Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
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?’”
If, at any point in the last year, you have felt out-of-sorts, unmoored, or thrown off by the world around you, you are in luck: The prophets have a word for you.
All of the prophets, including Joel and Isaiah, write during periods of Israelite history when things are not going well. There is a lot of sin in their world, a lot of violence and injustice and death, and they name what they’re seeing around them. They offer suggestions of how to right the wrongs.
So the prophets, they know what it feels like to look at the world around them and ask: What happened?
Sometimes, it is easy to pinpoint exactly what happened. For some of the prophets, it’s obvious that the greed, malice, hate, or apathy of humanity have overcome the love, compassion, and justice of it.
That there are people who are poor, naked, and oppressed, and there are others who don’t do anything about it. The prophets see that the people have wandered away from God and God’s good order of the world. They know what happened and the prophets are not afraid to name names.
But whether the people Joel is writing to are the sinners who are now taking a closer look at their actions or the sinned against who are tending to their wounds (and they’re probably a little bit of both), they know something about the world feeling out-of-sorts, out-of-order, where nothing is as it should be.
So what do we do when it feels as if the world has flipped upside down, where nothing is as it should be, where we feel lost, alone, and hurt? What do we do when the sin of the world has become too much to bear and made a mess of things?
Each prophet answers differently, but they focus on one central premise: Return to the Lord.
Return to the Lord with all your heart, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Return to the Lord. It’s not too late. It’s never too late.
God calls us, even when we are lost and surrounded by sin, even when we are the ones who have done the sinning, to turn away from it and to actively return to God.
When the world feels out of sorts, the prophets call on us to reorient our life to God’s message of love and justice and mercy. And in doing so, the world may start to right itself.
But Joel doesn’t leave it at that, because as beautiful as that sentiment is, it’s a little vague. How does one return to a God who is both everywhere and elsewhere?
And the world we live in is saturated by sin, it’s not just about our individual actions, but knowing that there are a lot of big broken parts of this world, and that’s been the case for longer than this year, for longer than any of us has been alive.
How does one turn away from sin and return to God when we have never known a world without sin?
Can you return to somewhere you’re not sure you’ve ever been?
So I’m grateful for the prophet Joel who follows up “Return to the Lord” with some step-by-step instructions.
Leave a grain and drink offering.
Blow the trumpet in Zion.
Sanctify a fast. Sanctify the congregation.
Get those priests to the altar to lead worship.
The answer, it seems for Joel, is ritual. Ritual is the guide to help the people return to God.
Sometimes ritual and liturgy might feel… archaic or like we are just going through the motions because someone told us we had to. And in light of all the sin in the world— the sickness, the violence, the hopelessness, ritual might feel too small or empty to be effective against that sin.
But it’s not, because ritual gives us the frame on which we can hang our belief in God. It’s how we practice what we believe to be true about the world. It’s a dress rehearsal for how we can live our lives.
When we take communion, we practice our belief in a God who sustains us and desires for a world where everyone is fed.
When we baptize someone, we practice our belief in a God who claims all us and asks us to love and care for all of God’s children who come into our lives.
When we confess our sins together, we practice our belief that God will forgive and that we can do the same to one another.
Ritual, liturgy, practice, habit. All of it helps us learn the actions of how to turn away from sin, how to return to God, how to start putting our world back in order.
On most Ash Wednesdays, we have another ritual, where we smear a little bit of ash on our foreheads. In doing so, we remind ourselves that something is not right in the world. Things are sinful, things are messy. Things are out of sorts.
That ash reminds us of this truth every time we look in the mirror. We might forget the ash is there, but our reflection reminds us, the world is messy and so are our faces.
I know this year has been hard with so many of our rituals, whether they are the ones we do in church or elsewhere, paused or changed. It’s been hard for me too.
If these are the things are supposed to help us return to God, help us to practice our faith, their absence can contribute to the sense of a world out of sorts.
But it’s not too late. It’s never too late. It’s never too late to imagine how to adapt a ritual our current context, even if it’s only temporary.
It’s not too late to re-invigorate a spiritual practice that has fallen to the wayside. It’s never too late to try a new ritual as way to help you return to God.
It’s not too late to start the process of taking things that are out of sorts and putting them back into an order we recognize as good.
And in fact, the forty days of Lent can be the perfect time to begin again.
Maybe, Lent is time to rededicate your Sunday mornings to worship and prayer, even if it’s from the comfort of your living room.
Maybe, Lent is a time to sanctify a fast to help reorder your time and energy for what’s most important.
Maybe, Lent is the time to create a new ritual for this specific season that helps you feel grounded in God because the ground around you feels like its crumbling.
Maybe, Lent is the time to practice a new ritual with hopes that it will help us turn away from the brokenness and sin of our lives, and take some steps in the direction God is calling us.
Because it’s not too late to return to the Lord, with all our hearts, and with our practices, with our whole selves.
It’s never too late. Thanks be to God. Amen.