towards you. God will condemn your sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ. And then on the third day – on Easter – he will raise that flesh up, transformed so that it can never die again. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ we will celebrate an end time event; we will celebrate the beginning of the resurrection of the dead that will be yours on the Last Day, the final day of the Lord.
On this Ash Wednesday as you begin Lent, you are called to repent. Through Joel Gods says, “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” You are called to repent of your sins in the confidence that we can return to the LORD your God, because he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. You return to the One who poured out the wrath of the day of the Lord upon his Son Jesus, so that forgiven you can receive a share in the new life of the resurrection on the Last Day.