Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and out Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Finally returning to the office after nearly a year of working from home, a colleague asked me, “Did you pick up any new hobbies during the pandemic?” I smiled, “Yeah,” I pulled on my favorite mask. “I took up ventriloquism. I’m pretty good now. Notice how you can’t see my lips moving.”  Oh, how we want to return to normal- in the worst way.  I know friends who have been away from the jobs so long that they have forgotten what pretended they used to do.  I sympathize with the International Space Crew who were told this past year that their mission was complete, and that they could return now to earth. They responded, “Thanks. But no thanks.”

“Returning to normal” seems to be in everyone’s thoughts these days.  We’re wondering how long will it be until will be able to receive our own shot?  Frankly, in my mind, getting a Covid 19 vaccination is like turning 21when you’re the oldest student in your class.  You feel all grown up, but you find yourself waiting for all your friends to be able to go out with you.  In the meantime, you catch yourself rewriting old verses, “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, all the rest have thirty-one, Except for March 2020 which has 8000.”

We’re curious what life will look like when normal patterns do return. Life will be different that is for sure.  A year apart from traditional workplaces has changed many people’s attitudes to both work and home environment.  Many of the businesses, restaurants and concert halls that once dominated our cultural landscape have been boarded up or moved on.  The personal losses have been great in this past year as well.  Funerals for loved ones have been postponed until the virus has passed, and in the course of time, now entire families have lost their spiritual grounding.  Yes, even joyful events, weddings, baptisms, retirement parties and graduations, have all been put on hold.

But let me assure you, ours is not the first generation to have longed for normalcy to return.  In the past century, people have waited for a return after the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu, of the Great Depression, of two World Wars, of the fight against polio and small pox.

Surprisingly, one of the most beautiful and comforting passages in the Bible scriptures is about longing for life to return to normal, Joel Chapter 2:13,  “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  Joel was speaking to a nation that was eagerly waiting for life to return to normal.  Ancient Israel was ready to cut corners to hurry the process along.  They were ready to compromise a little too quickly and to turn a blind eye on God and their neighbor all to return to life’s normal.

Of course, the story of God’s plan to redeem the whole creation through the nation of Israel, and to make things right again had always been tug of war between God the chosen people.  God made the promise to Abraham that his children would be a great nation, and that the nation would be blessed to be a blessing. But through that history ancient Israel resisted God’s role  and experienced instead hardship and disruption,  until it was finally destroyed and taken into captivity in Babylon for 70years. The nation nearly disappeared from the face of the earth.  Then one day, by God’s plan, the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to the land and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.  God allowed it to be rebuilt.  And everyone assumed that life would return  to normal- overnight. That’s what had been promised, but that wasn’t what happened.

Instead, a terrible plague of locusts was followed by a severe famine throughout the land. Joel used these events as a crucible to send forth words of warning. Unless the people repented quickly and completely, foreign enemies would devour the land just as the locusts had done.  The Prophet Joel appealed to all the people and the priests of the land to fast and humble themselves as they sought to seek God’s forgiveness and return their lives not simply to normal patterns, but to discern God’s way for living.

It may be difficult to imagine a plague of locusts in the midst of a Minnesota winter especially when you’re waiting for things to look better. Like ancient Israel, you may choose to overlook the sorrow and pain others have experienced.  You may feel privileged and entitled enough to sidestep and move ahead of your neighbors without looking back- all for the goal of returning to normal- today.  The prophet Joel’s cry seems so out of touch with what you are longing for. “Return to God with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments.” That is what true repentance looks like.  It begins by simply being broken and admitting when you have done wrong, and being humbled.

Ultimately, my friends, there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. And yet, if we turn away from God trying to return to normal on our own, we will not experience God’s love. Some of us turn away out of shame, thinking God can’t love me. Some of us turn away out of pride and defiance thinking I can do this on my own. Thank you kindly. I don’t need God.  The purpose of Ash Wednesday repentance, however, isn’t about cleaning up your act on you own so that God will let you come back freely into his loving embrace.  No, true repentance is about seeing yourself the way God sees you and allowing yourself to be dependent upon God’s love to make all things new.  Returning to the Lord, in time, also allows you to move to a new, higher place.

Nearly 40 years ago, as a teacher in India, I travelled through the Himalayan mountains to the city of Darjeeling.  To travel from the dusty plains north of Calcutta to the cool pines of the mountains, you needed to travel by a steam locomotive which was known as the toy train.  For train aficionado, the journey is one of the great five routes tourist routes.  The grade is very steep.  For every two yards you travel forward, you travel one yard upward.   This is all quite amazing when one considers that it was built over a hundred forty years ago during the time of the British Empire.

One of the great marvels tied to the toy train is a very steep curve leading up to Darjeeling.  The principle engineer who designed the line was convinced that it was an engineering impossibility to get the train up the steepest incline.  Disheartened, depressed and prepared to end the whole project he wrote a telegram to his wife in England describing the problem and his frustration.  She wrote a short message in return.  Lovingly she said, “Come back,” implying simply “Come home.”   Oddly, the engineer thought it a brilliant idea.  Not to come home to England, but literally to come back.  And so, he designed a zigzag pattern of tracks along the mountainside for the train to come back, and then move forward again to the higher elevation.

That, my friends, is the nature of our return to the Lord.  There are many occasions in life, when we have to be honest with ourselves, with God and with our neighbors.  We have to be honest about the purpose of our words, our thoughts and our actions.  Normal is not going to be enough.  We need to return to the Lord and start over again. If we truly long to move forward and upwards, we need to return first to the Lord, seeing and confessing our faults and failures.  Then having been strengthened, refocused and redirected, we can journey on the path that  God has set before us.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.