As you may know, we are in the season of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday this past week. If you had walked into a Roman Catholic church anywhere in the world on that day, you would have heard a reading from the Book of Joel, who was a prophet in the fifth century before Christ. The reading is one that I hold dear not just in the Latin liturgy but the entire bible. Why? Because it has what I consider to be the two most important words in all of scripture. They are more important by far than anything else you’ll read or hear proclaimed.
Most scholars think Joel was writing in the post-exilic period; that is, sometime after the return of Israel from exile in Babylonia (539 BCE). Even after their return from captivity, the Israelites encountered hardships from the expanding Macedonia Empire, where they were sold as slaves, and natural disasters like plagues of locust and drought. Joel warns that the “Day of the Lord” is at hand and that locust will swarm over the land in such numbers that the earth will tremble and the heavens shake. They will even slip through the cracks of people’s windows like thieves in the night.
Joel warns Israel that nothing will remain standing and no one will escape judgment. “Gather the people,” he says. “Notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; Let the bridegroom quit his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep, And say, ‘Spare, O Lord, your people…'” (2: 16-17).
And then something incredible happens.
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God” (2:12-13).
In other words, no matter how dire the situation, impossible the odds, or unfaithful the people have been in the past, if they turn to God with all their heart, soul, and strength, they will be saved.
It doesn’t matter how foolish, stupid, selfish, greedy, conniving, or ugly we have been in the past. Even now God will accept us. It doesn’t matter if we have committed acts of betrayal, infidelity, violence, bullying, cowardice, or even murder. Even now, says the Lord, return to me.
“But it is too late,” you may say. “I am too old, too settled, too weary, too unbelieving, too wounded, too angry.” Pick your reason. “No,” says God, “even now.”
There is at least one other time in scripture where this phrase appears. I didn’t realize it until the day I heard it proclaimed at my father’s funeral. It is in John’s Gospel. Lazarus died while Jesus was away, and so Jesus went back to Bethany to be with the family. Martha, Lazarus’ sister, runs up as Jesus approaches and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you” (11:21-22). Then, the story goes, Jesus raised Lazarus, who had been dead for four days, to new life.
Because we are human and imperfect, without “even now,” I don’t think anything else in scripture is accessible. We cannot enter into the law of Moses, the promise of the prophets, the grace and salvation of the cross. Even now is the key. And it is the key not just in a religious or theological sense, but for our lives as human beings trying to survive the absurdities of life.
Even now is for everyone: believers, non-believers, the confused. I have been all three and no doubt will continue to be. But I am not defined by my mistakes or the clouds of locust that may envelop me.
And that’s not a bad feeling.