“It’s always something,” Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna would say on “Saturday Night Live.” She was right, and the people of Israel in the prophet Joel’s time would have agreed. For them, it was always something, whether it was invading locusts or an invading human army.
As we work our way through some of the greatest chapters of Scripture, we land on Joel chapter 2 this coming Sunday. It definitely deserves its place on the roll. We hear various portions of this chapter on Ash Wednesday (today!), on Pentecost, and on Thanksgiving. In the midst of the “always something” struggles of God’s people, Joel sounds a call for repentance, offering in return the hope grace and blessing.
That “always something” note begins in Joel 1:4, with the brutal words that “What the cutting locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” Successive swarms of locusts have devastated the crops and left fields bare and people starving.
In the midst of that agricultural disaster, Joel asks the people to do what might be the last thing on their minds, to fast (chapter 1 verse 14, chapter 2 verse 12). They are going hungry already. There is not enough grain or wine to bring their usual offerings to God. And the prophet suggests a time of refraining from the little food they have.
Fasting is a way to focus the mind and the heart on God, to remove the distraction of meal preparation and eating for a time, so that one can address the condition of one’s soul as well as one’s body. The call for fasting and a demonstrated repentance is why we read this text on Ash Wednesday.
As anyone knows, it’s easy to say you are sorry. It’s more difficult to offer a genuine demonstration of one’s regret and repentance. Fasting and other signs like the sackcloth called for in chapter 1 and the visible weeping named alongside fastin in 2:12 are ways to show the Lord that what verse 2:13 asks for is actually happening, that one’s heart is being torn with sorrow for sin. “Rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Like so much of spiritual life, the outcome of fasting is blessing. A sincere turn to the Lord means that He will turn to us in blessing. Most of the ancient Israelites were probably focused on the promises of 2:23-26, plenty to eat and repayment for the lean years of the locust-caused famine.
Yet verse 27 is the greater promise, that “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord am your God…” That’s what was fulfilled for us in Jesus Christ. God came into our midst and then remained in our midst in the person of the Holy Spirit, verse 28 goes on to promise. Peter quoted this verse and what follows on the day of Pentecost, our great hope that our God will be with us.
May His Spirit be with each reader of this today on Ash Wednesday, and always.