Ash Wednesday: Psalm 103, Joel 2.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.10, Matthew 6.1-21

from Lexi Carver

As I reflect on the apocalyptic scene in Joel 2—beautifully written and terrifyingly chaotic—and wonder what meaning and implications it has for Lent, I realize anew: in order to repent, we must recognize, and not bypass, our transgressions.

Joel describes an unstoppable, devouring army arriving on the heels of a (literal or metaphorical?) locust swarm that has ravaged the land. The nation is charged with sounding the warning (trumpet) call to move people to collective repentance, which comes with the promise of water returning to the parched land, of protection, renewal, and new life.

So says the JPS Bible Commentary*, “the leitmotif of disaster…is a day when the land’s bounty is laid waste and the lights of heaven go out. By contrast, God’s grace is a time of flowing water and healthy fields. The poles of death and life are starkly registered: the dependence of human life upon divine care for existence is manifest.”

Immense need lives alongside immense blessing. This scene illustrates to me the stakes of repentance before God and dependence on God. I am reminded that, as much as I try to convince myself otherwise, I am desperately in need of God’s love and forgiveness. (Then I wince as I think about what I may need to confess.) I see that to ignore our transgressions and our need for God is to go where destruction can find us—including destruction of our own making, burning up the good stuff in ourselves. The antidote to the self-destructive path, it seems, is confession and repentance. This Lent, let us be unafraid come forward to receive his promised forgiveness, woven into his promises of mercy, nourishment, and renewal. Let us believe, as Joel cries out, that he is gracious, merciful, and steadfast in his love, even in the midst of our disasters.

* Found from a reprint on https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/joel-misplaced-prophet-of-the-locust-plague/

I live in Cambridge with my husband Connor and our cat Billboard, who often makes sounds like a wild turkey.

Thursday: Psalm 144, 145, Exodus 7, Matt 12.22-50

From Charlie Glenn

Psalm 145 confronts us with one of the basic puzzles of the biblical testimony about God’s intentions toward humanity.  “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made,” we are told in verse 9, but then in verses 18-20 we learn that some people enjoy a special relationship with God, since “the Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.”

So is God’s loving care selectively directed only to those who are in a relationship with him based on devotion, awe, and love? Or is it indiscriminately lavished also on those who turn away from him, since “the Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (verses 14-16)?

I’m not raising these questions to be difficult; how we answer them has important implications for our relationship, as Christians, with the wider society and our vocations in the world. Sociologists of religion distinguish between “fundamentalists” who seek to shelter their distinctiveness from the prevailing culture, and “evangelicals” who seek to engage with and change that culture. If we believe that God is concerned only with those, like ourselves, who are in a special relationship with him, we will be concerned with freedom and justice for those like us, but not with the agonies of a wider society determined to ignore or reject God.

We should approach this apparent paradox not as a matter of either/or but of both/and. The biblical witness is that our deep propensity to sin and corruption of God’s intentions in Creation would have turned life on earth into a living hell; that only through his “Common Grace,” extended to all people, including those who don’t know or acknowledge him, have we been able to live together in (generally) stable societies and nurture shared and productive cultures.  As Christians, we are called to be part of this loving care toward all of Creation, including those in rebellion against God.

But the Bible witnesses also to the Saving Grace that God extends as a free gift to those of us who, through no merit of our own, have come to know and trust him as our Lord. Why me? we should ask in happy astonishment, while building our lives on his faithful promise, in grateful discipleship nurtured by the Holy Spirit.

While this is beyond our understanding, we know that it is consistent with his justice, for “the Lord is righteous in all his ways and faithful in all he does” (verse 17). Praise God!

I’m a retired inner-city pastor, government official, and professor, astonished every day by God’s loving care and by the blessings of family and friendship.

Tuesday: Psalm 139, 141, 142, Exodus 5, Matthew 11

From Lydia Buchanan

Exodus 5—if we can close our eyes to the story most of us know is coming—is a cliffhanger. 

The Israelite overseers realize, in a meeting-gone-wrong with Pharaoh, that he, not their Egyptian masters, has decided to stop providing them with straw to make bricks. When the Israelites catch on that Pharaoh is the one making their work more difficult, they see, as they text says, that “they were in trouble.” They take it out, as I think I might, on Moses and Aaron, blaming them “you have put a sword in their hands to kill us.”

Who in Egypt is above Pharaoh? Who, if Pharaoh will not, will lighten the workload of the enslaved Israelites? Moses was supposed to help them, and he has only made their lives worse. Moses, too, suffers a crisis. He asks God, with admirable bluntness, “Is this why you sent me?. . . you have not rescued your people at all.” It is bold, to speak so to God. But it is also Moses’, and the Israelites’, frank assessment of the situation they’re in: it’s worse, now that God is involved. Pharaoh, the source of all power, is punishing them for listening to God. Who is stronger than Pharaoh?

It’s easy for me to say how silly they’re all being. God is stronger than Pharaoh! He is about to come—in just one more verse!—to save them. He will keep his promises; God always keeps his promises! But if I’m being honest, it is so challenging to look around the immediate, earthly, powers when I live here, on earth. 

God is about to show them—and all of Egypt—that he doesn’t need Pharaoh. It is a truth I could do with remembering also. 

Lydia Buchanan is ready for a real snowstorm.