My dad is a very faithful guy. He’s a lifelong Lutheran who made sure my brother and sister and I all grew up in the church, and he’s very much a model of faith for me, someone who was instrumental in my own faith formation. But whenever bad things happen – someone gets bad news at the doctor, or there’s some kind of terrible accident, or some other kind of overwhelming trouble – it absolutely drives my dad nuts that people say, “There’s nothing left to do now but pray.” “Nothing left to do but pray?!” he’ll say; “Prayer shouldn’t be a last resort – prayer should be where you start!”
Reading our first reading, from the prophet Joel, I think the people of ancient Judah probably would have agreed with my dad: prayer is where you start. The Book of Joel begins with some very overwhelming trouble: massive swarms of locusts have devastated the land of Judah, destroying practically everything in their path. It is catastrophic for their agrarian way of life (not hard for us to imagine here!), and there is a lot of lamenting in the first few verses of the book. Joel writes:
…a nation has invaded my land,Joel 1:6-7, 10
powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
and it has the fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vines,
and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
their branches have turned white…
The fields are devastated,
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.
But before getting into any logistical details of how to go about recovering from this loss – or even worrying about what everyone is going to eat in the meanwhile – the very first thing the prophet Joel does is to say to the people:
Sanctify a fast,Joel 1:14
call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
and cry out to the Lord.
Joel’s first response to this disaster is to call the people to prayer and repentance. And that’s just what the people do! They gather together to pray and to weep and to call on God to show mercy to them.
Now, something that’s interesting about this story is that, unlike some of the more familiar disasters in the Old Testament, in Joel there’s not really anything to indicate that the people somehow brought this disaster on themselves. The Book of Joel doesn’t start with a report of the people being particularly sinful or doing something to put God in a smite-y kind of mood; it starts with the plague of locusts – which makes it seem like this event isn’t some kind of divine retribution, but just an unfortunate natural disaster.
And for someone reading this now, in the 21st century, it kind of begs the question: Why repentance? Prayer I get; but this disaster wasn’t the people’s fault – why would Joel call them to repentance?
What do you think?
Or perhaps a better question is: what does it mean to repent?
The answer is actually right there in our reading, from the second chapter of Joel:
Yet even now, says the Lord,Joel 2:12-13
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
It’s true that repentance usually means owning up to our own shortcomings – the things we have done and the things we have failed to do. (In fact, in this very service, there will be a litany of confession as we start the season of Lent.) But the whole purpose of repentance isn’t just to rub our noses in our failings and to make us feel bad about ourselves. That’s actually counterproductive. Repentance is all about turning back to God – it’s about turning around to find God waiting for us with open arms. Repentance is about recognizing that there are things in our life that get in the way of our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbor – even in the way of proper relationship with our selves. And the season of Lent is about walking with Christ and with each other as we learn to let these things go.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus talks about the three main ways we do this, the three great practices of Lent: fasting, alms-giving, and – of course – prayer. The first two, fasting and alms-giving, are actually literal, physical ways of letting things go. Fasting can help us to cut down on things that distract us from focusing on our relationship with God. And choosing to give away our stuff and our money is often a way of caring for the image of Christ we see in our neighbor. And it’s also a powerful, tangible way that we can deny the power of wealth over our souls, and declare that our hearts belong to God first and foremost. This is what Jesus is talking about when he urges his followers not to store up treasures on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven. It’s a declaration of our true allegiance.
But of these three practices – fasting, alms-giving, and prayer – prayer is in many ways the most crucial. Without prayer, practices like fasting and alms-giving become little more than fad diets and tax write-offs. Prayer helps us to center our hearts in the love of God. Prayer is a conversation with God. After all, it’s pretty hard to maintain a good relationship with someone you never talk to. In prayer, we take to God our concerns and our thanksgivings and everything in between, and we listen for God to speak to us in return.
Prayer can often be a path of transformation. As I wrote in my newsletter article this month, sometimes the most powerful way that God answers our prayers is not by changing the world, but by changing us. Through prayer, God ministers to us with profound love and grace and mercy, and then God turns us loose on the world to be more loving and gracious and merciful ourselves – to be agents of God’s transformative love in answer to the prayers of our neighbors.
And prayer is an expression of our faith. In the gospels, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples: ask God anything in my name, and God will do it. God wants you to have the deepest desires of your heart; God wants for all people to flourish and thrive, to live in loving community and to enjoy all the abundant goodness of creation. God is good and wills good things for us – and in this broken, messed up world we live in, our prayers are a witness to that goodness. We pray for peace and healing and life – even in the midst of violence and disease and death – because we have faith that God will one day make it so. We pray with faith that points beyond the brokenness and trouble of this world to the powerful love of God, love that no power of sin or death can destroy.
And because of that, prayer is all the more important in uncertain times like this. Prayer helps us root ourselves in relationship with God to withstand any storm, and through our prayers, we witness to hope for the people around us who desperately need it.
We may not have to deal with a plague of locusts like the people in our first reading – fingers crossed! – but it does seem like these days, we are living through one big, historic moment after another. And the stress of that is exhausting. I mean, right now, a power-hungry dictator on another continent is pressing forward with a completely unprovoked war on a neighboring country, leaving many dead and wounded and hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes. We’re still reckoning with the ways that the pandemic has changed our world, especially with the ways that our responses to it have left us more deeply divided than ever before. Nearly every public issue now seems to become a battle ground these days, from the books our kids are allowed to read to the way that we tell the story of our nation to the steps we should take to save ourselves from climate catastrophe. And that’s to say nothing about the worries we carry about the future of our ministry in this rapidly changing world. This is truly an overwhelming time just to be alive.
And in the face of so many big and world-changing concerns, it’s so easy to feel despair, or to be filled with fear about what’s going to come of all this. It’s easy for us to feel like there’s just nothing left for us to do but pray.
But, as the people of Judah – and my dad – will tell you, prayer isn’t the last thing we can do.
With God, prayer is only the beginning.