Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 – Ash Wednesday

Blow the horn in Zion;
    give a shout on my holy mountain!
Let all the people of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is near—
    a day of darkness and no light,
    a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread out upon the mountains,
    a great and powerful army comes,
        unlike any that has ever come before them,
        or will come after them in centuries ahead…

Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your hearts,
        with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow;
tear your hearts
        and not your clothing.
    Return to the Lord your God,
        for he is merciful and compassionate,
        very patient, full of faithful love,
            and ready to forgive.
Who knows whether he will have a change of heart
    and leave a blessing behind him,
    a grain offering and a drink offering
            for the Lord your God?
Blow the horn in Zion;
        demand a fast;
        request a special assembly.
Gather the people;
        prepare a holy meeting;
        assemble the elders;
        gather the children,
            even nursing infants.
Let the groom leave his room
        and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
        let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep.
    Let them say, “Have mercy, Lord, on your people,
        and don’t make your inheritance a disgrace,
        an example of failure among the nations.
    Why should they say among the peoples,
        ‘Where is their God?’” (CEB)

Imagine you are out for a hike on a beautiful spring day and you come to a creek. You notice that someone has dumped trash into the stream—not a pretty sight. Judging by some of the empty soda cans, the trash has been there awhile. And there is an ugly film on top of the water. You do not want to leave the scene as you found it, because it would bother your conscience.

So, you stoop down and begin gathering the trash. It ends up taking several hours before you can begin to see a difference. It is amazing, you muse, on how much junk is there. You sit back, rest for a moment, and realize you will have to keep coming each day until the site is truly clean. But when you come back the next day, it is as if you did not even do any work at all.  In fact, there is more trash than the day before. It seems the garbage bred overnight. You think about the unlikelihood of someone coming to this very spot to dump their garbage just in the one measly day you were away.

Then, you realize that something smells fishy—so to speak. So, you begin to follow the creek upstream. Sure enough, there is a nasty garbage dump that has been there for years. The waste from it is emptying into the passing creek. Your cleaning job was only a small opening to a world of filth. You could try and clean every day. But if you really want your creek to be free of pollution, this means going directly to the source and dealing with the crud that is there.

Our hearts are the source from which our lives flow. Unfortunately, we spend great amounts of time, money, and energy—even in the church—doing trash removal “downstream.” But real transformation begins when we travel upstream to the source. Our real struggles and sins take place where no one sees them down deep in the heart.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent. Ashes remind us that we live in a polluted world full of garbage. That pollution is fouling up our lives and we must respond to the mess with a humble return to God. Lent is a 40-day cleaning project on the inside of our hearts, instead of trying to keep up dealing with all the scum on the outside of our lives. 

Entrance to confronting the dump of garbage requires fasting, self-examination, prayer, and repentance. The Lord said through the ancient prophet Joel that it is not too late to return to God with our whole hearts. To do so requires grieving and lamenting our stinky sin and turning back around to a merciful God who does not like to be angry and punish people.

We find that at the end of the Lenten journey, Jesus is there. He swallows all the massive tonnage of the world’s garbage on the cross. The refuse is so rotten that it kills him, and there is only darkness. Then, three days later, Christ is risen, having shaken off the filthy stench of death. Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the prophet’s words, the merciful one who has taken care of the filthy source of garbage once and for all.

May you find on this day and every day that the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and repentance put you in a place to receive Jesus. As you lean into the mess throughout the next six weeks of Lent, may you discover the cleansing and healing agent, Jesus Christ, the Savior who scrubs the heart clean of toxic waste.

Holy God, our lives are laid open before you: rescue us from the chaos of sin and through the death of your Son bring us healing and make us whole in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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