Ash Wednesday sermon by Robin Steinke, Dean
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
[blow the shofar]
Blow the trumpet in Zion. You have to love a text that begins with the command blow the trumpet, especially if you are a trumpet player. To blow the trumpet, shofar, or rams horn was to call the community to attention. Something is about to happen and you had better pay attention. You ignore the sound of the shofar at your peril, as if this is a sound you could possibly ignore.
Whilst traveling in Israel and the West Bank in January with Dr. Stevens’ class we saw the trumpet stone, which was the stone that marked the highest place on the wall where the shofar player stood to ensure that all in the community could hear this call to attention. From this high place all could hear and heed the warning. There are other Old Testament texts which call for the trumpet. In Exodus 19 the blast of the trumpet causes the people to tremble in fear. In Leviticus the start of the jubilee year began with a blast of the shofar. In Judges the blast of the shofar is a call to arms. Joshua and his troops blew the shofar which resulted in the destruction of the walls of Jericho. The Day of Atonement described in Leviticus begins with the blowing of the shofar. The blowing of the shofar is the summons for all to gather and pay attention for something important is about to happen, something that could change your life.
What is it that the prophet Joel is calling attention to? In this prophetic book, the announcement calls all people to prepare for the wrath of God. Joel calls the people to gather in the face of impending doom. The verses foretell a scene of divine destruction, a day of darkness and gloom, the people are in anguish, the earth quakes, the stars withdraw their shining, blackness spread on the mountain, a great army comes; fire devours them; a desolate wilderness will be left.
God calls the people to pay attention and to remember together their deliverance during a time of crisis, repent and return to God, for God is our refuge.
The call to pay attention to the ways in which God has delivered the people reminds the listener of God’s deliverance in the Exodus. The way to insure the remembrance of the time of communal crisis and deliverance is to tell the children, tell them to remember what God has done. This is not simply a remembering of individual trials and tribulations, sometimes known as complaining, out of which God has delivered oneself. It is a communal remembering. The plague of locusts which is described in the opening chapter of Joel, perhaps a metaphor for an invading army, is not a crisis of a select few individuals, it is a crisis of the whole community and deliverance was a communal deliverance.
Remembering together is a way of testing the stories of shared experience. If there is any doubt of the need for such testing, think of those family gatherings where each recalls their own version of an event supposedly involving all family members yet there are creative variations which leave you wondering if you were at this event at all.
Remembering together is also a guard against the excesses of complaining and the extremes of either despair or optimism. It can be easy to despair in the midst of crisis, to see oneself as a victim and to look for scapegoats or others to blame. To despair is to refuse to claim the gifts God has offered and wallow in self-pity. Right remembering as a communal discipline brings us back to the community, it re-members us with others.
At the other extreme, it is also easy to gloss over the crisis, to engage is syrupy optimism, to employ the power of positive thinking and imagine that things aren’t really that bad. The prophet Joel offers a “thick description” of the devastation which offers a strong dose of reality to counter such optimistic remembrance. To deny the reality of devastation is an attempt to deny finitude and minimize the power of God’s deliverance. The way in which we remember together informs both the way in which we live presently and the way in which we hope for the future. Communal remembrance mitigates against such despair or optimism, it re-members us with others, re-stitches us with others.
To remember is also to think theologically about the ways God is at work in the world. The activity of God is rarely self-evident. In fact I am a bit suspicious of those who claim to know unambiguously and precisely how God is at work. To know or to trust that God is at work is a more modest claim than to know precisely how God is active in the world. To trust that God is at work in the world is to trust that God is faithful to God’s promises, even and perhaps especially, in times of deepest crisis when the work of God seems veiled.
What are the people to do in the face of this divine wrath, remembering God’s work of deliverance? The people gather and hear the invitation to return, repent, pray and fast. This call to holy habits is not a way of manipulating the divine will but emerges from God’s invitation to take up these holy habits to return, repent, pray and fast. It may be that habits of the body shape the habits of the heart, and these holy habits reorient life with God.
Linger in Lament
Lent is a time to linger in these holy habits, a time to linger in lament, to stay with the hardest bits of who we are as a community and as persons. Lent is a time to lament, not that we have given up some personal convenience during these 40 days, but lament that as persons in community we have failed. God is God and we are not. Lent is a time to lean into the reality of our own greed, self-interest, self-centeredness. Holy habits of prayer and fasting and any other ways that free us from the idols we have created that deny our own finitude may be offered as ways to respond to God’s invitation to pay attention.
Some students have shared that Prof. Schramm when teaching the Introduction to Old Testament is reported to have introduced the litany “God is against you” which invited the response, “and also against you.” Perhaps lent is a time to linger there, to face the reality of divine judgment.
It is very easy for us to “Easter over” these texts of divine judgment. It is easy to hopscotch from Ash Wednesday, to Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, self-satisfied that we have dutifully abstained from one thing or another and are ready to reengage our former habits.
Lent is a time to linger where the breath gets sucked out of you. Lent is to linger where the difficulty and devastation are more than you can bear. Lingering in Lent is not to be done alone. This call of the trumpet is the call that we are in this together.
We read the prophet Joel two times a year, on Thanksgiving and Ash Wednesday. We remember with thanksgiving God’s deliverance in times of crisis and repent and return to the Lord because God is our refuge, gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love. The story doesn’t end there. On Pentecost the prophet Joel is also quoted in the Acts reading. God empowers and sends God’s people to continue to tell the story, the story that has come to dwell within them. The very breath of God returns to fill you, to re-orient you, to give the community life itself.
By now you might be “weary of all trumpeting”. If the tune were a bit more singable, we would have used 785 in With One Voice as the hymn of the day. The stanza which includes the phrase “trumpet with your spirit’s breath through each height and hollow, into your self-giving death, call us all to follow.” is a fitting way to lead us into the journey of these forty days to remember together, linger with lent and follow the way to the cross.