Maybe you know this yourself. You must have a variety of sizes of wood, from twigs to branches to logs. You have to stack the wood close, but not too close – fire needs air to burn, after all. I take great pride in the fires I build, starting with a tiny teepee, and then building to a sturdy log cabin, and finally culminating in a stack of wood that looks random – but oh, it is not.
Every great fire must come to an end, however. (Or at least, we hope they come to an end.) When I’m backpacking or camping, this means a sad moment at the end of the night when we douse the fire pit with water. Those deep red, super-hot coals fight for life, but eventually my beautiful creation sizzles and dies and turns into a pile of wet gray ashes.
Ashes not too different from the ones that will go on our foreheads tonight.
This is a strange practice, putting ashes in the sign of a cross on our foreheads. Ashes are a depressing image. They are the death of a good fire. They are the butt of an old cigarette. They are dingy and dirty. They can symbolize for us what we do not want to face: the mistakes we make; the death that none of us can avoid.
Today’s Old Testament Scripture is likewise a depressing Scripture. “The day of the Lord is coming… a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness.” Most likely, Joel writes this as an Israelite living in exile, after they were kicked out of their Promised Land and after God allowed the Temple to be destroyed – dark times indeed. Even today, thousands of years later, those Joel’s words still feel like standing around a cold fire pit full of gray ashes.
But verse 12 starts with an important word: Yet. “There is something else coming,” this small word tells us. “Wait for it.”
“Yet… Return to me with all your heart.” In Hebrew, “heart” conveys the meaning that “mind” does for us. This is not, “Return to me with your mushy emotions, your Valentine’s Day sentiments.” What Joel is saying i is, “Return to me with your will, your thinking, your determination.”
That’s what we’re trying to do during Lent. This season is characterized by self-examination and repentance, reading and meditating on God’s word, fasting and self-denial. If we decide to take on a few of those things this year we will be returning to God with determination. We may have neglected our Bible readings; if so, we spend this season reading the Bible with intention. We may have become self-centered; if so, we deny ourselves something we enjoy. We may have picked up a bad habit that God isn’t fond of; if so, we set that aside. We make a decision to turn from all these things and turn to God, because our God is a God of the word “yet” and second chances. Second chances here in Joel; second chances here in Andrews.
“Who knows whether he will return and relent?” asks Joel. “God might turn and leave a blessing behind him.”
It looks like darkness and gloom, but maybe there might be a blessing instead. Who knows?
This is not impossible where ashes are concerned, after all. I learned that the hard way.
I spent many summers leading backpacking trips for a Christian camp. Each night we would make a fire and gather around it to have devotions. Each night we would watch the fire diminish to the flameless remnants of red-hot logs. Each night I would pour water on the fire pit before I went to bed, taking care that not a speck of red was left to flicker in the dark.
But still, some nights, in the middle of the night, I’d wake up in a terror because of light shining from just beyond my tarp. My heart would be pounding – was this some unexpected night-hiker shining a flashlight? As my contacts would come into focus I’d realize with a sense of both relief and embarrassment that my fire had kicked back up. The wind had drawn through camp and brought flames back to life from the dead pile of ashes.
Perhaps your spiritual life feels like a pile of dead gray ashes. If so, there is hope.
This Lent, we are all invited to return to God, to determine that we will make a change and refocus ourselves on the one who made us out of dust.
These changes have a way of feeling either very small, or greatly intimidating: giving up a favorite food, reading the Bible more, trying to be more forgiving and less judgmental. So what we do is to invite God to be a part of this process, to help us make the change real.
The Hebrew word for “spirit” is ruah. It’s used to refer to the spirit of God in the Old Testament, but it can also mean breath or wind. We might imagine the Holy Spirit coming into our Lenten disciplines like the wind coming through an old fire pit, stirring up the ashes and bringing life to what we thought was dead.
The mark on our foreheads tonight might be in depressing ashes – but it is also in the sign of our greatest hope, a cross. That’s what the “yet” reminds us of in Joel. “A day of darkness and gloom is coming. Yet even now, return to me… and – who knows? – God may leave you a blessing.”
Credit to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary for help with the background on the historical context and original Hebrew of Joel.