Well, I thought this might be the year it finally happened. During the eight and a half years that we have lived in Marion, I don’t think we have made it through school year without the kids missing at least one day of school because of winter weather. However, the snow that fell Sunday night, Monday morning and Tuesday night caused all of the area schools to cancel classes yesterday and today.
We really have no reason to complain. So far, it has been an easy winter – nothing like what we had last year. Yet even with the very cold temperatures that we had last winter, it still was nothing compared to what the New England area is currently enduring.
This past weekend another snowstorm hit the Boston area. It dumped a foot of snow on top of the almost six feet of snow that had already fallen in the last month. This onslaught of snow has created all kinds of difficulties for life in the city along with some unique logistical problems.
It is one thing to remove the snow in order to clear off roads, parking lots and sidewalks. The National Guard from Massachusetts, along Vermont and Maine have been brought in to help. But in order to do this, you have to have somewhere to put the snow. There is a limit to how high you can pile the snow along roads. So the city has created five “snow farms” on vacant sections of land in the city. Snow is brought there and then industrial snow melters are used to melt the snow. But even this solution has faced challenges as at different times the various snow farms have approached the full capacity of snow they can receive.
When the weather causes great hardship like this – or causes destruction – people don’t expect to find the explanation for it in God and his judgment. While as Christians, we don’t doubt that the weather remains under God’s control, we also don’t try to connect specific events with God’s judgment against sin because we have no way of knowing why things take place. We have no means of revelation from God about what is happening, and so we can only presume that in some way it fits into his will.
Things were different for ancient Israel. In the time before Christ and the Church, Israel was the unique people of God. They alone amongst all the peoples of the world had been chosen by God to be his own. They were the means by which God was working out his salvation for the world, and Israel was intended to a light to the nations.
God dealt with them as a nation. He had called them to live faithfully in the covenant with him. When they didn’t, he punished them, as a father punishes his son. And one of the things that was unique about their experience was that God sent his prophets to explain this to them. There were times – like the drought during the days the prophet Elijah – when God told them what he was doing because of their sin. And there were times when Yahweh explained through the prophets that a disaster Israel experienced was a call to repentance.
We find an example of this in our text for Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel. The occasion for Joel’s prophecy was a terrible locust plague that had struck the land. He writes about it in the first 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.” Joel describes this swarm of insects like a conquering army and you can almost see them jumping and eating when you hear his words: “As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.”
Joel tells the nation that this locust plague is an act of Yahweh’s judgment. In fact, he calls it the “day of the Lord.” At the beginning of this chapter Joel 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!”
Joel says that in the face of Yahweh’s judgment there is only one thing to do: Repent! He calls them to come to God’s temple. He says, “Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 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.”
Joel calls the nation to repentance. And of course, tonight on Ash Wednesday we enter into Lent – a season of repentance. If you have done this for any length of time in the church, you know how it works. The paraments and vestments here in the chancel are purple. On Ash Wednesday we have ashes marked on our forehead. On Sunday we cease singing the hymn of praise, the Gloria in Excelsis. On the Wednesdays during the rest of Lent we have a mid-week service.
There is, however, the danger that all of this becomes merely perfunctory. It can become all about achieving a certain kind of feeling which makes the Easter celebration seem all the more joyous and exciting. In the midst of “doing Lent” we can lose sight of what Lent is really all about.
Through Joel, Yahweh warns against just going through the motions. He says in our text, “‘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.’” Like Joel, the Lenten season calls you to repent. It calls you to confess your sin.
This requires that you consider the Ten Commandments. You must honestly examine your life and confess the things that you put before God. You must confess the ways in which you hold hate in your heart and refuse to forgive. You must confess the ways you lust and covet and steal. You must confess the ways you serve yourself instead of your neighbor.
And in doing so you return to God. You return to God, and in our text tonight Joel offers comforting words about what you find when you do. He 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.” God is gracious and merciful. He is slow to anger. He abounds in steadfast love.
Joel reveals this in words. And during the Lenten season we prepare to remember again that God has shown this in action. He sent his Son into the world, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, obeyed the Father’s will that led him to the cross. There, because God is gracious and merciful to you, Christ submitted himself in your place to God’s anger. The Father did not relent of his judgment but instead poured out his full wrath against your sin. The Lord Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he experienced damnation in your place
God is gracious, merciful and loving. In the death of his Son he provided for the atonement of our sin. He removed the sin that separated you from him – that cut you off from life and fellowship with God. And then in the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, he defeated the death that held you the sinner in its grasp. Death may now claim your body, but it cannot keep it. For by his death and resurrection Jesus Christ has claimed you – body and soul.
He will raise your body up on the Last Day to be like his. And in preparation for this – in the guarantee of this – he has given you his Spirit as the first fruits and down payment. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the end times. As the risen and ascended Lord, Jesus poured forth the Spirit to carry out his life giving work. Peter said on the Day of Pentecost as he quoted the words of Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.’”
You have received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Spirit in the water of Holy Baptism. The Spirit has joined you to the saving work of the crucified and risen Lord. Because of this, you are forgiven and you will be raised. And so in faith you repent. You confess your sin. And you return to Go because he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.