Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. In the next 40 days, some amazing transformations will occur. Or not. Many of us want our lives to change, but our desires are often dashed. We dream, hope and predict that the future will be different for us — with mixed results. A recent issue of The Atlantic magazine (May 2015) lists some of the worst predictions of all time: By the year 2000, we'll abolish war. That was the prediction of an essayist in The Atlantic magazine at the start of the 20th century. It also anticipated that the poor would be living in high-rise "abodes of happiness and health." Around the same time, the Ladies' Home Journal predicted that all mice and rats would soon be eliminated, along with the letters C, X and Q. In the early 21st century, Mars will be colonized. Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury predicted that we would have to colonize Mars because of a global nuclear war. Fortunately, such a war has not happened. But our failure to make progress on the Mars colony is because we chose to be consumers, said Bradbury. Our priorities have been "drinking beer and watching soap operas." The world will end on December 21, 2012. Remember the Mayan Apocalypse? It didn't happen. Astrophysicist Adam Riess says that "the latest data suggest that the universe has at least 30 billion good years left," and our sun should last for another four to five billion years. "As for the Earth, its life span depends on how well we take care of it." And finally, a prediction that seems completely ridiculous today: Apple is not interested in cell phones. In 2006, David Pogue wrote in The New York Times that Apple would "probably never" come out with a cell phone. Soon after, Apple introduced the iPhone, which has had a rather significant impact. 80 percent of the world's adults are projected to have one in their pocket." Amazing predictions: Abolishment of war. Colonization of Mars. The end of the world. Not one of them has happened. Mice and rats are still around, and we continue to use the letters C, X and Q. Only the iPhone, which would "probably never" be introduced, has proved to be transformational. With such widespread failures to predict the future accurately, what are we to make of Joel's expectation that "the day of the LORD is coming, it is near" (v. 1)? This prophet of ancient Israel called for national repentance, warning that a great locust plague was a sign of the beginning of the judgment of God. Joel's prediction was not in error, like the Mayan Apocalypse of 2012. In ancient Israel, Joel looked around and saw "a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness." Locusts were covering the land "like blackness spread upon the mountains." These devouring insects were like "a great and powerful army," and Joel predicted that "their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come" (v. 2). In ancient Israel, the Day of the Lord was preceded by locusts, but the specific nature of the plague was not what mattered. The national disaster could have been caused by frogs, gnats, flies, boils or hail — whatever would get the attention of the people. Today, we might be hit hard by a flood, a drought, a power outage, a computer virus or a Wall Street crash. What mattered to Joel was that the people respond with repentance and prayer. As we enter the season of Lent, let's shift our focus from the outside to the inside, and begin to look at inner changes instead of outer changes. We can do this by following the guidance of Joel, who predicts that our lives will be transformed when we make the choice to return, learn, gather and pray. Yes, this is a day to pray, not to feel dismay. First, we return to the God who says, "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning" (v. 12). To return to God is to repent — to turn around and go in a new and opposite direction. When we repent, we turn to the path that God has laid out for us, so that we are living a life that is different than before. When we repent, we fight against evil and turn away from what is worst in our natures. We return to God and turn toward what is good, toward what is best in our natures. This fight against evil feels like a war, but with God's help we can win it. After returning, we learn about the nature of our God, one who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" (v. 13). Today, there's a lot of confusion about the nature of God. In the recent movie Exodus: Gods and Kings, the God of Israel speaks through a zealous, wrathful 11-year-old British boy — a boy whom only Moses can see. This boy is harsh in attitude and word, which fits what many people think of the God of the Old Testament. A rabbi who watched the movie said that the boy "behaves like he deserves a good thrashing. He's not into freedom, compassion or justice — just into forcing compliance through demonstrations of power." But the true God of Israel is very different. In the Bible, both Moses and Joel discover that God is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (v. 13). In fact, these are the words that are used to describe God after the people of Israel sin by making a golden calf, and Moses becomes angry, and breaks the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Exodus reveals that the Lord is not wrathful and harsh in word and attitude. Instead, God is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6). Merciful and gracious, not wrathful. Slow to anger, not harsh in word and attitude. Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, always working for good in our lives. On the Day of the Lord, we return to God in repentance and learn about the Lord's true nature. Then we gather as God's people, knowing that a transformed life must be lived in community. "Blow the trumpet in Zion," says Joel; "Sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast" (vv. 15-16). "We are made in the image of the triune God, whose essence is loving community," he concludes. "We are created for community. This is how Jesus lived, and it's how his followers are called to live." So when Joel says to "call a solemn assembly; gather the people" (v. 15), he is stressing that we are created for community. Each of us is made in the image of the God who is — in God's own self — a sacred community made up of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Finally, after returning, learning and gathering in community, we pray. Between the vestibule and the altar, Joel calls for the ministers to pray, "Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations" (v. 17). Such a prayer is called an intercession — asking God to act in the lives of others. In this passage from Joel, the ministers are asking God to save the people, but other prayers of intercession can request healing, strength, peace or help. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says that intercessions should "be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." He says that we do this because God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:1-4). At the end of the day, we are supposed to pray. We pray for ourselves and others, asking for God to heal us and help us so that we can lead peaceable lives and come to the knowledge of God's truth. Instead of feeling dismay, we pray — pray for God to transform us into the people that he wants us to be. So let's begin the season of Lent by embracing Joel's prediction that "the day of the LORD is coming, it is near" (Joel 2:1). If this day motivates us to return, learn, gather and pray, it will be a good prediction. One that leads to real change, for the better.
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