© 2021 Evan D. Garner
A video of our Ash Wednesday service, including sermon, can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 15:45.
Jesus and Joel have very different approaches to Lent. Jesus says go hide by yourself in your bedroom, shut the door, and don’t let anyone see your fasting. Joel says blow the trumpet, call a solemn assembly, and make sure everyone shows up—from the old folks to the little babies and everyone in between. I wonder which one of them was right.
Of course, those two prophets were addressing very different situations, both of which have parallels with our contemporary religious life. Jesus spoke at a time when the gap between the religious zealots and the ordinary faithful had widened. Some sects of first-century Judaism emphasized the importance of going above and beyond what was required, like fasting multiple times every week and tithing not only on one’s income but also on everything that one purchased just in case the seller forgot to do their part. The only problem with heightened religiosity is that it is hard to sit up on that high horse without looking down on everyone else. Pretty soon, what starts as a desire to get closer to God becomes a desire to get closer to God than other people. Genuine piety becomes a superficial performance. Show replaces substance. We lose touch with what religion was all about in the first place. Hypocrisy sets in.
We have a history of that in our own culture. Church is a place to see and be seen. We feel good when people notice our pious acts. We like wearing our faithfulness where other people can see it. But not right now. Not today. Sure, there’s still more than enough religious hypocrisy to go around, even in a pandemic, but this Ash Wednesday there is no see and be seen. There is no need to shut the door and wash our face and hide our fasting from others. There is no solemn assembly, no trumpets, no ashen cross. We are already utterly alone, shut up, in secret, with no one but our heavenly Father to see us.
Because of that, I think Joel has more to say to us this year. Joel wasn’t speaking to a religious culture in which the goody-goodies were too proud of themselves to care about the needs of others. He was speaking to a community that was so overwhelmed by a crisis that they had forgotten that religion even mattered.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion,” he cried out. “Sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” Joel’s words were a call upon the national defense in anticipation of a looming attack. But what sort of army was bearing down upon God’s people? Not traditional soldiers and warriors but an all-consuming plague of locusts, which promised to devour everything in their path. Already, like a raging fire, they had burned through the land, and now they were closing in on the capital city.
“Like warriors they charge,” Joel wrote, “like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course, they do not swerve from their paths.” In horrifying detail, the prophet explained that traditional defenses would be no match for this innumerable army: “They burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief.” Like a cloud that blotted out the sun, the airborne swarms descended upon every field, leaving absolutely nothing behind. Even the stubble was consumed. Really, there was nothing that could be done—nothing except to pray.
Joel’s answer to the national crisis was a universal call to prayer. “Blow the trumpet in Zion,” he repeated, but this time, instead of rallying the troops, he was rallying the faithful. “Sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people…assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast; let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.” Why? Because, in the face of an enemy that none of them had the strength or skill to defeat, the people had to turn to God.
But what does God have to do with a swarm of locusts? What does religion have to do with a natural phenomenon? Ancient prophets and contemporary crackpots might associate a natural disaster with the angry hand of God, but we know better. We know that, in drought conditions, grasshoppers begin to squeeze together in smaller and smaller spaces in search of food and that the close proximity and scarce resources begin to change how the grasshoppers’ brains work, releasing massive amounts of serotonin and transforming the normally docile insects into a destructive swarm of locusts.  Like Joel’s contemporaries, we may prefer to dissociate natural occurrences from our religious practices, but we don’t need to blame God or ourselves for the pandemic in order to turn to God and seek God’s help.
Why does Joel call upon the people to sanctify a fast and gather a solemn assembly? Because “even now,” the Lord says, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Our pain, our grief, our loss are honored as prayers to God.
None of us is immune to the struggle and suffering around us. We face an enemy so pervasive that no army can repel it. We are assaulted by a foe so subtle that it turns the very comfort we find in one another against us. What does God have to do with all of that? Everything—absolutely everything.
God matters in this moment not because God is punishing us but because God loves us when we need it most. Our collective religious response is not to convince God to forgive us but to convince ourselves that, even in the face of great struggle and tremendous loss, God is with us, that we are not abandoned, that we are not forgotten. That is what our Lenten renewal is all about—returning to the truth that, in the face of our frailty, God’s strength is with us. We need our faith now as much as we ever have—not as a substitute for taking necessary precautions and getting vaccinated when it is our turn but as a proclamation that God will triumph over everything that threatens us.
Normally, Ash Wednesday is a time to come together and hear the stark reminder that we will all die someday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This year, most of us don’t need to go to church to get that reminder. But we do need to come together as a community of faith—even if we can only gather virtually—to hear the other side of that Lenten proclamation—that, even though life is fragile, God’s salvation is assured.
We may not know how that salvation will come to us in this moment. Even the prophet Joel acknowledged that he wasn’t sure about it when he wrote, “Who knows? Maybe God will turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him instead.” But we do not need to know how and when God’s saving help will find us to believe that it will. That is why we come together this day—to remember that we are dust yet to proclaim that we are beloved, to acknowledge our own mortality yet to renew our faith in the one who saves us still.
 Harmon, Katherine. “When Grasshoppers Go Biblical: Serotonin Causes Locusts to Swarm.” Scientific American; 30 January 2009. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-grasshoppers-go-bibl/