The Sounding Alarm

The Sounding Alarm
Ash Wednesday
February 25, 2009

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

1 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy hill.
Let all who live in the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming.
It is close at hand-

2 a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness.
Like dawn spreading across the mountains
a large and mighty army comes,
such as never was of old
nor ever will be in ages to come.

12 “Even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

13 Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.

14 Who knows? He may turn and have pity
and leave behind a blessing-
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the LORD your God.

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion,
declare a holy fast,
call a sacred assembly.

16 Gather the people,
consecrate the assembly;
bring together the elders,
gather the children,
those nursing at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room
and the bride her chamber.

17 Let the priests, who minister before the LORD,
weep between the temple porch and the altar.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD.
Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’ ”

If you can, I would like you to open your minds with me for a moment for a little bit of imaginative work. If it helps to close your eyes, you are welcome to do so, just make sure you open them back up! We are standing in a huge field, maybe there are some mountains off in the distance, but for the most part all we see is a vast expanse of grassland. All is quiet and still. Off on the horizon, a huge, dark cloud appears moving toward us. But there is no wind, and the sun is shining brightly overhead. The cloud is low in the sky and it is moving unnaturally fast. Actually, upon closer examination, it is just moving unnaturally period. And then you realize, it’s locusts. Before the thought can even clear our heads, the field is covered in these grasshoppers. And in their wake, nothing is left. This was a fairly regular sight for the people of the ancient Middle East.

Now we’re going to continue to use our imaginations in a little more modern situation. Imagine you’re in your den. You’re relaxing on your comfortable couch watching the digital news in all its glory on a 52″ flat screen. Life is good. And then they start talking about the stock market, a recap of the year. In just twelve months time, the DOW has fallen 6,000 points. And in its wake, complete destruction. The next thing you know, your phone is ringing. Your brother has been laid off after 30 years of faithful service in his company. Your mother has just lost nearly all of her retirement savings in the stock market fall and can no longer afford to live in the retirement facility that has been so wonderful for her well-being in the last few years. It’s just like a plague of locusts has been set loose in your life and everything that once brought security has been eaten away. Let’s open our eyes now and reflect on this a bit more.

Joel’s words to the Judeans that we heard moments ago have an amazingly timeless air to them. In fact, Joel’s prophecies are so timeless, that the precise dating of this book is rather uncertain. The only thing that is known for sure is that Joel’s prophecy came soon after a particularly devastating locust plague and drought; a situation which would have been as horrific to the Judeans as our current economic crisis is to us. Through Joel, God uses the memory of this desperate situation to call back again the covenant people. In the opening of this passage before us today God is calling for the alarm to be sounded, for the trumpet to be blown in Zion. The warning call is intended to alert the people that the Day of the Lord is at hand, a day described as black and gloomy, with a vast army marching in from the horizon. The following verses proceed to describe the Day of the Lord in comparison to the recent drought and locust plague, with emphasis on the fact that the destruction on the Day of the Lord will be much worse. Though the description of the Day of the Lord is horrendous, I think the most crucial part of this passage is those few words at the very beginning before the description of the Day of the Lord; the word of God calling for the trumpet to be sounded. God is more concerned with protecting God’s covenant people than with destroying them. God is not calling for the trumpet to be sounded such that the people will run away in terror in the face of impending doom, but so that they will come into the protection of the Loving Father.

The sounding of the trumpet was a fairly regular occurrence in the life of Ancient Israel, but the instrument is not like the modern brass trumpet. Rather, it was a ram’s horn, like the one you see here today. The shofar was sounded to mark a significant event, like the beginning of a battle, or the announcement of peace. It is even said that the shofar was sounded at the giving of the Ten Commandments. The blowing of the shofar is even a reminder of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, since at the last minute a lamb was substituted for the young boy. Today, the shofar is often used as a call to penitence. The sounding of the shofar in this particular passage from Joel is quite interesting in the sense that God is calling for the sounding of the alarm at the coming battle, but God is the leader of the great host. God is warning of the attack even though God is leading the charge. So here we see in essence the use of the shofar for two purposes, to warn of battle, and to call to repentance; a repentance that ultimately will save us from the terrible attack looming on the horizon.

So, here’s where Joel’s message becomes so important and timeless. The attack that is looming on the horizon of our lives could take many different forms. For the ancient Judeans, it was likened to the recent locust plague and drought. Earlier I described a possible situation that could be related to our recent economic downturn. But maybe we’re feeling attacks of a different kind. There is the sin that is impossible to overcome. Or maybe it’s a broken relationship or a loss of trust. Maybe the attack is the burden of caring for both an older generation and a younger one, or dealing with the difficulties of an illness or disease. Perhaps it is the fight against the controlling habits of substance abuse. Maybe we feel the impending doom of human rights abuse or domestic abuse, war, famine, or systemic poverty. The attack looming on the horizon could be natural disasters: wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes. The pressures we feel or sense in our lives originate from a variety of different sources; some from our own internal struggles, other from the challenges of living in a complex world with extremely diverse cultures on a vastly diverse planet. But the truth is, from within or without, these pressures in our lives and the sense of an attack on the horizon can wreak havoc for us. But just because there is chaos does not mean that God is not also there. In fact, I believe that it is precisely in the midst of these situations; perhaps even through the situations themselves, that God is sounding the shofar, reminding us to return to God. “‘Even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.'”

God recognizes our vulnerability, whether self-imposed or otherwise. And God calls us to return to God. We are even given permission to weep and mourn. God tells us to ‘rend our hearts, not our clothing.’ The tearing of clothing was a sign in ancient times of deep emotion, usually sorrow or anger. Through Joel, God is telling us all to rend our hearts, to bare our very lives before God. We should be disappointed in our failings as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we should be angry about the injustices of our world, we should be sad in the fast of disaster. And above all we should surrender all of that before God. The words of Joel show us that Judah has no hope of a future apart from God, and it is no different for us. Our lives depend on our response to God’s call for penitence and trust.[1] You see, it’s not just about wearing the mark of the ashes on Ash Wednesday, this is only the beginning. Our turning to God, our repentance in the face of sin, our trust of God in the midst of despair is not some meritorious act that compels God to accept us. God has already accepted us. We repent and put our trust in God not simply for salvation, but because we know that God’s work in us will magnify the Lord’s glory throughout the earth.[2]

We cannot handle the burdens and difficulties of our lives on our own. We cannot conquer sin through our own initiative, God does not want us forging ahead by ourselves. This is why Jesus came to this Earth. But the reality is that things do get complicated. We do face difficulties and challenges. We are attacked from all sides and doom seems to loom on the horizon, but it is precisely through these struggles that God is sounding the shofar. God is calling us to God’s loving presence. God is reminding us that he ordered chaos, that we are surrounded by love, grace, and forgiveness. What is it in your own life that needs to be turned over to God in Christ Jesus today? What sins do we need to confess? What burden is weighing us down? What doubt is robbing us of faith? Bring it to the altar, bare your hearts before God, take the next forty days, this time of  Lent to turn your face to God and let the pathway be cleared, let the attack be thwarted. This is your time to surrender. And now we’ll take a moment to offer our hearts and all that fill them to God. What alarm is God sounding in your life today?

[1] Elizabeth Achtemeier, “The Book of Joel” in The New interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 321.

[2] Ibid., 321.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s