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Ash Wednesday
March 5, 2014
The Old Testament: Joel 2:1-2,12-17
Sermon: "Sound the Alarm"

The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Old Testament:

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near--
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
Yet even now, says the LORD,
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 he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the LORD, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep.
Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
`Where is their God?'"

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Sound the Alarm

Hospital staffs are facing an alarming problem, literally. Itís all the constant beeping, booping, wailing and chirping of a gaggle of monitoring devices to which patients are attached. The IV stand beeps when it's empty. The blood pressure alarm screams when the patient shifts in bed. The ventilator bongs whenever the patient coughs, and the heart rate monitor gives its telltale flat-line whine when one of the stick-on pads comes loose. If youíre on a hospital staff, it's hard to keep track of it all.

Thing is, though, most of these alarms are of the false variety. They're just irritating, harmless anomalies that become a form of annoying white noise after a while. One estimate revealed that such false alarms go off on an average of every 66 seconds. The alarming problem this causes, though, is something called "alarm fatigue" in health care professionals. Nurses, doctors and other hospital workers can become so desensitized to the din day after day after day that their instinctual response becomes to turn down or mute the alarms, or ignore them altogether. Think of it sort of like that "Check Engine" light on your car dashboard that fades into the background after you've ignored it for several months.

The consequences of ignoring the alarms in the hospital, however, can be fatal. A high school junior recently died after a simple tonsillectomy. She had been given a powerful painkiller which slowed her breathing and eventually caused irreversible brain damage. The condition wasnít caught because the respiratory monitor had been muted, probably because of alarm fatigue. Patient safety advocates at the ECRI Institute listed alarm hazards as the number one health technology danger to patient safety last year.

The upshot of all of this is that alarms are there for a reason, and we ignore them at our own risk and at the risk of others. Whether it's in the hospital, in the car, at work when the fire alarm goes off or any other place, beeping and bonging is a sign of trouble. In our text for this Ash Wednesday the prophet Joel is clear: "Sound the alarm ...," he calls out. Ignoring the alarms that God has turned on for the people of God can be hazardous to our spiritual health. 

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the day in the Christian year that's most intentionally designed to make us check our spiritual alarms. It's the day we're reminded that we're all terminally ill with the disease of sin and mortality as we get marked by an ashen cross on our foreheads and hear the words, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." In a few short weeks we'll be reminded that God has provided us a cure for this disease made possible by Jesus the Great Physician, who died and rose again to eradicate sin and death. But if we want to access the full healing benefit of that future hope of resurrection, we need to pay close attention to the alarms that are going off in our lives right now. 

Our reading from the prophet Joel is full of such alarms. By comparison, they can make the beeping and chirping of the hospital room sound tranquil. Joel is writing to the people of Judah in the wake of a devastating plague of locusts that has overrun the land, which for the prophet, is a metaphor for the final judgment of God: the "day of the Lord" (v. 1). The warning alarms to get ready for that coming day are shrill and require immediate attention. We might hear them like this: 

There is first: The Heart Alarm. "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!" says Joel. That's an alarm that's hard to ignore! It's a fearful, apocalyptic vision that will cause the hearts of people to flutter with fear in the face of God's judgment. The sound of the "trumpet" is thus an alarm that tests the heart condition of Godís people. It's a warning for people to check and see whether or not their spiritual hearts are healthy and right with God now in anticipation of his coming.

"Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart ... rend your hearts and not your clothing" (vv. 12-13). We know that a strong heart is the result of exercise, good diet and lower stress. The same is true of our spiritual lives. Lent calls us to exercise our hearts through acts of prayer, study and devotion that bring us closer to God. Lent calls us to embrace a healthy diet of the daily "bread of life" in our lives and in our faith community through worship and Eucharist (John 6:35). When our hearts are anxious and fearful, it's a warning alarm that we're not living with God's future for us in mind. Lent calls us to focus on spiritual heart health!

Then there is second: The "Repositioning" Alarm. In the hospital, an alarm often sounds when the patient rolls over or gets up, which can change the position of sensors. Those alarms are usually the ones that get ignored the most, but in spiritual health, paying attention to those alarms is actually a sign of health. "Return to the Lord your God," says Joel, "for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."(v.13). The indicator here is about repentance, which means to turn from the way we are, and to the way God wants us to be. 

The first step toward repentance is confession. We confess our sins to God. We hear the deep warning alarms that go off in our lives when we know we're doing something wrong. There's something deeply embedded in our humanity, created in God's image, that knows when things with us and with the world aren't right. Unfortunately, we often shut off that alarm and instead listen to the enticing siren song of the world that pulls us away from being the people God created us to be. Our response to the internal alarm is confession: admitting that things with us aren't right. This will then lead to the second step: repentance, the repositioning of our lives into God's will and God's way. 

Lent is a call to confession and repentance. What alarms of sin are going off that require a repentant repositioning? Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to bring those humbly before the Lord, who abounds in steadfast love for us.

Finally, there is the "Code Blue" Alarm. The one hospital alarm that always brings people running is the "Code Blue" announcement. A "Code Blue" means that someone is in immediate, life-threatening danger, and a community of doctors and nurses quickly gathers to help. Joel announces a "Code Blue" for God's people, signified again by the sounding of a trumpet. "Sanctify a fast," says Joel, "call a solemn assembly; gather the people ..." (vv. 15-16). Everyone is to come running: the aged, the children, the infants; even those who might be getting ready for a wedding are to respond to the alarm and come to the Lord because the situation is dire. The difference, however, is that the "Code Blue" patient isn't someone else, it's the gathering people of God themselves. "Spare your people, O LORD," blares the Code, "and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations ..." (v. 17). 

Ash Wednesday similarly calls the people of God to gather in the midst of a world in need of a crash cart because it's near the end. We gather to ask God to spare us from the ravages of sin, to plead for God to "turn and relent" and leave us a blessing instead of brokenness (v. 14). We gather because we know that healing isn't simply up to us individually. Instead, it takes all of us, the community of God, to gather together and work on healing together through mutual support, encouragement, accountability and love. 

It's interesting that Ash Wednesday is usually one of the lowest-attended services of the year. It's a sign that a lot of people, even a lot of God's people, want to turn off the alarm. But the truth is that we need each other if we're going to get well. God has given us the church for the purpose of promoting healing from sin-sickness in each other, so that we can, in turn, help a sin-sick world. 

Some hospitals are now issuing "no-pass" policies when it comes to beeping alarms. That means that no hospital employee, be they a doctor, nurse, or even janitor or housekeeper, is to pass by a room if they hear an alarm. They are to make sure the patient is breathing and call for help immediately if necessary. Lent is a "no-pass" edict for the church as well. May we not ever ignore the warning alarms. The alarm has sounded. Take heart and let us now confess and repent. For God is gracious, and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

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