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The Mummy Returns

Ash Wednesday sermon--Joel 2:1-17

[play clip from The Mummy Returns: composite clip of the army of Anubis arising from the sand and fighting the human army]
That’s a clip from the movie The Mummy Returns
—it’s a fun flick, not particularly deep,
but this bit with the rag-tag good guys
going up against the powers of darkness—it’s very moving.
There’s no way they can survive,
no way to endure the endless onslaught
of the army of the Egyptian god of the dead,
yet they stand their ground,
refusing to give in to the forces pulling them down
into despair and death.
And it kind of looks like the Old Testament.
We all think of the Old Testament as angry and judgmental, right?
That reading from the prophet Joel—how much of that did you take in?
It was a bit long, I know…
It talks about invading armies like darkness,
destroying everything in their path
God at the head, leading them on, calling for bloody recompense
—that reading from the prophet Joel doesn’t help, does it?
God just seems so cranky in the Old Testament,
so violent and approving of violence
and we go with it, don’t we?
There’s some good stuff there, but it’s mostly blood and sand
and angry people fighting each other in God’s name
It’s convenient to forget the violence in the New Testament
The places where Jesus throws the vendors out of the Temple
with harsh words like a lash
The places where Jesus curses a fig tree for not having figs,
even though it isn’t fig season, which the text points out
The place where Ananias and Sapphira, Christian converts,
sell their land and give the money to the Apostles
for the well-being of the church.
And, because they hold some of the money back
and lie about it, they drop dead. Right there.
And then Peter launches into a sermon on the spot.
Don’t tell me the New Testament doesn’t have it’s share of violence.
Don’t say Jesus is all sunshine and comforting stories,
because you’ve missed the point.
Absolutely Jesus shows us a different way, brings hope and comfort
Absolutely he brings and is good news!
But there’s a darkness mixed into the message as well.
We see the anger in the Hebrew prophets
We see the weirdly abrupt shifts of mood in the Psalms
And we don’t get it
we see them as evidence of God’s capriciousness,
God must be this vindictive, when we don’t do as God asks, right?
Scripture says it, so let’s take it seriously for a moment.
Tremble in fear, says the text, and we reject that out of hand.
We oughtn’t fear our God who loves us like a parent.
Yet the scriptures are full of language describing God as awesome
…and not like most of us use it now.
Awesome as in worthy of awe,
so inconceivably large, so powerful, so beautiful,
so overwhelming that all we can do
is crash to our knees and gape.
Maybe pray.
Maybe cry in joy and fear.
If God is omnibenevolent and omnipresent
and omniscient and omnipotent,
maybe we’d better be at least a little scared.
Joel writes, “Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible
indeed—who can endure it?”
If God sends the armies, seriously, who would survive?
There’s a new book out that I’m eager to read
It’s called Love Wins
and author and pastor Rob Bell says in the promotional material,
“What is God like? …Millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. So what gets subtly caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that God ever be good news?”

What is God really like?
How does God act in the world?
Seems to me that these are the questions
that scripture, at the very least, is trying to answer
What is God like?
In verse 12 of the Joel reading, we get a sudden shift
Invading armies, fear and trembling, yadda yadda…
—yet! “God is gracious and merciful
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”
This is the God we know from every sermon ever
This is the God we long for, the God who we love and are loved by
This is the God from whom we can believe good news
But what if they’re both God?
What if God is both angry and forgiving?
And what if God isn’t bipolar, as my friend Ross suggested last night,
but is complex and not easily understood?
At the risk of describing God in too small a way, I offer an example
I have a 2-year-old and she’s delightful
I would go so far as to quote God from last week’s Gospel
“this is my daughter, my beloved,
in whom I am well pleased”
being 2, Abby is innately curious and exuberant
and, being 2, she has no filters yet,
and so any roadblock is a huge crisis
by “huge crisis,” I mean, “reason to throw herself
on the floor and scream and cry”
so, the other day, we were watching Toy Story as we often do
and Abby had a cup of juice without a lid
now, this may have been my big mistake, the no-lid thing,
but she’s a big girl and often can drink unaided
I said, “be careful with that cup, Ab”
And she said, “OH-kay!”
And I said, “I’ll be right back—don’t sit on the couch”
And she said, “OH-kay!”
And from the other room I heard her say “more juice”
And I looked and she’d spilled it
All over the couch
And the floor
And my papers
And I was angry
—angrier than I ought to have been, probably
But I would never, absolutely never ever hurt her
In that moment I was both angry and forgiving
I was both frustrated with what had happened
and deeply in love with my daughter
we forget that much of scripture is poetry
—the prophets and the Psalms are experience and art
not history or biography
Joel is a poet, translating what he sees in the world into verse
Seeing his country, his faith, his enemies, and his blessings
through the lens of metaphor
Joel is writing not about a specific invasion then or now
But about every invasion Israel had had to that point,
about the fear in his gut at seeing an army arrayed on the horizon,
ready to descend,
about the experience of being at war
and he’s writing about invasions of locusts
which, by all accounts, were fairly common in Israel
locusts which, when swarming, make a sound like a raging fire
locusts which destroy an Eden-like landscape in minutes
locusts which might seem like an army,
which might seem like divine retribution for our sins
Joel is writing a poem where God’s anger is the invading armies
and it is the devastation of locusts,
and where all of that fear and despair becomes,
in the blink of an eye,
hope
This is not the work of some dumb desert-dweller
who only saw God as angry,
nor is it a literal picture of God
leading heavenly armies to destroy us now
This is a painting of a multi-faceted God
who loves us
and is annoyed by us
and who created us in the beginning for community and love.
And who relents.
Who does not hurt us, no matter how often we say
“it’s God’s will” in response to something bad
who scatters the invading armies like so much sand
and who calls us back every week, every day,
every hour, every minute
to faithfulness, justice, compassion, and prayer
What if the imposition of these ashes is our responding to that call
Is our saying that we ourselves have been the invading armies
to someone
and that the armies we see invading us
—whether Islamic extremists, Christian extremists,
Communists, the British, secularism, conservatism, etc.—
these armies, like us, are but dust, and to dust they shall return.
What if the imposition of these ashes is us standing our ground,
Like the guys in The Mummy Returns
Receiving these ashes is our refusal to give in
to the forces pulling us down into despair and death.
What if the imposition of these ashes and the communion that follows
Are a gift from God of patience and strength
and protection and deep, abiding love
What if these ashes signify humility—of course—and also new life?
[play second clip from The Mummy Returns: composite clip of the human army preparing to face a second wave of the army of Anubis, the sand-army rushes forward and at the last second disintegrates into black sand which disappears. The humans rejoice.]