Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
2 a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread 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.
12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, 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.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
17 Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17
Ash Wednesday is an important marker in the church year. Though it sometimes feels as if the Lenten journey is of our own making, we know it is not. This journey begins with a covenant keeping God–the one who is gracious and merciful, the one who claims us before we know our name. This season invites us to return to the relationship God has already established with us. What practices will you utilize to draw closer to the God who beckons you to come home again?
The call of Lent is to return to the Lord with all our heart, to turn our face to God as resolutely and faithfully as Christ turned his face to Jerusalem. Joel reminds us that God is not interested in our just going through the motions of faith, but letting God’s call seep deep into our hearts and transform our own lives as we engage in the life of the world. The communal nature of Lent makes clear that part of our returning to God includes breaking open our hearts for the sake of the world—-living fully for the other, bearing burdens, and working for the justice and mercy that are rooted in the very heart of God. It can be scary, living whole-heartedly for God–certainly Joel’s call is steeped in the language of fear and doom–yet it is only in turning our hearts to God that we might discover God has already left a blessing for us. What blessing might you find this Lent? How might you be a blessing to someone else?
We are called to turn our hearts to God, yet this Lenten journey is not a solitary one. Joel called the whole community to gather, young and old, priests and people together. I am reminded of the first time I really understood the power of a community of faith. The day was September 11, 2001. I was too young to fully understand what had happened on that day, but I felt it to be a day of darkness and gloom. My church gathered that evening, huddled together in the front pews with candles and songs of lament and hope. Being the community of God’s people on that night was a powerful witness to the weary and frightened souls who showed up and to those who watched from a distance. Perhaps more than any other time in the life of the church, Lent looks the gloom of the world squarely in the eye and says, Death will not have the last word. Our God will triumph. Over the next seven weeks, we will hear stories of temptation, ignorance, betrayal, corruption, hypocrisy, violence, murder, and fear. Yet each of these is a paving stone on the path of hope–hope that God’s grace unleashed on the cross is flowing still. This Lent, don’t walk alone. With whom will you share the journey?
In the deep south where I make my home, there is no greater compliment than being invited to return to someone’s home, even before you depart. God, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, is a gracious host. God invites us to return again and again . . . and to do so together. Like a guest who will occasionally spill tea or forget to abide by the house rules, we fail God even in our best deeds. And still, God invites us to come back home where we will be healed and made whole for the sake of the entire world. Lent’s greatest gift to us may be the invitation to start anew, recognizing God’s claim and becoming more aware that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is at work making all things new. For what do you pray to be made new?
In that spirit, let us pray together…
Wondrous Love, as we begin this pilgrim journey of Lent, we pray that you will give us companions on the road and a direction in which to go. Guide us into fullness of life as we follow you from cross to tomb to garden, where we shall greet you with joy. Even once the ashes have faded from our foreheads, keep us mindful of our identity as your children, called to lift high the love and grace of the cross in a world that is shaken and spent. In the name of the One who forms, forgives, and frees us, Amen.
Carol Ferguson is a final-year M. Div. student from Salem, VA. She spent a year serving as Intern Minister of First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, NC and is currently seeking her first call as a solo pastor.
The Rev. Elizabeth Ayscue (M.A. 1984, M. Div. 1989) is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Albemarle, NC.