Ash Wednesday | Locusts and Lent

Blow the ram’s horn trumpet in Zion! Trumpet the alarm on my holy mountain! Shake the country up! God’s Judgment on its way—the Day’s almost here! A black day! A Doomsday! Clouds with no silver lining! Like dawn light moving over the mountains, a huge army is coming. There’s never been anything like it and never will be again. Wildfire burns everything before this army and fire licks up everything in its wake. Before it arrives, the country is like the Garden of Eden. When it leaves, it is Death Valley. Nothing escapes unscathed. The locust army seems all horses—galloping horses, an army of horses.  It sounds like thunder leaping on mountain ridges, Or like the roar of wildfire through grass and brush, Or like an invincible army shouting for blood, ready to fight, straining at the bit. At the sight of this army, the people panic, faces white with terror. The invaders charge. They climb barricades. Nothing stops them. Each soldier does what he’s told, so disciplined, so determined. They don’t get in each other’s way. Each one knows his job and does it. Undaunted and fearless, unswerving, unstoppable. They storm the city, swarm its defenses, Loot the houses, breaking down doors, smashing windows. They arrive like an earthquake, sweep through like a tornado. Sun and moon turn out their lights, stars black out. God himself bellows in thunder as he commands his forces. Look at the size of that army! And the strength of those who obey him! God’s Judgment Day—great and terrible. Who can possibly survive this? But there’s also this, it’s not too late—God’s personal Message!—“Come back to me and really mean it! Come fasting and weeping, sorry for your sins!” Change your life, not just your clothes. Come back to God, your God. And here’s why: God is kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot, This most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe. Who knows? Maybe he’ll do it now, maybe he’ll turn around and show pity. Maybe, when all’s said and done, there’ll be blessings full and robust for your God! Blow the ram’s horn trumpet in Zion! Declare a day of repentance, a holy fast day. Call a public meeting. Get everyone there. Consecrate the congregation. Make sure the elders come, but bring in the children, too, even the nursing babies, Even men and women on their honeymoon—interrupt them and get them there. Between Sanctuary entrance and altar, let the priests, God’s servants, weep tears of repentance. Let them intercede: “Have mercy, God, on your people! Don’t abandon your heritage to contempt. Don’t let the pagans take over and rule them and sneer, ‘And so where is this God of theirs?’” At that, God went into action to get his land back. He took pity on his people.

-Joel 2: 1-18, The Message

This haunting passage from Joel tells the continued story (from Chapter 1) of an invasion of locusts that destroyed large portions of Jerusalem.  The need for Joel to describe this devastation is so great that he moves on from a description of the millions of locusts in Chapter 1 to a comparison to swarms of armies that devastate and kill everything in their path.  Historians believe that this is a description of a historical event sometime in the the Persian period (about 550-330 BCE).  The scene Joel describes is of not just utter and complete destruction, but also of the chaos and hysteria it causes among the people who are experiencing this plague of locusts.  

But even in the midst of this destruction and barrenness, the call goes out from Joel to not just repentance but to God’s promise of goodness and restitution.  “Turn your life around!” Joel says, because, “Who knows? This most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe.”  Joel is prepared to proclaim the promises of God even in one of his people’s most difficult times.  He reminds the people that things can change, and that the call to repentance is a call to shift their priorities and change their direction.  

To return back to God’s ways.  

As we begin this season of Lent, for me, these are the most important questions:

  • What is plaguing us?
  • What priorities and ways of living do we need to shift?

Like many in this time in the life of our country and our world I am deeply concerned, sorrowful, fearful and on some days, completely devastated by what I see around me.  A lack of concern for the refugee, the immigrant, the stranger.  Belittling and hate-filled speech and policies.  Each day brings new stories of families that are ripped apart or kept apart by the immigration system that we have in our country; one that does not line up with our biblical mandates of care of the resident alien, the orphan, the widow, the refugee that we find in our biblical texts.  It does not fall in line with the teachings of Jesus who proclaimed that all people are welcome, and that his message of saving love is for all people in all places.  The stories I hear of children who are now without their parents, and parents behind bars and wondering what has become of their children is almost too much for me to bear.  My heart is heavy.  I feel such incredible sadness, incompleteness and some days as though I am ill-equipped to be all I need to be as a person of faith in this time.  

Does any of this resonate with how your soul is these days?

Our role as the Church is to always be in an attitude of deep spiritual attentiveness to where we may have separated our practices from those of God.  The call of Joel to “Declare a day of repentance, a holy fast day. Call a public meeting. Get everyone there. Consecrate the congregation. Make sure the elders come, but bring in the children, too, even the nursing babies, Even men and women on their honeymoon—interrupt them and get them there. Between Sanctuary entrance and altar, let the priests, God’s servants, weep tears of repentance. Let them intercede: “Have mercy, God, on your people! Don’t abandon your heritage to contempt,” is still present today.  

As you begin this Holy Season of Lent today on this Ash Wednesday how will you live into Joel’s call?  Where will you begin?  What will you do?

Extra bonus: An article was published yesterday in Sojourners Magazine about some of the work of creating and training for Sanctuary Communities in the Synod of the Northeast.  Some voices from our Presbytery are featured in this article.  Thank you to Benjamin Perry of Hudson River Presbytery for writing it.

Image:  https://www.tes.com/lessons/ieSBiPCjrh3_og/all-about-locusts-and-whales


Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo is the Transitional Presbyter for Albany Presbytery. She’s fascinated by the ever-changing landscape of culture and faith communities and how these changes are pointing us to new points of God’s ongoing gift of resurrection.  She can be reached at [email protected].

The purpose of the Albany Presbytery Blog is to share information, tell stories, and promote the mission and ministry of the presbytery, synod and beyond.  While the breadth of this medium is intentionally broad, it is not a platform for opinion pieces related to business coming before the presbytery unless designed as part of an initiative to provide a diversity of viewpoints at the direction of the presbytery council.   Exceptions to this policy may be brought to the presbytery officers who will determine appropriateness of submissions.