Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lent: "Yet Even Now..."

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.

(Book of Joel 2:1-2, 12-13, CEB)

The prophet Joel paints a pretty bleak picture here. The people of Israel were in dire straits: Their land was covered with locust swarms so enormous and destructive that it seemed the oft-foretold 'Day of the Lord' was here.  Their grain and produce were utterly devastated, leaving trees so bare and fields so denuded that a raging fire couldn't have done more damage. The sun was darkened by huge, billowing clouds of the insects that were found as well in every food bowl and every bed in every person's home. 

This was the worst possible catastrophe for an agricultural people -- perhaps as bad as a tsunami, a nuclear reactor meltdown, a worldwide economic meltdown.

The 'Day of the Lord' is always close at hand.  It's not just an epic eschatological event.  Even if our particular nation happens to be prospering and none of our sons and daughters are fighting overseas, even if for some brief blip in history the entire globe is by some fluke safe and happy, the 'Day of the Lord' can fall upon any one of us in an instant.

Cancer or a cerebral hemorrhage can take our beloved ones away before we can say 'good bye.' Job loss and doctor bills can force us into homelessness or bankruptcy.  Just as a follower of Jesus lives in his Kingdom here and now (Letter to the Colossians, chapter 1 verse 13, CEB) and our life is being judged here and now (First Letter of Peter, chapter 4 verse 17, CEB), so the Day of the Lord can get extremely "near" to each of us, just as it did to Joel's people. Any of us can be engulfed in, "a day of darkness and no light/ a day of clouds and thick darkness."

So, does that mean people assailed by bankruptcy or tsunamis are being punished for their sins -- or the sins of their nation, as some would have it? According to the one who teaches us about such things, Jesus of Nazareth, it's a bit more nuanced than that (see the Gospel of Luke chapter 13 for details).  It's not that those people over there are sinners and should repent, it's that we are all sinners and we should all be repenting -- bankruptcy, Tower of Siloam, and tsunami or not.

Which brings us to Lent. As I've been allowing some famous Christians to hint at for the past 3 Lenten Sundays, to follow the Messiah is to repent. At its most basic, Christianity involves humility and self-renunciation.  Everyone who wants to serve the Messiah needs to carve this inscription into their hearts: "Say no yourself, take up your cross, and follow me," (Gospel of Mark, chapter 8 verse 34, CEB).

But it's not "fasting", "weeping", and "tearing your heart" for their own sakes. Lent also tells us that even when we are in the depths of our darkest sin or our most awful suffering, even when we are in our own Day of the Lord, our God calls out to us with those heart-stopping words: "Yet even now..."

Yet even now, at the end of our rope, at the end of our lives, there is still rescue and forgiveness and eternal life. We are ever called, down to the very last second, to, "Return to the Lord your God/ for he is merciful and compassionate/ very patient, full of faithful love/ and ready to forgive."


This is stop number 20 on the Lenten Blog Tour, in which 41 bloggers give 41 reflections on Lent using the new Common English Bible. Check in each day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Monday for more.


Randy Willis said...

Thanks for the reflection on the passage from Joel. It reminds me of the sermon I did on Joel last fall. My point was: "In the midst of devastation, turn to God for restoration."

It's a great (albeit difficult) story.

Gnomon said...

Thank goodness that God never gives up on us. Excellent post!