The people who assembled the Revised Common Lectionary from which the Ash Wednesday readings are drawn obviously had some unfinished business. On the very day in which we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross to indicate our acknowledgment of sins, and penance, they give us the passage from Matthew where Jesus condemns doing such things. Jesus says overt marks of penitence are hypocritical and that we should appear to others as if it were any other day. God who sees in secret is enough. This passage stands in stark contrast to Paul’s remarks in the epistle to the Corinthians about the pains of being steady witnesses to Christ. Perhaps the lectionary mavens wanted us to choose between the two attitudes. Perhaps the committee was dominated by free-church Christians who abominate high church rituals such as the imposition of ashes as idolatrizing Romanism. At any rate, we need to finish the business and think through this day of overt expression of faith, contrition, and resolution.
The key, I believe, is in the reading from Joel. The Day of the Lord is coming, says Joel, a day of devastating judgment. Joel construes a devastating plague of locusts, which was destroying the economy of Israel, to be a divine judgment against Israel for her sins. He likens the locusts to the armies of Assyrians and Babylonians that in previous centuries had devastated the land and carried off many of the inhabitants. The prophets also construed those disasters as punishments for Israel’s sins.
Now I do not believe that God starves out people, including innocent children, and ruins environments to punish idolaters who worship gods other than Yahweh, which was the issue here. The locusts came because they woke from their 17 year hibernation. Nor are the military adventures of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to be interpreted as punishments for Israel. The prophets were put in a bind by their own theology, which was that the God of Israel guaranteed protection and special status for Israel. If Israel suffered from political or natural disasters, this could not be because God was weak or unfaithful. The prophets had to lay moral blame on Israel. That is the bad theology that comes from thinking of the Creator as a small, partisan deity. We know God to be the infinite creator of billions of galaxies, a God whose creation is wild from the perspective of human ambitions, a God whose love is more fecund, and intimate to our souls, than the vengeful, political God of Joel’s imagination.
Nevertheless, Joel was right that actions have consequences for our relations with God. When we hurt other people, we deny the plain truth that they are equally children of God. When we neglect prayer and worship, we become distant from the intimate ground of our being. When we move through life half asleep, we deny that everything created glistens with the pulse of God’s creation. When we are inattentive to the life around us, we deny the blazing colors of the wild God in our world and assume that the drab grays of our own invention are all the colors there are. When we are lazy, we deny the vitality of the opportunities before us. When we hunt for excuses, we deny the obligations under which God has given us to live. When we harbor grudges, we deny that God’s mercy makes all things new in each pulse of time. When we resent others their successes, we deny that God gives each of us our own story, not the stories of others. When we hurt others because of our own selfishness, we deny that God loves us with such sufficiency that selfishness is idolatry. When we sink into greed and gluttony, we deny that in God we possess and enjoy all things.
Hurt, neglect, sleepwalking, inattention, laziness, excuses, grudges, resentment, selfishness, greed, and gluttony add up to a monstrous denial of the most real thing in our lives, that God is our intimate creator and lover. The weight of that denial harms others, blinds us to God, and blights our lives like a plague of locusts. And sometimes we do not even notice. In the face of all this, Lent calls us to observe Joel’s call: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
Lent calls us to give up the denial and turn to God. Although it is difficult to turn in all those dimensions of sin, each of which clutches at us like devouring locusts, we have the grace of God to do so, and this season to set our goals. The power of the Creator is ready with renewal. Listen again to Paul:
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left, in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Brothers and sisters, that is the way to live. Come bear the mark of the return to God and the vitality of creation.