Updated: Mar 3
Artwork: "Stardust” created by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity
A Sanctified Art LLC | sanctifiedart.org, used with permission
As we move into our experience of Scripture tonight, we turn to a text from the prophet Joel – which Marita will read in three parts. Sometimes when we hear the words of the biblical prophets, it can be hard to get a foothold – these ancient words – intense, vivid imagery – often spoken with dire urgency. And so as we encounter the prophets this year, we are remembering “the prophetic imagination” – the sense that a prophet is always doing two things: (1) They are announcing something wrong in the world that must come to an end, (2) so that the new thing that God is doing – even now – can come to life.
(1) Something is wrong in the world.
(2) God is bringing a new thing to life.
With the prophetic imagination in mind, let’s turn to our Scripture from the prophet Joel:
2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of our God is coming, it is near—
2 a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like thick blanket spreading upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
3 Fire devours in front of them,
and behind them a flame burns.
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden,
but after them a desolate wilderness,
and nothing escapes them.
4 They have the appearance of horses,
and like war-horses they charge.
5 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.
6 Before them peoples are in anguish,
all faces grow pale.…
10 The earth quakes before them,
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
We don’t have to strain to hear what’s wrong in the prophet’s world. Sound the alarm! Trouble is rolling over the hills like an advancing army. The earth rattles with the drumbeat of soldiers marching in cadence – with the rumble of horses and chariots on the move. Before them, the faces of the people grow pale – the heavens tremble – as this army lays siege to city walls.
These ancient words are all too resonant and fresh in our day, as we watch columns of Russian troops head toward Kiev, laying siege the city, as hundreds of thousands of people flee – the story of empires rolling over peoples – as ancient and as recent as our present humanity. We know the violence of our day – not only the raw mass-violence of armies – but the systems and structures of domination that maintain power at the expense of the dignity and freedom of people – among the nations, and within each nation, even our own.
If we look just a bit more closely at the prophet’s army imagery, we see that it’s actually an army of locusts. You really have to go back to chapter 1 to see that – but it’s an army of locusts that is laying waste to the land. While the people sleep, an ecological catastrophe has swept in. The ground is dried up; the crops fail; the seeds shrivel and the cattle moan; and fire devours the pasture.
Again, these ancient words may be a little too fresh – a little too close to home – as we sit in the midst of our own global climate emergency – with ways of living that lay waste to the earth – as temperature rises and as UN reports shout, Sound the alarm!
The trouble rumbling through our world is both collective and personal: (1) The systems and structures that roll over the people – and (2) our individual experience of all that – both our complicity and the pain we feel in our bones. We know the brokenness of our own lives – the illness and the pain in need of healing; our fractured relationships; the ways we have hurt others; all those moments when we look out at life, and we just don’t know.
We don’t have to strain to hear the prophet’s first word – there’s something wrong in the world that needs to change. Fortunately, the prophetic imagination never leaves us with just that first word. Let’s listen to what the prophet says next:
12 Yet even now, says God,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to God,
for God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether God will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind them,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
“Even now, return to me.” As the sound of the alarm still echoes in the air, we hear God’s voice call out, “Return to me.” Come to me, beloved, with your whole heart! In the Hebrew – “heart” is so much more -- it’s our whole being – the home of all our intention – everything we are. “Come to me, beloved, with your whole heart – with everything you are – with all your broken pieces and all your beauty and all your sorrow and all your love. Come to me with every bit of you.” In the midst of our troubled world, that’s the invitation of Ash Wednesday and of Lent, God calling out to us, “Come to me, beloved, with every bit of you, even the broken pieces.”
A couple Sundays ago, I mentioned an Irish preacher – Maurice Boyd – who came to town when I was a teenager. He went on to be a fairly prominent preacher in New York City. There’s this radio talk he gave once that he called: “The Fine Art of Being Imperfect.” His critique is that we are a culture obsessed with perfectionism, the sense that our job is to get everything right – the sense that we can get everything right. And if we aren’t perfect, well, we best not talk about that. We should hide our imperfection away.
If we do that, though, we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. And that holds us back. We keep back a part of ourselves – the rough edges of our daily imperfection. Dr. Boyd writes, “If all we can offer is our best, we are not offering enough, for our best is only a very small part of us.”
Thinking we ought to be perfect, we don’t bring our whole selves – and it’s not just that we don’t bring our whole selves to God – we don’t bring our whole selves to life. We miss out on a fundamental truth about who we are and about how much God loves us – as Maurice Boyd says, “We aren’t accepted by God because we are perfectly acceptable;
we are accepted by God because we are perfectly loved.”
In the trouble of our world, in the trouble of us, God calls to us, “Even now, even now, come to me beloved – with all the bits and pieces of your broken world and your broken lives – and I will make you whole.”
And we could stop there, on this Ash Wednesday, with a call to reflect on the broken pieces that we bring tonight. We could stop there. That’s where the official reading for Ash Wednesday stops. But we are celebrating an expansive Lent – so let’s listen just a bit further to what the prophet says next:
18 Then God...had pity on the people.
19 In response to the people, God said:
“I am sending you
grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
a mockery among the nations.
20 I will remove the northern army far from you,
and drive it into a parched and desolate land,...
21 Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for God has done great things!
22 Do not fear, you animals of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
23 O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in your God;
for God has given the early rain for your vindication,
and poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil....
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I am your God and there is no other.
28 Then afterward,
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your elders shall dream dreams,
and your youth shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit...
32 [and] everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved.
After the drought, rain – abundant rain – the early rains, and the late rains. The pastures green. The vines and the fig trees bear fruit. The threshing floors are full again. The vats of wine and oil overflow. And the siege lifts.
And then God says this: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh. Your youth will see visions; your elders will dream dreams.” But that’s Pentecost... did you hear that? That’s what they said at Pentecost. After the brutal experience of crucifixion, and then the bewildering days of Resurrection – when even the dead would not stay dead – they gathered together – with all their broken pieces – and they remembered those words – just part of what the prophet had said all those years ago:
Even now, even now, return to me with all your heart – with all your broken pieces – with all you are. And I will pour out my spirit on all flesh. Your youth will see visions; your elders dream dreams.
Over the expanse of the generations, we find ourselves traveling together with all those who have gone before –
Always moving through this troubled world,
imperfectly trying to do our best,
Always bringing our broken pieces, every bit of who we are,
Always full to the brim with the love and the grace of God.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember two truths about who we are.
We remember the ashes – the dust of us –
our frailty, our fumbling, our folly.
And, we remember that our identity ultimately is in Jesus Christ.
Who we are is not defined by our imperfection – but by the superabounding love of God – filling us to the fullness of the measure of Christ.
We remember God’s goodness, planted in us more deeply than all that is wrong.
In the trouble of the world, in the trouble of us, God calls out to us, “Even now, even now, come to me beloved – with all the bits and pieces of your broken world and your broken lives – and I will make you whole.”
© 2022 Scott Clark
Our worship series this Lent draws from resources created by SanctifiedArt, a collective of artists in ministry, including scriptural commentary by Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt and Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia. All copyrighted material is licensed and used with permission, with our deep gratitude to the SanctifiedArts collective.
 See Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 13-14.  This reading of the text is informed and inspired particularly by Wil Gafney, Commentary at Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ash-wednesday/commentary-on-joel-21-2-12-17-13 , and Alphonetta Wines, Commentary at Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ash-wednesday/commentary-on-joel-21-2-12-17-11  See Maurice Boyd, The Fine Art of Being Imperfect, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998).